Wednesday, October 28, 2009

STEALIN': Bootlegs and My Life Part 3

By the time Stealin' was released in the fall of 1969, bootlegs had come to the suburbs. To purchase my first copy of The Great White Wonder (see post from April 23, 2009), I had to navigate the wilds of downtown Philadelphia. This time, I was able to pick up a copy of Stealin' at my local record store next to the train station in Bryn Mawr. That was very convenient.

My copy, which can be seen in the photo, is an original blue label Har-Kub copy. The funny thing is that I can remember clearly buying it 40 years ago this month. In those long ago days, a trip to the record store after school would sometimes be rewarded with the latest Dylan bootleg. It is hard to describe the excitement that came from each of these new releases. By late 1969, I had played the regular albums to death, so it was a big deal to have some new material to enjoy. In those early days of bootlegs, no one had any idea of the vast amount of Dylan's music that would surface over the next few years.

Stealin' was the next glimpse into Dylan's unreleased catalogue after The Great White Wonder. As you can see from the photo, there was not any improvement in the packaging. The difference was that the sound quality was excellent and the material was very well chosen. Most of the songs were outtakes from the albums that were recorded at the height of Dylan's early creativity. For these reasons, it is thought to be one of the very best of all Dylan bootlegs.

The album kicks off with Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window, which is one of my favorite Dylan tunes from 1965. Even though this song was released as a single, at the time it slipped through the cracks, probably because it was never on an album. This is one of the two different versions from the Highway 61 Revisited sessions. The single version was recorded later with The Band and has the distinctive cowbell percussion and Garth's swirling organ. Have a listen here to the Highway 61 outtake, which is the high spot of Stealin': Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window

Side one continues with two more cuts from the same sessions. There is an alternate version of It Takes a Lot to Laugh and a little throwaway riff, that has been widely bootlegged, called Sitting on a Barb Wire Fence. The rest of the side contains one outtake and two alternate versions from the Bringing It All Back Home sessions: If You Gotta Go, Go Now, She Belongs To Me and Love Minus Zero/No Limit.

Side two begins with another outtake from Bringing It All Back Home: It's All Over Now, Baby Blue, as well as three songs from The Times They Are A-Changin' sessions: The Cough Song, New Orleans Rag and That's All Right, Mama. These are followed by four songs from the 1961 Minneapolis tape, which was featured on The Great White Wonder. They are Hard Times in New York, Stealin', Wade in the Water and Cocaine.

My second favorite cut on the record at the time was That's All Right, Mama. Bob's piano playing on the track is great and it was cool to hear him covering a song that was the first single released by Elvis Presley. In the dark days before Self Portrait, no one knew that Bob would ever record anything other than his own material. Have a listen to this:
That's All Right, Mama

Even after thousands of bootlegs have been released, Stealin' stands out as one of the best of all. If you owned it in those early days, you know why I am writing about it.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Levon Helm: The Man Behind the Drums by Robert Earl Keen

One of the best songs on The Rose Hotel, which is the great new album from Robert Earl Keen, is his tribute to Levon Helm called The Man Behind the Drums. All of the songs on the album are excellent, but this one has special meaning for me. As anyone who reads this blog can tell, I am a huge fan of The Band (see posts from Sept 20, 2009 and April 14, 2009). It is treat for me to hear Robert singing about my favorite drummer Levon Helm.

The song was written by Robert and his bass player Bill Whitbeck about the night they played at Levon's Midnight Ramble. Hope you enjoy it. Listen here to The Man Behind the Drums
I know a little bit about the origins of this song. In September of 2008, Robert played two dates in New York. The first was in the City and I was lucky to be in attendance that night. The next night, they played in Woodstock as the opening act at Levon's Midnight Ramble. I had planned to go, but changed my mind at the last minute. Robert and his band had a great time that night. They even got to join Levon on stage for the ultimate camp fire sing-a-long The Weight. As you can imagine, I am still regretting not tagging along.

If you like what you hear on this track, check out the rest of the music on The Rose Hotel.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

KERN RIVER by Merle Haggard

As I get ready to head to Malta, Montana for the TBob/Perry S. birding extravaganza, I am thinking about Merle Haggard. There has been a lot of Haggard's music on Outlaw Country this week, which is always a good thing. Also, Rolling Stone had a great article about Merle in the last issue. I encourage you to read it if you are a fan.

Reading the article made me think about the large contribution Merle has made to country music during his long career. The article also reminded me of the colorful life he has led. Haggard has had more lives than your average cat.

In my last post on Merle from Feb 2, 2009, I wrote that one of my all time favorite Haggard songs is Kern River. Imagine my surprise when I read in the article that both Bob Dylan and Dave Alvin agree with me. I'm flying in some pretty good company. This what they both said about one of Merle's classic songs:

"Merle is the voice of another California." Alvin singles out "Kern River" — about a girl drowning in the treacherous waters that separated Bakersfield from the Okie settlements — as one of the great evocations of place and class in the Golden State. "It's amazingly deep and complicated," he says. "I hear a lot of California in those two and a half minutes." Dylan loves "Kern River" too, but for other reasons. "Sometimes you forget about how much natural-born heartbreak there is in a Merle Haggard song, because of all the boomtown oil-well Dust Bowl honky-tonk imagery of his music," he says. "I mean, 'Kern River' is a beautiful lament, but let's not forget it's about his girlfriend dying."

If you are not familiar with this great song, here is another chance to hear it: Kern River

I can assure you there will be plenty of Merle Haggard on the iPod around our Montana camp fire this weekend. Catch you on the flip side.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Judas Meets Jingle Bells: Dylan's Christmas Album

Before I get to Christmas in the Heart, I want to recite some of my Dylan credentials. I have been buying Bob Dylan albums since August of 1967. I have owned all of his early releases on vinyl, 8 track tapes, cassettes and later on CD. I have played and loved all of his 33 studio albums except for Knocked Out Loaded, Down in the Groove and the two acoustic mistakes Good as I Been to You and World Gone Wrong. I even liked Self Portrait when it was released and still play it to this day. His music has been the background of my life for over 40 years

When it comes to bootleg albums, I probably could have bought a small house or a large car with the money I have spent. It started with the Great White Wonder (see my post from April 23, 2009). Since then, the collection has progressed from reel to reel tapes to vinyl and later to cassettes and CDs. In the early days, I even bought cassettes from the infamous Dylan Garbologist A.J. Weberman. Recently, thanks to the Internet, the great Moe has been the source of many rarities.

I still have the scrapbook of clippings of all things Dylan that I started in 1968. I have collected as much 66 tour memorabilia as I could get my hands on. My library contains almost every book published on Bob. The walls are covered with vintage photographs by Barry Feinstein, Jerry Schatzberg and many others. It is a veritable shrine to my favorite musician.

Starting with the 1974 tour, I have seen Bob in every major live phase except for the Rolling Thunder Revue and the Christian Tour of 1979. Although I haven't been a crazy BobCat who follows the tour around, I have managed to catch a show on the Never Ending Tour every year since it started. You can read about my recent experiences in posts from August 16, 2008 and July 22, 2009.

I have seen many memorable shows including one in Houston, Texas in 1981 that included Al Kooper on keyboards. Another show in the summer of 1997, just before the release of Time Out of Mind, signaled the beginning of the last great comeback. I have seen a few bad ones as well. A show in Corpus Christi with G.E. Smith in the band, in the low times of the hoodie and mushroom tea, was awesomely bad.

With this as background, you can imagine that I was quite interested when the first rumors of a Christmas album surfaced. Having just been to a live show which made me familiar with the current state of Bob's vocal talents, my first thought was: "Oh No!" This is a disaster waiting to happen. Bob can't sing these songs.

Now that I have heard the audio clips, I am afraid my worst fears have been realized. Bob, what were you thinking? I know this is a for a charitable cause and I salute that, but it is going to be a critical barbecue. When the critics hear the entire album, there is going to be a blood bath.

I can remember the bashing that Self Portrait took when it came out. Bob was King in those days and even Rolling Stone lowered the boom on him over that one. My prediction is that this album is going to make Self Portrait look like Highway 61 Revisited. I love you Bob, but not for Christmas. There isn't enough eggnog in the world to make this record sound good. It Ain't Tree, Babe.

If you want to own a great Christmas album, check out A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector buy it. It is the gold standard of Christmas albums.