Friday, September 30, 2005

No Direction Home: Bob Dylan

My goodness, 2005 has been a downright loquacious year for our pal Bob. First was the long awaited publication of his very Dylan-like…fascinating, frustrating, sober, wonderfully amusing, boldly informative, willfully oblique…memoir, Chronicles, Volume 1. And now comes this wonderful 200+ minute documentary about the early days of Bob Dylan’s career…and his influence on our popular music and our society.

With No Direction Home…shown on PBS and released before that on DVD…director Martin Scorsese and his fellow producers wove together film clips, interviews past and present, and thrilling performance clips to present Dylan not only as a great songwriter and a compelling performer but as a voice of his generation in the early 60’s (a role Dylan vehemently declined to buy into.)

And at the center is Dylan himself…feisty, irreverent, guarded, and acerbic in his younger days, candid and refreshingly straightforward in more recent interviews…looking back on that time (the film ends with his fabled 1966 motorcycle accident) clear-eyed and unwilling to bear any mantle beyond that of being “a song and dance man”.

This film reveals little about Dylan’s life and loves…that part of him is his and, as ever, he chooses keep it just so…and as much as possible about his music and its impact. It’s hard to imagine now, for example, how Dylan’s forsaking being a “folk singer” (just him, his acoustic guitar, and his harmonica) to plugging in as a rock ‘n’ roller (backed in these early days by most of the members of what would later become The Band.) The tumult may seem a bit silly now but it was a very serious, very polarizing event back when it happened and all of that is covered here wonderfully.

No Direction Home is a wonderful document of a certain time that resonates to this very day for fans of Bob Dylan…fans of popular music…and students of American culture and society during one of the pivotal moments (the 60’s) in our history.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Prairie Wind

Neil Young refuses to be tied down. He’s an explorer letting the music take him wherever it will and each new album is a new experience for that.

On one disc you might get the “godfather of grunge” Neil, stomping through joyfully noisy rockers with his most steadfast band of brothers, Crazy Horse. At other times you might experience the Neil finding his way through new sounds…indulging guitar feedback or fronting a big band… sharing harmonies with Crosby, Stills, & Nash or finding common ground with Pearl Jam or Booker T. & the M.G.’s.

And then, of course, there is the quiet Neil…putting his fragile but compelling voice and his introspective lyrics into a sonic tapestry anchored by guitars (slide, acoustic, and steel), harmonicas, and sweet harmonies.

As the title might give away, Prairie Wind is of a piece with other “quiet Neil” gems like Harvest, Comes a Time, and Harvest Moon.

Young’s recent health problems (he was treated for a brain aneurysm during the making of this disc) may have caused him to contemplate his mortality…the lovely “Falling Off the Face of the Earth” and “Here for You” both sound like a valentines/apologies/eternal pledges of love to his wife (who sings harmony on a lot of these songs) and the wistful “Far from Home” (a jaunty stroll propelled by a rollicking horn section and some wailing harmonica work) looks back while asking to buried “out on the prairie” so that he indeed won’t be far from home…but they didn’t rein in his wit (he name checks both Chris Rock and Willie Nelson on the acerbic “No Wonder”.)

“It’s a Dream”, another plaintive love song/remembrance of times past, is informed to nice effect by accents from a mournful string section. The horn section serves a similar function on the title song.

The sweet “This Old Guitar”, a tribute to the everlasting power of music, features harmony vocals by the incomparable Emmylou Harris. The playful “He was the King”, a gently rocking paean to Elvis, showcases Neil at his sprightliest here and it’s a lot of fun.

The album ends on an ethereal grace note with “When God Made Me’, a plaintive hymn with soothing backing vocals by the Fisk Jubilee Singers.

Prairie Wind is a soothing, contemplative gem of a record (good job, “Quiet Neil”.)

Friday, September 16, 2005


Mercy...mercy...mercy...'05 is proving to be a good year for sweet soul music (I'm still playing Shemekia Copeland's The Soul Truth all the time) and this record adds to that goodness. Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings are an ace young rockin' R&B big band (complete with a sassy horn section) fronted by a wonderful old school soul singer...they cook up fat, funky grooves the way it used be done back in the day ("the day" in this case being the heyday of soul music from the 60's and early 70's) without becoming a navel-gazing nostalgia act.

Jones can sing rings around most of the would-be divas on the radio these days and she doesn't have to showboat to prove it. Her warm, earthy voice is equally at home on rockin' numbers as on bluesy, yearning slow jams and she never needs to waste notes on pointless runs and trills.

This disc grabs you with the propulsive opening cut..."How Do I Let a Good Man Down?"...and holds on until the closing blues ballad, "All Over Again". There's a clever duet with Lee Fields (another under-appreciated soul singer) with the playful "Stranded in Your Love" (including a bit of introductory dialogue between the singers like off some classic Stax records LP) and just a bit of naughtiness with the slyly-randy "Fish in my Dish".

"Your Thing is a Drag" is pure James Brown funk and indeed it's too funky for Sunday morning (but it's just right for Saturday night :-)

The disc is, as most great soul records are, mostly about matters of the heart but Jones and the Kings throw a stunning curve ball with a stunning, soulful version of Woody Guthrie's classic "This Land is Your Land".

This is the second album by the band whom, I will be honest, I hadn't heard of until I saw a preview of an upcoming show of theirs in my local paper. Thank goodness for my subscription to Rhapsody which is opening my eyes to a lot of great music I would otherwise miss.

Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings won't get even a fraction of Mariah Carey's airplay...but man, the radio would be a much more wondrous companion if they did.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Shelter from the Storm

The same people who produced the post 9/11 televised concert/telethon America: A Tribute to Heroes back in 2001 pulled together a similar show, Shelter from the Storm: A Concert for the Gulf Coast, shown on all of the major broadcast networks and many cable outlets on Friday September 9th. Even some of the performers from the first show...U2, Alicia Keys, the Dixie Chicks, Mariah Carey...returned for this benefit show.

The hour-long show...musical performances interspersed with footage from the aftermath of Katrina and solicitations by stars such as Ellen Degeneres, Morgan Freeman, Jack Nicholson, Chris Rock (who couldn't resist impishly teasing the producers by muttering "George Bush doesn't like midgets" just before getting down to the more serious business at hand), and Julia Roberts... solicited donations for the American Red Cross and the Salvation Army (see links below.)

Randy Newman opened the hour at the piano with spare reading of his all-too-apt "Louisiana 1927". This was followed by a rousing version of "One" by U2 with Mary J. Blige.

Alicia Keys was joined by Shirley Caesar, Alvin Sawyer, Eric McDaniels, and a choir for the super-charged gospel of "Remember Me"

Neil Young brought a quiet vibe with the delicate yet stately "When God Made Me" backed by a small choir, while Mariah Carey, backed by another choir featuring children, seemed a bit off during her gospel number, "Carry Me Home".

The Foo Fighters tore into an energetic version of "Born on the Bayou", one of two John Fogerty songs that were part of the program.

Paul Simon offered a tender version of his own "Take Me to the Mardi Gras" which featured a jumping coda by a crack Dixieland band that I think (I'm sure someone will correct me if I'm wrong) was the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. The Dixie Chicks were joined by Robert Randolph for the heartfelt "I Hope" while Rod Stewart was joined by a group of R&B singers that I did not recognize (and I'm sure I'm going to kick myself when I find out who they are) for the gospel-tinged "All Aboard/People Get Ready".

Sheryl Crow sang a lovely version of "The Water's Wide" while Kanye West, on his best behavior, performed the anthemic "Jesus Walks" (with some new rhymes written specifically for the disaster) surrounded by yet another choir.

Garth Brooks came out of "retirement" to perform the other Fogerty song of the night, "Who'll Stop the Rain" (his fiancee Trisha Yearwood was among the trio of backup singers.)

Dr. John closed the show at the piano with a bluesy stroll through Fats Domino's "Walkin' to New Orleans".

It was a nice little show for a grand cause.

As of this writing, Shelter from the Storm is available for online viewing in the entertainment section of

BET was also running a telethon at the same time but they cut away for the hour to carry this show along with the other networks.

On Saturday night, MTV, VH1, and CMT teamed up for a 4-hour commercial-free benefit show called ReAct Now which presented a wide-ranging cast of pop, rock, hip hop, R&B, and country acts (Melissa Etheridge and bluesman Chris Thomas King both debuted heartfelt new songs written specifically during the aftermath of the hurricane; other performers included this hurricane telethon queen Alicia Keys along with Neil Young, the Rolling Stones, Kanye West, Green Day, Alan Jackson, U2, Buckwheat Zydeco, Common, Paul McCartney, the Dave Matthews Band, Big & Rich, the Neville Brothers, Beck, Elton John, Kelly Clarkson, Coldplay, Audioslave, and many, many more.) A number of the performances are available as fund-raising downloads (

Hey, the more the merrier...the Gulf Coast is going to need a lot of aid to get back on its feet.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Home Again

Ric Seaberg has recorded a lovely, heartfelt new song..."Home Again"... about Hurricane Katrina's heartbreaking aftermath. You can hear it on his site
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If you want to help:

American Red Cross

Second Harvest

Operation Blessing