Sunday
Nov022014

Crawling Inside A Song And Shutting The Door

 


 

On the eve of the release of one of the most bootlegged of bootleg recordings ever made (Bob Dylan and The Band’s complete Basement Tapes)  I happened across another, much less-well known, perhaps totally obscure Bob Dylan bootleg recording -- an outtake from the soundtrack to an execrable film called Hearts of Fire, a star vehicle gone wrong for a burned-out, lost in the weeds mid-80's era Dylan, who later admitted that he was drunk most of shoot.

The film soundtrack featured exactly two new, and entirely throwaway, Bob Dylan songs -- “Night After Night” and  “Had A Dream About You Baby,  But the song, or rather, the performance that I’ve been listening to, is not a Dylan song at all, but a cover of Billy Joe Shaver’s “Old Five And Dimer.” It’s a skull-rattling gem. 

According to a website called alldylan.com, Dylan went into a London studio over two days in August, 1986 to record music for the soundtrack. His band for the sessions included the likes of Eric Clapton and Ron Wood. On the first day, Dylan put the band to work on five takes of John Hiatt’s “The Usual,” one take of something called “Ride This Train,” which sounds like a mess of a half-formed original song that he quickly abandoned, before launching into five takes of “Had A Dream About You Baby.”

Then comes the solo take of "Old Five and Dimers" and, for three minutes and twelve seconds, Dylan delivers a performance that digs down and scrapes every bit of nuance to be had in a song that isn’t even his.  It’s an astonishing bit of theater, and better by far than any acting he did onscreen for “Hearts of Fire.”

The “old five and dimer” who narrates the song is, on the surface, about the furthest thing in the wolrd from rock icon Bob Dylan.  He’s a nobody, a guy that’s knocked around through mostly hard times, a Cadillac buyer who knows that “good times and fast bucks are too far and too few between.”  Yet, even during Dylan’s mid-80’s nadir, when he seemed to be artistically and spritually bankrupt, he was still Bob Dylan -- a household name, a man who’d sold millions of records and put an indelible stamp on American popular music and culture. He was still someone who performed in sports arenas, who’d engendered a following of rabid acolytes who followed and examined his every move.

Yet, listening to this recoding, you would never know any of that. In fact, the singer in this recording sounds like the oldest, most five-and-dimerist, broken down singer you’d ever want to hear sing this song. The performance sounds authentic. It sounds real. At the end, he cries “An Old-Five and Dimer is all I intended to be!” the phrase positively drowning in weary, stubborn, hardcrabble, painful pride. 

 Really Bob?  All you ever wanted was to be an anonymous, unknown, everyman kind of guy? That’s what you wanted, when you hitched a ride to New York City to seek fame and fortune and your place in the history books?  To hear this recording, it’s almost believable.

So where in the world does Dylan get the nerve to imbue this song with the sort of raw conviction that he does?  How does he do it?   He gets inside the song. He plays the part. It’s theater.  

  Of course there is a lie behind the performance. One could even say that Dylan's not being authentic here.  But he is.  He’s using an example of something he knows little about (being a unknown failure) to express something about the way he feels right now that is beyond the scope of the language of his experience.  It’s the same as when we feel so good that we say we feel like a million bucks. Or we feel like a King. Or we feel like we’re on top of the world -- even when we don’t really know what those things are actually like. We have a feeling that transcends our ability to capture it in words. so we reach for a metaphor to express it. 

Isn’t that what all great, well-told stories do?  They get at something that we feel but don’t know what to do with, because the feeling is so real.  A good artist is brave enough, or lucky enough, to be able to do that with some regularity. A great artist, like Bob Dylan, can do it across a career that spans decades. It’s why we revere them so much, follow them, wait to see what they’re going to share with us next, because we never know when the muse will visit and allow him to imbue some song -- his or someone else’s -- with that kind of feeling that raises the hair on the back of our necks.These kinds of performances bring us closer to our own unplumbed, complicated feelings. They make us feel less alone.

And then, we can’t get the song, or the performance out of our heads. We want to share it. We want to tell everyone we know about it.  So, check it out, and see what you think.  And while you’re at it, listen to the one other keeper from these sessions, “To Fall In Love”, an unfinished original that sounds like it could have been part of those Basement Tapes that we're all listening to this week.

 

Thursday
Oct162014

Beware Facebook

 

Like a lot of us who use Facebook, I have a personal page and a page for my business, where I can connect with people who are interested in what I do professionally.  On the professional page (in my case, a "fan" page) I make announcements about upcoming concerts, recordings, new projects, post photos and music, interact with fans, etc. 

For a month now, I have been unable to access my professional page, and Facebook has not respoded to any of the dozens of help tickets that I have created about this issue.  There seems to be no one there at Facebook.  This is the second time this year that this has happened -- the first time, about a week went by and then, without explanation, my admin account was available again, appearing just as mysteriously as it had vanished. 

This time, the situation is more serious, as I have a tour coming up and presenters who would like to interface with me and my fans via Facebook.  Not having access to my page is having a real impact on my business. As you can see from the screenshot above, Facebook knows that I run this page -- they just won't allow me access to it.

I have posted about this on my personal page, and had people respond with similar horror stories, some saying that they had lost access to their pages permanently, and with it, years and years of original content created for, or posted to, their page.

This is intolerable.  Facebook is not a small company. Facebook should have tech support and be able to fix this kind of thing.

Maybe if enough of us make noise about this issue, they will pay attention.  Would you please consider reposting this on your social media?

Thanks for your help!

#FacebookFail

 

UPDATE 10/24/14: The page has been restored. No explanation, no feedback from tech support, just a mysterious resolution (for now?). Be on guard, FB users!

 

Sunday
Sep282014

Mr. Roland Barber

 

Photo by R. Barber/ J.Wiggan

 

Roland Barber is not only one of the most accomplished musicians I know of on his chosen instrument(s), but he's also one of the more exceptional human beings that I've had the honor to work with over the years -- a gentleman and a scholar, a listener, a thoughtful, soulful, deeply spiritual individual.

Like a good number of musicians I have met in NYC and come to work with in my band, I was led to Roland by that great connector Kevin Louis, who suggested I give Roland a try on a little New England tour we had coming up.  When it comes to matching me up with musicians who fit well with my music, Kevin has never once suggested anyone who's been less than stellar, and Roland was that -- stellar, from the very first gig we did together at the now-defunct Church House Concert Series in Haddam, CT. 

Although we were performing as a full-on brass band, with trumpet (Mr. Louis himself), trombone, tuba and drums, on the bandstand that night I quickly sensed something about Roland's playing -- a subtlety and a sensitivity -- that I was eager to shine a ight on.  Putting him on the spot a bit, I told our audience that Roland and I were going to play a duet or two on a couple of old standards, and spontaneously launched into renditions of two chestnuts that I've been performing for about as long as I've been performing -- When I Grow Too Old To Dream, and I'm Confessin' in an attempt to feature Roland's skills. My gamble was rewarded, and if you follow those two links, they'll take you to recordings I've just posted of that very performances, the beginning of what would be a long musical partnership with Roland -- a special moment caught for posterity.

 

Photo by Kathleen Scully

Since that time, Roland has played hundreds of concerts with me. He can blow the roof off the joint anytime he wants, and then play so quietly that you can literally hear the audience holding its collective breath. Sometimes he will pull out his trusty conch shell, and take a solo on that, as he did in this performance at Joe's Pub in NYC with me a few years ago in a concert that also featured Skye Steele on violin, Jon Flaugher on bass and Mark McLean on drums:

I was also thrilled to play a small role in the emergence of Roland Barber the vocalist, his voice yet another powerful asset in what seems to be his virtually limitless range of talents. On brass band gigs, I was sometimes able to coax him out of his modesty and shyness into singing an old traditional like "Comin' Round The Mountain," but it wasn't until he honored me with a version of my song "Want You To Be Mine" (at yet another outing at Joe's Pub in NYC) that I feel like Roland the singer really blossomed. This clip also features Mazz Swift on violin, Marika Hughes on cello, Mark McLean on drums, and Nathan Peck on bass. Have a look:

 

In addition to performing on my albums Better Get Right and No Further Instructions, Roland played an invaluable role behind the scenes in the mixing of those two records, offering penetrating and thoughtful insight as a particpant in that process, weighing in on what was working and what wasn't until we arrived at  results that I'd like to think we're both pretty proud of. Roland's attention to detail, and his keen understanding of the things that make music work are deep, and spring from a finely-developed ear for hearing truth in music rather than just a series of notes.

Roland is also a natural born teacher. Time and again, he's provided me (and, doubtless, countless others) with guidance, insight and wisdom that belie his years.  He's caused me to question fundamental elemets of what I do and why I do it, and -- like any great mentor -- has inspired me to do better, to always try to reach beyond my limitations.

* * *

Although Roland has since relocated his native Tennessee, he still tours with me when he's available to do so (here's a video of him performing with me in Estonia last summer), and I was lucky enough to be able to see and perform with him in his hometown of Nashville a few weeks ago when we were invited to do a showcase set at this year's Americana Music Association Festival. While the audience turnout for our show was pretty dismal (see page 2 of Craig Havighurst's roundup review here), the trip for me was salvaged by the opportunity to spend some quality time hanging out with Roland, and to meet his wonderful family. 

After our performance, Roland's Dad came up and offered his hand to me, telling me how much he admired my music and how he felt that Roland's rendition of "Want You To Be Mine" was faithful to the original even as he thought Roland put his own stamp on it (I agreed).  He couldn't have been kinder.  Roland's Mother was similarly effusive, and wouldn't let me leave the venue without giving me a big hug. "My Mother would never forgive me," she said, "if I didn't give you a proper Nashville greeting." 

I got to meet and spend time with Roland's girlfriend Micah, and the three of us spent the better part of an afternoon at their favorite gelato spot unpacking what this term "Americana Music" might be all about, how my music might fit into it, and the Nashville music scene in general -- a revealing conversation for me, as this was really my first exposure to this town.

The highlight may have been the brief visit we made to Roland's grandmother, Mrs. Zephyr Selby, who'd just celebrated her 91st birthday. Although she hadn't physically been feeling well of late, her mind, heart and spirit were as open and present as a young girl's.  I got the same sense from her that I did from Roalnd's parents, and it was plain to see where Roland gets the qualities that make him such a special person: presence, humility, generosity, warmth, spirituality, humor, and grace.

It is my pleasure and my honor to have Mr. Roland Barber as a collabortaor, a teacher, and a friend. You can check out some of his own music right here.

Photo by Ed Bobrow

Wednesday
May282014

Skye Steele

Photo by Jim McLaughlin

Skye Steele is a marvel of a musician and one of my favorite human beings.

Skye first started performing with me in 2003, when the second iteration of my quartet disbanded and I was basically holding a series of live auditions for new band members at low-key gigs around town.  I remember Skye's first show with me, during a short-lived residency at The Slipper Room on the Lower East Side in NYC.  I think i probably handed him a copy of what was then my most current release -- DO WHAT I WANT -- a day or two before the gig. Or maybe even that same morning.  He came to the gig having done his homework, knowing all the violin lines and arranagments and bringing his own, unique stylings and energy to each of them. 

I was also introduced that day to one of my favorite things about Skye -- his candor.  I don't remember the exact words he used, but he said something to me along these lines: "You know, I have to tell you that I get asked to learn a lot of music and I play with a lot of bands, and most of the time I listen to the CD or demo or whatever and I think 'this is total garbage.'  So, I was really surprised when I listenied to your album and thought 'wow, I actually like this.'"

Among the scores of musicians I've had the pleasure of working with over the years, Skye may have one of the most unique musical voices that I know.  In his improvisations, he attacks (or caresses) a song sideways, often in unexpected and destabilizing ways.  And yet, his motivation is never to draw attention to himself, to detract from the integrity of the tune. Rather, he works with the band to turn things inside out, often opening the song up to new possibilities, or exposing previously unknown qualities or elements inherent within it.

Listen to the studio recording of "Maramures" from NO FURTHER INSTRUCTIONS.  The song begins plaintively, gently lilting, seeking to evoke the pastoral beauty of the Northern province of Romania.  Then, at just under a minute and a half into the tune, just as the track is dangerously close to crossing over into easy-listening land, Skye's violin comes in, twisting the landscape in exactly the right way, giving the song teeth, cutting right into its heart in a way that's beautiful and breathtaking.  It's almost as though the camera, which had been doing a sweeping overview shot of the landscape, suddenly pans way in to a close up of the smallest detail -- a fly buzzing around a cow's face; a child jumping for joy in a river strewn with garbage; a farmer's face at the end of a long day in the fields. 

Skye's playing gives us all of this, no small feat.  Few musicians care enough about the music they're playing to engage in this way.  I don't know many players more creative than Skye Steele. 

In addition to his many skills as a performer, Skye is an exceptional human, bringing care and consciousness to how he leads his life.  He's a vegetarian.  He's a politcal activist.  He's passionate about being environmentally conscious, and about helping others.  It's an honor not only to have him as an associate and a collabortaor, but also as a friend.

Skye does a lot more than just make music with me and other bandleaders.  He's a composer and songwriter in his own right, and is getting ready to release a new album.  Read more about it, and him, right here.

Tuesday
Feb112014

Hotchkiss Thoughts

 

I had the wonderful good fortune to be invited to spend a week at The Hotchkiss School as their guest Artist in Residence this semester, and -- let me tell you -- it was an experience I will not soon forget.

My time there was profoundly meaningful, primarily because of how immersive it was.  I was engaged on so many different levels of interaction, in mind, body and spirit. 

On an intellectual level, I got to share my passion for the plays of Eugene O'Neill, as I worked with students looking at both his lesser-known early experimental work, and his late, last plays. 

In an American Literature class, we read through the Prologue of the great god brown, that fascinating, unhinged yowl of an angry young man from O'Neill's early prime.  We talked about the use of masks on stage, about hyper realism and expressionism, and about the power of the imagination -- how some plays can, perhaps, really only be performed on a stage (as opposed to being adapted to film, for example, which we would look at in a subsequent Film Studies class in which we read a scene from Long Day's Journey Into Night, followed by a screening from the classic film adaptation by Sidney Lumet).

 

 

In a double session with two combined Humanities classes, students and I used Greil Marcus's text The Old, Weird America as a launching pad for a wide-ranging discussion that touched on the subjects of violence in American music and culture (using recordings of songs by the banjo player/singer Dock Boggs and Bob Dylan as two examples); the changing role that music has played in our society in modern times; the merits (or otherwise) of contemporary recording techniques like Auto-tune; the value of authenticity;  and the similarities and discrepancies between old American murder ballads and contemporary Hip Hop and Gangsta Rap.

* * *

A hands-on workshop with students who are writing original music and/or honing their instrumental skills in the music department found us working on a full-band arrangement for one student's original song (utilizing piano, electric and acoustic guitars, upright bass, drums, saxophone and backup vocals), and then backing up another student singer as she led us through a soulful, jazzy arrangement of "Georgia on My Mind," complete with improvised solos from members of the student band. 

  * * *

 In several theater classes, and in another Humanities class that was engaged in making "Monument Projects," I talked with students about my Donner Party project "we are destroyed," discussing and showing examples of ways to interpret history, atypical ways to incorporate music and poetry into theater, and getting into the philosophy and idealism/hubris behind Westward Expansion in America.  Some of the kids read portions of my oratorio out loud in class (a thrill for me), and I played them some of the songs I wrote for the piece, like "Do What I Want" and "In Another Life."

I also had the opportunity to visit an acting class, where I talked about some of the craft and understanding of performance I've been able to glean as a working artist over the last decade and a half.

In two Musical Theater classes, students and I had lively discussions debating the merits of the contemporary musical theater form itself.  We had fun playing around with some of the songs that they knew or were working on as singers, as I accompanied them on guitar while they sang standards like "Fever" and "Crazy" -- some of them experimenting with vocal improvisation and tempo for the first time.

* * *

In a Documentary Film class, I shared my experience of what has gone into creating a documentary theater project about Connie Converse.  Here we talked about what elements are important in telling a nonfiction story, delved into what makes for a powerful narrative, and looked at similarities between Connie's mysterious story and Rodriguez from Searching For Sugar Man.

The poet and teacher Susan Kinsolving brought me in to her Creative Writing class to talk about the creative process, and what it means to be a working creative artist.  One of the students wanted to know whether my song Mary Ann was based on a real person, which led to a discussion about the power of imagination and how we can transmute specific real-life experiences into (hopefully) more universal art.

And I was fortunate enough to be able to be a fly on the wall for Mike Musillami's "Right Brain Logic" rehearsal, a massive ensemble of student instrumentalists working on one of Mike's original composition that employed changing meters and keys, and elements of conduction (conducted improvisation) that was really something to behold.  These are some advanced kids (and teachers)!

Finally, to cap it all off, my band came up from the city at the end of the week, and we gave a concert in Hotchkiss's beautiful Elfers Hall, for students, faculty and the general public. 

Photo by David Thompson

 

The show was a benefit for a local no-kill animal shelter, The Little Guild of St. Francis. Hearing my friend and sousaphone player Kenny Bentley in that hall hold forth on a song like "Pretty Polly" was quite an experience.

Photo by Carole Cohen

* * *

And if all this weren't enough, in between classes I got to play tennis matches with several of the varsity and junior varsity team members (in an ongoing game called "Crush The Artist in Residence"), took a hike out to the Hotchkiss Farm with faculty and students (where I was given an opportunity to swing an axe on the wood chopping block), and took my meals daily in the Hotchkiss Dining Hall, where much of the food is locally-sourced and organic, where there are vegetarian options a-plenty, and where compost is collected from finished plates and trays. This is a very hip institution, as far as sustainability and eco-awareness goes.

In fact, this is a very hip institution, period.  The community I felt there, and the warm embrace I was given by students, faculty and their families, made it difficult to leave.  The academics and creativity invigorated my mind.  The beautiful grounds, athletic facilities and sports engaged my body.  The sense of connection and mindfulness on display everywhere lifted my spirit.

Thank you, Hotchkiss. I'm deeply grateful for the experience.