Seventeen years ago today, we attended a concert featuring Dylan, Morrison, and Lucinda. The three of them toured briefly (there were two shows in the Bay Area). Here’s how Lucinda Williams described it in The New Yorker:
Williams went out on a short tour with Dylan and Van Morrison, as a supporting act. “I had this fantasy that we’d all hang out,” she said. “Nothing could’ve been farther from the truth. Nobody talked to each other. Van’s band was unhappy, never sure if they’d get fired one day or the next. Same went for Bob and his band.”
I didn’t notice any rancor on the stage. Lucinda opened with a quick set. Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, which some think is her best-ever album, had been released a few months earlier, and most of her songs came from that album. She was 45 years old then (she and I were born the same year), which meant she was the spring chicken of the tour (Dylan was 57, Morrison was 53). (When we saw her six years later, she had music stands holding her lyric book, proudly explaining that she had nothing to hide, she just couldn’t see as well as she used to). “Can’t Let Go” was a Randy Weeks song from Car Wheels ... here is a live performance, also from 1998 (I think that’s Bo Ramsey doing the guitar leads):
Van Morrison opened with “Rough God Goes Riding”, the first song on his most recent new album, The Healing Game (he had released an outtakes anthology earlier in ‘98). He mostly avoided the recognizable hits ... he did play “Jackie Wilson Said (I’m in Heaven When You Smile)” and “Have I Told You Lately”, which closed his set. He also played a medley of “Moondance” and “My Funny Valentine”, a pairing that he’d recording four years earlier on a live album:
The sound system sounded great for Van, which is why we were so disappointed when Dylan’s set was a sonic sludge, at least from where we were sitting. His most recent album, Time Out of Mind, had won three Grammy Awards, leading to a famous performance at the awards ceremony early in 1998, included below. Here is the set list for the show we saw:
Gotta Serve Somebody / Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You / Can't Wait / Queen Jane Approximately / Silvio / Friend Of The Devil / Masters Of War / Tangled Up In Blue / My Back Pages / Blind Willie McTell / Highway 61 Revisited / E: Love Sick / Rainy Day Women # 12 & 35 / Blowin' In The Wind
And here is Bob at the Grammys, performing “Love Sick” ... this is the official video from that event:
This official video cuts out the second verse from the song. If the words “Soy Bomb” mean nothing to you, you won’t know why they skipped that part of the song. Here’s what happened during the second verse:
Six years ago today, I saw Pink for the third time (my wife’s first). Here is what I wrote:
This was one of the best shows I have ever attended, and I’ve been going to shows for more than 40 years (and had seen Pink twice before, as well). There are reasons why I might overrate it … basically, I’ve never been to a show like this, so I was perhaps more impressed by the spectacle than I would have been if I was used to this type of concert. Think pop star with hard-rock roots, then toss in Cirque du Soleil, and you’ve got something of the idea.
Even though the show was as expected if you’d read about earlier stops on the tour, seeing it live was a lot better than watching on YouTube. The spectacle had a point … it wasn’t like a Bruce Springsteen concert where a calliope pops up to start the show and then disappears for the rest of the night. This tour supports the Funhouse album, so the concert included clowns and scary inflatable demons and trapeze work and aerial ballets. Meanwhile, Pink just rocked the house … she’s always been a confident performer, but the bigger stage really gave her room to strut. Yes, seeing her at the Fillmore was more intimate and in some ways better. But she pulled off the extravaganza like she was born to do it.
She played a lot of Funhouse, and a handful of her earlier hits. The crowd loved them all. She did her acoustic segment … she sang while spinning in the air (a separated shoulder prevented her from doing the kind of trapeze work we saw at the VMAs, but otherwise she was fine) … she changed costumes … she farted around … she screwed up a song, allowing her to remind us she wasn’t lipsyncing … she was good with the rockers, good with the ballads, good with the pop stuff.
And the covers! “I Touch Myself” worked well visually … she lay on a tricked out couch with holes underneath, a guy hid under the couch, and four hands roved over her body as she sang. The arrangement wasn’t much, though. She fared much better with Led Zeppelin’s “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You,” fighting Robert Plant to a draw. Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” was an appropriate end to the main set. And most amazing of all was “Bohemian Rhapsody.” I wouldn’t have thought it possible to bring this off, but they did, and very well. They did all the parts … this matters, since apparently even Queen wasn’t able to do all the parts in a live setting. The crowd went bonkers … they knew all the words and sang along throughout.
And it’s clear that Pink is nothing if not brazen. Not many singers would pit themselves against the memories of Robert Plant AND Freddie Mercury, but Pink killed, just as she did in past tours in covering Janis Joplin.
And then there was the audience. When I saw Pink seven years ago, there were a lot of men my age, taking their daughters to the concert. In 2009, those daughters are grown up, and don’t need Daddy along any more. So there weren’t many Dads. There weren’t a lot of men, period … at least one men’s room was transformed into a women’s room for the night. A rough guess of the makeup of the crowd would be 90% female, with a sizable lesbian contingent. The cheering was very high-pitched, another sign that the gender split was pretty extreme. It was also very loud … almost Beatlemania-esque at times.
Bottom line? I don’t know that I’ve ever had more fun at a concert in my life.
I was just watching some of Mad Dogs and Englishmen, the film of Joe Cocker's 1970 tour of America. We loved that album back in the day, and loved the movie as well, but we couldn't bring ourselves to admit we liked Joe Cocker, who was just plain weird, so we'd say "what a great album, but it's only because of the band, not because of that singer." (When I say "we" I probably mean "I".)
And it was quite a band. There were the people who played with Delaney and Bonnie, some of whom ended up being the Dominos to Eric Clapton's Derek. There was Rita Coolidge as a backup singer, and Claudia Lennear who inspired lust in a lot of young men and who was rumored to have been Mick Jagger's "brown sugar" and David Bowie's "lady grinning soul" ... she ended up doing a layout in Playboy. There was saxophonist Bobby Keys, who went on to the Rolling Stones, and of course there was Leon Russell trying to steal the show. In total there were more than 30 people in the band ... no wonder if we might have missed the singer.
Except it's so obvious in retrospect that Joe Cocker is pretty much the whole show. The big-band-rock concept is interesting, there's nothing wrong with it, but what makes the whole thing special is Joe Cocker. I couldn't have been more wrong back in the day.
Ten years later, I’d say I was a bit hard on the band and the arrangements. Yes, it’s Cocker’s show, but the band is great, too.
“Cry Me a River” ... I love the joy on the backup singers at the end.
“The Letter” ... no video here, just the audio, as the video versions are awkwardly truncated:
The Woodstock version of “With a Little Help from My Friends” is iconic, but it turns up in Mad Dogs as well. The differences in the two versions are instructive ... you get a sense of how the Mad Dogs and The Grease Band differed.
10. Electric Light Orchesta, “Telephone Line”. One of my two or three favorite ELO songs. It eventually made it to #7. It was part of the soundtrack for the 1977 movie Joyride, which featured a bunch of actors with famous parents: Desi Arnaz, Jr., Robert Carradine, Melanie Griffith, and Anne Lockhart.
9. The Brothers Johnson, “Strawberry Letter 23”. Originally written by Shuggie Otis, who included it on a 1971 album. It peaked at #5.
8. Fleetwood Mac, “Don’t Stop”. Made it to #3. Great song. It was bad enough that those two mid-70s albums got played into the ground ... this one was incessant during Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign.
7. Crosby, Stills & Nash, “Just a Song Before I Go”. This is as high as it got on the charts, and it was the highest-charting single in the band’s career. The album from which it came, CSN, received one of Christgau’s most quotable reviews, which read simply, “Wait a second--wasn't this a quartet? D+” I saw Young in concert once, CSNY once, and CSN once (not counting Bridge benefits). Neil Young and Crazy Horse was far and away the best of the shows (you can see it in the concert film Rust Never Sleeps, which was filmed at our show). CSNY was OK ... it was their 1974 tour ... but honestly, they were outdone by The Band, who played before them. CSN was a bit of a joke ... 1984 at Candlestick Park after a Giants game.
6. The Floaters, “Float On”. Actually made it to #2. Honestly, I can’t remember a thing about this one. Maybe if I listen to the YouTube, I’ll remember it. (Nope.) Well, the Internet tells me the album version ran almost 12 minutes.
5. James Taylor, “Handy Man”. Probably the less I say about James Taylor, the better. This hit #4. (The link is to the Jimmy Jones version.)
4. The Commodores, “Easy”. This is as high on the charts as it got. Amazingly, it first appeared on the same album as “Brick House”.
3. Rita Coolidge, “(Your Love Has Lifted Me) Higher and Higher”. It actually climbed to #2. I can’t resist quoting Christgau again. “It takes a very special kind of stupidity to slow "Higher and Higher" into a down. C”
2. Andy Gibb, “I Just Want to Be Your Everything”. Was #1 for four weeks. Fleetwood Mac, CSN, James Taylor, Rita Coolidge, Andy Gibb ... it was the Soft Rock Era! Some of these songs are good, some not so good, but Fleetwood Mac blows them all out of the water.
Bubbling under the top ten, one song stands out: at #18, “Black Betty” by Ram Jam. (The Wikipedia page about the song is worth a read.) The band was produced by a team with roots in bubblegum ... the band’s leader came from a psychedelic bubble gum band, The Lemon Pipers. Authorship of the song is disputed, but Lead Belly gets credit on the record. What do you get if you combine bubblegum and Lead Belly? Whatever it is, the NAACP didn’t approve, and tried to boycott the recording. “Black Betty”. (A remix hit the charts in 1990.)
I’ll add one more, Jackie Wilson singing “Higher and Higher”. This is not the original hit, but some kind of live performance. Unlike Coolidge, Wilson actually speeds it up a bit.
In 1992, a San Francisco band called 4 Non Blondes released what would be their only album, Bigger, Better, Faster, More! The second single from that album, released in 1993, was “What’s Up?” It was a hit, and the video for the song was very popular on MTV. When the dust had cleared, that one album by 4 Non Blondes had sold six million copies. Critical opinion of “What’s Up?” varies ... it makes lots of One Hit Wonders lists, and also makes lists of the worst songs of all time. It’s got a catchy sing-along chorus, and the lyrics are vague and hippie-like.
Now, I would have thought this song came and went, occasionally recalled by folks nostalgic for that time in the early-90s when they were teenagers and this was their anthem. People like Alecia Moore, better known as Pink, who was born in 1979 and was a big fan of the song and Linda Perry, who wrote it and sang it. Pink asked Perry to work on her second album, Perry offered up the song “Get This Party Started”, and the album, M!ssundaztood, eventually sold thirteen million copies. On tour, Pink would sing “What’s Up?”. I caught this the first time I saw her in concert in 2002, and then again when she played the Fillmore in 2006. After that show, I wrote:
Her audience was completely in love with her ... there were a lot of young girls there, young women as well, as is appropriate, and it was their show, they knew every song and sang every lyric. They even knew every word to 4 Non Blonde's "What's Up," which Pink claims as her own. No matter how corny the song, or Pink's delivery of the same, it's quite a moment when all those youngsters throw the peace sign in the air and sing "hey hey hey hey, what's going on?" In fact, it's this element of pop community that I like best about Pink concerts, it would seem, since I wrote about a singalong in my blog post about that earlier show four years ago.
What's odd is that Pink hooked up with Linda Perry for M!ssundaztood, and Perry wrote a lot of the songs for that album, when in fact Linda Perry had written the ultimate Pink song eight years before the two even met. So now Pink sings that song as if she's known it all her life, and based on the voices in the Fillmore who sang every word, her audience has known it all their lives as well, and it's a great pop moment that reflects the optimism of the young just as other Pink songs reflect their sadness. The song indeed no longer belongs to Linda Perry, it belongs to Pink and the fans who know and sing all the words.
Which brings us to the new Netflix TV series, Sense8. Briefly, Sense8 tells the story of eight strangers who have some kind of psychic/emotional link to each other (we’ve only watched four of the twelve first-season episodes, so I’m guessing this gets more clear as the show progresses). Near the end of the fourth episode, one of the eight drunkenly attempts to sing “What’s Up?” at a karaoke bar. All of the other Eight feel the song inside them, and it binds them together in a beautiful way that correctly identifies why “What’s Up?” works no matter how bad or irritating the song might be.
There wasn’t a dry eye at my house. Kinda makes me hate the song, but damn, does it work!
In a fascinating article on the series (“Sense8 and the Failure of Global Imagination”), Claire Light argues convincingly that the show offers “a beautiful vision, if you believe in universality”, but that “To put it plainly: Sense8’s depiction of life in non-western countries is built out of stereotypes ... The universality being promoted here is a universality of American ideas, American popular culture, American world views.... ‘Universing’ everything under an American idea — an American set of choices — is a contradiction in terms”. (“The Icelandic DJ in London puts on 4 Non Blondes’ hideous anthem ‘What’s Goin’ On?’ and infects the entire cluster with a dancing/singing jag.”)
And yet ... that hideous anthem, which did indeed come from America, approached the universal long before Sense8, and not just because young girls knew all the words at Pink concerts. “What’s Up?” hit #1 in Austria, Belgium, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland. Granted, this only disputes Light’s claim by half ... Africa and Asia and South America are missing from these charts. Her essay is very enlightening. But the pull of that “hideous anthem” somehow seems just right in this case.
Here are two more versions of the song. First, Linda Perry is joined by Pink for an acoustic version:
And finally, the version many think is the best, by He-Man:
[A] one-of-a-kind celebration, including personal reminiscences and dramatic and musical interpretations. With rock critic and author Ben Fong-Torres, musician Tom Heyman, author/humorist Beth Lisick, San Francisco poet laureate Alejandro Murguia, poet Daphne Gottlieb, rock critic Joel Selvin, and music biographer and musician Sylvie Simmons.
There were a couple of cute “reminiscences” before the start of the actual show, which was hosted by Fong-Torres. He was one of the best things about the show, and I actually learned something from his performance of “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out”. Fong-Torres said the song exposes some of Springsteen’s admitted influences, and he proceeded to start singing the song in the voice of Bob Dylan. His Dylan impression could use some work, but it served its purpose, showing how Dylan-esque Bruce’s lyrics remained on his third album.
What followed was a mixed bag. Part of the problem is down to taste preferences, as usual. I don’t much care for treating song lyrics like poetry. Song lyrics don’t stand alone ... remove the music and you change the meaning. The lyrics of “She’s the One” on the page are lacking the central point of the song: the Bo Diddley beat, with the volume cranked up at the start of the second verse. So the songs where the performer did a reading of the lyrics were not my cup of tea. Alejandro Murquia did what he could with “Meeting Across the River”, but any insights came from having the voice of a Latino behind the words. Joel Selvin sped through “Night” in about 45 seconds ... I assume he was trying to convey the rush of the song, but again, absent the music, he just sounded silly. “Backstreets” has great lyrics, sure, but the meaning of the song is told through the piano and the guitar and the way Bruce channels Van Morrison.
Tom Heyman, a working musician, had a tough job. At least he got to sing and play guitar. But the songs he was given, “Born to Run” and “Jungleland”, don’t lend themselves to an acoustic rendering (even Bruce struggled with this when he sang “Born to Run” solo on one tour). Similarly, Sylvie Simmons was never going to be able to turn “She’s the One” into a ukulele classic (see above). It’s not that these musicians were bad, it’s that their reworkings were doomed to failure from the start. Honestly, Frankie Goes to Hollywood had a better handle on “Born to Run” than Heyman.
Out of all this, one performance rose above the rest. Beth Lisick performed “Thunder Road” as a woman listening on headphones. We couldn’t hear the actual track ... we only heard Lisick, singing (too loud, and just a bit off-key, the way we all do when we sing with headphones on). For once, we sensed the joy that Springsteen’s work provides to his audience, as Lisick danced awkwardly, screwing up the occasional lyric, and then, best of all, acting out the instrumental fadeout. You could hear the instruments in your head, even though no sound came from Lisick. And then, in the single most winning moment of the night, she mimed the Professor playing his little piano phrase. It’s the kind of thing only a hardcore Bruce fan would understand, and it was a roomful of hardcore Bruce fans. The communal feel of recognition was sublime.
A friend who lives in the Northwest felt bad for missing the show, but he offered to read the lyrics in his backyard if anyone wanted to do a road trip his way. I wish “Born to Read” had a bit more of that spirit.
(I should add that I wasn’t keeping notes, so I may have mismatched performers to songs. My apologies if this is true.)
Ten years ago today, my wife and I went to Cafe duNord to see Mary Gauthier in concert. It was just her and a guitar player. The venue is extremely tiny, which turned out to be a good thing, because the electronics on the guitars wasn't working, so Gauthier did the entire show literally unplugged ... she came off the stage to the front of the floor to get closer to us, and sang her songs.