Monday, August 26, 2013

Bob Dylan – Bootleg Series Volume 10 Another Self Portrait

Bob Dylan – Bootleg Series Volume 10 Another Self Portrait

For the first 20 or so years of its life, Bob Dylan’s Self Portrait was the subject of much derision by the critical and fan community. Somewhere in the last 20 years it has gone from derision to acceptance by some and downright adoration by others. As usual the truth lies somewhere in between. I always found the original album to be the perfect accompaniment to a stoned Sunday afternoon of rootsy pleasures. It had a real country authenticity and the comfortable relaxed vibe that characterized Dylan’s late 60’s/early 70’s material. After the societal crucible of Dylan’s 60’s material this more pastoral take on life and music was a jarring change of pace and thus the cries of sellout and schlock-merchant started to dog Dylan’s steps as they have at every juncture of his career. As he said himself “Everybody wants me to be just like them…I just get bored.” Another Self Portrait allows the listener to evaluate this pivotal album in a new historical and musical context. The deluxe version is made up of several components.

First, and perhaps most importantly are the unvarnished work tapes from spring and early summer of 1970 that finds Dylan accompanied by David Bromberg on guitar and Al Kooper on various keyboards. They run through a gamut of material that would find its way on to Self Portrait and New Morning six months later, as well as some songs that have never seen the light of day until now. None of these versions have been heard and it is safe to say that they are a revelation. Dylan is in fine form, strumming guitar and trying out the different voices from the era - swoon, croon, hick and folkie - and he lends each an authority that can only be born from genuine love and knowledge of the subject. On most of these cuts, David Bromberg shows himself to be a priceless accompanist as he unfailingly finds the melodic heart of each song giving Dylan the freedom to really explore his vocals and the material. Al Kooper as well offers such insightful arranging and keyboard service that one might start to think of him as an almost “Zelig”-like figure in Dylan’s career. The next pieces are a handful of assorted odds and ends from the period that help fill in the gaps and more fully illustrate the sound Dylan was striving toward. There are a couple of cuts left off Greatest Hits Volume 2, a session with Dylan intimate George Harrison, and some other tasteful rarities. The third element of the set is the first legitimate appearance of Dylan and The Band’s entire performance at The Isle Of Wight Festival on August 30th 1969. Finally, there is a meticulously remastered version of the original Self Portrait. Self Portrait may have been a head-scratcher at the time of its original release for many people, but Another Self Portrait makes everything crystal clear. It’s all about context. When one looks at Self Portrait as the follow up to Dylan’s unprecedented and incomprehensibly accomplished mid-60’s work it is hard to understand. However when one looks at it with the helpful clarity of 40+ years it makes perfect sense. Within the context of The Flying Burrito Brothers, Doug Sahm, The Blasters, X, Uncle Tupelo, Drive-By Truckers etc, etc. it makes perfect sense. In fact it predicts, executes and beats the lot of ‘em at their own game before they even thought of it. Per usual Dylan was, and remains on the cutting edge of his own universe - we’re just lucky he let’s us listen in. Here are my thoughts on my first two listens.
Disc 1
1) “Went To See The Gypsy” - The New Morning song as it was meant to be - a spare, spooky mystery - Bromberg shines.
2) “Little Sadie” - stripped of overdubs, the menace and elastic p.o.v. of this traditional narrative are returned to Dylan’s original vision.
3) “Pretty Saro” - an outtake from Self Portrait that shows Dylan penchant for sentimental folk balladry. Just beautiful!
4) “Alberta #3” - A fabulous take of the song that appears on Self Portrait twice. This is by far the best version as Dylan offers the most straightforward vocal and a nice simple acoustic setting highlighted by Kooper’s subtle piano fills and Bromberg’s dobro.
5) “Spanish Is The Loving Tongue” - another outtake that did appear on A Fool Such As I but here is just Dylan solo at the piano showing a real vulnerability and a horrendous Spanish accent.
6) “Annie’s Going To Sing Her Song” - A Tom Paxton song that finds Dylan in a relaxed voice for this poignant song fragment.
7) “Time Passes Slowly #1” - a song from New Morning, here with George Harrison adding guitar and background vocals, it has a totally different effect than the original album version.
8) “Only A Hobo” - originally slated for Greatest Hits Vol.2 this wonderful duet with early Dylan associate Happy Traum is a shining outing for this rare Dylan song.
9) “Minstrel Boy” - a Basement Tapes outtake with The Band. This nugget begs that a full Basement Tapes Bootleg Series entry be forthcoming.
10) “I Threw It All Away” - A less cluttered take of the Nashville Skyline standout where Charlie Daniels, Norman Blake, Charlie McCoy et al really shine like the Nashville pros they were.
11) “Railroad Bill” - a sweet vocal on this folk classic that was probably one of the first fingerpicking songs both Dylan and Bromberg learned.
12) “Thirsty Boots” - Dylan really gets to the emotional and melodic heart of this fully realized Eric Anderson beauty. It is hard to understand why this was left off the original. Maybe it was too much like a Dylan song.
13) “This Evening So Soon” - One of my favorites on the set. This is a fantastic arrangement with Dylan using what sounds like his “real voice” and showing genuine emotional range on this traditional number. He plays a couple of lovely harmonica breaks and Bromberg and Kooper are perfect. A real gem.
14) “These Hands” - a country hit that probably would have been schmaltzed-up if it had made it to production on Self Portrait, but here is an absolutely charming, intimate duet between Dylan and Bromberg’s guitars while Dylan sings it beautifully straight.
15) “In Search Of Little Sadie” - another version from the original album that has been stripped of overdubs and thus offers a Masters class on why Dylan is one of the greatest interpreters of traditional American folk and blues. He has a deep understanding of the material and his vocal here, unadorned by production distractions, is miraculous.
16) “House Carpenter” - another total gem. Dylan takes hundreds of years of British and American folk music and boils it down to one bluesy distillation of tradition. He owns it with such authority.
17) “All The Tired Horses” - to me this was always the most perfect moment on the original Self Portrait. Like few other pieces of music this one line proclamation of…of…of something has a complete “otherness” to it that defies description. Here, it is stripped back to just Dylan, Bromberg, Kooper and the female voices and the result is no less hypnotic than the album version.

Disc 2
1) “If Not For You” - a mind-boggling alternate of New Morning’s hit, this version finds Dylan alone at the piano save for an unknown violin player providing an aching accompaniment. A major find.
2) “Wallflower” - already one of the great “lost” songs of Dylan’s catalog, this version is simply Dylan strumming acoustic, blowing harp and singing in what again sounds like his “real” voice while sole accompanist, steel master Ben Keith wails.
3) “Wigwam” - no overdubs again reveal the simple melodic beauty of this Self Portrait cut. What was once difficult to get out of your head is now impossible.
4) “Days Of’49” - what was always one of my least favorite songs on the original album is made highly enjoyable by the uncluttered mix. Bromberg! - what a tasteful player, and Al Kooper seems to have some kind of telepathic instinct for what each song needs.
5) “Working On A Guru” - a funny little number featuring George Harrison playing nice lead guitar and a rhythm section of Charlie Daniels on bass and Russ Kunkel on drums making this a supergroup that never was. Good fun.
6) “Country Pie” - alternate version of Nashville Skyline’s most light-hearted song. Really shows the connection between the sessions that connected the three albums of this period.
7) “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” - live at the Isle of Wight from the second day’s performance finds the band giving enthusiastic backing.
8) “Highway 61 Revisited” - again from Isle of Wight. A bold re-imagining that hints at Dylan’s modern performance style.
9) “Copper Kettle” - another Self Portrait song that is a complete revelation without all the overdubs. The Dylan-Bromberg-Kooper ensemble is perfect for this gorgeous bootlegger’s tale. One understands much better why Dylan chose the material he did for the original album.
10) “Bring Me A Little Water” - a fully realized New Morning outtake of this song Dylan probably learned from listening to Leadbelly, this bluesy number finds Dylan using a gospel-inflected rasp that he would exploit at great length in the late 70’s and 80’s. Very interesting and forward-looking.
11) “Sign On The Window” - interestingly, this New Morning song is an example of the opposite effect of most of the material on this set. Here we have a familiar song with extra orchestral overdubs arranged by Al Kooper. The lush result is fascinating. It is safe to say if you were a big fan of the original Self Portrait concept you will find this to be an extremely rewarding addition.
12) “Tattle O’Day” - one of the most enticing and mysterious fragments on the entire set. Left off Self Portrait this traditional lyric is a riddle wrapped in an enigma much like many songs passed down by oral tradition with layers of cultural meaning and folk wisdom. I have listened to this dream-like piece of music over and over and it won’t leave my imagination. Much like the first time I heard “Blind Willie McTell,” “Abandoned Love” or “Series Of Dreams” this song is an immediate, magical favorite in Dylan’s catalog. Even though he didn’t write it, it occupies the same country as his greatest songs. Worth the price of admission alone!
13) “If Dogs Run Free” - along with “Sign on The Window” the most radical re-imagining of a familiar song. A slowed down, beat-poetry recitation, that really changes your understanding of this New Morning classic.
14) “New Morning” - another very different take of the title song. This version has punchy, Van Morrison-like horns arranged by Al Kooper. Priceless!
15) “Went To See This Gypsy” - another version - this time with just Dylan alone at the electric piano. This is chilling, essential Dylan. A real highlight.
16) “Belle Isle” - another Self Portrait song that benefits so much to hear Dylan’s humble vocal in the perfect two-guitar setting provided by his own strong strumming and Bromberg’s heavenly fills.
17) “Time Passes Slowly #2” - a total rager. You will be amazed at how different this take is than either of the others you have heard. Charlie Daniels lays it down fat on the bass, Bromberg and Ron Cornelius are fabulous on guitar and Dylan taps into the solid rock energy he would demonstrate during The Rolling Thunder Review a few years later. Another major keeper.
18) “When I Paint My Masterpiece” - much will be made of this solo piano version of a Dylan classic. Not only is it a different and affecting version, it contains a different lyric that is uncharacteristically demonstrative for Dylan - rhyming “Victrola” with “rock and rolla” - very fun indeed and a perfect way to end this part of the set.

Disc 3
This disc contains the entirety of the Isle Of Wight Show from August 30, 1969. Dylan is accompanied by The Band, who, as expected, shine with authentic chops and sympathy with the material. Dylan’s set is a 17-song overview of his best material wrangled into manageable, tight, country-ish interpretations. It is the set that many modern fans wish Dylan would deliver. It is well-recorded and entirely enjoyable. If it didn’t follow the majesty of the previous two discs it would be considered a major addition to his catalog. In this context, it makes sense and it is really the only live performance from this period of Dylan’s career, yet it feels like a somewhat more careful outing - closer to the vest than the totally new experience of the first two discs. One is spoiled by the excitement of new discoveries. That shouldn’t take away from this important milestone in Dylan’s performing career - yet, in some way, it does.

Disc 4
The remastered Self Portrait. The previous three discs have also had an affect on this listening experience. They make me realize what singular and groundbreaking albums Self Portrait, Nashville Skyline and New Morning were, and they also help contextualize them –especially Self Portrait - in the arc of Dylan’s career and the history of modern music. I always enjoyed this album, and hearing it after further scholarship makes it sparkle with renewed interest. This set is also joined by two books that really do define the idea of deluxe; an essay by the dean of rock journalism Greil Marcus is insightful and down-to-earth and scores of beautiful photos bring the era to vivid life.
- Paul Epstein

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #72 - Babe: Pig in the City (1998, dir. George Miller)

Yes, I’m 100% serious. I love this sequel to a film centered on a talking pig. Don't look to other contemporary talking animal or kiddie movies to compare this to, because it will dust anything you can come up with (except the first Babe film, which even so is a much more straightforward movie). Gene Siskel called it the best movie of the year that it came out, and I agree. The Thin Red Line, Happiness, Rushmore, The Big Lebowski – all have their virtues and Babe: Pig in the City stands above every one of them. A 1998 Japanese film I also love, After Life, comes close, but for the complete ingenuity of George Miller’s vision in his film I’d have to give him the nod. What so special about it, you ask?

 Well, more than just a kids’ film, this is a film that’s aimed at cinema enthusiasts and it just so happens that kids can enjoy it as well. There are nods throughout the film to the pratfalls of silent comedy and the films of Jacques Tati, and without going into full-on homage mode like Scorsese’s Hugo, this film pays tribute then goes its own way, creating a world “in a place just a little to the left of the 20th century” that touches on our world but isn’t beholden to its rules, like any good fantasy film. And the designs throughout – from The City, to the color schemes he uses in the city and at the climactic charity ball, to the pet-friendly hotel – are simply brilliant. The first nine minutes pick up on the farm where the first Babe film left off and then set up the action of rest of the film (and as a side note, if you haven’t seen that, you really ought to, though it’s not entirely necessary for enjoyment of this film) before Babe and his human (Magda Szubanski in a great comic role as Mrs. Esme Cordelia Hoggett) set off for The City, which is one of the first of George Miller’s strokes of brilliance in the film. 
The design of the unnamed metropolis consists of a delightful composite of major world skylines – the Hollywood Sign, the Sydney Opera House, the Golden Gate Bridge, etc. - an intricate canal system through the main part of town, and numerous neon signs and billboards proclaiming things like “Eat,” “Win,” “Eternity,” or “More Please,” reducing all advertising slogans to their core messages. It’s all cities and any city – cold and inhospitable in some ways, but with individuals scattered throughout who are warm and caring. Upon arrival in The City we shortly enter a segment of the film entitled “Chaos Theory” where Babe and his human both find themselves engulfed by chaos – Babe caught in a comedic show (lead by Mickey Rooney in a mildly disturbing role) in a children’s hospital and Esme Hoggett lost in the black, white and grey city, searching for her lost pig. This leads to an exciting chase sequence with a dog that’s possibly a little intense for young kids. Those who don’t like the film call this part of the film “dark” but it gets right to the heart of the film’s ideas.
The smart narration that will be familiar from the first film notes that Babe: Pig in the City is “…an account of their calamitous adventures, and how a kind and steady heart can mend a sorry world.” Its messages are simple - be nice to people, don't judge a book by its cover, don't let cynicism beat you - but to me that's powerful enough and can stand to be said until the world gets in line with that program. I hate corny words like "magical" when describing a film, but it fits here better than any film I can think of in the last few decades.
- Patrick Brown

Monday, August 12, 2013

I'd Love to Turn You On #87 - Kingfish – Kingfish

From the opening number “Lazy Lightning/Supplication” it’s obvious this is a special album. Vocalist Bob Weir is at his hippie/cowboy best shouting out this cosmic love song while guitarist Robbie Hoddinott plays a perfectly tasteful and exploratory guitar part. The song stretches into the gospel-like “Supplication” portion and it is pretty easy to start getting religion about this group. Fronted by ex-New Riders Of The Purple Sage bassist and vocalist Dave Torbert, Grateful Dead frontman Weir, Hoddinot on lead guitar and Bay Area harmonica player/songwriter Matt Kelly, Kingfish burned bright for exactly one fantastic studio album and then fizzled for another 20 years after Weir left the band in 1976. That album, 1976’s Kingfish, remains an enticing taste of how much promise this band had. The four songs Weir sings are highlights, especially his warm vocal on the clever “Home To Dixie” and his excellent cover of Marty Robbins’ gunfighter’s tale “Big Iron,” but they are hardly the only reasons to love this album.

Dave Torbert was not only an outstanding bass player, he had a distinctive, reedy voice that was responsible for some of the New Riders’ best songs. He hits a sweet spot on Kingfish capturing the early 70’s back-to-the-farm, flannel shirt, pot-smokin’ gestalt to a tee. In fact his song “Good-Bye Yer Honor” is a real anti-establishment, pro-drug flag- waving anthem that may or may not be ill-advised with the clarity of historical hindsight. For that particular moment in history though the song, and the entire vibe of this band, fits like a glove. Two more songs that capture the era nicely are Matt Kelly’s “Asia Minor” a pre 9-11 love song to the romantic and chemical mysteries of Afghanistan, and “Jump For Joy” a counter-cultural love song that gets it just right musically as Hoddinot provides some really tasteful lead playing.

The real standout on the album for me though is “Hypnotize,” a very simple love lyric inserted into an absolutely gorgeous ascending riff that Robbie Hoddinot turns into a truly outstanding performance. He and Weir lock in and find that elusive guitarists’ stairway to the stars and play off each other in a workout that is as exciting as it is refined. It is too short at four and a half minutes. As the guitars spiral upward on the final climax you wish it could go on forever. The album closes at a spiritual high place when Weir tackles a traditional gospel, “Bye And Bye” to great effect. It is a perfect way to round out this comforting set of music.

Kingfish reminds me that simplicity is sometimes the magic sauce that brings together the greatest dishes. This album is made up of really fine musicians applying their skills to a set of simple, well-played songs, leaving the listener a plate full of delicious music. Even though it is hardly as well known as releases from other hit making bands of the 70’s it stands up to any other country-rock album of the era and surpasses many. Even though this version of Kingfish was short lived they produced an album that should secure them a place on your shelf forever.
- Paul Epstein

Monday, August 5, 2013

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #71 - Bringing Out the Dead (1999, dir. Martin Scorsese)

"I'd always had nightmares, but now the ghosts didn't wait for me to sleep.” – Frank Pierce

 Martin Scorsese is well known for films such as Goodfellas, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Casino, Gangs of New York, etc. The list could go on and on. Unfortunately, when most people list off their favorite Marty flicks, there is one that is almost always missing: the 1999 film Bringing Out the Dead. Even though this film shares themes that audiences seem to enjoy under different titles, for whatever reason Dead gets left out in the cold. I’m here to turn you on to what is surely one of the most unique cinematic experiences you will have.
To begin with, this is the fourth collaboration between Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader, the first three being Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and The Last Temptation of Christ. Excluding some controversy with Christ, these are routinely accepted as masterpieces. So, why the disconnect this time around? This writer thinks it is almost entirely a problem of preconceived notions. Even before the foolish critics of the time (excluding an excellent write up from Roger Ebert) labeled it as Scorsese-lite, people were turned off by the film. For unknown reasons, the all-star cast, including Nic Cage, John Goodman, Ving Rhames, Tom Sizemore, Patricia Arquette and Marc Anthony, didn’t fire up people’s curiosity. A good chunk of this trouble could be blamed on the film Marty directed prior to Dead – the unfairly maligned 1997 epic Kundun. Especially since Casino had come two years before that, people were in a gangster mood when the screen said Scorsese. Between the relative dislike of Kundun, the fact that not many people saw or cared to see his excellent documentary that served as a journey through Italian cinema (My Voyage To Italy), and the fact that this wasn’t a gangster film, Bringing Out the Dead was near destined to be a failure.
But, lucky for you, DVD exists and you still have a chance to dive headfirst into one of Scorsese’s most visceral films. Nic Cage plays Frank Pierce, a seasoned paramedic that works the graveyard shift in Hell’s Kitchen, in the early 90’s. For those who don’t know, this is New York at its worst: a vicious crack infestation (called Red Death in the film), unacceptable housing conditions, and crime at levels so high it almost becomes satirical. Your average filmmaker wouldn’t put in all the time necessary to recreate such a horrible time. But for Marty, this period is the absolute perfect setting for a tale of redemption through debilitating sacrifice and pain.  The cinematography by Robert Richardson gives an addictive energy to this oppressive tale of guilt and loss. One of the best things about Scorsese is that he will almost never judge characters in his films. Yes, Hell's Kitchen is shown as the crack-addled, violent, sleazy mess that it was at the time, but it rarely feels voyeuristic or superior. The purpose isn't to point fingers, but to study human behavior. Many will say that this is simply a poor rehash of Taxi Driver. Those people are fools. The two films are certainly related, but never the same. Taxi Driver is a story of revenge and redemption; Bringing Out the Dead is never a story concerned with revenge. Frank Pierce is a man haunted by his past and crippled by guilt over the lives he has lost. In particular a teenager named Rose, whom Frank couldn’t save, haunts him as if a ghost. Frank sees her face supplanted onto nearly everyone he comes into contact with. He hears her calling out for help and asking why he couldn’t save her. Through voice over narration, Frank lets us know that it has been months since he saved someone. This is where Scorsese drops us into the story. Frank is at (or very near) his lowest point. He drifts through his night-to-night existence fueled by whiskey, cigarettes and soul-crushing guilt. The film disorients the viewer almost immediately. Within minutes, we are part of this fever dream existence that Frank is trying to sustain. We begin to empathize to an almost uncomfortable degree made possible by Scorsese's ability to pull excellence out of Nicolas Cage. 
 Although Cage had offered up some great performances prior (Raising Arizona, Leaving Las Vegas), this marks the first time that someone could actually control him. Cage's normal performances range from vapid, blank stares to earth-shaking bursts of crazy. Bringing Out the Dead gives us his first performance that wobbles unsteadily in the middle. Without it, the film would've failed. The free flowing, unpredictable acting on display gives the film its shaky center, setting the stage for this brutal tale of suffering and the tension created from the line-riding is palpable. If a single line, either narrated or spoken, doesn’t hit home, the entire film falls apart. Scorsese wisely gives Cage a lot to do. We meet a wide array of people that all bring out some corner of Frank’s psyche that had yet to be exposed. John Goodman is Frank’s first riding partner in the ambulance. As always, Goodman brings an enormous energy and gets the film moving. We then get Ving Rhames at his best, as an energetic EMT who uses every opportunity to praise Jesus and deliver the Word. Last we get Tom Sizemore playing a man that can only get by taking his aggression out on whatever's around. Whether it's a crazed homeless man named Noel (a surprisingly solid turn from Marc Anthony), or the ambulance that acts as chariot to the hell that every night brings, Sizemore's character is on the verge of catastrophe at every turn. Along with Frank Pierce, the character Mary Burke (a slightly unenthused but solid Patricia Arquette), gives the story something to come back to after each vignette. Scorsese has been obsessed with faith, specifically Catholicism, since his first film. This time, he decides to be very overt in naming the character that Frank is drawn to for guidance, help and appreciation, Mary.  I shall now stop with any other plot details, because the rock n’ roll fueled energy that comes from seeing this film unfold would be foiled if more is revealed.
Moral of the story: why wouldn’t you want to watch a dizzying descent into one man’s personal hell, full of wonderful performances, a soundtrack that includes Van Morrison, The Clash, The Who and The Melodians, gorgeous, disorienting cinematography by Robert Richardson (Fast, Cheap and Out of Control, Casino), earnest balls-out direction from Scorsese and a brooding, psychologically probing screenplay from Paul Schrader? And of course we can’t forget – it’s a really great dark comedy. If I haven’t convinced you, here is a single quote from a better-spoken man than I that should do the trick.
Once again, this carnival of lost souls gives him the stylistic equivalent of an adrenaline boost; intellectually, Scorsese may not pine for the early nineties, but they're custom-fit for his perpetual theme of redemption through suffering, and the vistas -- the steam heat rising like hellfire from the streets, the phalanx of hookers and dopers, the whole vast detritus of the human comedy -- leave him rapt. Scorsese used to make movies about this world when it was right on top of him; in Bringing Out the Dead, he's serving up what amounts to livid pictographs from the cave of an earlier era. Not too much earlier, though. His point may be that there's still a lot of Then in Now.” – Peter Rainer

   - Will Morris, House Manager, Sie Film Center