Monday, April 30, 2007

Back Street Jelly Roll

Back Street Jelly Roll...Van the Man 4-29-07

At 3:30 AM on Saturday night/ Sunday Morning, prior to Van Morrison’s concert at the Theatre at MSG, I ran into one of the top cardiologists in New York in an Upper Eastside watering hole. I hadn’t spoken to the good doctor in a couple of months, but knowing his affection for Van the Man, I wasn’t surprised that he, like me, had plucked down $175 for the show. We decided to meet up at Uncle Jack’s Steakhouse for cocktails and a pre show feast consisting of baked clams, crab legs, oysters and porterhouse. After being spoiled by Uncle Jack, it was off to see the surly musical genius from Belfast.

As I was truculently making my way to a seventh row seat, the band, minus Van cranked out the Train Kept a Rollin. I had last seen Van at the same venue sharing a bill with Dylan nine years earlier. As our stocky hero emerged from backstage, he looked like he did in 1998. In fact, he seemed to be wearing the very same buttoned up grey suit and pork-pie hat as he immediately got down to the nitty-gritty with an angry three song assault consisting of Talk is Cheap, I’m Not Feeling It Anymore and Stranded. I think Van was reflecting back to his early days in New York City when he had some rough dealings with big time operators from Bang Records.

I was pumped to hear I’m Not Feeling It Anymore as Van barked out the lyrics like a mad dog. I’ve seen Van six times before, and this concert by far, was his strongest vocal outing. He physically stepped into his singing with the intensity of “Smokin” Joe Frazier unleashing a left hook. All night he was engaged in his distinctive, repetitive scat- style word echoing. If you’ve heard Van live before, you know, you know, youknowyouknow… you know…you know what I'm talking about, it’s got nothing but soul, back street jelly jelly jelly roll. Oblivious to the audience, he was lost in a zone that only immortals like Miles and Dylan escape to. Actually, Van’s gruff demeanor makes Dylan come off like Dick Clark.

Van was blowing saxophone as things began to swing during an upbeat jazzy rendition of the crowd pleasing Have I Told You Lately. The versatile band consisted of two guitarists, drummer, bassist, Hammond pianist, steel pedal player, two multi-instrumentalists, and a pair of female backing singers. The band cooked throughout their 90 minute set, but the demanding Morrison seemed to be chastising his mates on several occasions. Towards the end of the set, he could be heard bellowing at one of the guitarists, “play it fucking steady!”

Van played three songs from his most recent all country release Pay The Devil. I find that 15 track effort banal, but these songs were magic when mixed into his set. He played my three favorite cuts from that CD – There Stands the Glass, Playhouse, and the irresistible Don’t You Make Me High. With the possible exception of Dylan, I’ve never heard any performer pull off such an eclectic mix of American musical styles featuring R&B, soul, jazz, country and pop. It was a little surprising that Morrison decided to not to pursue any compositions that had a powerful Celtic flavor on this night.

Van’s sax playing was impressive during Moondance as a starlit nighttime sky stage backdrop was revealed. It was a plush version that was followed by another one of his best known hits, Wild Night. These numbers fired up the crowd for the big rhythm and blues finale medleys. A smoking Real Real Gone segued into a brief flirtation with Sam Cooke’s You Send Me.

Precious Time, from 1999’s Back On Top was sandwiched by Don’t Stop Crying>Custard Pie and Sonny Boy Williamson’s You Gotta Help Me. It was clear that Van savored playing these classic blues tunes as he continued to impress with the harmonica and sax. The brunette haired lady playing pedal steel guitar was quite talented. You Gotta Help me was the most inspired number of the evening featuring wonderful solos and Van repeatedly singing the phrases, “Put on your nightshirt and your morning gown, “ and “Shake your moneymaker,” before disappearing behind the backstage curtains.

Van remerged with an electric guitar kicking off the last stage of the show with the wonderfully weird And the Healing Has Begun from 1979’s Into the Music. A lengthy mystical rap dominated this number just like earlier during The Philosophers Stone.

A kiddy cookout consisting of Gloria and Brown Eyed finished up the concert much to the crowd’s delight. It absolutely sucked, but I knew it was coming so I wasn’t disappointed. Van’s learned that he has to be a professional and play these songs if he doesn’t want to piss off the paying customers. These were so uninspired it was if Van was saying, “Put this in your pipe and smoke it,” but the crowd didn’t care, they loved it. Dylan gives the crowd Like a Rolling Stone and All Along the Watchtower every night, but those songs are timeless, well played and define who he is. Morrison plays these two early hit songs like they are throwaways, unlike his gripping take on Moondance earlier. I would have gladly traded those two songs in for another arcane Morrison classic like Summertime in England, but when you’re charging $175 for a ticket, even an artist like Van has to make concessions.

Some of the departing concert goers thought Van should have played longer than 90 minutes. I felt the show was brilliant and the good doctor agreed when we met up for post-concert libations at Uncle Jack’s. Knowing that Van mixes his set lists up, we had decided to do it again in Boston the following night as we parted ways. However, Monday morning reality set in and we scrapped those plans. He had to save lives and I had to drop some do re mi off at the bank in preparation for the Bob Dylan summer tour pre sale on Tuesday morning.

Van Morrison 4-29-07 The Theatre at MSG

Train Kept A Rollin’ without Van
Talk is Cheap
I’m Not Feeling it Anymore
Have I Told You Lately
There Stands The Glass
The Philosopher’s Stone
Don’t You Make Me High
I Can’t Stop Loving You
Wild Night
Real Real Gone>You Send Me
Don’t Start Crying>Custard Pie
Precious Time
You Gotta Help Me
The Healing Has Begun
Brown eyed Girl

Friday, April 27, 2007

Early Morning Rain - Town Hall 4-26-07

“You can’t jump a jet plane like you can a freight train” and you usually don’t run into an old friend who happens to have an extra ticket for a Gordon Lightfoot concert while waiting for the Downtown 4 Train. At 2:14 PM, my old friend J Marc, who I hadn’t seen in a few years, spotted me on the underground platform waiting for the Downtown Express. He lives in Southern New Jersey and comes into Manhattan once a year. With all the various subway lines and the frequency with which they run, this encounter was a million to one probability. Then, throw in the fact that my favorite Canadian folk artist was in town that night and J Marc had an extra ticket, and the whole thing was just weird and whacky. Destiny and lady luck was shining on me. I would have preferred to win a mega millions lottery, but this ended up being a fine evening of entertainment.

Gordon was delighted to be performing at the Town Hall again. As he noted during the concert, this intimate Midtown theatre was the site of his first New York gig opening up for the Paul Butterfield Blues Band in 1968. He also reminisced about playing in the Village mentioning places like the Bitter End and performers like Jerry Jeff Walker. Seated in my orchestra seat, I imagined what it must have been like to watch a baby-faced Dylan perform Masters of War here in April of 1963. Ah, the good old days, which I was too young to be part of.

Lightfoot is still a striking figure with commanding stage presence. He looked like a well dressed swashbuckling pirate as he serenaded the audience with his arsenal of classics with a few newer compositions tossed in. His familiarly distinctive voice was evident, but it was a little tinny and hollow. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise because his four piece band faithfully reproduced his songs note for note, so his softer vocals made the songs sound fresh. Lightfoot kicked the evening off with a pair of crowd pleasers – Cotton Jenny and Carefree Highway. He delivered every song I desired to see without any preconceived shtick, which is refreshing.

The highlight of this two set affair that ended with a two-song encore was The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” Ending the opening set, Fitzgerald was energetic and it stood out as the masterpiece from his back pages. I have a strange predilection for songs about ship tragedies that dates back to my childhood. One of the first albums I ever heard was a live Weavers album that contained Guthrie’s The Sinking of the Rueben James. I listened to that song repeatedly when I was five years old. Here are a couple of analogies for you; Edmund Fitzgerald is to Lightfoot as Hurricane is to Dylan and Johnny Cash is to American music as Lightfoot is to Canadian music.

The finale of the second set, Early Morning Rain, sparkled as well. As Gordon sang this I was savoring the amazing lyrics. No wonder so many others covered it and Dylan has such high praise for Lightfoot. Other fine performances that made this a memorable night included Sundown, Don Quixote, The Watchman’s Gone, Beautiful, A Painter Passing Through and Rainy Day People. Of the approximately 24 songs, the most noticeable absentee was Canadian Railroad Trilogy. If You Could Read My Mind was part of the concert, but it was the one tune that was off target, it just wasn’t performed well. However, it was a great night of music, Lightfoot gave it his all.

I can now say I’ve seen the legendary Gordon Lightfoot thanks to a simple twist of fate. That afternoon I didn’t even realize he was in town until I bumped into an old friend. Sunday night I’ll be enjoying Van Morrison at the Theatre at MSG. In June I’ll be spending several nights with Dylan and his Cowboy Band as well as seeing a Levon Helm Ramble in Central Park. Artists like this are the last of a dying breed, so I gotta hop the freight trains while I can.

Monday, April 9, 2007

Bringing It All Back Home, Again

mp3s of the show are here -;f=5;t=70

All new episode of Visions of Dylan on Monday, April 23rd 9-11 PM EST. on WBAI New York 99.5 FM
The show can be streamed live here:

Theme: Bringing it all Back Home, Again
Dylan’s mid-Sixties compositions

Bob was a busy boy in the mid-Sixties. In a 17 month period starting in 1965, Dylan’s body of work is unmatched by any entertainer. He changed the world of popular music with his trilogy of groundbreaking albums that today, sound as exhilarating as ever. These albums are still ahead of their time.

His tours of Europe are legendary. He was a crusader for an artist’s right to musical freedom. Dylan went on the offensive, attacking the music establishment (fans included) with poetic imagery and blazing rock-and-roll. Every genre of music existing or yet to be born, benefited from his courageous artistic endeavors. Don’t Look Back is still one of the most intriguing documentaries of a genius at work transforming before our eyes. He forever immortalized Woodstock and Newport.

One thing that surprised me when I put this show together was how many great tunes I couldn’t squeeze into this two hour special. There was a ridiculous amount of material for me to choose from. I had to consider all those amazing outtakes and previously unreleased material that appear on Biograph, the Bootleg Series and No Direction Home. I also had to ponder five decades of live performances and other interpretations of his works. In summation, putting this special together was a blast.

Some of the stars appearing on this special:

Bob Dylan in the studio 1965 and 1966
Bob Dylan performing live 1965, 1966, 1971, 1974, 1989, 2006
Snippets from Dylan's 65 press conference in S.F.
Jerry Garcia
Van Morrison
George Harrison
Buck Owens
Luther “Guitar Jr.” Johnson
Red Hot Chili Peppers
Host: Howie Weiner

If you enjoy the show, after it airs, please call 212-209-2800 and ask to leave a message for the arts director or send an email to


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