Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Uncle Bob is 70

As many folks know, today marks a milestone in rock lore with Bob Dylan’s 70th birthday. There have already been countless articles written on this subject by folks far more qualified than myself, so anything I have to add will just be an ink stain of insignificance alongside the legit critics, rabid fans and those deeply in the know who have so much more insight into Dylan’s music. But being a reasonable fan in my own right, I would be remiss if I did not say a little something here.

I decided a couple of weeks ago that I would celebrate the day with nothing but Dylan in the speakers. Since it would be literally impossible to burn through all of his official albums, plus the loads of exceptional “extracurricular” material floating around out there, I decided to truly make it a mixed bag and jump all over the place as much as I was able.

I officially started things off last night with a little “pre party” listen to a bootleg (unofficial) set of mid 60s outtakes called Thin Wild Mercury Music, which contains alternate performances of a lot of well known tunes that in some instances (e.g. Visions of Johanna) blow the more familiar album versions out of the water.

The official festivities got going around 5:00 this morning, with me getting up at that unlawful hour in order to get my mom to the airport. Things rocked pretty steadily until about mid afternoon and then picked up again earlier this evening. Here’s the list:

Together Through Life (2009) – My disappointment with Modern Times made me reluctant to pick this one up, but now that I have, while I don’t play it much, each listen impresses me more and it’s a great sleepy morning mood setter.

Bringing It All Back Home (1965) – Easily my favorite of the “golden three” (my moniker), side one is kick out the balls, jams to the wall folk punk as lyrically surreal and musically muscular as anything else before or since, while side two sheds the skin of the “protest balladeer” with a sneering grace that proves his ability to do just about everything was at the whim of his muse.

Tramps (NYC, 1999) – This bootleg is stellar, from quality to performance to song selection, and what really struck me is how his songs, even ones that were 30+ years old at the time, are in a continuous state of metamorphosis, retaining the same heart but wearing an outer skin that keeps them relevant and progressive well into the 21st century.

The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963) – Easily the most accessible (even listenable) of the protest trio, while two of his biggest songs are here (Blowin’ in the Wind, A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall), it’s the album tracks that make this one a winner, from the gorgeous and tender Girl from the North Country to the “funny because it’s true” Talking World War III Blues, this is the best of Dylan before he went electric.

Desire (1976) – A musical and emotional mess, a lot of varying styles (straight rock, Caribbean, Eastern, etc) result in a lack of cohesiveness that can make Desire a difficult and disjointed listen, but song for song this can be overlooked due to strong writing and a ramshackle, blasé charm that eases a lot of the heavy subject matter, while other tracks are as whimsical and lighthearted as they appear.

The Bootleg Series Volume 8: Tell Tale Signs – Rare and Unreleased 1989-2006 (2008) – Well, the title pretty much says it all, and there are loads of tunes here that once collected make a quite workable double album (much more so than Modern Times). As mentioned before, alternate takes of previously familiar tunes (Mississippi, Most of the Time) are exceptional, showcasing multiple possibilities; while previously unreleased tracks (Red River Shore, Series of Dreams) make one wonder how they sat vaulted so long, with material from the Oh Mercy sessions being especially nice.

Oh Mercy (1989) – After a decade of what was, at its best, good songs mired in 80s overproduction and assumed indifference, Oh Mercy was certainly a return to Dylan-par songwriting and believable performances, if not a full fledged comeback. Daniel Lanois’ production is slightly “telling” of the times (sax solos, ugh…), but he leans things up considerably, pulling a lot of fantastic songs into the forefront to let them stand on their own merit instead of hampering them with studio antics.

John Wesley Harding (1967) – Dylan’s “post motorcycle crash” period (again, my moniker), which I guess ended with Self Portrait, is my favorite. I love the brevity and loose acoustic jangle of these songs, just riffing around and laying things down lickity split. Twelve informal narratives ranging from hilarious to horrifying, JWH shows every side of late 60s Dylan compacted into two to four minute capsules.

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