Sunday, September 30, 2007

Bob Dylan & Elvis Costello, the Ryan Center, Kingston, RI (9/29/07)

After I booked this too-short trip back east to visit family, it was announced that Bob Dylan and Elvis Costello would be performing at my alma mater the night after my arrival. Talk about perfect timing! In attendance were Doug and both of my parents - this being the first time all four of us attended a show together. My mother had taken me and Doug to see Keith Richards back in '93, but my father has rarely been to concerts with me. I can count on one hand, probably, all the concerts he has seen with me and my mother. Let's see... Chicago, the Moody Blues, Engelbert Humperdinck, Paul McCartney, and this one. Yup, just checked, I still have five fingers on each hand.

In short, it was a mixed bag. First, the positives:

Parking for this venue was just a very short walk across the street, and it was very easy getting in and almost as easy getting out. It's only an 8,000 seater, so that helped. It also wasn't completely sold out, so that helped too.

Amos Lee opened. He has been Dylan's default opening act for the past several years. He's not remarkable, but he's not annoying either. Just a good, solid musician with a hard working rootsy band, sounding a shade like Levon Helm at times. It's easy to hear why Dylan likes him so much, and both times I've seen him open for Dylan, the audience was warm and accepting.

Costello was the absolute highlight of the night. It was just the man alone, switching between three different guitars throughout the course of his 11-song set. He walked out dressed in black, smiling and in great spirits. His full, well-toned voice was in perfect shape for most of the night, and he occasionally stepped away from the mic to create an echo effect in "The River In Reverse." Towards the end of this tune, he started singing John Lennon's "I Don't Wanna Be A Soldier, Mama, I Don't Wanna Die" and, as is his style, got the audience to sing along (although they didn't all get the cadence and it sounded jumbled). He did this again when he turned "Radio Sweetheart" into a full medley with Van Morrison's classic "Jackie Wilson Said (I'm In Heaven When You Smile)" - it was a perfect sing-along and it went off without a hitch.

The only real flaws of Costello's set were "Less Than Zero," which didn't really work all that well as a solo piece, and a new song co-written with Roseanne Cash that he debuted. Calling it simply "Song with Rose" since he hadn't titled it yet, the song wasn't all that memorable, didn't have much of a hook to speak of. Maybe it'll be another classic with some fine tuning, but thumbs up for trotting out something new.

The biggest surprise for me was hearing "Veronica." Even though this was his biggest hit (and his only number one single), he rarely plays it these days. What's more, it was played in a completely different key and sounded completely fresh. Probably for both of these reasons it earned him the first of about four standing ovations (he also got them for "The River In Reverse," "Radio Sweetheart," and of course after the last song). Ending with "The Scarlet Tide," he received his guaranteed mid-song applause when he sang the Bush-directed lyric, "admit you lied / and bring the boys back home." It's a genuine folk song, one of the most affecting songs he has written (actually co-written, with fellow "Coward brother" T-Bone Burnett) and has turned up frequently in his sets since its release on 2004's The Delivery Man.

With a voice like Costello's, having Dylan close the night was a bit anticlimactic. Not that Dylan's songs were any less remarkable, or his band overpowering or tasteless. Quite the contrary - Dylan played a well-chosen set of old and new classics, and his band is as tight as ever.

It's no secret that Dylan isn't a great singer, and anyone who buys a ticket to his concerts knows and expects that he is going to sound ragged. But this time, he sounded downright bored and sick of some of his old tunes. It was as if he could care less about even trying to emit discernible human tones on most of his old songs, especially on the first three - "Leopard-Skin Pillbox Hat," "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright" and "Watching The River Flow." He rushed through the lyrics, jumbling syllables together like a chain-smoking bullfrog with Tourette's syndrome. He'd then take a long pause to make up the time before finishing each line, in what sounded like a willful insult to musical cadence and (of course) melody. And yet... Doug and I found ourselves not pissed, but laughing. Quite frequently. "I think he's taking the piss out of people," Doug observed. Perhaps.

He may have just been bored too. For, by the time Dylan got around to singing some of the tunes off his latest album, last year's Modern Times (he played five of the album's ten songs), he was finally starting to reach for some notes, the mid-line pauses weren't so long, and one could actually make out some melodies.

One song where the spooky tone of his nearly destroyed voice worked especially well was "Ain't Talkin'" - he wrote this one with a melody very suitable for his limited range, and the many dark verses are exactly the kind of material that fit the world-weary personality responsible for early, winding epics like "Desolation Row." Every lyric was brought into sharp relief by his delivery, especially lines like "I'm tryin' to love my neighbor and do good unto others / But oh mother, things ain't going so well" and the closing couplet: "Heart burnin', still yearnin' / In the last outback at the world's end." You'd think he was resigned to the imminent end of time being just around the corner, and who knows, maybe it is.

But even a miserable Bob Dylan won't leave his audience feeling depressed, and "Summer Days" is exactly the antidote for the effects of his downer material. This tune, from 2001's Love and Theft, has become a latter-day classic thanks to its frequent appearances in Dylan's set lists since its release. It's the only song from the album that he performed on Saturday, and its jubilant rockabilly swing is nothing short of an instant party.

After a haunting, always relevant "Masters of War," Dylan encored with the "Summer Days" follow-up "Thunder on the Mountain" (from Modern Times) and the crowd-pleasing "All Along The Watchtower," modeled after the more-famous Jimi Hendrix cover, showing that Dylan clearly isn't above adopting another legend's improvement of one of his own songs.

But truly, we had to laugh. After all, the context in which we were hearing these performances was so cynically designed, I'm sure Dylan himself must be laughing too. It was the taped brass fanfare that signaled the start of the show, and the voice announcing Dylan as the "voice of the '60s counterculture, who disappeared in the '80s, subsequently found Jesus, and has returned with his strongest work starting in the late '90s" or something to that effect... I mean, these kinds of labels and hero-worship were exactly the kind of thing Dylan rejected and rebelled against for so many years. And in that context, coupled with hearing how ungodly he sounds today, how could one not laugh?

Clearly, Dylan has a (somewhat warped) sense of humor. And he's laughing all the way to the bank. Who else can "sing" like he does and get away with it? And it's not like he can't still sing clear melodies - his a capella rendition of "Take Me Out To The Ballgame" offered on one of his recent XM "Theme Time Radio Hour" broadcasts proved it. He just chooses to croak. And we choose to show up. It's quite the arrangement, and it makes for some interesting theater. That's why we dig Dylan, not just because he wrote some amazing songs and captured the mood of a grand, historic moment in time.

Elvis Costello's set-list:
The Angels Want to Wear My Red Shoes
Either Side of the Same Town
The River In Reverse
"Song with Rose"
Less Than Zero
(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding
From Sulfur to Sugar Cane
Radio Sweetheart/Jackie Wilson Said
The Scarlet Tide

Bob Dylan's set-list:
Leopard-Skin Pillbox Hat
Don't Think Twice, It's Alright
Watching The River Flow
The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll
Rollin' And Tumblin'
The Ballad of Hollis Brown
Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again
Spirit On The Water
Things Have Changed
Workingman's Blues #2
Highway 61 Revisited
Ain't Talkin'
Summer Days
Masters of War

Thunder On The Mountain
All Along The Watchtower

Monday, September 24, 2007

More reviews and a yoga folly

Bringin' you up to date with my latest assessments of new(ish) music from opposite ends of the rock n' roll spectrum over at, once again, Bullz-Eye:

On the cutting edge part of the spectrum, I took a crack at Animal Collective's Strawberry Jam. If you're too lazy to read the full review (it's just over 400 words, don't be shy!), here's the two-word summation: acquired taste.

And on the moldy goldy end, it's Goin' Home: A Tribute to Fats Domino. The two-word summation for this one? Mostly awesome.

And now, in my favored fashion of mixing unrelated topics (would you expect anything less from a guy who sincerely enjoys both Minnie Riperton and Slayer?)... I've been practicing yoga, and I learned a very important lesson some weeks ago. No, I'm not talking about the importance of eye gaze, ujjayi breath, modifying poses when necessary or any of that...

Actually, this sort of relates to modifying poses. I occasionally have to use a strap for poses that require stretching hand to foot. I can't always reach that far, so I have to wrap a strap around my foot and grab onto that instead. At one session, the instructor walked up to me and asked if I needed a strap. I was already using one, or so I thought that's what I had taken from the locker.

Remember this now, if you plan on practicing yoga some day -

This is a strap:
And this is a jump rope:

Any questions?

Sunday, September 16, 2007

One dead link + three live ones and Brian Wilson!

About a week ago, went offline. The reason? Jeff's web hosting provider, Jatol, went under and unfortunately, the blog itself wasn't backed up locally. Whether jefitoblog will return is unclear at this point.

In the meantime, I've got three new blog links here to help fill jefito's huge void:

  •, the home of the always entertaining Chart Attack and Mellow Gold, was actually designed by jefito's Grab Bag Design company. So the look and feel is very familiar to jefito fans. Jason posts probably about as often as I do, which means it's easier to keep up with.

  • Isorski's Musings is based in Portland and comments on a lot of live music happenings, such as the recently announced Led Zeppelin reunion (I'm snoring at that news, which I should probably elaborate on in a separate post). He leans towards hard rock most of the time, and posts fairly regularly with great personality. This is one to get into, for sure.

  • Linear Zap's Blog is one of those awesome, generous music blogs like jefito's was, only with a strict Brian Wilson/Beach Boys focus. Which leads to...

Brian Wilson's recent performances at London's Royal Festival Hall featured the debut of That Lucky Old Sun (A Narrative), which is basically the follow-up to SMiLE. Dare I say Brian has created his third masterpiece (after Pet Sounds and SMiLE)? I think the long-form song cycle is really Brian's thing, much more than 3-minute pop songs. His last batch of pop songs (2004's Gettin' In Over My Head) sounded great, though they were bankrupt lyrically. He sounds truly inspired on That Lucky Old Sun, weaving the title song (yes, that same oft-covered Frankie Lane pop hit you know so well) throughout in variations, much in the way that fans had speculated Brian would do with his "Heroes And Villains" theme on a finished SMiLE. He draws on his rock n' roll roots by way of that plodding, idiosyncratic style he put forth on '70s tunes like "Let Us Go On This Way" in the part titled "Going Home," some of the camp of SMiLE in "California Role," the emotional intensity of Pet Sounds in "Midnight's Another Day," and pays tribute to his brothers in the closing section. There are little melodies throughout the piece that can be placed back to some of Brian's own work (like "Rio Grande," for instance) and, in "Forever She'll Be My Surfer Girl," he even nicks a riff from Three Dog Night's "Mama Told Me Not To Come." And of course, Brian's patented harmonies he developed with the Beach Boys are present throughout, rendered lovingly by his backing band.

I'm placing my bets on a big Brian Wilson U.S. tour sometime next year to promote a new studio album. This will be the one that proves he's still vital, and not simply making his living by raising old ghosts. In a sense, this is even bigger than SMiLE, but we don't really know it yet, and probably won't for another 30 years...

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Goodbye Joe

It was announced yesterday that jazz composer/bandleader/pianist/etc Joe Zawinul died at the age of 75 from a rare form of skin cancer. I saw the news and, just like every other time I hear of the death of a musician I admire, I groaned. Not another one!

Even before I recognized the size of his contributions, Zawinul's music drew me in and made me want to explore the sounds he created with Miles Davis and Weather Report. It was in high school when I bought my first copy of Miles' In A Silent Way, which Zawinul played on and composed the title track. Not long after that, a friend played me just enough of the first cut on Bitches Brew -- a Zawinul composition called "Pharaoh's Dance" -- to have me wondering what was happening. Bitches Brew, I had heard, was the beginning of jazz-rock fusion. I was expecting to hear loud, searing guitar work from John McLaughlin fighting for space with Miles' trumpet. Instead, I was hearing this light, slightly funky back beat with some bass, bass clarinet, and the mysterious tinkling electric piano of Joe Zawinul. I didn't quite know what to make of it, but in a year or so, I'd be playing Bitches Brew constantly in my dorm, loving every second of it, not yet knowing that Zawinul was playing electric piano with Cannonball Adderley before the innovative Miles Davis had even thought of going electric with his music.

Zawinul formed Weather Report with fellow Davis sideman Wayne Shorter in '71. This group, like Zawinul's contributions to Bitches Brew, had a strange appeal to it, with its multi-cultural sounds and many different keyboard textures. The absence of guitar (which would have balanced the keyboard-heavy proceedings) on most of their recordings initially made me reluctant to explore their catalog. But then, upon scoring used LPs of Sweetnighter and Mysterious Traveler (their third and fourth albums), I was hooked. The two records were released in 1973 and 1974, respectively, and were as different as night and day. Sweetnighter mostly mined dance grooves, beats which sounded quite ahead of their time for '73. The drum patterns actually weren't all that different from what Tony Williams was playing on In A Silent Way. And yet, Zawinul found new rhythms in his keyboard riffs that changed the way an old drum beat sounded. The acoustic bass was retained, which kept the sound otherworldly -- old rhythmic approach plus new rhythmic approach equaled something unusual. On Mysterious Traveler, the group transitioned to even funkier sounds as Alphonso Johnson joined on electric bass. But still, there were eerie mood pieces present like Wayne Shorter's "Scarlet Woman," and a playful acoustic duet between Zawinul and Shorter on "Blackthorn Rose."

From here, I had to hear it all. Actually, I never did pick up the last two Weather Report studio albums (1985's Sportin' Life and 1986's This Is This), but I explored enough to know that this was one hell of a group. In fact, on my jazz radio show during college, I would start the last hour of music I played with a Weather Report tune, after reading the day's weather forecast (cheesy, I know, but it was fun). I did this every week without fail, except for one special all-Miles edition. But even then, Zawinul was in there in somewhere.

Probably the most surprising fact I had learned about Joe Zawinul's music career centers around the 1967 pop hit "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy." I knew the song via the Buckinghams' hit, which used to be played on oldies stations back when they still played songs recorded prior to 1970. It had become fashionable in the late '60s for jazz artists to record instrumental covers of pop hits -- Wes Montgomery did this quite a bit with songs like Roger Miller's "King Of The Road" and the Beatles' "A Day In the Life," among many others. Hank Mobley covered the Four Tops' "Reach Out (I'll Be There)," George Benson recorded a version of the Monkees' "Last Train To Clarksville," you get the picture. It happened a lot. So when I heard Zawinul playing electric piano on Cannonball Adderley's version of that Buckinghams' hit, I was shocked when I looked at the credits -- Zawinul wrote it! And it was recorded the year before the Buckinghams' version hit the charts. Come to find out, this was a rare case of a pop group covering a jazz artist's tune, adding lyrics, and suddenly the cover becomes the hit. It would happen to Zawinul again in the late '70s, when the Manhattan Transfer won the 1980 Grammy for Best Jazz/Fusion Performance for their vocalese cover of Weather Report's 1977 hit "Birdland."

I never did get to see Zawinul perform live with his band the Zawinul Syndicate, which he formed after dissolving Weather Report. I have yet to even explore that section of his catalog. Fortunately, there are many recordings out there, both audio and video.

Check this video out -- it's vintage Weather Report, pre-superstar era, pre-Jaco, pre-"Birdland"... performing a version of "Directions" that is cut from the same cloth as Bitches Brew. It's one of my favorite Zawinul tunes -- open-ended, not too pretty, and ripe for jamming every time. It was the kind of thing Miles Davis loved to play. In fact, Miles used this tune as his set opener for at least a couple of years, albeit in a much different arrangement.

Thanks for the music, Joe. It's been a trip!

Saturday, September 8, 2007

More reviews, Rick Rubin and miscellaneous notes

Note to self, and to all: binging on tortilla chips (and when I say binging I mean consuming roughly half a pound in one sitting), apple juice and Italian grapefruit soda late at night can produce the same "hangover" feeling the next morning that would result by replacing said beverages and most of the chips with an equal amount of alcohol. Seriously, Trader Joes' jalapeno chips don't even need salsa, and they're worth the groggy morning. Once, maybe.

Those chips were also partly responsible for my falling asleep during my second attempt to finish watching Snatch. Third time will be the charm, I'm sure, though I already have seen enough to know that it's just a slower moving, more easily digestible cousin to Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. One's for the caffeinated, one's for the inebriated. Take your pick.

You also have your pick of a few different reviews. I've got four more to share, three of which were made available this week, and one which was actually published back when I said rock was dead, but if I mentioned that one, I'd have to make some ridiculous argument that Jethro Tull is not rock (which could be made, quite easily too). So...

And if you get bored with my garbage (very likely), take a look at this: the New York Times recently published an excellent story on music guru Rick Rubin. He's gone from co-founding Def Jam (thereby playing a big role in hip hop's crossing over to a mainstream audience), to producing records by Slayer and Andrew "Dice" Clay, to resurrecting Johnny Cash's career so that the man could go out on top, to his latest humongous project - leading Columbia Records as the music industry faces a dire present and an uncertain future. Can Rick help turn the situation around? He could be the industry's savior... he even looks like one!

(Photo Credit: By Jamie Rector For The Washington Post Photo)