Talk From The Rock Room

Friday, September 1, 2023

Take One: Joni Mitchell - "Urge for Going"


Prior to the release of her debut record in 1968, Song for a Seagull, Joni Mitchell worked the coffee shops and night clubs of Saskatoon and it’s surrounding areas. She was a Canadian artist who fashioned herself a folkie after Joan Baez and Judy Collins, and sang only as a hobby. Her love was painting and singing was fun. Joni discovered her musical acumen in 1964. In 1965 she had a child. Later in the same year she gave up her child for adoption. The life struggles she encountered at this time were life changing and painful, but they also informed her growth as a musician. 

Joni referred to herself  uring this time as “disturbed,” and composed insightful songs about her experiences. “Both Sides Now,” “Little Green,” and the subject of this rock room rant, “Urge For Going,” are some of the early songs she wrote while  growing up and struggling with the realities of adulthood. 

Joni left Canada, and moved to the United States in order to see if she could make a career out of singing. Soon after arriving in America Joni met musician Tom Rush who instantly fell in love with her evolving catalog of songs. Rush cut Joni’s tune, “Urge for Going” as a single in 1966. He  eventually ended up cutting a few songs from Joni’s early composition notebook, including “Tin Angel,” and “Circle Game, which he would use as the title of his 1968 LP.” 

The first Joni appearance of “Urge for Going,” on tape comes from the Joni Mitchell Archive Collection. Captured around the time Rush first heard the song, the 1965 Myrtle Anderson Birthday tape was recorded at a Detroit house party in early 1965. The song’s melody is fully intact, yet Joni’s voice is obviously far from its full maturity. It’s played in a standard tuning, and the tune’s lyrical rhythm brushes lightly against the corners traditional British folk. 

What instantly made the song a cornerstone of Joni’s early repertoire is the fully mature lyric which connects seasons, the passing of time, and humans innate longing for someplace that they can call home. Joni uses effective metaphor, and the natural cycle of the season as a canvass for expressing human emotion. Joni sings of winter’s chilly force of hand and how the trusting warmth of the sun becomes the bearer of bad news as it adjusts its gaze. There is disappointment in decay, but there is also the hope for rebirth. But what is worse, getting the urge, or never going, regret or hopefulness?  Joni expresses a deep far-sickness in the song, the German's call it, “Fernweh.". 

In order to help promote the Tom Rush version, Joni shot a promotional film in August of 1966 in front of a raging river on the Canadian television show Mon Pay, Mes Chanson.  The show captured Canadian artists in their natural environment. Joni's performance of "Urge for Going" is perfectly placed against a stunning backdrop of majestic mountains. 

An early live reading from November 1966 comes from the 2nd Fret in Philadelphia, PA and is also featured on the Joni Mitchell Archive Volume 1. The tape reel is crystalline, and Joni’s voice emits a bird song warble, attributed both to youth and an affinity to Joan Baez. Joni’s guitar picking and her vocals act as one instrument, a pressed flower between lyrical pages. Tom Rush had just released his version of the song and Joni had added it to her sets at the time because in her words, “I like to plug it because I get royalties on the song of course.” 

George Hamilton IV, a square country singer heard Rush’s version and decided to cover it himself on his album Folksy. Hamilton took his own interpretation into the top ten of the country charts with a thick drawl and some spoken narration.

An additional live version from Joni that traces the growth of the song is featured on the Joni Mitchell Archives, and comes from a performance at the Canterbury House in Ann Arbor, MI, October 27, 1967. On this live take, the song has found its perfect tempo through recitation. Joni’s vocals bide their time investigating the landscape and looking for pastoral avenues of escape. She sees herself in each blade of dying grass and every winging bird. Her voice a reassuring narrator, crooning contemplatively.

Joni continued to mature the song in concert, and the version from Carnegie Hall on February 1, 1969 may be the definitive reading. It is available on the Joni Mitchell Archives Volume 2. While she puts her guitar back into standard tuning, Joni quips, "It's a long way from rom Saskatoon, Saskatchewan to Carnegie Hall." She then explains that the song is about winters in Saskatoon and plays a perfectly rendered version.

The next time that "Urge for Going" made an appearance, was in the studio during sessions for Joni’s seminal 1971 album, Blue. Joni cut an acoustic version in consideration for the album and then cut a version with overdubbed strings that would also remain unreleased at the time. 

The attempts on the song that Joni cut for Blue are a culmination of its journey. A straight acoustic reading and a haunted opening, colored on its deckled edges with the ink of the Blue sessions. Joni sings the song with sweet intelligence and soft hindsight. She had finally found her way inside the song and could sing it more convincingly than anyone. 

On the version overdubbed with strings, which was recently released in celebration of Blue’s 50th anniversary, the orchestration is transparent, fading into the finger picked navy of Joni’s lacy guitar lines. The strings only come into full focus on the third verse with the “warriors of winter,” line lending an emotive swell to the already chilling verses. 

In the end, neither of the versions made the final cut. The song floated aimlessly, spreading its melodic wealth wherever and by whomever it was played but never settled down. Joni realized she needed to take ownership of the tune and placed the version (minus the strings) on the B side of her 1972 single, “Turn Me on I’m a Radio.” The song would be the only non-album B side of her entire career, but “Urge for Going” finally had a place in Joni’s own discography. 

Recorded on the same day the Blue was released, June 22, 1971, Joni’s close friends David Crosby and Graham Nash cut their own version of “Urge for Going” that is a stone rubbing of Mitchell’s original intent. Intended as a single for Crosby and Nash, the song drifts in on a woody breeze and moves through like a 1966 Byrds cut. For reasons unknown David and Graham never released their attempt on the song either. But, their smooth swapping of the verses and their affinity for Joni make the version another special chapter in the life of the track. 

Many years later, it a typically Joni move, she placed the 1972 single version of the song as the opening track of her 1996 Hits collection. A deserving move for the long traveled song.“Urge for Going,” has had interesting journey as well as an extended shelf life. The song was responsible for drawing attention to Joni as a songwriter and acted a stepping stone for her move to becoming a serious musician. It’s mysterious and multifaceted melody and lyric represent a vital era of Mitchell’s creative journey.

Thursday, August 17, 2023

Neil Young - Chrome Dreams - "Where Chaos Reigns"

In what was one of the most prolific eras for any songwriter in rock and roll history, Neil Young’s mid- 1970’s output was met by few if any. In the years 1974-1977, Neil released  the albums Tonight’s the Night, On the Beach, Zuma, and American Stars and Bars. He left the records Homegrown, Hitchhiker, and the subject of today’s rock room rant, Chrome Dreams in his vaults. 

Similarly, to his friend and contemporary Bob Dylan, Neil often left his most affecting work on the cutting room floor or behind a locked door. Now, over 45 years later, Young has pulled the long rumored and legendary record from a dusty tape box and officially released it. While it’s impossible to know Neil’s true intent, by tracing a broken arrow’s journey toward its end target the artistic design of Young’s music comes into a sharper focus. Neil has opened the weighted doors of his historical vaults, he has excavated several legendary songs and discarded artistic choices for reassessment. His unreleased records hailing from the same era, Homegrown and Hitchhiker both share connective tissues with Chrome Dreams. All of the songs Young was composing during this era were related, floating around, and often considered for the current or next project. 

For several years a bootleg, purported to hail from an acetate circulated among collectors under the title Chrome Dreams. In hindsight, and taking Neil’s working methods into account, it’s easy to deduce that Chrome Dreams, was an early working version of what would become American Stars and Bars. The title originated from a sketch that Young producer and friend David Briggs made of a grill of a car. When the picture was turned sideways, it looked like a beautiful woman. For the current version of Chrome Dreams, a Ronnie Wood drawing has replaced the now long gone Briggs sketch. The record ironically collected the best of the songs that Young laid down during his most creative era. Neil has always had a backlog of material; the proof can be found in the sheer volume of unreleased music he has already freed from his library. In the case of this era, some of his compositions didn’t fit into his specific vision for that time. The balance of Young’s records is found in the proper dispersing of thematic ideas, and melodies. Neil played Chrome Dreams for his friend Carole King shortly after compiling it and remembered later her saying, “Neil, this isn’t an album. It’s not a real album. I mean, there’s nobody playing, and half the songs you’re just doing by yourself.” Neil continued, “She was just laughing at me. Because she crafts albums.” 

Chrome Dreams plays like a greatest hits album, full of Young’s biggest guns it’s a conglomerate of recording studios, time periods, and ideas. It can be deduced that Young thought that there were too many of his “best” songs on one album. The official version retains the same song order as the original bootleg, lending credence to the fact that the circulating recording was at one point legitimate. Oddly, there is an alternate track listing in the new packaging listing two 24-minute sides in Young’s handwriting. In the alternate running order Young’s “White Line” was included on the hypothetical album. 

The album opens with “Pocohantas,” the same version sans overdubs that appeared on 1979’s Rust Never Sleeps. One of Neil’s most beloved songs, the timeless narrative a deft balance between Neil’s historic reporting and shifty artistic license. This original demo version recorded on August 11, 1976 is just Young and his guitar, and that’s all it needs to be. 

“Will to Love,” was recorded by Neil at Broken Arrow Ranch by a crackling fire. The track was analyzed in detail by the rock room here. The version of Chrome Dreams is the same the as the one that later graced American Stars and Bars. Continuing the acoustic theme, “Star of Bethlehem,” shimmers with the stoned sounds of 1974’s On the Beach. The song’s first official appearance would be on Young’s career compilation, 1976’ Decade record. It was originally slated for a place on the unreleased Homegrown, record, and the Chrome Dreams record. One of Young’s most exquisite and enduring melodies, and a song he obviously thought a great deal about for the number of times it was bounced around and considered.

One of Young’s major compositions, “Like a Hurricane” opens side two of the new Chrome Dreams with Crazy Horse in full gallop and the song becomes the focal point of the album due to its sheer electricity. While the song sits in striking contrast to its surroundings, it in no way loses any of its stormy power. The song would elicit the same effect on the American Stars and Bars album. 

A live concert staple and a song that didn’t appear on an official record until 1989’s Freedom. The Chrome Dreams studio version of “Too Far Gone” is a mellow, after coke binge sunrise. Neil’s silvery acoustic guitar and a plucky mandolin played by Pancho, act as lacy accompaniment to the singalong story of a prolific burnout. 

 “Hold Back the Tears,” is a brand-new version unique to the official Chrome Dreams. It’s an early demo highlighted by delightful and shaky double tracked vocals on the chorus. Sparse and stony, Young’s earnest delivery features a unrecorded verse and Young’s beautiful wordless la, la la’s. A completely different waltz styled version was released on American Stars and Bars. That one sounds like a lost track from Dylan’s Desire record, replete with steel guitar, violin and Linda Ronstadt vocals. 

 “Captain Kennedy,” a Neil Young Sea shanty, was designated for Young’s unrealized Hitchhiker project. It was first released officially on Young’s 1980 record Hawks and Doves. Percussive finger picked guitar and a salty sea fairing melody drive the mixed narrative through choppy waters. 

“Stringman,” is one of those spectral Neil Young piano ballads, similar to “Here We Are In the Years,” or “A Man Needs a Maid,” that defy simple descriptions. This reading is a fragile recitation, pregnant with soulful spaces and silences. Young sings his ode to a knotted-up loser, who is hanging by a tenuous thread. The version on Chrome Dreams was recorded live on March 31, 1976 to an entranced audience at the Hammersmith Odeon. The very next day Young performed overdubs on the live track at a studio in London, though the song remained unreleased until 2020. Young did perform a live version in 1993 for MTV’s Unplugged. The next electrified offering on Chrome Dreams is the official debut of the famed slow version of 

“Sedan Delivery” recorded on May 22, 1975 with Crazy Horse. Recorded on the same day that two members of the band were screaming high on goof dust, the Horse move the groove like a hearse with a flat tire. Young’s guitar elicits a prismatic vibrato, and is scribbled over the Horse’s hard clop increasing the nervous energy of the song. The raucous sludgy mantra had it’s rpm’s jacked on the live stage, but this grungy version has its own special charm. 

 The acoustic reading of “Powderfinger," is the penultimate song on the record. A song Young recorded in 1976 for his Hitchhiker project, by the time it saw official release on Rust Never Sleeps it was a packed musket of explosive riffs and devastating chord changes. The song is one of Neil’s most played and enduring cuts. The Chrome Dreams version is a testament to the diversity of Young’s catalog. The reading is a simple wooden arrangement with Young’s pleading voice and acoustic guitar. It amazing that the song would be transformed into a stadium sized story, buzzing with distortion and charged with the power of Crazy Horse by 1978. 

 The album concludes with “Look Out for My Love,” in the exact same guise as on 1978’s Comes a Time. It’s Young and the Horse at their most patient and tender. Recorded similarly to Young’s CSNY track “Helpless,” the group worked late into the night, the vibe had to be right, and when they found it, they got the take. 

While Neil Young continues to tear apart his ample vaults, we continue to be the lucky recipients of his finds. Some discoveries are lost songs and misplaced track listings, and in the case of Chrome Dreams fully unrealized albums. Each piece that is excavated and curated is an important musical part of a bigger picture that further completes the spectacular panoramic view of Neil Young’s career.

Wednesday, July 12, 2023

Rock Room On the Road: Tedeschi Trucks Band - July 11, 2023 - Marvin Sands Performing Arts Center


The annual Tedeschi Trucks Band summer tour visit to Marvin Sands Performing Arts Center pulled into Canandaigua, NY on the evening of July 11, 2023 with Ziggy Marley and his band in tow for an expansive and affirmative set of genre defying music. Like a family picnic, or reuniting with a dear friend after an extended absence, the mellow crowd and band met in the middle for a shared evening of magic and music making. At 8:30, following an expressive set by Marley and his group, Tedeschi Trucks Band took to the stage to an expected and typically enthusiastic response. 

In front of a packed house on a steamy lakeside evening TTB opened the show with Joe Cocker’s “Woman to Woman,” off his 1972 self-titled LP. A driving swampy funk was initiated by Trucks wiry scrubbed rhythm work and decorated with hearty golden huffs of horns. It didn’t take long for the band to slot into a deep groove while the lead vocals were passed along the vocalist’s like a burning ember. Susan entered the vocal queue last and belted out her verses to the explosive joy of the crowd. 

The band then fell into the summery “Anyhow,” a track off 2016’s “Let Me Get By,” and drifted into a perfect paisley pulse. Susan, armed with her Les Paul took the first big solo of the evening. It wasn’t until the third song, the bluesy waltz of "Do I Look Worried,” that Derek stepped forward for his first solo of the evening. A probing analysis of the song’s shifty changes and a confirmation that the band was ready to play. Ratcheting down the intensity so that the venue doesn’t detonate, the group played with the perfect combination of fire and ice. Raising the crowd into the clouds and floating their sensibilities delicately back to solid lush earth.

The ultra-talented keyboardist Gabe Dixon got his moment in the spotlight with the quivering beat of “Gravity,” which rose from the ground with a flourish. Trucks scribbled in elegant cursive over the top of the chunky arrangement. Midway through the song Davis laid down a spicy piano segment that Trucks entered with a screaming and overdriven exploration of the changes. Trucks peaked with mind numbing scrubs and string bending excitement that took the song over the top. It’s during these unique musical exchanges that you realize you are witness to one of the best players to ever handle a six string. The horn trio joined in on the the movement lending old school “Chicago,” horn section style squawks and blasts to the smoky gumbo. 

Speaking of “Chicago,” the heavy stepping “Learn How to Love,” featured the moaning horn section eliciting the feelings found in the grooves of the first Chicago Transit Authority record. A stellar saxophone solo by Kebbi Williams balanced the tightrope between melodic and atonal before Derek joined in. Derek played a cherry red Gibson 335 hollow body guitar as the crushing rhythm section churned its way to a huge husband and wife guitar duel that ignited the venue. 

Derek, sans slide, skinned the neck of his guitar clean, as he snaked in between and around the poly rhythms disseminated by the drummers. His tone as sharp as a spear point, sliced through the evening humidity looking for the mark. Susan kicked in the door to discover what Derek was up to and lit the fuse to the evenings first eye bulging highlight. 

Both Susan and Derek attentively expressed their relationship through the intimate conversation of their taught strings. Ask and answer, question and response, joke and cojole, the duo revealed the internal workings of their band through their expressive engagement. Their interaction intimate, yet made for the prying eyes of the performing stage.

In breezy contrast to the guitar onslaught that almost brought down the shed, Wet Willie’s, “Keep On Smilin',” gave the crowd a groovy respite from the intensity that was released from the stage. Susan’s vocals were both encouraging and inspired, eliciting a toothy smile. The backing vocals sang in angel choir accompaniment and Derek put the finishing touches on the song with a thorough exploration of the melody. 

The concert then rode the crest of a beautiful wave with an extended vamp on Nina Simone’s “I Wish I Knew How To Be Free,” that was prefaced by a tough trumpet driven improvisation, with Derek moving to side stage to play off of the stringy soloing laid down by Ephraim Owens. The resulting rendition and jamming was a freeform celebratory revival, with every band member contributing in some way. Handclaps, percussion and joyous collaboration was the order of the night and the crowd lost themselves in the music. When vocalist Alecia Chakour and Mark Rivers joined together in a chilling call and response at the end of the song, the crowd gave it all back to them and more. 

Following a well jammed improv prelude, the band slipped dynamically into the chunky “Yes We Will,” from their most recent album. Again Susan and Derek swap asides with the band and rolled through a series of well timed peak before dissolving into a gentle keyboard and Derek driven space. This cinematic drift slowly culminated in the vibrant introduction to a welcome “Midnight in Harlem,” which everyone in the assembled audience recognized and responded to in kind. 

If we had thought that the concert had reached its summit, it surpassed all expectation with a serrated reading of Dr. John’s, “Walk on Gilded Splinters.” Relentless in its shifty expression, the song pounded the dancing crowd into submission. Straddling the fence between Dr. John’s moody original and Humble Pie’s live cover, TTB looked at both paths and then took the road less traveled. 

With no time to recover the concert climbed into the clouds and concluded with, TTB’s soul driven “I Want More,” which moved through impressive bass and drum interludes before blossoming into “Beck’s Bolero,” an emotional and breathless tribute to the recently departed Jeff Beck. The famed “Bolero,” covered the venue in washes of sound, as Derek expressed a number of his own variations on the Beck theme, touching the edges and then drawing an entirely new focus over the existing artwork. An ambitious rendition and a stunning, well-placed conclusion.

Acting as masters of emotion and ceremony, the band returned to the stage with the slow and soothing Susan reading of Bonnie Raitt’s, “I Can’t Make You Love Me”. Played as a duo, with keyboardist Gabe Dixon accompanying, the spacious rendition, steeped in silence, was sat out under the cool dusk for a moment of crowd contemplation.  One of the best moments of the performance.

Then, sending everyone off in a proper and proud fashion, Ziggy Marley and his band were invited back to the stage to join in on a Sly and the Family Stone tribute. The double banger of“Sing a Simple Song” segued into “I Want to Take You Higher.” was the perfect combination for group rock, and collaborative music making. The stage quaked with the weight of so much talent and musical expression that the joy could be felt in thick fat waves. Bodies shook and smoke signals drifted from the lawn seats. For a moment there was nothing else in the world, or in your own mind, except the inspiration and love being gifted from the stage to the crowd, and then reciprocated back in kind. The music was so filling, it almost felt if the tented stage would burst into feathers and falling stars.

The Tedeschi Trucks Band is both a flashback, and fast forward as their music not only successfully blurs genres through their creativity, but also pays tribute to their piles of influence through careful recitations of their musical heroes songs. Everything that you hope to find at a concert, Tedeschi Trucks Band offers freely through their egoless performances and shared enthusiasm for song. There is no other touring band the offers such a diversity of players, a wealth of inspiration, and guarantee of specially curated and emotive music. No matter what you look to find in your favorite artist exploits, Tedeschi Trucks Band will touch upon it and share it with honesty and inspiration.