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Bob Dylan’s Modern Times and Tell Tale Signs

We'll be celebrating Bob Dylan's 70th birthday (it's May 24) early on Roots & Branches April 3.

I just finished Sean Wilentz’s “Bob Dylan in America,” a series of essays that looks at Dylan’s career, many of them about the later parts of it.  Like Wilentz, I have been fascinated at Dylan’s reincarnation after a period of confusion that lasted through much of the 1980s as a kind of minstrel, performing regularly as well as becoming involved in other kinds of creative expression.

Dylan is marking 70 years next month, so I put together a special KGNU (88.5 FM) Roots & Branches show for Sunday, April 3, 9-11 am MT that will argue that the last twenty years of Dylan’s career will be a period that be considered one of his most fruitful. (Download the show here until April 17.)

Nothing could possibly match the evolutionary path Robert Zimmerman took from the moment he first stepped onto New York streets fifty years ago in January to the release of Nashville Skyline nine years later. But he hasn’t done so bad of late, either.

In Chronicles Dylan relates that he realized by 1987 that he had been coasting, riding the laurels of his legend, performing erratically and releasing albums that seemed little more than pale reflections of his glorious past. He minced few words about his predicament, which coincided with an injury to one of his hands that he feared might end his playing days. “Always prolific, never exact,” he wrote, “too many distractions had turned my musical path into a jungle of vines.”

At the same time he writes that he realized that he would have to change the way he wrote and presented his music. “By combining certain elements of technique which ignite each other I could shift the levels of perception, time-frame structures and systems of rhythm,” he wrote, “which would give my songs a brighter countenance, call them up from the grave – stretch out the stiffness in their bodies and straighten them out.”

He also describes a musical numerical system, which I still don’t understand, that he says the guitarist Lonnie Johnson taught him. But for whatever reasons, things began turning around for him.

In 20 years, he’s released two albums of traditional songs (Good as I Been to You and World Gone Wrong, four albums of original material (Time Out of Mind, Love & Theft, Modern Times and Together Through Life) and eight editions in his bootleg series that includes a couple of three-disc sets. He published the first of a three-part memoir, Chronicles, which offered his own memories of his early days in New York City and two other periods of his life where he felt at a crossroads. He let Martin Scorsese direct No Direction Home, a three-hour-plus documentary on his life to 1966, that included two more albums of outtakes and other interesting material.

He wrote, directed and produced Masked & Anonymous,  an apocalyptic film that starred some of Hollywood’s finest acting talent. He curated and was host of Theme Time Radio Hour for three years, producing 100 hour-long programs that featured his obvious love for all kinds of music and American history and featured his oddball sense of humor. He let Twyla Tharp try to adapt his music for dance.

He plays about a hundred concerts a year, which isn’t an unusual number of shows except, it seems, in Dylan’s case, when it’s called the Never Ending Tour. His paintings are now hung in galleries around the world. He made Christmas in the Heart, a fantastic Christmas album and donated the money to charity. You probably wouldn’t have called Bob Dylan charitable in 1965, but you might today. He seems to have grown comfortably into old age with the same instincts and curiosity intact that have, except for a period in the 1980s, always sustained him.

And his most recent work, as Wilentz relates, recasts him as part of a long American tradition. In many ways, it’s no more than an extension of what he has always done. In Chronicles Dylan relates, as a voracious reader from an early age, how he dug into historical texts in friend’s apartments and the New York City Library. Early on he paid tribute to his heroes by copying them – his own tribute, “Song to Woody,” steals the melody of Woody Guthrie’s own “1913 Massacre.” Today, he finds different ways to connect with music and literature from, as Greil Marcus once dubbed it, the old, weird America, and spit it back out at us in different ways.

I think I make a strong case for his recent success, but the proof is in the music. Time willing, here’s the playlist for Sunday morning. The show will stream from kgnu.org, and I’ll post the link to the podcast Sunday afternoon.

Introduction, Bob Dylan Concert 2009
Blind Willie McTell, Bob Dylan Bootleg Series Vol. 1, Disc 3.
Tomorrow Night, Lonnie Johnson Bluebird single
Tomorrow Night, Bob Dylan, Good As I Been To You
Money Honey (take 2), Bob Dylan Unreleased
Nashville Skyline Rag, Bob Dylan, Nashville Skyline
Love Sick, Bob Dylan, Time Out Of Mind
Not Dark Yet, Bob Dylan, Time Out Of Mind
Tryin’ To Get to Heaven (Oct. 5, 2000, London, England), Bob Dylan, Tell Tale Signs: The Bootleg Series Vol. 8
Marchin to the City, Bob Dylan, Tell Tale Signs Bootleg Series Vol. 8
Things Have Changed, Bob Dylan, Wonder Boys
Having Myself A Time, Billie Holiday, Lady Day: The Complete Billie Holiday on Columbia 1933-1944 (Disc 4)
Bye & Bye, Bob Dylan, Love & Theft
Po’ Boy, Bob Dylan, Love & Theft
High Water, Bob Dylan, Love & Theft
Come Una Pietra Scalciata (Like A Rolling Stone), Articolo 31. Masked & Anonymous
Down In The Flood (New Version), Bob Dylan, Masked & Anonymous
Gonna Change My Way Of Thinking    Bob Dylan & Mavis Staples, Gotta Serve Somebody: The Gospel Songs Of Bob Dylan
Spirit On The Water, Bob Dylan, Modern Times
Beyond The Horizon, Bob Dylan, Modern Times
Cross the Green Mountain, Bob Dylan, Tell Tale Signs Bootleg Series Vol. 8
Checkers by Dylan, Theme Time Radio Hour: Dogs
Sinatra and Kennedy, Theme Time Radio Hour: President’s Day
Dylan GPS rap, Theme Time Radio Hour: Street Map
Life is Hard, Bob Dylan, Together Through Life
It’s All Good, Bob Dylan, Together Through Life

April 2, 2011   2 Comments

Morning Sound Alternative: Jan. 24, 2011

Here’s the playlist for the Morning Sound Alternative for Jan. 24, 2011 on KGNU. The only restriction for this show is that the singer is not the author of the song.

Everybody Wants To Rule The World    Patti Smith    Twelve    4:07    2007
Rebel Rebel    Seu Jorge    The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou    2:24    2004
Coffee, Coffee, Coffee    Freedy Johnston    Real: The Tom T Hall Project    3:02    1998
The Third Man Theme    The Band    Moondog Matinee    2:49    1973
It’s A Long Way To The Top    Lucinda Williams    Little Honey    4:56    2008
Angel Of The Morning    The Pretenders    Pirate Radio [Disc 3]    3:32    1994
Words (Between The Lines Of Age)    Chip Taylor    Harvest Revisted (MOJO )    5:09    2010
A Day In The Life    Jeff Beck    International Forum, Tokyo JP, February 6, 2009    5:14    2009
This Wheel’s On Fire    Neil Young and The Sadies    Garth Hudson Presents A Canadian Celebration Of The Band    3:28    2010
Lean On Me    Eric Bibb, Rory Block & Maria Muldaur    Sisters & Brothers    4:07    2004
Superstition    Old School Freight Train  Heart of Glass      3:23
Everything I Do Gonna Be Funky    Peter Wolf    Midnight Souvenirs    2:12    2010
Gonna Move    Susan Tedeschi    Wait For Me    4:26    2002
Never Gonna Give You Up    The Black Keys    The Black Keys (Brothers)    3:41    2010
Angel Dance    Robert Plant    Band of Joy    3:49    2010
Run Through the Jungle (Gunmen soundtrack)    Los Lobos    Rarities, Covers & Radio Shows    3:46
Garden Party    John Fogerty    The Blue Ridge Rangers Rides Again    3:51    2009
She Belongs To Me    Rick Nelson    Legacy (Disc 3)    3:03
Lonesome Town    Bob Dylan With Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers    Lonesome Town [Disc 2]    5:30    2002
Burn Down The Cornfield    Charlie Musselwhite    Sanctuary    3:30    2004
Louisiana 1927    Sonny Landreth        3:59
Losing You    Mavis Staples    You Are Not Alone    2:52    2010
Just One Smile    Al Kooper    Soul of a Man (Disc 1)    6:09    1994
Gone Dead Train [Movie-Soundtrack]    Randy Newman    CD 3: Odds & Ends    2:54    1970
Everybody’s Talkin’    Harry Nilsson    Greatest Hits    2:46    1968
Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood    Nina Simone    Broadway Blues Ballads    2:48    1993
Hey Gyp    The Animals    Retrospective    3:50    1966
Voodoo Child (Slight Return)    Angelique Kidjo, Buddy Guy, And Vernon Reid    Lightning In A Bottle. A Salute To The Blues Soundtrack Recording [Disc 2]    5:17    2004
I Am Waiting    Ollabelle        4:15
Walk Away Renee Linda Ronstadt & Ann Savoy    Adieu False Heart    3:26    2006
When Doves Cry    The Be Good Tanyas    Hello Love    4:02    2006
Soul Serenade    Aretha Franklin    I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You    2:39
State Trooper    Deana Carter    Badlands: A Tribute To Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska    3:46
Paint The Town Beige    Bill and Bonnie Hearne    Watching Life Through A Windshield    3:39    2000
Glad & Sorry    Golden Smog    Down By The Old Mainstream    3:34    1996
Don’t Knock    Tom Jones    Praise & Blame    2:15    2010
Perfidia (Guitar)    The Ventures        2:03    1960
Señor (Tales Of Yankee Power)    Tim O’Brien    Red On Blonde    4:03    1996
Al Vaivén De Mi Carreta    Afrocubismo    Afrocubismo    5:00    2010

January 24, 2011   No Comments

Roots and Branches: Jan. 23, 2011

Here’s the set list for the R&B Program on KGNU Jan. 23, 2011. The only only rule for inclusion today is that it be a song by one musician written about another one. Musicians on Musicians.

Nina Simone    Tom Russell    Blood And Candle Smoke    2009
The Great Hank    Robert Earl Keen    What I Really Mean    2005
When The Beatles Hit America    John Wesley Harding    Just Say Da: Vol. 4 Of Just Say Yes    1990
Wilson Pickett    Tim Krekel    Soul Season    2007
Here’s Your Mop Mr. Johnson    Keri Leigh    The Last Soul Company (Disc 6)    1999
I’m So Restless    Roger McGuinn    Fantasy Factory vol.8    1973
Got to Find Blind Lemon-Part One    Geoff Muldaur    The Secret Handshake    1998
W. Lee O’Daniel And The Light Crust Dough Boys    James Talley    Got No Bread/Tryin’ Like The Devil    1989
I Dreamed Of A Hillbilly Heaven    Tex Ritter    Collectors Series    1961
The King & I    Fred Koller    Sxsw Live Volume 5 (Disc 2)
Baby Boom Ché    John Trudell    AKA Grafitti Man    1992
Went To See The Gypsy    Bob Dylan    Genuine Bootleg Series Vol 3 [Disc 2]    1970
Blind Willie McTell    The Band    Jericho    1993
Wild As The Wind (A Tribute To Rick Danko)    Steve Forbert    Just Like There’s Nothin’ To It    2004
Gram`s Song    John Phillips    Phillips 66    2001
Alcohol And Pills    Todd Snider    East Nashville Skyline    2004
The Late Great Johnny Ace [Demo]    Paul Simon    Hearts & Bones [Bonus Tracks]    1983
Death of Muddy Waters    The Chicago Blues Reunion    Buried Alive in the Blues    2005
Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way    Robert Earl Keen    Lonesome, On’ry & Mean: A Tribute To Waylon Jennings    2003
My My, Hey Hey (Out Of The Blue)    Neil Young    A Perfect Echo: Vol. 3, Disc 1
Johnny Met June    Shelby Lynne    Suit Yourself    2005
Carl Perkins’ Cadillac    Drive-By Truckers    The Dirty South    2004
The Man Who Could Have Played Bass For Shanana    Darrell Scott    Theatre Of The Unheard    2003
House on the Lake    Rosanne Cash    Black Cadillac    2006
Link Wray    Jason Ringenberg    Empire Builders    2004
Where Is Bobbie Gentry?    Jill Sobule    California Years    2009
Flat Top Joint    The Blasters    American Music    1997

January 23, 2011   2 Comments

A Flatlanders Kind of Day

Flatlanders, KGNU Studios

It wasn’t until Friday afternoon that I got word from KGNU Music Director John Schaefer that the Flatlanders were coming in Sunday morning to play some songs and talk on the Roots & Branches program I host.

As an old-time music critic (remember those), I have known about the Flatlanders for a long time, dating back to the days when their debut album was passed around only on cassette among cognoscenti for eighteen years. But like most people, I didn’t really come in contact with the group until Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock reunited for the three albums they’ve made together since 1998.

Not that I didn’t know about the trio. Joe Ely has been a presence dating back to his MCA albums in the 1980s. I first saw him during the SXSW years in Austin, where the Flatlanders were gods, and I’ve enjoyed his last three albums, especially the live one with accordionist Joel Guzman. I kinda circled Gilmore and Butch Hancock, and often mixed up the latter with Wayne Hancock, another Texas musician. But after the always prescient G Brown put three songs from the Landers’ Wheels of Fortune onto the KCUV playlist back in 2004, I became a fan, and I’ve finally caught up with their catalog.

So the chance to throw them a few questions and listen to them play an intimate set in the studio on a program created for their kind of music on our community-powered radio station was a chance to revert for a couple hours back to rockcrit days. And there was a special bonus: I finally would get to ask Jimmie Dale Gilmore about how playing the character Smokey in one of our favorite movies, The Big Lebowski, affected his life.

The trio arrived at the studio with fourth member, guitarist Rob Gjersoe, about halfway through the show and spent half an hour setting up. Instead of forming a line, they set up in an arrangement that allowed them to face and see each other. One of the things that distinguishes the Flatlanders is that they are true collaborators. They don’t just pass the guitar around and add harmonies to each other’s songs. Though all have distinct writing styles, they somehow manage to come together in way that accentuates each others’ strengths. (You can stream or download the show’s podcast for the next couple of weeks by clicking here.)

Radio interviews are a lot of fun. You don’t have to take notes, just lob a thought out there (“how has being Smokey changed your life, Jimmie Dale?”) and when they get bored, ask for a song. In that regard, the Flatlanders were more than willing to accommodate.

A common theme when we talked was the Halloween celebration on the Boulder Mall the night before, which they attended. Apparently someone spotted Gilmore as Smokey, the “Mark-it-eight-Dude” league bowler who upsets Walter (John Goodman) in The Big Lebowski. “I should have told him I was Smokey in costume as a Flatlander,” he joked. Gilmore said he is no actor, and that he never expected the acclaim he has gotten for that bit part in a film that has a huge following. He has been asked to appear at the Lebowskifests that have sprouted around the country. After noticing that Jeff Bridges has appeared at a couple, he says he might start doing it, too.

They played four songs, trading verses with each other while guitarist Gjersoe shot licks and riffs at them, and their versions of “Homeland Refugee,” “Borderless Love” and “After the Storm” were exquisitely performed, even with a couple of clunker notes, which made it very live and more powerful.

The little guitar riff that opens “After the Storm” really lit up the studio, a song that Gilmore introduced as taking them three years to finish (critic’s note: it was worth the wait), and they closed with a spirited “Sowing on the Mountain,” which Gilmore said they learned from a Woody Guthrie record (it’s on Guthrie’s Muleskinner Blues recording).

Later, Dr. Reptile and I were walking down Spruce Street at 14th, heading for the Boulder Theatre, where e-Town was featuring the Flatlanders and Bob Schneider, when we ran into Gilmore on the corner. He was heading for a rehearsal, but he stopped and we talked for a few more minutes. I’ve chatted with my share of professional musicians, and Gilmore, whose father was a non-professional musician and whose son Colin is a songwriter, too, was as unpretentious as they come.

The show was fantastic: the Flatlanders reprised the songs from the radio session with a full band, aided by e-Town host Nick Forster, who added 12-string guitar, mandolin and even some screaming electric guitar leads, and the always amazing e-Tones.

I hadn’t seen Bob Schneider before, and with a coterie of fans that included his sister, he quickly took control of the room with some incredibly catchy songs off his new album, Lovely Creatures, bringing the crowd to its collective feet for the Latin dance number, “Tarantula,” that put me in the mind of Vince Herman.

Just a Flatlanders kind of day.

November 4, 2009   1 Comment

History Lessons: Roots & Branches May 31, 2009

The view of the board at KGNU studios.

The view of the board at KGNU studios, Boulder, Colorado.

I host a program called “Roots & Branches” some Sunday mornings 9-11 a.m. on our local community radio station KGNU. The program is loosely based around American music, which I interpret as all recorded music in America that is blues, folk, country, gospel, soul, rock or bluegrass-based and whenever possible, played on acoustic instruments.

It’s a pretty big area from which to choose, but as one who is still amazed by the incredible depth and breadth of American music, it’s territory that I love exploring for program ideas.

This Sunday’s program was titled “History Lessons,” and it includes only songs that concern historical events or periods in U.S. history. After introducing the concept in the first set, the show follows a period the period from World War II to the fall of Saigon, with the songs interspersed with original audio clips of current events of the time.

As usual in this type of endeavor, I left off a batch of good songs that I forgot, couldn’t fit into the concept or the time frame. I received lots of good calls reminded me of songs I left off or forgot about, which means there is a chance I’ll get around to a Part Two sometime.

You can stream the program for a couple of weeks here.

“History Lessons” Set List

“Everett Ruess,” Dave Alvin, Ashgrove
“Sailing To Philadelphia,” Mark Knopfler, Sailing to Philadelphia
“Galveston Flood,” Tom Rush, Take a Little Walk With Me
“When That Great Ship Went Down?”, William & Versey Smith, Anthology Of American Folk Music
“True Story Of Amelia Earhart,” Plainsong, In Search Of Amelia Earhart
“Franklin D. Roosevelt, Poor Man’s Friend,” Willie Eason, Sacred Steel
“New Orleans Wins The War,” Randy Newman, Land of Dreams
“Eisenhower Blues,” J.B. Lenoir, Martin Scorsese Presents: The Blues
“The Great Atomic Power,” The Louvin Brothers, Hillbilly Music…Thank God!
“The Merry Minuet,” Kingston Trio, The Kingston Trio at the Hungry i
“On Beatniks,” Carl Sandburg, The Beat Generation
“Little Boxes,” Malvina Reynolds, Washington Square Memoirs: Urban Folk (1950-1970)
“Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues,” Bob Dylan, The Bootleg Series, Vols. 1-3 : Rare And Unreleased
“I Ain’t Marching Anymore,” Phil Ochs, Washington Square Memoirs : The Great Urban Folk Boom 1950-1970
“Fortunate Son,” Todd Snider, Long May You Run : 15 Tracks In The Key Of Neil
“Tears Of Rage,” The Band, Music From Big Pink
“Vietnam Blues,” Cassandra Wilson, Martin Scorsese Presents: The Best Of The Blues
“Okie from Muskogee,”  Merle Haggard, Vintage Collections Series
“What Is Truth,” Johnny Cash, The Legend
“Armstrong,” 2:40, John Stewart, American Originals
“Find The Cost Of Freedom,” Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Single
“Galveston,” Jimmy Webb, Ten Easy Pieces
“Lord God Bird,” Sufjan Stevens, Single
“Amelia Earhart’s Last Flight,” Plainsong, In Search Of Amelia Earhart
“Sail Away,” Randy Newman, Sail Away
“Talking Green Beret New Super Yellow Hydraulic Banana Teeny Bopper Blues,” Jaime Brockett, Remember The Wind And The Rain
“An Account Of Haley’s Comet,” John Stewart, Sunstorm

June 2, 2009   No Comments