Talk From The Rock Room: March 2020

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Put the Boot In: Bob Dylan and his Band – Monterey May 27, 1995 –‘Leaves of Yesteryear’

Pulled from the ‘rock room’ compact disc archive today comes a much celebrated and excellent Bob Dylan performance from his spring 1995 tour. A swing on the ‘Never Ending Tour’ much celebrated by fans, today the ‘rock room’ takes the soundboard line recording from the May 27, 1995 for a spin around the musical block. Hailing from Monterey, California this 13th performance of the tour features a well-balanced and crispy recording and a fiery Dylan. My recording hails from the silver CD bootleg Laguna Beach and is one of the most respected ‘unofficial’ recordings available from the era.

The concert was held outdoors and Dylan was the headlining act with other bands such as the ‘Black Crowes’ and George Clinton. The backing group for this portion of the ‘Never Ending Tour’ features Bucky Baxter on pedal steel and slide guitar, John Jackson (guitar), Tony Garnier (bass) and Winston Watson on drums. While Jackson and Baxter do much of the heavy lifting for the solo’s Dylan also plays quite a bit of his own unique brand of lead guitar during this era. The recording is popular with Dylan fanatics for both sound quality and performance. The band is a guitar heavy, rock and roll steamroller.

The crowd on this particular evening was treated to a well-played show that featured a number of first times for the tour as well as many top notch renditions. Following the MC’s introduction, beginning the evening is a bombastic vamp on ‘Crash on the Levee (Down in the Flood)’ that lets the assembled crowd know that the band has already primed the pump. Dylan begins the show with a sinister pout, the vocals power increased by the slippery descending lick central to this arrangement. The song gains momentum as the flood gates open and by the final verse Dylan is feeling it with syncopated melodic shouts. A couple of solid Jackson solos ignite the fuse and by the songs conclusion the band is a full torrent.

Bob shouts a quick ‘Thank You’ and with just a brief pause, the weighty slow roll of ‘It Takes A lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry” leaves the station. Dressed in fuzzy slide and succinct rhythm guitar, this is a patient and stellar rendition.  Dramatic Bucky Baxter steel enforces Dylan’s elastic and soulful dictation. Dylan is in fantastic voice and each movement of the song has a purpose and the well-known changes become more substantial with the throttled down tempo.

With hardly a pause an aggressive ‘All Along the Watchtower’ scans the evening’s landscape. As is typical Dylan stays with Hendrix’s arrangement but with a dash of funkiness added by Watson’s gunshot snare drum. The joker, thief and price weave their three guitars into a frenzy during the mid-song jam with Dylan underneath soloing without restraint. The group brings the dynamics way down before a series of scrubs by Jackson separated by a verse bring the song to a substantial peak. By this time the group was very familiar with each other’s moves, this freedom allowed Dylan the ability to just jam without bogging down the song. The ‘rock room’ recommends reading Dylan’s Chronicles I for a deft description of Dylan’s approach to the guitar during this era and how he received an awakening during his 1987 rehearsals with the Grateful Dead. ‘Watchtower’ gets a huge round of applause.

After a rolling and raucous concert opening Dylan brings things to a simmer with a rendition of the ‘Never Ending Tour’ concert standard, ‘Simple Twist of Fate’. Here the classic is played as a slow march, with Dylan’s investment in the vocals a highlight. Dylan pulls lyrical taffy, stretching and tugging the melody line as the steel moans from a distant country hill top. The sparkling ding of a bell punctuates each verse prior to a swaying solo spot for all three string wielders where the central refrain is dispersed in a variety of ways.

Another popular choice for Dylan during this era comes next with ‘Silvio’. A song co-written with the Grateful Dead’s lyricist Robert Hunter. ‘Silvio’ screams with bombastic riffs and an extended jam. Dylan rings out each word as he searches to find out what only dead men know. Dylan always has a huge ‘rocker’ in the early portions of this shows and this version of ‘Silvio’ fits the bill. An additional three guitar maelstrom comprises the central segment of the song. Dylan’s guitar work here is quite good in the ‘rock’ sense. Following ‘Silvio’ Dylan introduces Jackson’s own impressive guitar work with a slight joking aside.
Two major highlights follows as Dylan and the group have properly stretched their legs and again dig into Dylan’s mid 60’s catalog. ‘Tombstone Blues’ is played as a grinding and vamped on 12 bar blues, where the intro reminds of ‘Lonesome Day Blues’ from Dylan’s yet to be released 2001 LP Love and Theft. As opposed to the track’s usual high speed rap, Dylan’s approach includes crooning with a blues man’s swagger. Here Dylan focuses less on rhythmic invention and more on swing and raw authenticity. Distorted guitars and twangy licks frame Dylan’s sneaky lines. Wooly steel lines by Baxter shred the first break and give Bob a gentle nudge into the next verse where he plants his heels into the fresh dirt. Another stunning guitar break follows, this time by Jackson where Bob lets him shovel another load of dirt. The guitarists get another chance to shine as a third round of pyrotechnics occur after the concluding verse. Rough ready and rolling, the perfect set up to the acoustic set.
The second of the two highlights mentioned above comes next with the anticipated acoustic set. With the stellar display already put on for the Monterey crowd via the incendiary electric set, Dylan fittingly follows it with ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’.  While not as surreal as the 1966 tour versions or as fiery as the 1975 renditions, this reading is a delicate country lullaby. With a laser focus on the words and melody, Dylan pulls from his most famous song a Hank Williams ballad. Acoustic, with harmonica and slide guitar the psychedelic poetry is sung over pastoral landscape of smoke rings and tambourine tapping jesters.
Dylan sings tenderly, gentle and inquisitively, sharing a lyrical secret. Patient, like a back porch ballad, acoustic guitar, slide guitar, bass and harp collaborate sewing a delicate framework to cradle Dylan’s words. Following the final verse, Baxter’s slide and Dylan’s harp enter into an outro duet. Dylan blows his harmonica soft as baby’s breath, gently exploring repetitive notes like he has never witnessed them previously. Completely invested, Dylan uses his setup before taking a breathy swell for the final trip around the melody before coming full circle to complete one of the finest ‘Mr Tambourine Man’s’ of the 1990’s.

‘Masters of War’ continues the acoustic set, the second of a triad of some of Dylan’s most emotive cuts. With a rhythm like the doomsday clock, Dylan’s acoustic pushes the hands of the song forward, the distant sound of a foot soldier’s cadence reflected in the sound. Dylan takes three differing harp breaks that lay dividing lines in the dirt. The second solo races forward with Baxter’s succinct mandolin strikes setting the tempo, before Dylan lays down a third more aggressive solo after the dark concluding verse.

The final song of the acoustic set is a wonderful waltz time reading of ‘To Ramona’. Again, mandolin, Dylan’s acoustic and bass are the spotlighted instruments. Dylan, as has been the standard for the show sings endearingly to Ramona, each line lovingly crafted but with a slight twist at the end that makes you wonder. A melody that never grows tired, and a singer who is inside of the song. Stunning.

Dylan then introduces the band following the acoustic set in preparation for the concert’s home stretch.  Another small Dylan joke can be heard during these intros. Ushering in the rest of the electric set is an unassuming track from Dylan’s 1986 LP Empire Burlesque. ‘Seeing the Real You at Last’ while not a concert standard seems to always make an appearance at some point during a Dylan tour. The cut starts out thumping out a slippery riff and reveals itself as Dylan enters into the verses. This is a guitar leaden version with Chuck Berry licks flying around the stage and Dylan gruffly singing the slightly accusatory and differing from the studio record lyrics.

In the ‘rock room’s’ humble opinion the previous jam was just a minor setup for the regal version of ‘Every Grain of Sand’ that follows. ‘Every Grain of Sand’ is always a welcome addition to any Dylan set and a special occurrence when it does. The perfect blend of faith and secular love, the song is easily one of Dylan’s finest compositions. The band begins buy contemplating the songs changes instrumentally, setting the table for Dylan’s entrance. Jackson quotes the descending central lick from the studio album Shot of Love in between the verses, while Baxter’s pedal steel lends a mystical air to the proceedings. While there is no harp solo, Dylan does pluck the guitar around the edges of song's melody throughout. The verses are complete and by the end the song, the entire band has reached a central place of thoughtless ecstasy.

A standard crowd pleasing, but nonetheless high octane, ‘Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again’, comes next and closes the concert proper. A big shifty version, the tune skates across freeway bridges and heads down the interstate. A series of heavy riffing and Dylan’s tangled verses bring the assembled crowd to their feet after a series of climaxes. While well played, I am still feeling the emotional repercussions of the previous cuts, but it is nice to just rock!
What could Dylan possibly pull out as an encore after the set crowning ‘Every Grain of Sand’ and closing ‘Memphis Blues’? A wonderfully long, stirring version of ‘Knockin on Heavens Door’ that’s what. Admittedly, the ‘rock room’ isn’t a fan of ALL the versions of this Dylan classic, as it sometimes can become a dirge. This version is a poignant conclusion to a special performance and pairs perfectly and thematically with the sets conclusion. What begins as a small tip tapping becomes a full blown cop knock by the end as the band lays into the show’s conclusion. The first verse is drumless with only Dylan’s voice and before long the song reaches skyward, increasing its momentum and bursting into a wonderful show ending conclusion. Dylan takes one guitar solo before letting Baxter and Jackson take the final solo spot to a big riveting end.

It is a substantially tall order to sift through Bob Dylan’s ‘Never Ending Tour’ and reveal its numerous hidden jewels. There is an overwhelming collection of songs, line ups, venues, shows and extenuating factors that make up Dylan’s massive touring career. In the case of May 27, 1995, this is one show whose head bobs above the waterline and lets us witness its beautiful creation. Dylan would still have a number of musical peaks in the upcoming years, and is still reaching nightly summits as of this writing. The ‘rock room’ always finds it nice to dig into Dylan’s back pages not only to trace his career and development but to find the magic.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Rock Room on the Road: Graham Nash – Live at Ithaca State Theater March 7, 2020 ‘I Can See My Life Before Me’

On Saturday March 7, 2020 Graham Nash stopped into the historic State Theater in Ithaca, NY for his Intimate Evening of Songs and Stories 2020 tour. Joined by longtime musical companion Shane Fontayne on guitar and vocals and former ‘CSN’ organist/vocalist Todd Caldwell, Nash put together an airy and diverse trio to play a cross-section of his music hailing from the ‘Hollies’, Crosby, Stills, and Nash, ‘CSNY’ and his solo career. Just a ‘rock room’ observation, I feel Nash emanated a vibe of seriousness throughout the evening, and maybe even a hint of sadness. I will not pretend to act that this is fact, but in my mind his stature only increased the poignancy of the performance.

The 1,600 seat State Theater was about ¾ capacity when the performance started promptly at 8:00 PM. I sat third row stage left and had a wonderful cross stage view of the proceedings. Regardless of current world events, the show must go on and Nash gave myself and the assembled crowd a couple hours to not think about the chaos surrounding us. Nash was in amazing voice on this evening. I have seen Nash over 30 times in multiple configurations since the early 1990’s and honestly I can say that he has never sounded better. My expectations were greatly surpassed but I was not surprised. The concert was comprised of two sets, infusing a multifarious collection of favorites, deep cuts and surprises.

Nash begin the evening on his beautiful Martin acoustic with his composition ‘Wasted on the Way’, a ‘Crosby Stills and Nash single’ from 1982 and a top ten hit for the band. Lyrically fitting for the start of the evening as the song disseminates the realization that Nash and his musical friends have/had wasted so much time on petty jealousies and meaningless fodder as opposed to concentrating on the things that really matter.

Following comes the first ‘deep’ cut of the evening, ‘King Midas in Reverse’, a 1967 single by the ‘Hollies’ which didn’t do much, yet for Nash’s fans is a well-loved cut. I was especially excited as Nash had been playing ‘Bus Stop’ in the slot currently but changed it up on this evening. Lucky us! Nash soared on the choruses with his duo of musicians providing buttery harmonies. The band created a pale paisley of sound with Caldwell laying lush brush strokes of color under the drumless sway. Fontayne was and is a stellar musician throughout the night, adding perfectly placed dabs of melody and sonic displacement under Nash’s rhythmic strums.
Before I could take a breath, ‘I Used to Be a King’ from Nash’s 1971 LP Songs For Beginners came next. Here Fontayne resurrected Jerry Garcia’s silvery pedal steel from the studio recording with illuminating riffing the crystallized in the still State Theater air. Nash with eyes closed reached for the top rungs of the chorus and hit them with light fingertips. The crowd, even those unfamiliar with the song sat in amazed silence.
Graham had no qualms about stating his mind throughout the evening, even dropping a few ‘F bombs’ to get his point across. Prior to another Songs from Beginners track ‘Chicago’ Graham told the story of how he was inspired to write the song in addition to mentioning that no one should be ‘fucking’ surprised that he will be discussing the current political climate throughout the performance. Nash said that if you have ever been to a CSNY show you should know what to expect. Nash then sat at the center stage piano and pounded the black and white keys into the stomping intro to ‘Chicago (We Can Change the World)’. Graham dug into this cut with a fierce determination, even adding our current President’s name to some of the lyrics, illustrating the song’s 50 year relevance. Members of the audience rose to their feet at the songs conclusion realizing the songs importance even in current times.

After the thrilling opening to set one, Nash thumbed through his back catalog to play a deeper cut from his impressive discography. Nash preceded ‘Carried Away’, from the 1977 CSN LP with a tale regarding his lust for an island woman who was already on her way to somewhere else with her ‘old man’. Still at piano, Nash played an introspective version of the cut that pimpled my skin and watered my eyes. The melody initiated images, while Nash’s voice brought out emotions in me that didn’t exist prior to the song. A performer at his finest.

‘Sleep Song’, ‘4 + 20’, ‘Military Madness’ come next in the set. ‘4+20’ was a surprise seeing Graham play a song that one of his music water brothers composed. Similarly to the evening thus far Nash stamped the song with his own floating tenor and made the cut a highlight of his own. ‘Military Madness’ received the torch from ‘Chicago’ and was played with a gruff ambition while again name checking a certain person in power. The crowd loved it and the song was spotlighted by Fontayne’s sonic expressions.

In my mind I hoped that the penultimate performance of the set, the Crosby/ Nash song ‘Wind on the Water’ from their LP of the same name was added as an olive branch to David Crosby. I know this was not the case, but nonetheless I let the song for the world's whales wash over me, an ocean tide of prismatic melody, buoyed by Nash’s piano and decorated with ocean calls and salty foam by the apt duo of Fontayne and Caldwell. I must not neglect to mention Fontayne and Caldwell’s wonderful additions vocally to songs that are not easy to sing harmonies on. I not once caught myself hoping for other voices, each cut was rendered with vocal care and ability.
Closing set one, was not a deep cut, but was a surprise. The trio finished with the Beatles ‘A Day in the Life’. For sure not the song I was expecting this trio to cover, but similarly to the rest of the evening they did a masterful job. Nash’s voice a hand in glove fit for the song, the groups contrary sparse arrangement fitting, and the song's peaks reached with a swirling dervish of sound between guitar and organ. A standing ovation initiated and a 20 minute break before set two.

Nash and his friends returned to the darkened stage after a brief break opening the final set with perhaps his most well-known song, ‘Marrakesh Express’. This opening ‘CSN’ song got some ladies dancing in the isles and got attendees going immediately. Nash stayed on guitar and followed the 1-2 punch with perhaps his most famous solo cut, ‘Immigration Man’. This song also chilling for its contextual relevance even 50 years after its genesis. The trio definitely raised the temperature in the venue and I could feel that set two was going to be filled with the ‘heavy hitters’.

Graham returned to the piano and strapped on his harmonica for a barren and truthful, ‘Simple Man’. He introduced the song stating that he wrote the song for Joni and premiered the tune at the Fillmore East in 1970 with Joni Mitchell sitting in the audience. A picture perfect rendition and a version that I feel lucky to have witnessed. As an aside, I met Graham in 1997 and requested ‘Simple Man’ prior to a Syracuse, NY show which he kindly played for me that evening. Memories.

Similarly to the first set, Nash injected a duo of deep cuts as he returned to his acoustic at center stage.  The first, ‘Right between the Eyes’ made its only appearance on the ‘CSNY’ live LP Four Way Street. Nash was quoted as saying to Rolling Stone, “I was seduced by a beautiful woman down in Long Island. She was married. The song is a confession to a friend”. At the State Theatre, Nash added that the song was written for John Sebastian, so some contextual dots were connected. Using the same musical configuration, the band also dug out ‘Taken At All’ from the 1976 Crosby/Nash album. Another stand out performance Nash swayed, and grimaced as he finger picked his way through the changes. Fontayne brought a smile to Nash’s face with many of his deft string swells. Three part harmonies were as tight as family and Nash seemed pleased with what transpired on stage.

The only disappointment that I felt during the whole show came after the trio played ‘Golden Days’ from Nash’s most recent album This Path Tonight. Nash’s current writing has been so strong I would have liked to see this LP explored more thoroughly, but it’s a minor gripe. Regardless, this was a stunning performance, with Nash standing without instrument at the mic, and additional towering harmonies supported by the delicate music box melody.

The harmonies remained a focus as the three musicians gathered around one microphone for the final verses of Nash’s ‘Wounded Bird’, again from his 1971 LP Songs for Beginners. Nash strummed his Martin, his head tilted back, singing each verse better than the previous. As the song concluded Nash mouthed ‘Thank you’ and smiled aware of the amazing version just played.

Following this absolutely dizzying array of songs and stories covering Nash’s fifty plus years of performing, Nash and friends prepared to knock the rest of the set out of the theater. Beginning with another Stephen Stills cover, Nash began to strum the undulating riff of ‘Love the One You With’. Kicking off the home stretch with a huge singalong love fest, Nash received assistance from Caldwell’s slippery B3 and got the theater to shake their buns and scream out the choruses.

Then in rapid fire succession, out come the ‘big guns’, “Just a Song before I Go’, ‘Cathedral’ and the expected and hoped for ‘Our House’. Peaking musically and aesthetically, the crowd grooves, Nash and company bang out the hits and there are smiles abound. Even ‘Our House’ took on a deep poignancy when combined with all of the emotions Nash stirred up over the course of the evening. The crown responded expectantly and excitedly as Nash took his bow for a close to set two.

Returning to the stage for an encore, Nash dug into his childhood for a surprising reading of Buddy Holly’s ‘Everyday’. Again, joined by Fontayne and Caldwell at the microphone in three part, a tender and harmonious cover of ‘Everyday’ seemed to sum up the entire evening. Love, friendship, rock and roll, politics, loss, hope…….it all seemed to coalesce into a song that obviously had a huge bearing on what Graham Nash decided to do with his life. Then, just when you think the show was over, the ringing introductory D chord of ‘Teach Your Children’ concluded the evening with words we should and could all take to heart. The crowd smiled with Nash, while singing a song he has performed thousands of times prior, while still taking on a powerful relevance for all involved.

The best music is ageless and one thing of many that I took away from Graham Nash’s performance at State Theater Ithaca, is that his compositions are timeless. It may seem obvious, but when a listener is able to relate on such a profound level to an artist who has lived such a different life it can elevate both performer and attendee. Nash has always been quietly making amazing music just out of the shadow of his three former band mates. His songs have provided foundational melodies that everyone remembers even if they don’t know how. His gifts were and continue to be an essential element in every artistic endeavor he has undertaken Thank you for the songs Graham Nash.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

The Grateful Dead - Dave's Picks Volume One -May 25, 1977- Trembled and Exploded

Playing in the ‘rock room’ today is the first in the series of live archival Grateful Dead concerts released under the moniker of Dave’s Picks. Named after David Lemieux, the keeper of the Grateful Dead’s musical vault, this collection concentrates on high quality shows representing peak Dead and is the follow up to the popular and original 36-volume Dick’s Picks live concert collection; brainchild of original keeper of the vault Dick Latvala. In between these aforementioned collections came the short-lived Road Trips series which offered varied concert highlights of underrepresented periods in the group’s long history.

Fans never really latched on to the piecemeal Road Trips, which for the most part offered musical selections as opposed to full concert recordings. Dave’s Picks subscribesto the vision of original and famed Grateful Dead archivist Dick Latvala, who initiated the idea of releasing the most transcendent Grateful Dead performances to the public — regardless of some minor sonic anomalies that may have previously prevented their release to the general public. These collections were originally available to order through the mail and currently can be accessed through the Grateful Dead’s official website.

The subject of today’s ‘rock room’ rant, Volume 1 of the Dave’s Picks series was given an auspicious introduction, starting at the end of one of the Grateful Dead’s most popular tours hailing from May of 1977. That legendary month, containing some of the band’s finest musical moments, has now been mined for a box set, an official release and three Dick’s Picks. The premiere edition of Dave’s Picks pulls from this spring 1977 tour a performance that in some ways equals or surpasses any of the previously released and aforementioned shows.

Dave’s Picks, Volume One brings us back to May 25, 1977 in Richmond Virginia at the ornate musical venue, the Mosque. Two shows would remain until the conclusion of the storied Spring ’77 tour and this concert finds the Grateful Dead playing at a consistently levitated level. The group is listening intently to one another, playing variable and extended set lists — and developing the songs that would become important jam vehicles and cornerstones of their catalog for years to come.

The concert’s first set is a typical of 1977’s extended performances, which is to say it is brimming with power and grace. The Grateful Dead, by this time in their history, had learned to harness their explosiveness. No longer playing the extended five-hour concerts of the past, they could now sustain a steady level of intensity for an entire evening. Witness how every song of the first set is a perfectly sculpted piece worthy of individual inspection.

Opening with the pairing of 'Mississippi Half Step' and 'Jack Straw,' it’s obvious that the Grateful Dead mean business from the get go. The pairing together two usual openers into one package, “Mississippi” and “Jack Straw,” show an aggressive eagerness by the band. By this point in the tour, the songs have been cracked open enough to reveal a multitude of sunny musical horizons — and the same holds true here with substantial versions being disseminated.
A favorite major highlight of this opening set of music includes a usually poignant 'Peggy-o,' which in 1977-78 reached a place of refinement and dignity that the group would find hard to surpass in future years. The same applies for a well-jammed 'Cassidy,' and a charged version of “Lazy Lightning/Supplication” that masquerade as a set closer,  but in typical 1977 fashion is followed by more music represented by devastating versions of 'Brown Eyed Women' and 'Promised Land.'
The real wizardry occurs in second set, when the band opens with the 14th version of the 'Scarlet/Fire' pairing of the tour, and arguably the best. While there is a reasonable argument for a number of previous versions containing the same alchemy as this particular one, notably the obvious choice among Deadheads of May 8, 1977, this particular rendition from the 25th contains a forward-moving assertiveness that forsakes dreaminess and drift for a swirling current of percolating sonic foam. Phil Lesh and the drummers are particularly spunky, grumbling under Jerry Garcia’s phased string explorations that eventually result in an orchestrated and seamless transition into 'Fire on the Mountain.' The Grateful Dead is as 'on' as they have been for the tour and they know it.

Garcia freaks out on his fret board for 'Fire,' playing hot potato with multiple melodic constructions, while the drummer’s willfully enthusiastic exclamations are the impetus for much of the excitable jamming. The hallmark of this performance for me is the melodic sensibility and original creativity by all of the players, in addition to the aggressive and musical drumming for this show. Obviously these elements combine equating to a top performance in a respected era by the entire group.
Following a compact 'Estimated Prophet,' a notable extended take on a stretched out 'He’s Gone' appears and then morphs into a stout blues groove. The swamp-stepping jam that follows illustrates the contagious tendency for exploration exhibited by the Dead on this evening. The band slowly crest a hill and then fade into an imposing double drum breakdown that explodes in a series of percussive bombs. Out of the remnants of these war drums comes in the ‘rock room’s humble opinion the finest 'Other One' of the tour.

Garcia is again, conjuring a wealth of melodic ideas, blowing his psychedelic horn and constructing the song into a series of dramatic swells that elicit a cosmic response from the entire group. Following the first verse the drummers keep the jam bobbing for life, never letting it disappear under the surface of the musical swells. This following musical excursion features some of the finest group jamming you can uncover in the month of May 77. Organic and tangible musical creation is on display as the group weaves there way through a plethora of musical expressions.

 Unique here, is that the version of the 'Other One' is split, straddling a typically cinematic 1977 version of “Wharf Rat.” The Grateful Dead plays this one like its the final one, and in the context of the show feels just exactly perfect. After completing regal and proud reading of 'Wharf Rat,' the group returns to sing verse two of 'Other One' completing the version, but not finishing the tale. A perfectly placed 'Wheel' rolls in from the road, bringing with it a cool breeze after the preceding half hour of heavy musical exploration.
Seizing the moment to take it home and satisfied with the evening’s discoveries, the Dead blast through the Chuck Berry songbook with a heavy and extended double time 'Around and Around,' just like they used to build ’em. Following this is a rip snortin’ encore of 'Johnny B Goode.' played with a duck walkin’ fervor that closes the evening definitively.

When the Grateful Dead play at their best, it feels trite to try to express the madness in words. Dave’s Picks, Volume One comes from what many feel to be the band’s finest era, so its addition to the canon is not a surprise. What may be a surprise is how such musical quality and continued improvisational searching could be accessed on a nightly basis. This recording contains one of these evenings, filled with numerous unique and delightful passages now forever immortalized. Unfortunately limited to 12,000 copies, this release is now in the hands of flippers and gougers — but its contents can still be found for those willing to search.

Sunday, March 1, 2020

Take One: John Lennon - 1975 single #9 Dream - 'There's Magic In the Air'

Revolving in the ‘rock room’ on this beautiful morning is John Lennon’s ethereal 1975 release, ‘#9 Dream’. ‘#9 Dream’ was the second single to be released from the 1974 LP Walls and Bridges following ‘Whatever Gets You Through the Night’. Released in January 1975 as Apple R 6003 in the US and the UK and b/w 'What You Got', the cut fittingly peaked at number 9 on the US charts and 23 in the UK respectively. The song was also nestled on side one of the record as an important album track. Lennon and Beatle fans are aware that the number 9 always played an important role in Lennon’s life, ranging from dates, including his and son Sean’s birthday’s, addresses, musical coincidences and song titles.’The song ' #9 Dream’ is an obvious recipient and confirmation of Lennon’s awareness and belief in numerology. The song continued the thread of thematic numeric elements that traced Lennon's entire life. 

In early 1974, during Lennon’s famed ‘Lost Weekend’, Lennon had taken on producing Harry Nilsson’s 1974 LP Pussycats. During this time, Lennon was also as per usual demoing his own material for his next album. Demoed during this time were a number of fragments including ‘So Long’ which was the melodic genesis for what would later become ‘#9 Dream’. According to May Pang (whom Lennon was with during this time while separated from Yoko Ono) the early takes of ‘#9 Dream’ were also composed under the working title of ‘Walls and Bridges’ as well.  May Pang has said that Lennon loved ‘#9 Dream’ and it was one of his favorite songs of the time. Later in a 1980 BBC interview Lennon changed his tune saying, “That’s what I call craftsmanship writing, meaning, you know, I just churned that out. I’m not putting it down, it just is what it is, but I sat down and wrote it, you know, with no real inspiration, based on a dream I had.” Lennon was often conflicted, like the aforementioned statement with his music, and the ‘rock room’ feels he was even more so in the case of ‘#9 Dream’ as it had been composed while he was estranged from Yoko Ono. In hindsight Lennon may have not wanted to express any sort of public affection for the song. 

While in the midst of the crazed Los Angeles Nilsson sessions Lennon had been developing a string arrangement for Nilsson’s cover of the Jimmy Cliff song, ‘Many Rivers to Cross’. Cross pollination and subconscious composing collaborated in the mind of Lennon where the Cliff song string arrangement mutated into what would become the ‘#9 Dream’ framework. According to Pang and later confirmed by Lennon in his 1980 Playboy interview, Lennon woke from sleep with the ‘#9 Dream’ melody spinning around in his REM addled mind. Along with the treasure trove of music Lennon also appeared from the land of slumber with the gobbledygook lyric, ‘Ah, bowakawa pousse’ pousse’’. While the phrase meant nothing literally Lennon loved the sound of the words and ironically of the nine syllables comprising the dream letters. The whimsical saying would become  the central axis in which the song spins. When taken at face value, the other lyrics of the song are a reflection on the insane life that Lennon had lived up to that point. One that we can only imagine and speculate on.  Lennon himself wonders, ‘was it just a dream?’ and states that it, ‘seemed so real to me’.
Following his creative dream Lennon collaborated the segments of sleep and inspiration and took the song to the studio for consideration for Walls and Bridges. The musicians contributing to the track are Lennon’s usual cronies, featuring, Jim Keltner on drums, Jessie Ed Davis on liquid slide guitar, Nicky Hopkins on keyboards, Lennon and Eddie Matteau on acoustic guitars, Bobby Keys on saxophone, Ken Ascher on clavinet, Arthur Jenkins on percussion and the ‘44th Street Fairies’ on backing vocals spotlighting May Pang, Lori Burton and Joey Dambra. Lennon referred to this line up as the ‘Plastic Ono Nuclear Band’.

Perhaps influenced by his studio time with Nilsson, Lennon coats the heavy production of the song in a thick dressing of clouds and stardust. Swelling strings, and sugar coated vocals illicit a comfortable  relax between the sheets. The vocals, like many of Lennon’s dating back to the Beatles are slathered in tape delay and echo, in addition to being double tracked. The result is a quixotic and otherworldly voice singing from a great unknown. The cut encapsulates the sleeping, waking, dreaming states due to Lennon’s deft arranging and the soft aesthetic of the instrumentation.

As the song begins Jessie Ed Davis’s plump and icy opening slide guitar reveals to the listener a great open expanse of sky. Word is that Lennon asked Jessie Ed to sound like Harrison and his famed slide work, if that is the case he was pretty successful! The song ascends through its changes, its arrangement breathes with its head already in the clouds. As Lennon’s vocals enter, ‘So long ago….’ I can feel the clavinet shift the music psychedelically under the chiming acoustic strums. Lennon’s words sound omnipotent

After the opening verse, Lennon sings the lines gifted to him by sleep, ‘Ah bowakawa, pousse’ pousse’’ with a chorus of sky people. Funnily enough and in typical Lennon fashion the last words of the lyric were originally sung like ‘pussy, pussy’. After an A and R man from Capitol heard this, Lori Burton the wife of engineer Roy Cicala told Lennon that he should change it to something ‘French’ sounding, (hence the ‘pousse'’ statement)so it would actually get played on the radio! Remember that Lennon was always placing hidden messages in songs back to the Beate days, put that’s a whole other rant! Following the ‘Ah, bowakawa’ interlude the song defies gravity just for a moment to hang weightless among a shimmering snow globe of  twinkling sound. The timely caesura increases the listeners wonder for just a moment before suddenly being dropped quickly through the atmosphere and back into the verse.

Lennon uses his full vocal range from conversational to a chill inducing falsetto which begins in the middle eight. May Pang sensually whispers Lennon’s name when John sings, the ‘Someone calls out my name’ lines only adding to the disorienting array of sound. Following the second verses, Pang again returns to whisper John’s name following the ‘music touching my soul’ lyric. Here it almost sounds like she is whispering ‘George’. Officially it’s John’s name backwards, but many myself included like to think it’s a tip of the cap to his former Beatle partner partly because of the very Harrison sounding guitar work by Jessie Ed Davis.

Again the music falls away to almost silence but instead of returning to the verse there is a repeat of the ‘Ah bowakawa’ refrain. Chanted like a melodic mantra, Jessie Ed delicately weaves in well-timed notes as the music descends to earth, before suddenly ascending for another round while fading into the dark blues of the horizon.

Listening to John Lennon’s compositions through critical speakers is often a tall task. What hasn’t been said about Lennon’s songwriting abilities? Anything Lennon ever wrote is going to be compared to his Beatles work, and his solo work is often held against his fellow Beatles and their own solo careers. That being said, what never changes is his ability to turn a phrase or invent a unique melody. These are gifts that Lennon always used and never lost. Even in 1974 prior to his self-imposed 5 year exile from rock and roll where he referred to his work of this period to that of a ‘semi sick craftsman’ he could be counted on to produce musical magic. Regardless if Lennon thought his work was that of inspiration or that of a real job, what was created was unique and truly Lennon’s own. ‘#9 Dream’ is a track that contains a plethora of Lennon’s compositional approaches; inspiration, belief, recycling, and subconscious mining. The resulting song is one of the best solo cuts he ever created.