Talk From The Rock Room

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Now Playing: Grateful Dead - Calibration August 30, 1970

Now Playing in the ‘rock room’ is a long time circulating audio and video performance by the Grateful Dead. Taking place on August 30, 1970 and broadcast on KQED San Francisco as well as local television the performance has long been a favorite of 'Deadheads' over the years. Shot in glorious color the available unreleased and heavily bootlegged footage has always been marked by shaky tracking, bleeding film and generally below average visuals. To the 'rock room's' great satisfaction, a restored version has recently been making the rounds online. Broadcast on the local San Francisco show Calibration, the cameras capture the dead smack dab in between the release of their Workingman’s Dead and their famed upcoming LP American Beauty which would hit the shelves in November.

As previously stated, in addition to being shown on local television the performance was also broadcast on FM radio. There are only a few minor glitches sonically, the rest of the show has been upgraded in supreme soundboard quality. Due to the lack of Grateful Dead footage from this particular era this footage is particularly important. Here, we get to see ‘Pigpen’ in all his bluesy glory, Garcia playing his Live Dead Gibson SG and the hungry two drummer primal line up. Recently a much welcome restored and upgraded of this show has made its way to the interwebs and has made its way to the flickering flat screen of the ‘rock room’. There is an assembled studio audience full of excited hipsters and tripsters in addition to an extremely psychedelic lightshow by Jerry Abrams Headlights. The band blasts their way through a six song set that is made up if tunes from both American Beauty as well as the yet unreleased Workingman's Dead

The show begins with a hearty version of ‘Easy Wind’ freshly pulled from the grooves of the group’s recently released Workingman’s Dead album. ‘Pig’ grips the microphone stand tightly as Weir looks in focused concentration... or he’s just super high. The drummers immediately crash around their kits in beautiful stereo. Chasing their own tail the group forms a fire breathing circle around the Pig placing him in a groovy musical pen. While later era Grateful Dead footage is often (in the ‘rock room’s humble opinion) marred by unneeded visual effects and digital manipulation, here the psychedelic display is organic and actually adds to the vintage of the performance and capture. That being said, per usual it does get a bit bothersome later in the show.

As Pig stands at the mic, roughed up cowboy hat cocked on his head its easy to understand why Garcia always considered him the front man. Pig takes a harp solo the first time around before Weir splays a snaky solo spot while setting the stage for Garcia’s reading. The cameraman misses Bobby for his solo spot but nonetheless catches Garcia’s exclusive rhythm chops. Garcia then precedes lays down a fat and rotund solo spot; his classic Gibson SG sound in full aural display. While this may not be the ‘best’ performance of ‘Easy Wind’, just having the visuals alone is enough to stun this humble viewer. As the on screen imagery pulses the band moves their way through the chord changes with a funky attitude. Jerry is loosey goosy, riding the earthy breezes conjured by the drummers. Lesh while somewhat buried in the mix is describable flailing some frenetic fretwork. The group returns to the verse right on time and Pig finishes it up. Priceless stuff.

A formative version of ‘Candyman’ follows and is a favorite of many fellow Deadheads as it features sticky sweet Garcia vocals in addition to subtle harmonies by Weir and Lesh. After a small stumble at the top the band moves through an endearing yet rickety version. Taken at faster pace than later versions of the 1970’s, Garcia is animated and fully invested in the reading. It’s also interesting to note how different the song sounds with the band’s earlier guitar line up of Gibson guitars. Garcia’s solo spot is an obvious highlight as the band makes a dynamic return to the verse.

The assembled crowd howls their approval at 'Candyman's conclusion.. As the camera pans it’s easy to see the majority of the crowd have just been transplanted from the Fillmore West to the confines of the recording studio. Garcia counts the song off and ‘Casey Jones’ smokes out of the station following the ‘Candyman’s departure. While not straying too far from the tracks of the original studio version, the band’s youthful enthusiasm for their plethora of new music is tangible on the recording especially as we are able to see their clear investment in the number. The band plays, a cornering locomotive chugging down the track. It is here that the effects get slightly annoying but nothing to majorly detract from my major enjoyment of this upgraded footage. The band accelerates toward the destination, an album worthy reading by the group.

Following what was a television commercial break, ‘Broke-down Palace’ the closing track from the yet to be released American Beauty is played in wonderful fashion. The song had only made its debut two weeks prior on August 18, 1970 at the Fillmore West along with other American Beauty tracks. Similarly to the previous ‘Candyman’ the band’s harmonies are on point and their approach as fresh as a sprouting flower. No dirge here, a brisk thoughtful rendition of one of Robert Hunters finest and most endearing lyrics. The later rejected outro ‘do-do-do’ vocals are especially inspired.  As an aside, there are still some inherent tracking issues with the film and some ill timed skips. But nonetheless, this upgraded version is welcome.

With only a brief pause, the opening song from Workingman's Dead, ‘Uncle John’s Band’ is the closing song for this performance. Again, and it sounds crazy saying this, the harmonies are a highlight of the song. Billy and Mickey play active and delicate drums that are often lost on later live versions of the track. It’s thrilling to see Garcia, Lesh, and Weir at three close mics focused on the changes and invested in each other’s fret work. Garcia peels off the first solo which rides on the rapping of Hart’s percussive additions. Every lyric is nailed, every nuance revealed, I feel lucky to be able to watch. The band takes the concluding jam out for a walk just around the front yard, staying relatively close to the original studio cut while hinting at the majesty of future versions.

A brief but stunning capture of the ‘Grateful Dead’ when footage and in some instances tapes are in short supply. ‘Primal’ Grateful Dead, the era recognized as 1966-1970 is the vintage sought after by virtually all fans of the band. This particular and critical piece of celluloid is an important glimpse of the group. In less than six months Hart would leave the Band in in a bit over a year Keith Godchaux would be on boarded as the new pianist. Thankfully by excavating tapes like this, we can enjoy all of the varying faces of the group's history; as well as the number of faces that they stole.

Wednesday, November 10, 2021

Rock Room on the Road - Bob Dylan - Rough and Rowdy Ways Tour: Cleveland November 5, 2021

Bob Dylan and his ‘Rough and Rowdy’ band of musicians made their third tour stop in Cleveland, Ohio on November 52021. Dylan, never one to pander to any sort of expectation real or imagined has taken to the road for a tour that is earmarked to run through 2024. Following a strikingly consistent and critically acclaimed 2019 tour that found Dylan in fine fettle. Dylan now hits the road with a sheath of new compositions hailing from his stellar 2020 record Rough and Rowdy Ways.

The 3,200 seat KeyBank State Theatre in Cleveland hosted Dylan and his group providing wonderful sightlines, intimate seating and crystalline sonics. Dylan played for an hour and forty minutes and while like the tour moniker suggests, focused on his recent songbook he also sprinkled in a variety of older classics that fit into the evenings aesthetic hand in glove.

Dylan ‘band leader’ Tony Garnier returned to his usual bass duties along with guitarist Bob Britt and long time instrumentalist Donnie Herron. Former Dylan fixture and guitarist Charlie Sexton was not present for this evening or the tour. He was replaced by guitarist Doug Lancio who is now learning trial by fire. Dylan also newly added dynamic drummer Charley Drayton who offers the group a series of tasteful and unique percussive approaches.

In typical early tour Dylan fashion his band was swinging, slightly rickety but offered an undulating canvas on which Dylan’s endlessly creative vocals could nestle. A hallmark for the evening was Dylan’s obvious investment in his new songs, while also injecting his catalog numbers with soulful singing and poetic dictation.  While on his 2019 tour Dylan played both guitar and piano, on this evening, he stayed close to his stand-up piano unless coming center stage with a silver bullet mic, legs astride and steely eyes for a bit of focused crooning. There was a stack of lyric sheets on the piano top which Dylan would thumb through prior to each number. Throughout the evening the band kept their respective eyes on Dylan’s black and whites, with Garnier using dynamic bass plucks to signal changes that his recent bandmates may not be familiar with.

Dylan has been enjoying a slowly ascending late era peak as he begins his 80’s. Starting with his triad of ‘Sinatra’ and ‘standard’ records in 2015, Dylan’s stage shows, vocals and then finally a full LP of original music has cemented his current renaissance. In addition, Dylan’s 2020 pay per view Shadow Kingdom also assisted in fueling his current inspiration and fresh tour with rearranged readings of songs from Dylan’s back catalog.

Dylan and band took to the underlit and stately stage opening the show with a percolating and rolling over rock’s rendition of ‘Watching the River Flow’. A fitting opener for what Dylan may or may not have been doing during his pandemic time off. The sound was dialed in quickly just in time for the following ‘Most Likely You’ll Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine’ from 1966’s Blonde On Blonde. The band’s playing is brisk, slightly funky and disseminates the new arrangements of old warhorses dynamically. A musical framework in which Dylan’s newly improved vocals can be the focus.

The first two songs from Rough and Rowdy Ways followed the band’s well received opening numbers. ‘I Contain Multitudes’ and ‘False Prophet’ are a well thought out one, two punch as successful on stage as on the grooves of the LP. Silence, space and breath are key for ‘Multitudes’ which drifts drumlessly on Dylan’s vocal melody. In complete biographical contrast the jump blues ‘False Prophet’ grooves at a higher tempo than the official recording. Dylan is already exploring the nuances and clandestine opportunities for conjured melodies and unique approaches to the recently immortalized songs. Dylan digs his heels in for this one, kicking up dirt and causing a ruckus.

‘When I Paint My Masterpiece’ follows in a fun countryfied rendition highlighted by Dylan’s only harp playing of the evening. Deftly setting the table for another new song, Dylan shuffles to center stage for ‘Black Rider’. The band’s strength for this song is restraint. Each sung line is its own encapsulated moment, the airy instrumentation allowing for a singular focus on Dylan’s imagery. Dylan, breathy, gruff, and melodic all at the same time. A highlight of the evening for this listener.

The spooky waltz of the newly created ‘My Own Version of You’ is bracketed by an acoustic based and violin dressed ‘To Be Alone With You’ from 1969’s Nashville Skyline, as well as a churning version of the John Wesley Harding closer “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight’ and in an anticipatory and high tempo performance. The triad of tracks, similarly to the construction of the entire set list have a silver thread of resonance that connect them in some sort of ambiguous way. While having a couple of minor lyrical stumbles on the sinister ‘My Own Version of You’ (forgiven as these songs are brand new), Dylan still emitted a shady attitude. His searching and singing obviously interested in birthing something new from his approach. The band followed his moves deftly hitting well times exclamations and pulling back when appropriate.

                                 Photo: Nate AC

Over the last few years of Dylan tours the blues of the ‘Early Roman Kings' has been a standard of his sets and here it acts as a token blues cut. Dylan, in what is a theme for the evening tries on and discards a plethora of vocal approaches to the 12 bars adding up to a version that kept my interest and kept the excitement high.

‘Key West’, the major number from Rough and Rowdy Ways is an epic and a cut that excites with its sonic possibilities. On LP the song emits a warm drift and a hazy view. In concert the song in in a state of becoming. Dylan played piano for this reading, whereas according to reports this was not the case at the preceding two shows. An additional welcome inclusion was an accordion part, aptly played by Donnie Herron and lending welcome instrumental detail.

Similarly to Dylan’s instrumental exploits on guitar during his ‘Never Ending Tour’ Dylan will hit on a melodic lick on piano and then pass it’s smoking embers around the stage. Sometimes his aural creations turn to flame, sometimes they smolder to ash. But such is the ramshackle creative energy that Dylan has emanated since his earliest coffee house days. He did this a few notable times in Cleveland, once at the conclusion of ‘My Own Version of You’ and again experimenting with the flow of ‘Key West’.

Part of the dramatics of the song and performance is the feeling that Dylan’s aged and fragile musical ship may be busted apart on the creative rocks. But that’s where Dylan works the best, the razors edge, running the red light toward high-speed artistic expression. The closing song from 2020’s Rough and Rowdy Ways, ‘Key West’ is the perfect recipient of this familiar approach. Part of this can be attributed to new band members but the other bit is Dylan’s refusal to stay stationary musically. An obvious factor in his longevity and creativity.

This was a peak for me as a listener at the concert as it seemed from this point on in the show every single performance topped the last. ‘Gotta Serve Somebody’ followed ‘Key West’ in a white-hot guitar attack, a highlight of the evening. The arrangement which is like the 2019 version also recalls the incendiary 1981 live renditions. Dylan has also updated the lyrics as he is apt to do. The crowd responded in kind to such a substantial reading of the ‘gospel trilogy’ classic.

‘I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You’ appears as if out of a mist, it’s weightless central melody a highlight of the Rough and Rowdy Ways record. Dylan sings as if he’s trying not to wake a baby. In the middle of the verses, he unexpectedly stretches the warmed syllables while gently rising his voice into the honey of the sun; before ending the line in his lowest light of the moon. Small stumbles and tentative changes are forgiven as once again the effort for inspiration and dissemination of these new songs is notable. As Dylan states in the song, ‘My heart’s like a river, a river that sings’.

The one song to remain from his ‘standards’ set is Frank Sinatra’s ‘Melancholy Mood’, somehow also fitting perfectly into the context of the set. The song being one of the more important standards to inspire Dylan’s current vocal approach. In Cleveland, Dylan stands up front with microphone in hand, other hand outstretched, prowling the stage during a typically wonderful reading.

A second pairing of Rough and Rowdy Ways conclude the set proper with the anthemic vocal ballad ‘Mother of Muses’. A dramatic sermon sung to influence and inspiration and quite unlike anything in Dylan’s canon. The song contained some of Dylan’s most emotive vocals of the evening. The crowd realized this and listened in assembled silence as Dylan closed his delicate series of lines with the perfect finale, “I’m travelin’ light and I’m a-slow coming home’. Before the applause had faded for ‘Muses’ the band cracked open the intro to a fizzing ‘Goodbye Jimmy Reed’.

‘Jimmy Reed’ acts as a cathartic release from the prayer like dictation of ‘Mother of Muses’. Dylan attempts several bluesy meters and vocal twists that expand on the official recording. The only blemish on the song’s attempt this evening being a microphone missing half of the opening line. The song soon starts a slow roll over the edge and picks up intensity as it gains momentum. Dylan feels his way around the new song, finding comfortable places to put up his feet.

What happened next was a highlight of my previous 24 Bob Dylan concerts. The two earlier Rough and Rowdy performances had concluded per usual with the expected two song encores.  But on this evening in Cleveland we were in for a different approach. Dylan and band didn’t leave the stage prior for an encore call. Instead, Dylan stayed on stage for band introductions and then gathered the group around his piano in a tighter than previous formation.

Dylan then began to play the opening chords to his ‘Every Grain of Sand’, played for the first time since 2013. The closing song off Dylan’s 1981 LP Shot of Love was perfection in its chosen place. Tony Garnier nodded his bass to the band members signaling important changes. The song’s original melody was still discernable and delicately expressed by Dylan’s emotional vocals. I, as well as others sat in stunned silence. It’s moments like this that cannot be adequately explained. Nothing else could be said by Dylan and band. Any additional music would certainly be welcome, but superfluous.  

Since this night in Cleveland the setlist has slotted into comfortable positions first explored on November 5, 2021. Dylan had to have felt he got the set right. As Dylan continues to take his Rough and Rowdy Ways performances to venues around the world the new songs are already expanding and morphing into unique and different disseminations. Only a week removed from this concert and the nuts and bolts of the performances are already being tightened down. The constant allure and mystery of Dylan concerts are his continuing search for alternate ways of musical expression. The pandemic break did nothing to Dylan but strengthen his resolve and his need for creativity on the live performance tight rope. The music on the Rough and Rowdy Ways tour is going to get better and better and Dylan is going to keep chiseling away at the arrangements with the chance that he may finally paint his masterpiece.

Thursday, October 28, 2021

Michael Bloomfield - The Gospel Truth

'The Gospel Truth' is a two compact disc compilation recently released by Sunset Boulevard Records. The collection reveals a diverse conglomerate of LP cuts, rarities, as well as an entire unreleased live performance from the 'Guitar King', Michael Bloomfield. It was in the 1960's that Michael Bloomfield cultivated his legend. He began working his trade in the blues clubs of Chicago and continued by disseminating his substantial stringed influence across records by Bob Dylan, the 'Paul Butterfield Blues Band', Janis Joplin and his own 'Electric Flag'.

By the 1970's Bloomfield had retreated from the legend. He found solace from his demons of insomnia and varying addictions by recording at home and playing in small clubs. Bloomfield took a deep dive  into his endless well of influence while retreating back to his roots. He recorded guitar lesson LP's, he also released a series of small label solo records in the 1970's. Along the way he compiled an impressive band of pals including former 'Butterfield' bandmate Mark Naftalin, Bay area bassist John Kahn and saxophonist Ron Stallings all whom appear on this collection.

Disc one of this set, subtitled, 'Best of Acoustic and Electric Sessions' reveals a strata of American music ranging from early 20th century rags, waltz's and traditional blues from electric Chicago to acoustic Delta. Bloomfield was skillfully adept at any and all genres. As sonically illustrated on this collection, Bloomfield also played jazz, funk, Dixieland, pop and straight rock and roll to amazing effect. These two discs will appeal to new converts to the Bloomfield legend as well as to long time admirers of his guitar work. Most if not all of these solo records have been out of print for a number of years. Sonically upgraded, speed corrected and lovingly curated, this collection; while not a complete discography offers a number of essential highlights.

On the set, many tracks originate from Bloomfield's 1977 LP Analine and glisten with homespun virtuosity. The others are pulled from the grooves of his recordings for 'Tacoma Records', Michael Bloomfield, Between the Hard Place and the Ground, and Crusin' for a Brusin'.  Bloomfield's ascendant slide excursions on the various instrumentals contained within are otherworldly. The moody, cinematic cover of  Duke Ellington's 'Mood Indigo' and the ethereal slide guitar drenched instrumental 'At the Cross' are of note. His famed three fingered leads on blues cuts are stunning. He fingerpicks, flatpicks and plays piano. Bloomfield sometimes played all of the instruments on his recordings including the title track of this collection. The song which in the 'rock room's opinion encapsulates this personal approach to the creation of music with stunning results. While not lacking in abilities as a songwriter, in the era covered by this set, Bloomfield often found himself exploring traditional and gospel songbooks in more fascinating ways.

Also included on the diverse opening cd are heavy horn driven funk grooves delicately explored by Bloomfield and his bandmates. 'Papa-Mama-Rompah-Stompah' is particularly frisky, highlighting splays of silly stringed Bloomfield licks. A souped up version of the weary 'Junkers Blues' hails from his underrated final 1980 recording, Crusin' For a Brusin' and stomps around the room in a good way.

Additional exceptional performances include the slow burn of the smoky electric blues cover 'Guitar King' and the lacy contrast of Bloomfield's dreamy reading of the early 20th century 'Hi-Lo Waltz'. Bloomfield's instrumental prowess and ability to play anything that has strings is on full display. Not to mention his obvious and multifarious layers of deep musical knowledge. Elevating this opening track list to stunning heights is the rare inclusion of a 1963 recording with Bloomfield playing guitar sideman to blues pianist Eurreal "Little Brother" Montgomery for an intimate two man set at a small Chicago venue, the 'Fickle Pickle'. An additional and unique audio glimpse of Bloomfield as a blossoming youngster in his most comfortable element, a blues club.

A stellar audio bonus in the form of the second disc is a 'Michael Bloomfield and Friends' show from the Swing Auditorium in San Bernardino on February 19, 1971. This long time circulating soundboard recording sounds even better to these ears in its official capacity. The concert was a triple bill featuring Bloomfield and his band, Fleetwood Mac, and Quicksilver Messenger Service. Bloomfield's friends for this show included the aforementioned John Kahn on bass and Mark Naftalin on keyboards. Also joining Bloomfield is Ron 'Rev' Stallings on saxophone and vocals, John Wilmeth on trumpet and Skip Prokop on drums. The band is groovy loose and Bloomer's is in particularly fine fettle.

Bloomfield while not a vocalist by trade would let loose once in a while on his solo records as well as in concert. He does the same on this set while sharing vocal duties with Stallings. One thing that cannot be denied is while Michael was not a 'singer' by trade, his absolute investment and awareness of the blues idiom is masterful.

Highlights are plentiful in the live set that runs slightly less that an hour. Bloomfield is content to act as band director. But when they time is right he steps up from the back line of amps for run after run of snaky and classic Bloomfield riffing. The 'Friends' set includes a unique and cool attempt at the Beatles cut 'You Wont See Me' and a chooglin' 'Booker T' like rendition of 'Statesboro Blues'. All of which contain crisp, clothes line hung clean riffing by Bloomfield.

The majority of the live set moves in similarly celebratory fashion with churning R and B numbers. But it' s the red light and blues numbers where Bloomfield disseminates his most substantial string bending of the evening. 'Poor Kelly', a song Bloomfield heard done by Big Maceo and Tampa Red is played as patient as a tortoise. Bloomer's opening licks are perfection. A few of the clearest cleanest blues expressions to be pulled from his endless well of influence. No flash here, all organic substance and a respectful and thought out expression of sound. This is the quivering tone that made Bloomfield his name. Michael also decides to take the lead vocals on this blues with an impressive call and response between himself his guitar and Naftalin.

The closing 'Drifting Blues' surpasses ten minutes and is another sneaky display of Bloomfield live and in the moment. 'Drifting Blues' is one of a few foundational blues standards, and in typical fashion Bloomfield investigates each and every way his strings can tell the tale. Following a boozy horn spot by Wilmeth and Stallings and a Naftalin keyboard solo, Bloomers slides in with a brisk yet measured solo. It's intensity soon increasing in grit and melody while promptly guiding the band to an explosive peak.

The new two cd release from Sunset Boulevard Records deftly collects moments from Michael Bloomfield's 'lost' 1970's solo excursions. The provided scope of the collection illustrates Bloomfield's work from the era both in the studio and on stage. The set offers a well rounded view of his gifts as a guitar player and interpreter of multiple genres of music. Bloomfield's personal story is a familiar tale of a musician, 'too soon gone', but his musical legacy is still tangible and ably compiled on this set.