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Monday, July 25, 2011

Just like the Good Ol' Days! (New Braunfels, 7/24)

The summer of 09 was a record breaking summer for Texas. It was hot, it was dry, it was miserable. It was my first summer living here, and my last tour for BD shows. I did 5 outdoor shows in the state (6 in all that tour, 7 if AZ hadn’t have been cancelled) in August. How I survived, I still don’t know.

This summer is set to break the record set by the summer of 09. It is even hotter, drier and more miserable. Being the sadist that I am, this has only caused me to look back fondly on all the time spent in direct August sunlight that year, and, inexplicably, I found myself longing to be coated in sweat, sunscreen and dirt once again. The absurdity of willingly putting yourself through the exhaustion, dehydration and sleep deprivation of a summer tour was calling my name once again, and luckily, I was given an outlet; [i]another[/i] outdoor show in late July/early August in a record TX heat wave. One more, for old time’s sake!

And so, this past week, I must admit, my excitement was growing. Obviously the music after the wait would be different then the summer of 09, and my last couple of outings with this band had left me less than bowled over, but I was really thrilled at getting an excuse to see Tony again :D Beyond Tony, however, I did have my reservations. I had heard reports the Asian shows this year were terrible. The one or two songs I’d downloaded over the past 2 years seemed to be getting progressively worse. The few videos I’d managed to sit through on youtube made me cringe. Sure, BD was prancing around on stage more, but the quality of the music just wasn’t there (in those videos), and I don’t go to shows to see BD wander the stage. Not to mention his voice, which was downright awful. Do I really want to do this?

Here, I must give credit where credit is due, and thank Lily Rose and friend for their generous and much appreciated offer of a ticket. The logical side of by brain kept chiming in, telling me not to do it. Their offer came at just the right time, and helped to silence that annoying logic and stock up on ice and water bottles.

Surprisingly, absolutely NONE of the touring regulars were in line when my friends and I showed up that morning. A handful of veterans would straggle in throughout the day, but the masses really didn’t start showing up until much later in the afternoon. It was quite possibly the easiest wait I’ve ever had; there was ample shade just around the corner and we all took turns enjoying it.

Of course, no GA show is complete w/o the doors opening stress, which will probably be found to have taken several years off all of our lives. To make a long and boring story very short, for one reason or another everyone except me was held up for various reasons. I instinctively made a bolt for the rail, and hit it at least 80 seconds, maybe more, which not only allowed me to get THE BEST spot, but also turn around and watch the stampede, something I’ve always wanted to do. (Why the crew isn’t out on the stage watching and betting on us is something I’ve never understood.) For me, it was great, I got to both participate in and observe the mad dash, but I got exactly where I wanted to be, but I do truly sympathize w/ everyone who was held up, because I know how stressful that is.

It all worked out in the end though. The stage was tiny and low, the rail was close. It would be hard to get a bad spot (unless you were at the [i]very[/i] end), and the opening act was no slouch. I’ll spare you the history lesson, but Leon Russell played a large role in the Armadillo World HeadQuarters/Cosmic Cowboy scene, which was very important in the development of Austin as a “music town” in the early 1970s. While I am certainly not a fan of a lot of that music, I wasn’t complaining about getting to see him either. He definitely did not disappoint. Perhaps the first opener in the history of the world who understood the meaning of opener and did not play too long, he and his band played an incredibly tight 50 or so minute set and promptly made way. Obviously, no one runs to the rails expecting a great mix, and this certainly wasn’t that. As I discovered, I was parked in front of a speaker that was ONLY vocals. Fine for Russell, worrisome for Dylan. As a result, I could hear little else, and especially when he was singing, I could not hear his piano. Or his lead guitar player, for that matter, which was a real drag, as what I could hear from the guy was very tastefully done. The lights were also a HUGE problem; the back lights were positioned at just the right height to where the front row was looking DIRECTLY into them. Literally every face on the rail kept their sunglasses on long after the sun had set.

During the most efficient set change I’ve ever seen, the conversation quickly oriented around the predicted opener. Rainy Day Woman was mine, for the simple reason that (frustratingly) they ALWAYS open Colorado and Austin area shows, local shows for me, w/ it. Unfortunately, tonight was no exception.

However, when the lights dimmed and the boys stepped out as the introductory speech was made (sans ANY intro music), I was amazed to hear Dylan! Singing! I could not believe it! Granted, singing is relative, but this was almost better (certainly not worse) than the voice I’d left two years ago. It was MUCH better then the Backyard last year. The growl was there, which is a good thing, but the phlemy gargle was gone, same w/ the pneumonic bark. I was amazed. Suddenly, being in front of the vocal speaker was no detriment. It was as clear as I remembered it from countless shows before.

Tony was on his new Warwick 5 string, and it hit me that this was the first time I’d seen him play a 5 string in person. It sounded great; it had a really rich low end that was surprisingly not that deep. I’d have liked to listen to it more, but the bad sound at the rails had other plans. I could hear Stu probably the best out of anyone, I think simply because his amp was the closest to my ears. On RDW, he was playing a new (again, I’m out of the loop, ‘new’ henceforth should be read as new to me) Gibson 335, a guitar that unfortunately only made an appearance on one other song that night.

Don’t Think Twice was a favorite during the 09 summer tour, thanks in no small part to Stu, but his role, all night, has been so far reduced from two years ago, it is a real shame. Instead of picking notes, he’s been reduced to simply strumming the chords. OK fine, but if I had a nickel for every time I praised his picking in one of these things, I’d have a few extra zeros at the end of my bank account. I don’t go to these shows anymore expecting what was, because that will never happen, but when this song failed to do anything for me, when it used to do so much, I settled in for a night of mediocrity. BD had made it out front to his “crooner” mic, and kept shaking his leg as if his boxers were riding up (and his dancing only got weirder and more twitchy all night), which makes a lot of the crowd pretty happy, but again, I didn’t come to see an old guy amble around.

Along comes Things Have Changed though, and totally knocked me on my ass. [i]Anything[/i] but mediocre, this new arrangement has the coolest Tex-Mex/border feel to it! Easily the highlight of the night, my only complaint is that it ended entirely too soon. I could have listened to it for several more minutes, and the band easily could have carried it that long, they really seemed to hit their groove here.

Unfortunately, Tangled and Summer Days fell flat on their faces, bandwise. I could barely hear Charlie all night, which was a drag, because, believe it or not, he is a great guitarist and I really enjoy listening to him. That white hollowbody was especially hard to hear, but even so, he did absolutely NOTHING w/ Summer Days. It wasn’t his fault, but it was disappointing. The best part about that song, actually, was Stu’s fills, but it took him ‘til the 3rd or 4th verse to even start doing that. Tangled’s main problem wasn’t actually a problem, because Dylan-wise, it was great. Not only has his voice gotten better, but his harp playing is back too! So, naturally, he’s going to play harp, which, believe me, was fine, and it was soooo much better than when he was just blowing to make noise, but now guitar solos have been replaced w/ harp solos. :? Whatever, I guess it’s his band, but…..

I was about to bemoan that my first Sugar Baby came 2 and a half years too late, when suddenly, I heard a sound I’d never heard before. Was it Stu? Was it Charlie? No, it was Donnie! Someone must have slipped up, and accidentally raised the pedal steel’s volume to an audible level, because once he moved back to lap steel (and electrico mandolin), he was again silent, but it was so welcomed to hear him, especially on this one, it really made the song for me. (His fiddle was also audible for the last song. Hey, some Donnie is better than no Donnie.)

Cold Irons was just great, a real rocker that fit both Charlie and Stu to a T, but only Charlie was allowed to do anything w/ it. The possibilities of a band w/ those two guitarists, on a song like that, were palpable, but yet they never came to fruition. It was here that I first got the idea, confirmed by the rest of the night, that it isn’t even “Bob Dylan and His Band,” anymore but Bob Dylan and his [i]Backing[/i] Band. There [i]is[/i] a difference. There’s no doubt that that’s what he’s been after, for some time now, but it seems like it’s only lately that he/they have finally figured out a way to get it.

And they’ve got it. They are definitely tight, and they are definitely delivering. That is also a compliment to Dylan himself, since he has to step up and deliver in both the vocal and the harp department, and he certainly is. Especially given my rock bottom expectations walking in, I was extremely impressed. Also, I think they have finally adjusted to the lineup change. Charlie and Denny, while both excellent guitarists, have two very different styles, and in order to make the song fit the player (and visa versa) sometimes very subtle changes are needed. In the middle I started to feel it, but by the end I was sure, that they have finally dialed the songs into Charlie’s style. He fits them and they fit him.

Case in point was Tryin’, another highlight of the night, surprisingly so. It was [i]always[/i] a favorite when I was seeing shows, always. Always sublime. And just the way Cold Irons is tailor made for Charlie style, Trying was tailor made for Denny’s style. But Charlie took the song tonight and gave it exactly what it needed. It was a different song, but it was still sublime, for different reasons.

Highway 61 as well. Not in the sublime favorite sense, the band has finally molded the song around Charlie’s playing, and it was definitely the best one I’ve seen since he’s been back. Stu was even allowed lead on it, and again, I only felt slighted because he and Charlie were not allowed to play [i]together[/i] on it, rather, they were one on, one off.

It was during this song that I realized Dylan hadn’t played guitar yet. For fear of jinxing that, I didn’t say anything, but apparently thinking it was enough, because right afterwards, I see him dropping it over his shoulder in the dark.

Great. :?

Its Simple Twist of Fate.

Oh no. :shock:

Why?!?! WHY?!?!?!?!?! Anything but that! He’s going to muck up a great song!!!!!! I start watching what he’s doing, mainly as an example of what [i]not[/i] to do, when I realized, not only did it sound OK, it was actually pretty interesting what he was doing. Would I rather have heard Stu or Charlie? Probably, but I didn’t [i]not[/i] want to hear Dylan, which is usually the case when he picks up the guitar. He absolutely didn’t mess up the song by playing, his singing didn’t suffer at all, and it was actually a really sweet, tender version. Highlight number 3, and I actually watched him the whole time. I don’t think I’ve ever done that, ever.

Thunder I just really didn’t like. Charlie’s intro made it sound like the Masked & Anonymous version of Cold Iron Bounds, and I’m certainly not faulting the guy for making it his own, which he did, but it didn’t do anything for me, at all. I felt towards it the way I usually feel/felt towards LARS, cold indifference at best.

Then there was Ballad, dark and menacing as ever, brought to you, as always, by Stu’s tele attack. No complaints, great, powerful song, excellent delivery, just a solid performance, Dylan as [i]twitchy[/i] as ever at the center stage mic.

The encores were incredible! And when do you ever get to say that?! As previously mentioned, LARS has always been the blah song for me, I’ve really never liked hearing it live, but Charlie couldn’t have been better if he tried tonight. It was so perfect, so Charlie. Of course, I wish Dylan’d let him (and all his guys) have more of a leash, but it was really, really great. For the first time in my life, LARS makes the top 5 at a show. Watchtower FINALLY has a bit of a new delivery, which was sorely needed, and should have come no later than the lineup change. More on the rock aspects of the delivery than the blues aspects, it’s another one that is built on Stu’s solid foundation. Again, having been so far removed from the BD tour culture for so long, I don’t know exactly how new of a delivery that actually is, but it was certainly a breath of fresh air for me, and what a solid performance, on all accounts.

A guy who is doing more shows than I am had mentioned before the show started that they had started doing a 2nd encore occasionally, “if the audience deserves it,” there was no doubt in my mind that, judging from the amount of shimmying and boogieing Dylan was doing, that we were going to get a 2nd encore, and lo and behold, Stu had just barely made it offstage before they were filing back on! As I mentioned earlier, Donnie’s fiddle could be heard (a bit too loudly, to be honest) for Blowin, and it was again a great example of the backing band concept, but again, Dylan himself did not disappoint, nor falter in his role. Tony switched to his Ric bass for the encore and 2nd encore songs, but what was really amazing, and another Tony first for me (I think, unless I’m forgetting/was watching Denny on some number), is that he used a pick on both LARS and Blowin. Either way, it’s the first time I’m remembering seeing him pick, which was cool just for the variety.

All last night, and even today, I can’t get over what a great show it was. I certainly could have done w/ more chances for the musicians themselves to shine, but that’s me, and that was my only complaint. (Well, that and the numbskull who keeps scheduling outdoor shows in TX in the dead of summer. Not just for the fans waiting in line in the daytime; it stays hot well into the night. Tony looked on the verge of passing out a few times.) This was above and beyond the best show I’ve seen since Charlie returned, and I’m tempted to include the Round Rock show where he sat in in w/ that. It was a great commemoration of all the touring I’d been remembering so fondly recently, and really, after the experience last night, it’s almost enough to get me to start touring again. Almost.


(BZ is currently accepting donations of ticket and transportation ;) )

Friday, June 10, 2011

The BD Experience

A friend referred me to a guy who's looking for BD fan recollections. http://www.mybobdylanstory.com/bobs-younger-fans.html

Since BD wasnt exactly the prime reason for my travels, I held off sending him anything, but ultimately wrote this, because I wanted to pay tribute/give credit to those that don’t often get heralded when discussing Bob Dylan the aura/legend/mythos/etc….. the members of his band. They're ignored, perhaps mistreated and/or pestered by most of the fans who think that BD is some sort of deity, and I wanted people to know that there are at least *some* people out there who appreciate them, even one who went specifically to see them.

I'm 22, from Colorado, more or less.

Like a lot of other younger people, I got sick of the current musical offerings one day, and out of the blue, took a gamble and bought the No Direction Home soundtrack w/ some high school graduation money. Instantly, I was hooked. I used the rest of that graduation money to buy every other BD album w/i an hour’s drive of my small, rural town. Spend all summer absorbing all I could about the man, the music, the writings, everything. He was delivering to me the way I always felt about life, to quote BD himself, and I just dug the whole mythology, and I connected in some way w/ (what I thought) he was trying to get at, even if it wasn’t something you could explain in prose.

I absolutely HAD to see him live.

That summer, 2006, his tour came nowhere near where I was living, and being 17, my parents wouldn’t allow me to go to him. But by the fall, I’d hit that magical 18 and was away at college, and lo and behold, the Dylan tour was making a stop! I never ditched one class my entire school career before; the first class I ever cut was my 10 am Intro to Film class the day tickets went on sale for my first BD show. Oh, what a slippery slope!

Ironically, I didn’t cut any classes the day of the show, but arrived early enough for a very long wait. By this time, I’d dabbled in guitar, but was starting to get bored w/ it, and always found myself drawn to the bass anyway. As truly excited as I was to see Bob Dylan, I was actually really looking forward to finally seeing Tony Garnier as well!

I walked in that night excited to share the same physical space as Bob Dylan. I walked out honored to have breathed the same air as Denny Freeman, a guitar player who’s name I’d only seen mentioned on the Dylan message boards.

Wow!

I wanted to play guitar like THAT!!! It wasn’t overbearing, shred-a-minute, clich├ęd “rock star” guitar, it was just exactly what the song needed. It wasn’t about making Freeman look good, it was about what would make the song sound that much better, it was….. perfect, for lack of a better term. I don’t know how to describe it, but THAT was what a guitar was meant to sound like, THAT was how a guitar was meant to be played! I HAD to find out more about this guy! A broken collarbone soon after afforded me the time to go back and download many audience recordings of previous shows w/ Denny in the band. The more I heard, the more I liked this guy.

That was the last time I was ever bored w/ the guitar, I can tell you that much……
***

And so, from a month after I turned 18 to a month before I turned 21 (formative years, at least according to American popular culture), I followed the Bob Dylan tour around the country. Not every show, of course, I’m not rich, but a sizeable chunk of shows in nearly every state, certainly every time zone. I met nearly every type of fan, from some of the absolute nicest people on Earth who’d give you their last penny, straight through to some people I’d rather not mention. I personally put over 100,000 miles on my (new-ish) car.

But I saw the country! I experienced SO much that ordinarily would have passed me by; why else would I ever have reason to be in Kalamazoo MI, outdoors for hours on a dreary, bitter cold November day? Or spend a soggy August day melting on the downtown sidewalks of Kansas City MO, only to stampede w/ thousands of other bodies across an empty ballroom floor (w/ all the booby traps and pitfalls that is known to entail)?

The tour allowed me to absorb both the flavor of the different areas and cities of the country, and at once the ever-changing flight of a life lived in transit. I loved every minute of it, from Point A to Point B and the location In Between, which often gets overlooked. Just as treasured as the locally based memories are the ones that exist in generalities only. Just as vivid as the conversations in the shade of the venue in KCMO are the memories of the Kansas cornfield flashing past my headlights at 3 am, the previous show’s sweat still clinging to my forehead as the sticky night air whistles in the window, forcing me to turn up “Nettie Moore,” which has been on repeat for a good 6 or 7 cycles now. I reach down for the only cold liquid in the car, a Dr Pepper purchased some miles down the road at a dimly lit backwoods convenience store, as a particularly juicy June Bug explodes against the windshield ……. Looking back, thinking, summarizing, it has a certain charm about it, a mid-century wild, ineffable looseness, a freedom that isn’t supposed to exist anymore, a mindset certainly not shared by many who share my birth year.

(Oh, and there was college in there, somewhere. Managed a double degree, w/ honors, so must have put some efforts in that direction, somewhere, I think….)

While this touring mentality certainly is not unique to me, and I certainly met many likeminded travelers, what are unique to me were my motives. While the other fans were busy talking about the meaning behind a particular gesture on a particular line at a previous concert or whether or not any given part of the Dylan mythos was fact or fiction, I was rattling off, to anyone who would listen, the highs and the lows of the music, in particular, Freeman’s guitar work. In the aforementioned stampede, I had the distinct advantage of not wanting to be as close to Dylan as possible; rather, I wanted to be in front of Denny, I wanted to see his fingers on the fret board and hopefully unlock some key to his playing, some small secret. While everyone charged to the right, I broke left, usually uninhibited, and secured a prime space for listening, watching, learning.

I was there for the band, plain and simple.

Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoyed Dylan and I still do. But I am not a singer, not a lyricist; there was nothing to be learned from observing him. But from Denny?! There was (and still is) so much to take from his playing; I know I’ll never get it all down!
***

The fall 2009 tour brought a line-up change that saw Freeman leave the band, and, for my own personal reasons, I decided to quit the cross country touring. I still loved seeing Tony and the rest of the fellas in the band, I absolutely loved the absurd, out of the way places the tour would take me, and as I stated, I do dig Dylan’s songs, that never changed, but for a variety of reasons I found that the “scene,” if you will, had changed, and I no longer had the time or the energy to deal w/ certain aspects.

But those few short, whirlwind years forever changed my life, in ways I may never fully comprehend. Before the tour, I had always planned to live in New York, to lead the charge of a 2nd American New Wave in film. Now? I can never live anywhere but Austin, TX, and the guitar is now a bigger part of my life than I ever dreamed possible. Certainly, much of this is due to the impact of Freeman’s playing, rather than Bob Dylan himself.

But just as certainly, I would have never been in the position to be exposed to Freeman if it weren’t for Bob Dylan. Bob Dylan ruined my life, and, right now, I can’t thank him enough.