Paul Zollo’s Favorite New Releases: Bob Dylan’s 30th, The Dukes Of September, The Strypes And More

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Bob Dylan & Many Stars
Bob Dylan, The 30th Anniversary Collection

Videos by American Songwriter

Pure joy. So thrilled that this amazing concert was not only filmed so beautifully, but is finally released here in this deluxe collection that gives us a CD of the music, and a DVD with the best of the great performances. And such a night it was. It was October 16, 1992, and many of the brightest luminaries of the music world united at Madison Square Garden to pay tribute to – and to have a lot of fun singing the songs of – Bob Dylan. And unlike most Dylan tributes, of which they are many each year now just as there are Shakespeare festivals around the planet, Dylan himself appeared at this one. Which is momentous, because in these times – and to our world – the impact of Dylan is as vital and profound on our souls and our culture as was Shakespeare in his time. With language and music merged, Dylan changed our world. He changed the course of popular song, as songs continue to reflect and impact our world with a power few other things can muster. And so to celebrate the impact of that legacy in this way is righteous, as it shows the respect Dylan is held in by his peers, as well as the greatness of the material and its vast range. Each artist takes on one or more Dylan songs and make it his own – that is the essence of great songwriting, to write work that not only its creator can convey, but when can be inhabited by every kind of singer, and every performer. Dylan’s songs lend themselves to a show like this. The DVD contains what was the PBS version of the show, which just gives us the highlights of the show. But each artist played several songs, and on the CD we get to hear the whole show, at last, for the first time. Most impressive is the way these great songwriters so inhabit their Dylan songs of choice. Bob has written such a vast range of songs – on every topic under the sun, and in so many music styles – that the choice is immense, and telling. Tom Petty chooses what was a relatively new song in 1992 – “License to Kill,” from Infidels. His performance of it, with the Heartbreakers backing him up, is revelatory, bringing such quiet intensity to this mysterious, dark lyric. To perform a song on this level is to go inside the thing, to live inside of every line.

There’s enough here for two full concerts of Dylan, and it’s a joy to behold all of it. There’s Stevie Wonder with his funkified “Blowing In The Wind,” one of the best examples ever of folk soul. Lou Reed takes on “Foot Of Pride” – a song Dylan originally recorded for Infidels and then cut off the album – powerful, biblical in its rage and reach, and with an elusive melody and chord pattern – and yet the great Lou breathes fire into it, like it was one of his own.  Chrissie Hynde brings true beauty to “I Shall Be Released.” Neil Young burns with great intensity through maybe the greatest song Dylan has ever written on which to burn, “All Along The Watchtower.”  Roger McGuinn evokes the flight of the Byrds with his version of their famous version of “Mr. Tambourine Man,” which sparkles on his 12-string Electric, which always spoke perfectly of the jingle-jangle heart.  There’s an amazing “Highway 61 Revisited” by Johnny Winter. Highlight abound: Tracy Chapman on “The Times They Are-A Changin’,” Sinead O’Connor on “War,” Johnny Cash with June Carter Cash bringing it home with “It Ain’t Me Babe.” And Richie Havens’ great “Just Like A Woman.”

“Can you handle another guitar hero?” Chrissie Hynde asks the crowd. “Let me give you a little clue. Hallelujah. Hare Krishna. Yeah Yeah Yeah! George Harrison!”  Then comes Beatle George to embrace “Absolutely Sweet Marie” with great infectious love, his spirit as bright as his loud purple jacket.   It’s one of Dylan’s funnest and funniest songs, and the Quiet Beatle revels in its whimsy and soul, jamming on Dylan’s odd chord progressions to a great wild mercury band back-up. Momentous.  It is left to George Harrison to ultimately bring on the man himself, and he says, “Some of you might call him Bobby. Some of you might call him Zimmy. I call him Lucky.  Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Bob Dylan.”

And then out comes Bob Dylan. Dressed in blue. He puts on a harmonica and blond acoustic guitar, and launches into a spirited, pointed, passionate, almost punk version of “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding).”  Here’s one for all those folk purists who are still upset with him for going electric back in the day, and moving away from this thing they loved the best – one man, one guitar, one song. But his journey was always one that went to unexpected places. Yet he didn’t kill this solo folk guy, as many seemed to feel, and it’s a heady thing to see, and hear, after all that went on, this return again to where he started. All things go in circles, he always told us. When I asked him the year after this was filmed about the evolution of popular songs – a progression forever altered by his work – he said it was like a snake with its tail in its mouth, the thing forever feeding on itself, an endless circle.  And so it spins.

Which leads naturally to the reverse-time conceit of “My Back Pages”, the next song: “I was so much older than/I’m younger than that now.” Performed by Bob with old friends: McGuinn takes the first verse, followed by Petty, Young and Clapton before Bob steps forward to sing one. Then comes George Harrison – and this union of Dylan and Beatles is heady and great, as it was when Bob and George sang together at the Concert for Bangladesh.

This is followed by a song Dylan wrote not for one of his own albums originally, but for the soundtrack to Sam Peckinpah’s film  Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid (in which Dylan also appeared), “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” with Bob singing the first verse – in that angular way only Dylan can sings, offering the least traditional take on a Bob Dylan song of anyone the whole evening  – and everyone together, singing and playing. Eric Clapton takes the first guitar solo, and everyone is onstage, dancing and moving, taken by spirit. Greatness, a beautiful tribute to the past that is even more distant at this viewing, decades since the night of this show. Too many of these great artists are already gone – Lou Reed, Johnny Cash, Richie Havens, Rick Danko, Levon Helm – but, remarkably, Dylan persists. Not only is he still with us, he’s still busy being born, still on the endless tour that has no ending or beginning. Maybe he’ll be there forever. Regardless, what will remain are the songs, this immense, expansive, miracle catalog of astounding songs, songs born in our lifetime but sure to outlast all of us.

I don’t usually spend much time or space praising record companies. But I would be remiss in not mentioning how wonderful Legacy is. Month after month, they release amazing records from the past – or collections – each with a great and keen focus on the greatness of musical artists over these past decades. So much amazing music has been made through these passing decades, and as new artists emerge with new songs, it can be easy to forget all of what is here. But Legacy comes with a constant and respectful stream of albums from these miracle makers – from jazz greats such as Miles and Trane to songwriting geniuses like Paul Simon and Bob Dylan, and so much in between and beyond. Thank you Legacy for preserving this music with such fidelity, and with so much love for these great music makers.

The Dukes of September: Donald Fagen, Michael McDonald and Boz Scaggs
Live At Lincoln Center
(429 Records)

Pure joy. Anything that Donald Fagen touches is golden, and this is no exception. It’s not Steely Dan, and it’s not solo Fagen but a third option. A Fagen-led superband. This one consisting of his old pals Boz Scaggs and Michael McDonald, the latter of which often lent his famously earthy tones to Steely Dan harmony sections on records before he re-invented the Doobie Brothers with his distinctively soulful, pianistic masterpieces like “What A Fool Believes,” which is also rendered here. These three got together over their mutual love of soul, and as Fagen revealed in his often grumpy but thoroughly hilarious book Eminent Hipsters, they only performed their respective hits in order to satisfy the crowds. But they were more jazzed by joining together on gloriously funky versions of R&B classics like the opener here “People Get Up and Drive Your Funky Soul.”  If only to see these three legendary singers trade verses on “Sweet Soul Music,” understanding how much soul music ignited their lives, and Fagen singing of Boz and McDonald on his verse, it’s worth seeing this. As a thorough Fagen and Steely Dan devotee, admittedly, I am enthralled with these performances of Dan classics such as “Pretzel Logic,” “Hey Nineteen” and especially “Kid Charlemagne,” a song which, somehow, seems to grow more powerful with each passing year, and is positively combustible live, with a new very funky horn chart – and Mr. McDonald on piano and harmony. Sure, these three dudes are not young anymore – they all have white hair and, in Fagen’s words, “these ridiculous white beards,” but they know how to do it. And with an astounding band – mostly Steely Dan musicians on this off-year from the Dan tour: Jon Herrington on guitar is simply astounding throughout – as he is with Dan – and also the greatness of Michael Leonhart on trumpet, Jim Beard on piano, Freddie Washington on bass, Shannon Forrest on drums, and Monet Owens and Carolyn Leonhart on harmony vocals. Filmed and recorded at Lincoln Center in Manhattan for PBS, this is a thorough delight.

Benmont Tench
You Should Be So Lucky
(Blue Note)

A triumph. Great songs by Benmont, who is most famous for playing on the great songs of others. It has a gentle George Harrison vibe, that dynamic of having supported others so purely and brilliantly for so long, that one’s time has arrived. He’s world-famous forever as the keyboard player in Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, and now steps forward with a beautifully lyrical and heartfelt solo album. He’s the guy who we’ve known for decades can play anything, literally. But what would his own music sound like? The answer is something very soulful, something pure and heartfelt. Like his playing over the years, this album isn’t showy – it isn’t overblown – it’s about measured, beautifully realized and dimensional music. Tom Petty said that when the Heartbreakers were on tour with Dylan that Bob would sometimes launch into an unrehearsed song of great obscurity, such as a forgotten Ink Spots record. And nobody in the band would be able to play with him. Nobody, that is, except Benmont. He’s long been known as the guy that can play anything. In fact, to first impress Petty back when they were both still kids in Florida, he sat down behind an organ at the local music store and proceeded to play all of Sgt. Pepper. Not the song, the whole album! With all the parts, all the textures, conveyed there in just the two hands of this kid at a music store. It was evident then – as it still is here on his own album – that this is a musician of astounding range and capacity. He can play every kind of music and then some, but always with the dignified grace and understated simplicity of a true master. He sings in the same way: with a lot of soul. It’s a voice of much expression and warmth, the voice of an old friend, with echoes of Dylan and Van Morrison. It all starts with a song of some sadness, “Today I Took Your Picture Down,” but one which gets the journey started. “Veronica Said” has a tight, enticing groove, and sports playful language, like an Elvis Costello song, sometimes unexpectedly expanding the verse as momentum builds and then explodes into the chorus. “Ecor Rouge” is a beautifully arch and oceanic instrumental, both jazzy and bluesy, and hauntingly lyrical, even without lyrics. “You Should Be So Lucky” is a brand new classic: a perfect go-go boots and strobe-light 60s hit –visions of Nancy Sinatra belting this out with The Mamas and The Papas singing harmony and Eric Burdon and the Animals laying down the groove. The kind of hybrid you know Mr. Petty must dig. Then to the kind of beautiful wild mercury groove that Dylan was always after, but painted with tender and hypnotic acoustic textures, comes Benmont’s take on Bob’s take on the traditional “Corinna Corinna” that is sumptuous and beautiful, the calm heart of a hurricane eye.  Benmont sings it like he’s singing a c child to sleep, with much gentle affection, and then caresses the keys for a soaring solo flight.

Produced, engineered and mixed by Glyn Johns, it’s an elegantly measured album, as delicately dynamic as Benmont’s famous keyboard playing. He plays piano and organ throughout, and made these tracks with some famous friends, including Tom Petty – who plays bass on many songs. Don Was plays bass on the non-Tom tracks, and Ringo is here on tambourine. Harmonies are sung by Gillian Welch, David Rawlings and Ryan Adams. He wraps it up with a great spirited version of Dylan’s “Duquesne Whistle” with Benmont burning with the kind of piano ragtime intensity that Dylan can only dream of – he brings this one to a new place, a place of real authentic musical joy, evoking all the ghosts that have haunted these songs from Chicago down to New Orleans and places farther south, and it’s so good even Dylan himself would smile a big old smile if he heard this. Maybe not, but it sure makes me smile. This piano player is a guy who has long honored the songwriters with whom he’s played for years – whether it’s his childhood pal Tom Petty or it’s Dylan himself, out on tour around the globe, or any of the other musical legends to whom he’s devoted his artistry – and it’s not surprising he’d end where he began – playing a Bob Dylan song. But when we get to the soul of Benmont here – the very heart of this guy who has been giving so much of his heart to others – we get something tender and romantic, something with a whole lot of heart. Hoping he doesn’t wait another lifetime to do the next one.

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Sarah Kramer

A remarkable album. Produced and written by Sarah, this is pure greatness throughout. She’s a musician of true multitudes: a gifted singer-songwriter and guitarist, she’s also an astounding trumpet and fluegelhorn player. And rather than segregate all these parts of herself, she brings it together with organic beauty, playing trumpet on most of the tracks – as well as great trumpet and fluegelhorn sections she created for many of the songs. She writes the kind of songs that get in your head, and your heart, and stay there. I find myself driving through strange parts of town, and her song “Wake” awakens in my heart, and I feel less lost. Beautiful, haunting songs, songs of great, achingly tender melodies. Sometimes haunting, sometimes hopeful. When she sings of being on “Top of the World,” it’s not boastful, it’s yearning. It’s a prayer, that we all might reach it. “Home” sings of the home we search for in others, the timeless home beyond the temporary. The production throughout is sensitive and inventive with unexpected touches throughout – cool rhythms, unusual sounds, beautiful textures. She’s a gifted singer, with a voice of much purity and heart.  And she brings that heart and soul to her trumpet playing, which is breathtaking. She’s played with many luminaries, including Leonard Cohen, and is great at the kind of muted, haunted horn part that can be so poignant against lyrical songs. She can also step out front and play a bright solo, as in “Home,” in which her trumpet leads to that golden place to which we can aspire. “Have It All” reflects on those things that make life rich, set to a great groove and with a hypnotic chorus.  She plays acoustic guitar throughout as well as piano  and organ, and sings both lead and harmonies, Rick Holmstrom on electric guitar, Jeff Turmes on bass, and Stephen Hodges on drums and percussion.  “Wake” has a wonderful, slowly unfolding melody that sort of tricks you the first times you hear it, and then forever welcomes you into its charms, like an Elton John song, both surprising and inevitable at the same time. The verse is compellingly inviting, and then bursts into a beautiful chorus, bolstered by great harmonies. “Wake” has a gorgeous string part, reminiscent of Zevon’s great string parts, arranged by Ali Helnwein and Cody Borden.  And then there’s “Streets That I Ride.” It’s a masterpiece, both the song – and this arrangement. It’s a beautiful song about the life of a musician – a life about music even when that music is in the streets, and not the concert halls. There’s a stunning counterpoint between her sung chorus, and a poignant horn section of Sarahs playing “When The Saints,” as the lyrics touch on this musician playing old standards like “Saints.” She summons the ghosts of ragtime, of New Orleans jazz (she’s spent a lot of time making music in New Orleans), but authentically,  there in her trumpet tone, set against a great compelling martial drum groove and hard-strummed acoustic guitar. It’s a beautiful effect, and so powerful knowing it all comes from this one artist, before a horn solo breaks off. This is rich, very deeply compelling music. It ends with two bands on either side of the stage with Sarah and the drummer in the middle – and the effect is chilling. “Here I am, I’m authentically me/I ride these streets and see the things that I see,” she sings, and the truth resounds so deeply, as she echoes the words of the spiritual, and brings it around to her own life, just as another horn section – brighter, full of hope and triumph, joins in with the first group, in a musical moment that is as close to perfection as music gets. “I’m gonna lay all my burdens down by the riverside and hope my dreams survive on these streets that I ride.” This is greatness. Just when people say nobody is making music that matters anymore, along comes an artist like Sarah Kramer to give us hope. This is seriously great. I hope it’s the first in a long chain of masterpieces.

Next: The Strypes, Suzanne Vega, Albert Lee


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Video Premiere: Buzz Cason, “Troubadour Heart”