Wednesday, 26 October 2022

Tour Diary Part 1: London Palladium, 23rd and 24th October 2022

 


I was lucky enough to be in the audience at the last two shows of Bob Dylan's London Palladium residency. Here are some thoughts about what I heard and saw...

23rd October

In the darkness before the show began, I was surprised to see Bob Dylan walk very briskly along the back of the stage, up the steps and across the grated metal floor towards the piano. It almost looked like he was gliding rather than walking. The applause subsided as Bob led the band in a short, peaceful sounding instrumental. Guitarist Bob Britt peered over Bob’s shoulder, and then, presumably having received a signal of some sort, gave drummer Charley Drayton the nod to launch into a rough and rowdy 'Watching the River Flow'. The Palladium is small enough that it allows you to catch these interactions, which themselves would become a highlight of the two nights.


If I had to use one word to describe this show, I would say “absorbing”. It took a few songs to find the groove, but, much like a David Simon TV drama, it gradually pulled you in. The first four songs were good (I particularly loved watching Bob leaning into the microphone, one arm draped over the top of his upright piano, delivering a tender ‘I Contain Multitudes’), but things really started to fall into place on ‘When I Paint My Masterpiece’. 

When I saw this song performed in New Orleans earlier this year it didn’t make much of an impression on me. Here, however, it came alive. The musicians transformed into an old-time southern mountain string band straight off a 1950s Folkways album: Bob Britt switched to acoustic guitar, Donnie Herron picked up his fiddle and Tony Garnier played double bass. Drummer Charley Drayton, meanwhile, largely sat the song out, springing into action here and there to add the occasional percussion flourish.

Speaking of Charley: you need to see him play the drums on ‘Black Rider’ if you haven’t already. Frankly, I’m not entirely sure “playing the drums” is an accurate description of what he does here. He has a box of percussion devices that he dips into throughout the song, including what appeared to be a pearl necklace that he dragged across the cymbals. This man is a master of his craft: you could spend the entire show watching only him and go home a happy customer.

The success of ‘When I Paint My Masterpiece’ set the tone for the rest of the evening, in that (from my perspective at least) the older tunes were the highlights of the set. ‘To Be Alone With You’ had a great gospel style intro, with Bob playing solo piano before the band shifted the song into the acoustic stringband format from ‘Masterpiece’. 

‘Gotta Serve Somebody’, which also features a solo piano intro, highlighted how important the visuals are to these shows, featuring some dramatic moments where guitarist Doug Lancio – who up to this point had been rooted to the spot directly behind Dylan – suddenly rushed centre stage to trade guitar riffs with Britt. ‘I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight’ was also warmly received, morphing from another solo piano introduction to a rocking middle section, and then into a slow blues finale.

All three of these songs had a real gospel flavour to them. Standing behind the piano, Bob now resembles a John Bunyan-esque preacher holding forth from the pulpit.

‘Every Grain of Sand’, while not quite on the level of the rendition I saw in New Orleans, was a fitting end to the show. As Bob sang, I could see his left hand crawling across the top of the piano towards his tray of harmonicas. Would he play it? Yes! And he really played – I’ve seen shows where the harmonica playing felt like more of a gesture than anything else, but this powerful, heartfelt solo was the real deal.

Let’s talk about the Rough and Rowdy Ways songs. They were performed well, but – except for ‘Black Rider’, which was excellent – I got the impression that Bob was struggling to get into them on this night. ‘Key West’ in particular felt a little off: Bob stumbled over the words at the beginning and never seemed to entirely get the song back on track. ‘False Prophet’ still felt like it was adjusting to its recent rearrangement, and ‘Crossing the Rubicon’ had been toned down compared to the huge, lumbering monster I witnessed in New Orleans. Having said that, it was fascinating to watch Dylan wrestle with these songs and try to find a way into them.

As Bob stood centre stage at the end of the show, I got the feeling he might have been slightly frustrated with his performance. This is the Rough and Rowdy Ways tour after all: those songs are presented as centrepieces, and for them to be overshadowed by the older material may have bothered Dylan. It was something he would seek to rectify the following night.



24th October



I knew this was going to be a very different show just from the manner of Dylan's arrival. Before the lights had even gone down, or the sound man had time to cue the intro music, Bob strode onto the stage looking like a man on a mission, followed by his band. They looked like a bunch of 1930s gangsters on their way to carry out a mob hit.

Once the music started, things were again different from the previous night. Like the day before, we got a quiet piano overture from Bob, followed by Bob Britt cueing Charley into ‘Watching the River Flow’, but this time Dylan remained seated behind the piano, the lights still down while the band jammed and we (both audience and band) waited for him to start singing.

But he didn’t - at least not for a while. Instead, he spun around and beckoned Doug Lancio to come closer to him. This led to the strange yet thrilling sight of Lancio playing a solo while literally leaning over Dylan’s shoulder, just inches away from him. The interaction between the two became one of the themes of the night: Bob would suddenly turn and point to Doug, who would oblige with a deft, restrained solo. Watching this play out reminded me of how Dylan would single out Freddy Koella when he was a guitarist in the band, and I really hope Bob’s connection with Doug continues in this direction.

The entire show felt as though Bob had sat in his hotel room and reviewed a tape of the previous night’s performance, identifying areas for improvement. Whereas that concert had taken a while to start cooking, on this night Bob was razor sharp from the beginning. He also seemed to be on a mission to ensure that the Rough and Rowdy Ways songs were the standout tracks: ‘I Contain Multitudes’ swelled beautifully, ‘False Prophet’ finally found its feet in the new arrangement, and by the spooky double header of ‘Black Rider’ and ‘My Own Version of You’, you could tell that Dylan knew he was on a roll.

‘Crossing the Rubicon’ also came across better than it had done the previous night, and highlighted another striking aspect of the show: Dylan’s unconventional piano playing. It struck me during this concert that Dylan’s piano is the main rhythmic instrument in the band, more so even than the drums or bass. Everyone onstage is following Bob, and he leads with his piano.

As I mentioned before, I felt that 'Key West' – with its relatively new, ultra-minimalist arrangement - hadn’t quite worked on the 23rd. On the 24th, however, it was nothing less than sublime. To listen to this performance was to fall under the spell of a master storyteller, and the hushed atmosphere in the theatre as Bob went into full ‘Shakespearean soliloquy mode’ was something to behold. 

The momentum continued with excellent, tenderly sung versions of ‘I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You’ and ‘Mother of Muses’ (which featured an extended intro that sounded to me like the traditional ‘Shenandoah’), plus a strong ‘Goodbye Jimmy Reed’ on which Bob once again sought out the lead guitar services of Doug Lancio.

All the older songs were well performed, but with this concert they resumed their intended place as supporting actors rather than the stars of the show. Once again, I loved ‘Gotta Serve Somebody’ and the accompanying theatrics from the guitarists, and Bob also delivered an excellent performance of the standard ‘That Old Black Magic’ (which, incidentally, is the only song remaining in the setlist from the first time I saw him at the Palladium in 2017). We were treated to another virtuoso harmonica solo at the end of Every Grain of Sand – plus Bob playfully singing the first two lines of ‘Friend of the Devil’ at the start of the song – and that, it seemed, was that.

But it wasn’t! As you have doubtless already heard, Bob’s final bow was greeted by an incredible standing ovation which never abated, leading to him and the band returning for not one but two extended curtain calls. It looked like he was tempted to play another song, but eventually decided against it (possibly because the crew had already removed the guitars and some of the amps from the stage).

I don't think I've ever witnessed an outpouring of love from an audience to a performer quite like this, and Dylan appeared moved. The message being transmitted by both parties was clear: nobody has to ask Bob Dylan how he feels about this town, and nobody has to ask this town how it feels about Bob Dylan.

You can find parts 2 and 3 of my tour diary on Ray Padgett's Bob Dylan newsletter Flagging Down the Double E's:

Friday, 2 September 2022

Centre Stage: Charlie Sexton



"There aren’t any of my songs that Charlie doesn’t feel part of and he’s always played great with me." - Bob Dylan, 2020



When I started this blog, one thing I meant to do was a recurring series profiling various Bob Dylan band members. I did one (on Larry Campbell) and then forgot about the whole thing for two years. But now I’ve remembered! And who better to take a closer look at than another beloved Dylan guitarist, Mr. Charlie Sexton …

Born in San Antonio, Texas, in 1968, Charles Wayne Sexton arrived in Austin at the age of four, with his younger brother (Will Sexton, also a future guitarist) and their mother, and soon found himself immersed in the city’s famous music scene. "
[M]y Mom was a huge fan of everything from blues and rockabilly to R & B and rock and roll," Charlie told the Chicago Tribune in 1986. "[S]he'd drag me along to all these shows and clubs."

“Little Charlie” watched and learned from guitarists like Jimmie Lee Vaughn (and his sons Jimmie and Stevie), Denny Freeman, John Lee Hooker, and W.C. Clark, and played his first professional gig the day before his eleventh birthday. By the age of thirteen, Sexton was touring with Joe Ely, and by fourteen was sitting in with The Clash at Dallas’ Memorial Auditorium. Charlie was also in a few bands of his own around this time, including The Eager Beaver Boys:


This swift rise did not go unnoticed by the major labels, and Charlie was quickly snapped up by MCA. His debut album, Pictures for Pleasure, was released in 1985. Slightly before this, Charlie had his first encounter with Bob Dylan, meeting him while doing some session work with Ron Wood and Keith Richards. Bob and Charlie also recorded some demos around this time, which Charlie briefly describes during the 1986 Chicago Tribune interview:

''[Bob would] just pick up his guitar and start singing and playing without any introduction of explanation--no key, no chords, nothing. And my job was to figure out all the charts and produce it on the spot. We must have cut about 9 or 10 songs, and I`d keep asking him, `Is this one of yours?` and he`d just mumble in this gravelly voice, `Nah, it`s from the Civil War.` With Dylan, you never quite know for sure. They`ll probably all surface on one of his albums about 20 years from now.''


Dylan had some encouraging, if slightly foreboding, words for Charlie in the interview included with the 1985 box set Biograph. “I’d like to see Charlie Sexton become a big star,” said Bob, “but the whole machinery would have to break down right now before that could happen.”

Regrettably, Dylan was right, and Sexton’s decade at MCA was marked by repeated attempts to reinvent him. There was ‘80s Charlie, who released two solo albums and opened for David Bowie on the Glass Spider Tour; early-‘90s Charlie, who formed the supergroup Arc Angels with Doyle Bramhall II and Stevie Ray Vaughn’s rhythm section Double Trouble; and mid-‘90s Charlie, repackaged as a roots-rock singer-songwriter with the 1996 album Under the Wishing Tree (credited to The Charlie Sexton Sextet). All these projects are well worth investigating, but none of them led to the massive breakout success MCA were looking for.

Helen Thompson of Texas Monthly summarised the issue in an article called ‘Little Boy Lost’ in February 1996:

“So what went wrong? Part of the problem seems to have been the nonstop efforts to make Sexton into a star; he was positioned and repositioned so many times that his fans never knew which Charlie they were looking at.”



Through all of this, Bob Dylan had remained an interested observer of Charlie’s career, featuring him as a special guest at shows in 1991 (in Tulsa, Oklahoma), 1995 and 1996 (both in Austin, Texas). A 2005 profile on Charlie in No Depression noted that Dylan had attempted to recruit Sexton for his band more than once during that decade. It wasn’t until mid-1999, however, with no clear path forward in his solo career, that Charlie accepted Bob’s offer. “It was either be a carpenter or go on the road with Bob Dylan," Charlie told Chron in 2005.

Charlie’s arrival in the Dylan band prompted a change in the dynamic of a well-established touring group. Whereas it had previously been Dylan and Larry Campbell playing duelling electric guitars - with Bucky Baxter providing colour and texture on pedal steel and other instruments -  now Campbell became the multi-instrumentalist, while also forming a formidable guitar partnership with Sexton. Bucky's position as ‘atmospherics man’, however, stayed with Charlie, who fulfilled this role through his subtle yet masterly use of effects pedals, and a unique style that stretched far beyond the bounds of traditional lead or rhythm guitar.

Charlie commented enigmatically on his position in the band during the 2005 No Depression profile. “My role in Bob’s band is between him and me,” he reflected. “He knows what I was there for, and I knew what I was there for.”

Check out this performance of ‘Standing in the Doorway’ to get a sense of what Charlie was doing during this period (you’ll need headphones to get the full effect – Charlie’s guitar is mixed to the right) 




Charlie’s influence was also felt strongly on Dylan's 2001 album “Love and Theft”, perhaps most prominently on the closing track ‘Sugar Baby’, on which the eerie sounds coming from Charlie’s guitar deftly shadow Dylan’s vocal. (Charlie's guitar is mixed to the left)




Another favourite of mine from this era is the instrumental break from the 2001-02 performances of ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’, with Charlie expertly playing around Dylan’s own lead guitar. Charlie never played this break the same way twice, as you can see/hear from the clips below.




(I've often wondered whether Charlie might have been influenced around this time by Bill Frisell, the only other guitarist I can think of who plays in something close to this style.)

Charlie still knew how to rock out, too, as the performance of 'Cold Irons Bound' in Dylan's 2003 film Masked and Anonymous (filmed in summer 2002) demonstrates (Charlie is mixed to the left).


Sexton left the Dylan band in November 2002, following that year’s celebrated fall tour. Bob would have a hard time replacing him. In the meantime, Charlie concentrated on building up his resume as a producer - working with artists like Lucinda Williams (on her album Car Wheels on a Gravel Road) - and released his fourth solo album, the Williams-produced Cruel and Gentle Things in 2005, plus a duets album with Shannon McNally called Southside Sessions the following year
. He also briefly reformed the Arc Angels with Doyle Bramhall in 2009.





Eventually, however, Charlie found himself drifting back into Dylan’s orbit once again. It all started in Round Rock, Texas, on 4th August 2009: Bob was playing a show in town and invited Charlie to sit in (incidentally, Dylan’s band by this point included Sexton’s Austin mentor Denny Freeman). Reports from the show indicated that Dylan seemed inspired by the presence of his former guitarist.

Michael Nave’s review of the concert on Boblinks captured an intriguing post-show interaction between Charlie and Bob:

“Halfway through [the closing song], I moved back to my spot beside the stage where I could view the backstage area as Bob and the band walked down from the stage. As they came down the stairs sure enough Bob and Charlie were walking side by side talking. They walked toward centerfield, then stopped and continued to talk for a few moments, as if they were saying goodbyes; about to part.. But then they continued walking together talking, all the way out of the Dell Diamond. One could only hope the conversation was something like, “sure Bob, I would be glad to do the rest of the Texas dates with you while Stu, Denny, and Donnie take a well deserved few days off. .. .”


Mr Nave’s reading of the situation turned out to be prophetic. By the end of the month, Rolling Stone magazine had announced that Charlie Sexton would be returning to the Bob Dylan band beginning that October. “I love and respect Bob and am very happy to be reunited with my friend onstage,” said Charlie.

For this stint in Dylan’s band, Charlie filled more of a traditional ‘lead guitarist’ role, adapting his playing to suit the blues-rock style Dylan favoured at this time. With Bob mostly on keyboards, Charlie often became the visual focal point of the show, prowling the stage and frequently interacting with Dylan. For a taste of what things looked and sounded like onstage circa fall 2009, have a look at this 'Stuck Inside of Mobile' from that tour:





Things stayed this way from late 2009 to mid-2012. By the end of 2012, however, Charlie’s role had been noticeably reduced, and – although it’s easy to forget looking back – he departed the band once again at the end of the year (one day shy of the 10th anniversary of his first departure). This turned out to be a temporary break: things didn’t work out with Sexton’s replacement, Duke Robillard, and Charlie was back in his old position by the end of the summer 2013 tour.

Charlie was back, but things weren’t going to revert to what they had been in 2009-12. Dylan’s sound was changing, with the rockier style that had dominated most of the preceding decade now replaced with a hushed, delicate sound that brought Bob’s voice and lyrics back to the forefront. In hindsight, this change was more gradual than it initially appeared; it’s already in evidence on much of the 2012 album Tempest, which would serve as the core of Dylan’s live show for much of the 2010s. Charlie’s restrained solo on the track ‘Scarlet Town’ is a good example of what would be required of him over the next few years.



This period segued neatly into Dylan’s extended exploration of The Great American Songbook, which encompassed the albums Shadows in the Night (2015), Fallen Angels (2016), and Triplicate (2017). The band’s playing on Shadows in the Night, in particular, is so subtle that it sometimes sounds like Dylan is backed only by Donnie Herron’s pedal steel. As always, though, Charlie’s playing (mixed to the left) rewards close attention: just listen to how he weaves around and responds to Bob’s vocal on ‘Full Moon and Empty Arms’.



By 2018, Dylan had returned to concentrating on his own material, and was reintroducing songs that had been absent from his show for some time. Charlie Sexton, a 40 year veteran at 50 years old, had by this point acquired the aura of an old master, able to anticipate every sudden left turn that Dylan might take during a song. In 2019, the fall tour contained what might be Charlie’s finest contribution to Dylan’s live show: a stunning reworking of ‘Not Dark Yet’, in which Charlie conjures an atmosphere filled with ghosts and shadows while Bob’s voice floats over it all like mist across a lake. My favourite performance of this arrangement is the one from University Park, Philadelphia - particularly the last verse, where Charlie’s guitar answers Bob’s vocal at the end of each line.



Following that well-received tour, the band reconvened with Bob in early 2020 to record the album that would become Rough and Rowdy Ways, which was released in June. In the interview with Douglas Brinkley that accompanied the album, Dylan – somewhat uncharacteristically – went out of his way to heap praise on his long-serving guitarist:


DB: Charlie Sexton began playing with you for a few years in 1999, and returned to the fold in 2009. What makes him such a special player? It’s as if you can read each other’s minds.

BD: As far as Charlie goes, he can read anybody’s mind. Charlie, though, creates songs and sings them as well, and he can play guitar to beat the band. There aren’t any of my songs that Charlie doesn’t feel part of and he’s always played great with me. “False Prophet” is only one of three 12-bar structural things on this record. Charlie is good on all the songs. He’s not a show-off guitar player, although he can do that if he wants. He’s very restrained in his playing but can be explosive when he wants to be. It’s a classic style of playing. Very old school. He inhabits a song rather than attacking it. He’s always done that with me.


It certainly sounds like Charlie playing the guitar solos on ‘False Prophet’. On most of the record, however, I believe Charlie can be heard shimmering away on the far left-hand side of the mix. It’s hard to describe this incredibly subtle style of playing: the phrase that springs to my mind is ‘sound effects.’ It’s particularly effective on some of the quieter, slower tracks like ‘I Contain Multitudes’, ‘I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You’, and ‘Mother of Muses’. Once again, you need headphones to really zero in on what’s going on here.





Rough and Rowdy Ways turned out to be Charlie’s last stand to date with Bob. Shortly afterwards, of course, came the Covid-19 pandemic, and once the dust had settled and Dylan was able to resume touring, Charlie had moved on to pastures anew. By this point it had been 22 years since Charlie played his first show as a member of Bob’s band, and 38 years since the two had met for the first time.

While I was writing this article, I was watching videos on YouTube of Bob and Charlie playing together. In many of them there are moments when Charlie is soloing, and Bob seems to be communicating with him through nothing more than a series of little nods and glances. This reminded me of something, and I couldn't figure out what it was. Then I remembered: it was a video of Billie Holiday singing accompanied by Lester Young on saxophone. Lester takes a solo, but the camera stays on Billie as she reacts to what Lester is playing. Her expression seems to be saying "that's it - that's what I want to say." So it is with Bob Dylan and Charlie Sexton: when Charlie plays, he's saying what Bob wants to say - the parts that can't be communicated by words alone. 


 

BONUS VIDEOS:


If you like Charlie Sexton but wish he played a bouzouki instead of a guitar, then this is the video for you!


I'm not sure what song Charlie is singing in this video from 2017, but his playing is fascinating. As a couple of the comments note, it's very much in the 'desert blues' style prevalent in Mali, West Africa, popularised by the late Ali Farka Toure.


And finally, this:


Sources:

'CHARLIE SEXTON -- SEXY AND 17'  by Steve Pond, Los Angeles Times, 18th May 1986

'CHARLIE SEXTON, IN THE BIG TIME AT 17, IS THROWING ALL HIS PASSION INTO WORK' by Iain Blair, Chicago Tribune,  6th April 1986

'Little Boy Lost' by Helen Thompson, Texas Monthly, February 1996

'Charlie Sexton - The Austin Kid' by Don McLeese, No Depression, 1st September 2005

'Charlie Sexton exceeds all expectations' by Kim Curtis, Chron., 3rd November 2005

'Changing hats' by Chris Parker, San Antonio Current, 19th March 2008

Reviews: Round Rock, Texas, The Dell Diamond, 4th August 2009 - BobLinks

'Bob Dylan Welcomes Guitarist Charlie Sexton Back Into His Band', by Andy Greene, Rolling Stone, 26th August 2009

'Charlie Sexton Interview Part I: How to Session with Bob Dylan' by Arlene R. Weiss, Guitar International, 8th August 2011

'Charlie Sexton: Too Many Ways to Fall' by Jason Crouch, 2019


Tuesday, 26 April 2022

It's Getting There: 'Not Dark Yet' in the Key of Bob


Is there an artist more restless than Bob Dylan? Probably not. The most compelling evidence of this is how he treats his songs onstage: as we’ve seen with ‘Key West’, to use the most recent example, a Dylan song is never finished. There is always a chance that it will be completely overhauled either lyrically or musically (sometimes both).

It's easy to forget that this process of reinvention often begins in the studio. As we’ve heard on various installments of the Bootleg Series, Dylan might experiment with entirely different melodies, alter keys and time signatures, and extensively rework the lyrics before choosing which version to release. Once the song makes it to the stage, the process continues: it’s common for Bob to stick very closely to the studio version of a song for early performances, only to gradually take it in other directions over time.

One of the 'song evolutions' I find most interesting is ‘Not Dark Yet’, the centerpiece of Dylan’s 1997 album Time Out of Mind. On the surface, it seems to have enjoyed an unusually stable history – the live arrangements were very faithful to the studio version for many years, until Bob unveiled a drastic rearrangement in the fall of 2019. However, the journey of this song has featured more twists and turns than might be apparent at first glance, going right back to its birth in Oxnard, Los Angeles, in late 1996.

In his 2011 book The Ballad of Bob Dylan, Daniel Mark Epstein quotes keyboardist Jim Dickinson talking about the genesis of the song:


“Dylan had started the sessions at Oxnard,” Dickinson recalled. “It was just a trio, the way Lanois wanted to do it, obviously.” Then some Columbia executives heard [an early version of] “Not Dark Yet” and got excited, smelling the money. “The management had heard over the phone a version from Oxnard with Dylan singing in a higher register, and this quick and spare guitar stuff that Lanois was playing, and it had stuck in somebody’s head.”

As Dickinson tells Epstein, this led to an uncomfortable situation – during the later sessions held at Criteria Studios in Miami – in which Lanois, at the behest of the executives, put pressure on Dylan to return to the earlier version of the song.

“We do the song and they keep changing keys,” Dickinson recalled. “Daniel said, ‘Bob, will you try it in another key?’ Nobody will say this thing about putting his voice up, right?” What the management really wanted was for Dylan to sing the song in a higher, brighter register. “So we did it in three or four different keys [….] And finally Dylan was just obviously pissed off.”

Dylan held his ground and got his way: the version of ‘Not Dark Yet’ that appears on Time Out of Mind is in the key of E, which is as low as you can get while remaining in standard guitar tuning. However, the question of which key to play the song in is one that continued far beyond the sessions for the album.

Engineer Mark Howard, who worked on Time Out of Mind, touched on Dylan’s relationship with keys during his 2008 interview in Uncut:

The way Bob works is, he kind of writes on a typewriter, so he has no idea where these songs lie, in what key they live in, what tempo – anything of that. Musically, there’s no chords written. So it’s like, he’ll say, “I got this song, and maybe this is how it goes,” and you try a couple of different versions of it in different keys, and he just finds where it sounds best, where it sounds best for his voice, where it’s comfortable. And that’s usually the open you end up going with.

When ‘Not Dark Yet’ made its live debut in Columbus, Georgia, on 30th October 1997, it was once again played in the key of E. However, the performance was a one-off, and the song was not played again that year. (Bob would sing it in this key just once more, when he performed it with Eric Clapton and his band at the 1999 Crossroads Festival.)

Not Dark Yet in the key of E


‘Not Dark Yet’ re-emerged in January 1998, now being played in the key of C, and was performed three times before disappearing once again. It turned up one more time that year, at a show in Berlin on 3rd June, where it was played for the only time in the key of D.

Not Dark Yet in the key of C


Not Dark Yet in the key of D

In 1999, ‘Not Dark Yet’ became a setlist regular for the first time (played 56 times that year), now in the key of G. Bob must have been fairly happy with this key, as he stuck with it all the way through to 2002, although by this point the song was being performed only sporadically.

Not Dark Yet in the key of G

‘Not Dark Yet’ sat out the whole of 2003, but reappeared in the spring of 2004. It was now being played in the key of C-sharp, where it would remain through 2005.

Not Dark Yet in the key of C-sharp


In 2006 Dylan shifted the key of ‘Not Dark Yet’ to G-flat, where it would remain for the next six years. I have a special fondness for the 2011 performances – despite the ravaged state of Dylan’s voice during this period, these versions have a sweeping, majestic quality that’s hard to resist.

Not Dark Yet in the key of G-flat


The various performances of ‘Not Dark Yet’ between 1997-2012 reveal how altering the key of a song can give it a noticeably different feel, even if the arrangement itself barely changes. You can see why Dylan would spend a lot of time trying to find the ‘right key’ for the song.

‘Not Dark Yet’ is yet to make an appearance on the Rough and Rowdy Ways World Tour. The question I have is not ‘Will it be back?’, but ‘If it does come back, what key will it be in?’

Sunday, 17 April 2022

Down to New Orleans Again: Bob Dylan (and Me) at the Saengar Theater, March 2022





"New Orleans, unlike a lot of those places you go back to and that don’t have the magic anymore, still has got it" - Bob Dylan, Chronicles Volume One


Last month, I had the pleasure of seeing Mr Bob Dylan and his band play a show at the Saengar Theater in New Orleans. This was a big deal for me: the last Dylan show I saw was at Kilkenny, Ireland in the summer of 2019 – less than three years ago, but also a lifetime ago, before Everything Changed Forever. During the worst of the pandemic, I had remained hopeful of seeing Dylan in concert again, but also quietly acknowledged the possibility that this was not going to happen. If you’d told me in March 2020 that, precisely two years later, I would be sitting in a theatre in New Orleans (a place I’ve dreamed of visiting for a while) watching Bob Dylan perform nine out of ten songs from his latest album, Rough and Rowdy Ways – well, I think I would have spontaneously combusted.

However, thanks to the stars aligning a certain way, that’s exactly what happened (seeing Bob in New Orleans, not the spontaneous combustion). I’m going to try to write about what it was like in the Saengar Theater that night, and what it meant for me to be there. But first – and so that I can stall for a bit more time to get my thoughts together – let’s take a look at Bob Dylan’s long history with the Big Easy.

The earliest Dylan/New Orleans connection, unless I'm mistaken, is on his first album, in the form of the traditional song ‘House of the Rising Sun’. There was some distant hope that Dylan might sing this at the Saengar, seeing as the show took place on the 60th anniversary of Bob Dylan, but (not surprisingly) it wasn’t to be. Bob has revisited 'Rising Sun' very occasionally over the years – most recently in 2007 – but for me the most interesting performance is the one Dylan gave at the home of Eve and Mac MacKenzie in April 1963. In this version, Bob sings the alternate melody favoured by the likes of Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly



During the early sessions for The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan in 1962, Bob recorded a traditional song called ‘Going Down to New Orleans’. The song is a close relative of the blues standard ‘Rollin’ and Tumblin’’, which Dylan reworked on his 2006 album Modern Times.



New Orleans was still on Dylan’s mind a year later. During the sessions for The Times They Are A-Changin’, Bob recorded several takes of an original song called ‘Bob Dylan's New Orleans Rag’, which he also performed at his famous Town Hall concert in New York City in April 1963. ‘New Orleans Rag’ mentions the historic Rampart Street several times (coincidentally, the Saengar Theater is on the corner of North Rampart Street and Canal Street), although, curiously, all mention of Rampart has been removed from the official published lyrics.


Not content with simply writing about New Orleans, Dylan visited the city the following year while on a road trip with friends, just in time for Mardi Gras. This trip is detailed in Robert Shelton’s No Direction Home, and by Joe B. Stuart, who was there. My favourite version of this story, however, appears in Anthony Scaduto’s 1971 Dylan biography Bob Dylan, and contains this exchange:

Out in front of one bar they came across a young white street singer who was busking – playing for the coins of passersby – his guitarwork and singing style a fusion of Leadbelly and Guthrie. “Hey,” Dylan said, “can I borrow your guitar?” The singer handed it over and Dylan began to sing a couple of things off his first album. “Man, the kid exclaimed, “you sound just like Bob Dylan.” Bob’s face was impassive. “Saw Dylan once,” he said. “A place in the village. He’s alright, I guess.”

Dylan didn’t play a show in New Orleans until the second leg of the Rolling Thunder Revue in 1976, when he played two shows (one afternoon, one evening) on 3rd May at The Warehouse on Tchoupitoulas Street. Since then, he’s been back many times, playing a variety of venues: the Saengar Theater in 1981, 1991 and 2015 (and now 2022); the Lakefront Arena in 1989, 1999, 2002, and 2011; the House of Blues in 1994; McAlister Auditorium in 1995; the Municipal Auditorium in 2003; and appearances at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival at the Fairgrounds Racecourse in 1993, 2003 and 2006. In 1988, Dylan even played a show at the Pavilion at Audubon Zoo, just a stone’s throw away from the animal enclosures. There may still be some elephants at the zoo that remember this performance.

It was during this visit to New Orleans that Bob met Daniel Lanois for the first time, stopping into the studio while Lanois was producing the Neville Brothers’ album Yellow Moon. A few months later Dylan would be back in the city again, holed up with Lanois at a house in the Garden District to work on the album that would become Oh Mercy. Jeff Hannush reported in the May 1989 issue of Rolling Stone Magazine that Dylan had been spotted about town:

Dylan’s presence in New Orleans has caused a stir among the locals. Residents are abuzz with reports of various Dylan sightings, and a gossip columnist for the local newspaper, the Times-Picayune, has gone so far as to install a semiregular Dylan Watch as part of a daily column. But one local hairdresser claimed that no one in the city could possibly recognize Dylan — because to disguise him, she had cut off all of his hair. (The haircut story turned out to be false, thankfully - TE)


Bob writes about this period at length in Chronicles Volume One, sharing his impressions of the city.


New Orleans, unlike a lot of those places you go back to and that don’t have the magic anymore, still has got it. Night can swallow you up, but none of it touches you. Around any corner, there’s a promise of something daring and ideal and things are just getting going. There’s something obscenely joyful between every door, either that or somebody crying with their head in their hands A lazy rhythm looms in the dreamy air and the atmosphere pulsates with bygone duels, past-life romance, comrades requesting comrades to aid them in some way. You can’t see it but you know it’s here. Somebody is always sinking. Everyone seems to be from very old Southern families. Either that or a foreigner. I like the way it is.

Scott Warmuth’s 2008 essay 'The Dylan Doodlebug' revealed that Dylan had borrowed several phrases from a New Orleans travel guide by Bethany Bultman, incorporating them into both Chronicles and the song ‘Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee’ on “Love & Theft”. In 2016, Dylan held an exhibition of his paintings, entitled The New Orleans Series, at the New Orleans Museum of Art. He has mentioned New Orleans in his songs ‘Tangled Up in Blue’, ‘Blind Willie McTell’ and ‘Tryin’ to Get to Heaven’, plus the elusive mid-1980s outtakes ‘Nothing Here Worth Dying For’ and ‘Won’t Come Back Til They Call Me Back Again’ on the bootleg After the Empire. New Orleans also features in the traditional song 'The Lakes of Ponchartrain' which Dylan performed frequently in the early years of the Never Ending Tour.

There is a big New Orleans connection in Bob’s band, too: bass player Tony Garnier, who is the grandson of early New Orleans jazz musician D’Jalma Garnier. Tony’s older brother, multi-instrumentalist D’Jalma Garnier III, is still active on the city’s zydeco scene. In 1998, Tony was interviewed by the New York Times, where he shared his recipe for an authentic Louisiana gumbo. Between 2002 and 2019, Dylan’s band featured a genuine New Orleans rhythm section, as drummer George Receli also hails from the Big Easy.

In 2017, Dylan enlisted New Orleans author Tom Piazza, author of Why New Orleans Matters and the novel City of Refuge (amongst many other books), to write the liner notes for the album Triplicate.

*


That brings us to the Saengar Theater, 19th March 2022.


I was struck by the manner in which this show began. You may have attended theater shows that have been proceeded by an announcement advising the audience that the show will begin in ten minutes, and could everyone please take their seats. Well, that didn’t happen here: Bob and the band simply appeared onstage at the stroke of 8 o’clock and began cranking out the vortex-like intro to 'Watching the River Flow', leaving bewildered audience members stumbling around in the dark trying to find their seats. On top of that, the sound (at least from where I was sitting) was cranked up insanely loud for the first two songs, forcing people to yell at each other as they tried to figure out seat number mix-ups.

It might sound like I’m complaining, but I loved all of this. There’s something very appropriate about Bob Dylan arriving and immediately throwing everything around him into chaos - may he continue to do so for a long time to come.

Seated in the balcony, I felt like I could appreciate the huge amount of thought that has gone into the visual presentation of this show. It’s very surreal: you’re looking at the musicians mostly in silhouette, with all the lighting coming from the floor beneath them and the curtain behind them. Guitarist Bob Britt has become a visual focal point, positioned at the back of the stage in the centre, often adopting a gunslinger stance. Bob Dylan, meanwhile, surveyed the crowd from behind an upright piano. 

The other musician who frequently caught my eye was drummer Charley Drayton. Everything he does is fascinating. I’ve written before about how I suspect that Bob likes to have at least one person in the band with a lot of stage presence that he can play off, and it feels like Charley is fulfilling that role right now.

There were many highlights. ‘False Prophet’ swung hard, so much so that the studio version now sounds too slow in comparison. ‘Crossing the Rubicon’ was a revelation – surprisingly quiet and menacing, sometimes feeling like a Shakespearean soliloquy, and a showcase for some great rhythm section work by Tony and and Charley. I wasn’t sure about the recordings of the totally reworked version of ‘Key West’ I had heard before the show, but it clicked for me hearing it in person, with Bob in full storyteller mode. Doug Lancio nailed the short guitar solo on ‘I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You’ (which always strikes me as the core of that song), and then had a chance to stretch out on ‘Melancholy Mood’, the one song that remained from my first Dylan show at the London Palladium in 2017. Multi-instrumentalist Donnie Herron, meanwhile, watched Bob like a hawk from his riser overlooking Dylan's piano.

There were some moments in the show that had a comical feel to them. Bob sometimes walked out from behind his piano to soak in the applause – curiously, he often did this while the lights were down, which prompted huge roars from the first couple of rows who could see him, and confusion from everyone else. At one point a guitar tech solemnly walked onstage to present Bob Britt with a Gibson Flying V. Some of the audience leaned forward in anticipation of some hard rock, only for Dylan and the band to launch into the serene ‘Key West’. 

Despite all of that, the best was saved for last. 'Every Grain of Sand', much like 'I Believe in You' and some of Dylan's other religious songs, has the effect of making it feel as though the band and the audience have disappeared, and you are left to witness an intensely private moment between Dylan and the object of his faith. The band achieved a rare kind of unity with this song, where they ceased to be six individuals and temporarily morphed into a single being. Moments like this are what it's all about.

My only complaint about the show was that it flew past in a blur. Before I knew it, I was back on Canal Street with everyone else, excitedly discussing what we had just seen. We were interrupted by the tour buses pulling away – everybody waved and cheered, and The Bob Express responded with a happy honk as it set off on its way.

It's taken me a long time to get here, but the bottom line is this: if you have the opportunity to see Bob Dylan and his band on the Rough and Rowdy Ways World Wide Tour, don't hesitate! What we're seeing here is something precious and fleeting. Bob Dylan, unlike some performers you go to see who don’t have the magic anymore, still has got it.

Recording and concert dates from http://bjorner.com/still.htm

Last year I wrote about Bob's performance at the 2003 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival -  you can read that here

Monday, 28 February 2022

Walking in the Shadows After Dark: Bob Dylan's 'Key West' in Chicago


After spending over a year living with the studio version of ‘Key West’, I still can’t believe that we now have 21 live versions to enjoy as well, each one slightly different from the last. When Dylan finally unveiled it live for the first time (in Milwaukee, at the first show of the Rough and Rowdy Ways World Wide Tour) there was almost a sense of relief about the performance, like someone exhaling after holding their breath for a long time. You can tell the audience felt the same way: one of my favourite things about the recording is that you can hear a collective gasp sweep through the crowd as Bob sings “McKinley hollered…”.

As beautiful as the live debut of ‘Key West’ is (and it’s still the version that moves me the most), I’ve become even more partial to the performance of the song Dylan gave a day later in Chicago. While this version is a departure from Milwaukee, it’s also very different from the new arrangement that began to take shape at the following show in Cleveland. It occupies its own little island, which I guess is appropriate for a song called 'Key West.' 

Where the drums, pedal steel and Dylan’s piano were the most prominent instruments in Milwaukee’s ‘Key West’, in Chicago the dynamic gets reversed - it’s all about the guitars, played by Bob Britt and Doug Lancio. Britt, on lead guitar, is particularly impressive, playing the same role Charlie Sexton specialised in during his years in the Dylan band, conjuring an atmosphere that serves as a backdrop for Dylan’s singing.

And the atmosphere is worth talking about, because – in sharp contrast to the celebratory debut a day earlier, and the ‘dreamier’ versions that followed – this ‘Key West’ is positively menacing. Some of more sinister lines in the song suddenly come into sharp focus: “China blossoms of a toxic plant/ They can make you dizzy, I’d like to help you but I can’t”, “The fishtail ponds and the orchid trees/ They can give you that bleedin’ heart disease”, “Walkin’ in the shadows after dark”, “It’s hot down here”. Even the refrain about “looking for immortality” suddenly seems shrouded in darkness.

The role of the narrator in the Chicago 'Key West' is also different from the other versions. Rather than being a benevolent guide to this wonderland, here he comes across as more of a snake-oil salesman, trying to tempt us down a wrong path - not unlike the 'Black Rider' Dylan sings about earlier in the song cycle.

That’s the musical side of things, but thanks to a YouTube channel called Bird that Flew on the Avenue, we also have a video of this performance. A key part of Dylan’s live shows that often gets overlooked is the visuals, and how the very deliberate choices of lighting and the positioning of the band can often be a key part of the performance. For Chicago's 'Key West', the stage is in almost total darkness, with the lighting – all from below – giving Bob and the band a strange and otherworldly appearance. Everyone (besides Bob) is wearing black, which makes the band look like disembodied faces looming out of the shadows. The final dramatic device is Bob’s new smoke machine, which by the end of the song has nearly consumed the whole stage in fog. All of this ties in with the new, darker interpretation of the song: a literal Shadow Kingdom.



After this performance, Bob took ‘Key West’ in a new direction. Donnie Herron switched to the accordion he had played on the album, the foreboding tumble into the chorus became a heavenly ascent, and the chord sequence for the chorus itself was altered. There’s a lot to recommend about the subsequent ‘Key West’ performances, but Chicago is the one I keep coming back to.

I do want to say a few words about one of the other versions, though: the performance from 21st November at the Beacon Theatre in New York City. This is the only other ‘Key West’ that we have a complete video of (so far), and, once again, it really underlines just how much the visual drama playing out onstage can add to a performance. This time around, a lot of the intrigue is provided by new guitarist Doug Lancio. Doug has a music stand positioned at the back of the stage; at first I thought it might be sheet music or chord charts, but on closer inspection it appears to be lyric sheets for ‘Key West’. During the verses, Doug hovers over the music stand, spider-like, studying the lyrics intently. As the music shifts into the chorus, Doug moves centre stage to face fellow guitarist Bob Britt, and gives a nod in the direction of drummer Charley Drayton (presumably to cue him into the chorus). When the chorus ends, Doug drifts back to his position over the music stand, and the whole process repeats itself throughout the song. I don’t know exactly what's going on here, but as a visual device I find it weirdly fascinating, especially combined with the hypnotic guitar riff that runs through the song.

 

Where will Dylan take 'Key West' next? Will the arrangement stay the same, or perhaps revert back to something more like Milwaukee or Chicago? Maybe it will become something completely different again, or maybe (and this is an absolute worst case scenario) it will simply disappear. Whatever happens, the fact that this remarkable song has been performed at all is nothing less than a gift. 

Wednesday, 29 December 2021

The (In)Complete History of Bob Dylan and the Accordion

 

"It’s a perfect instrument in a lot of ways. It’s orchestrative and percussive at the same time. Actually accordion players were the first musicians that I had seen a lot of growing up." - Bob Dylan, 2009



Did you know that the diatonic accordion is the official instrument of the state of Louisiana? That’s just one of several fairly useless facts I’ve picked up since I became obsessed with the accordion, thanks in no small part to its prominent role on Bob Dylan's song 'Key West' and in his concert film Shadow Kingdom. I’d love to share more accordion facts with you, but this blog is called Talkin’ Bob Dylan, not Talkin’ Accordions (note to self: start blog called ‘Talkin’ Accordions’). So, as a compromise, let’s take a look at Bob Dylan’s history with the accordion.

The accordion’s first appearance on a Dylan album is ‘On a Night Like This’ from Planet Waves, played by The Band’s Garth Hudson (who, three years earlier, had also played accordion on The Band’s version of Bob's ‘When I Paint My Masterpiece’). However, ‘On a Night Like This’ wasn’t the first time Bob had been backed by an accordionist on record. That honour goes to Doug Sahm’s Doug Sahm and Band (1973), where Bob appears as co-lead vocalist on three songs, two of which - '(Is Anybody Going) to San Antone' and the Dylan original 'Wallflower' - include  an accordion.


The accordion here is played by Flaco Jiminez, who would reunite with Dylan at the 1990 Montreux Jazz Festival to play ‘Across the Borderline’:



The next appearance of the accordion on a Dylan record comes on ‘Joey’, track 6 of Desire (1976). In a great musical moment, the accordion drifts into the song just after Bob sings “Opened up his eyes, to the tune of an accordion”. On this album, the instrument (which can also be heard on ‘Romance in Durango’) is played by Dominic Cortese, a musician whom Allmusic.com describes as “the quintessential Italian accordion player”. Here he is in action:



The accordion took an extended absence from Dylan’s albums for the rest of the '70s and most of the 1980s, with the exception of ‘Where Teardrops Fall’ from 1989’s Oh Mercy. On this track, Dylan is accompanied by legendary New Orleans zydeco accordionist and singer Rockin’ Dopsie and his band. Unfortunately, although Dopsie is credited with accordion on the track, his playing seems to have been removed from the final mix. Hopefully there’s an alternate take/mix somewhere in the vaults where Dopsie can be heard. Here he is playing in 1984, with several of the same players who appear on 'Where Teardrops Fall' (including saxophonist John Hart, whom Dylan describes so vividly in Chronicles).

(Update 21/02/2022 - After listening very, very closely to 'Where Teardrops Fall' on headphones, I believe you can just about make out a few faint snippets of Rockin' Dopsie's accordion on the far right of the mix.)


Fans clamouring for more accordion on Dylan’s albums didn’t have to wait long, and this time they were in for a special treat. 1990’s Under the Red Sky is the first (and, to date, only) album to feature Bob himself on the accordion. He’s only credited on ‘Born in Time’, but you can pick out his playing on ‘Under the Red Sky’, ‘Handy Dandy’ and ‘Cat’s in the Well’, too. I wonder if he still plays.

(Update 13/08/22 - In Song & Dance Man III: The Art of Bob Dylan, Michael Gray writes: "At the 1990 sessions for "Under the Red Sky, [Dylan] had this unexplained box in the corner of the studio day after day; then one day, producing from it a new accordion still in its sealed polythene bag, he unwrapped it and recorded the accordion part to ' Born in Time' in one take. No one knew it was an instrument he could even half-play."p.860)



As Dylan entered the 1990s, he began to occasionally incorporate the accordion into his live sound, too. In April 1991, Dylan was joined onstage in New Orleans by accordionist Jo-El Sonnier, who played accordion on 'Maggie's Farm' (Bob had performed Sonnier's hit song 'No More One More Time' several times in 1990). 

During Dylan’s Winter 1993 tour of Europe, Bob's resident multi-instrumentalist Bucky Baxter began playing occasional accordion during the acoustic numbers. I’ve mentioned the glorious accordion version of ‘Jim Jones’ from Pentange, Luxembourg before, but Bucky sometimes played the instrument on other songs too – including the performance of ‘Hard Times’ during Willie Nelson’s 60th Birthday TV special. During the same show, Nelson’s harmonica player Mickey Raphael can be seen playing accordion during Willie and Bob’s ‘Pancho and Lefty’ duet.



The next person to play the accordion live with Bob was none other than Sheryl Crowe, who sat in with Dylan and his band to play four songs 
in New Orleans on 16th October 1995. She would reappear two years later in Los Angeles, playing accordion on 'Knockin' on Heaven's Door' at the fourth show of Dylan's El Ray Theater Residency. Speaking to Sirius XM in 2019, Crowe recalled sending a taxi back to her hotel to retrieve the accordion at Bob’s request.



Meanwhile, back in the studio, keyboardist Augie Meyers contributed subtle accordion to the tracks ‘High Water (For Charley Patton)’ and ‘Sugar Baby’ on Dylan’s 2001 album “Love and Theft”. Meyers had also played on Time Out of Mind in 1997 - there was no accordion on that record, but Meyers did play the instrument on the outtake ‘Red River Shore’. Two takes of the track appeared on The Bootleg Series Volume 8: Tell Tale Signs in 2008.



The following year saw Bob unveil his most accordion-centric work yet: Together Through Life, which features David Hidalgo of Los Lobos playing the instrument on almost every track. The accordion on this album is the lead instrument, playing the same role occupied by Scarlet Rivera’s violin on Desire. Dylan spoke a little about his decision to use the accordion so prominently in the interview with Bill Flanagan that accompanied the album:


A lot of accordion on this record – in places where we might expect to hear harmonica or organ or lead guitar.

Yeah, I guess so. The accordion can sound like all those instruments. Actually, I wished I had used it more on some of my past records.

Who’s playing that?

David Hidalgo.

Have you guys ever played together before?

I think so. Los Lobos played some shows with me in Mexico a while back. I remember playing some things with David and Cesar then.*

Is there a chance you’ll add an accordion on stage?

Well sure, if I could fit it into my rhythm section.

Did you write any of these songs with the accordion in mind or did it come up during the sessions?

I use an accordion player when I play off-road shows. It’s a perfect instrument in a lot of ways. It’s orchestrative and percussive at the same time. Actually accordion players were the first musicians that I had seen a lot of growing up.

“Opened his eyes to the tune of the accordion.”

Precisely.

 

(* The shows in Mexico Bob refers to here took place on 1st and 2nd March 1991, where Los Lobos were the opening act. Unfortunately, no tapes circulate from either show, so it's unclear whether any Los Lobos members - or accordions - appeared during Bob's set.) 

 


Hidalgo returned for Christmas in the Heart (2009) and Tempest (2012), but only plays 'lead' accordion on a couple of tracks (‘Must Be Santa’ on Christmas, and ‘Early Roman Kings’ on Tempest.)



Although Hidalgo played on Christmas in the Heart, he did not appear in the music video for ‘Must Be Santa’. The accordion player in the video is Robert ‘Smokey’ Miles, who might be better known as Count Smokula, the accordion-playing vampire. Here’s an excerpt from the bio on the Count’s official website:

Count Smokula, it is believed, was born 496 years ago in the town of Yabatubursk, near Glipsch, in Smokesylvania. Yet through an old series of family remedies, medicinal plants and herbs, he has retained his boyish vigor, and most people can't imagine he is a day over 380.

Even as a boy, The Count was known to possess miraculous powers of entertainment and was much in demand as a singer of Smokesylvanian songs of joy and for his exquisite playing of the SqveezeBox, which he performed at many Shlabans and other social events throughout the Shmear Province.

And here’s the Count in action:



The only live appearance of Bob with an accordion player in the 2010s came at the 2011 Grammys, when Mumford & Sons accordionist Ben Lovett played as part of the huge crowd of people backing Bob on ‘Maggie’s Farm’. However, nine years later, Dylan’s decision to feature the accordion on 'Key West' appears to have sparked a renewed interest in the instrument on his part. When Bob devised Shadow Kingdom, the streamed concert film that combined pre-recorded audio with separately filmed visuals, the accordion assumed a prominent position throughout. Some of the most effective playing is on this version of ‘Queen Jane Approximately’ where the accordion (as it does on 'Key West') acts almost like a drone, similarly to how its relative the shruti box is used. 



All of this leads us to the first leg of Bob Dylan’s Rough and Rowdy Ways World Tour, and the long-awaited live performances of ‘Key West’. Donnie Herron’s accordion didn’t make an appearance until the third show of the tour, and since then it has taken on a noticeably different role than on the album version – as James Adams put it in his must-read tour diary, “circl[ing] the song like a curious bird”. Part of me would like to see Donnie play accordion on other songs too, but, on the other hand, saving it for ‘Key West’ just makes the song feel even more special. 


I stopped short of calling this post 'The Complete History of Bob Dylan and the Accordion' because a) I've probably missed something, and b) I'm hoping that Bob will continue to feature the instrument in his live shows. Maybe - if he's been listening to Under the Red Sky over  Christmas - he'll get the urge to play some accordion onstage! You never know...



UPDATE - 25/01/2022: Some things I missed...

'I Pity the Poor Immigrant', Live at the Isle of Wight Festival, 30/08/1969 - Many thanks to reader Robert who told me about this performance, which may be the first time Bob was accompanied by an accordion. Dylan is backed by The Band, and the accordionist is, of course, the legendary Garth Hudson.



Mr. Tambourine Man, Live at The Forum, Inglewood, Los Angeles CA, 14/02/1974 - I was delighted to discover something I'd never heard before while listening to Ray Padgett's recent compilation of 1974 performances: a version of 'Mr. Tambourine Man' where Bob is accompanied by Garth Hudson on accordion. According to Wikipedia, Dylan performed this song (which was only played on one other occasion that year) as a Valentine's Day present for his wife.



Another reader commented to draw attention to the 2008 album Bob Dylan: Artist's Choice, a collection of Dylan's favourite tracks compiled by Bob himself for Starbucks. Bob chose to highlight not one but two accordionists on the collection: Belgian-French musician Gus Viseur, and the aforementioned Flaco Jiminez.

The Gus Viseur track is 'Flambee Montalbanaise', which was released on Columbia Records in 1940. Says Bob in the liner notes, "Whenever I hear a song like this, it doesn't matter where I am or what the weather is like. Suddenly I'm on a rain-soaked street in Paris underneath an awning drinking an espresso noir with a beautiful raven-haired Parisian."


The Flaco Jiminez track is 'Victimas Del Huracan Beulah', a tribute to the victims of the 1967 natural disaster. In the liner notes, Bob explains that Flaco is a second-generation accordionist following in the footsteps of his father, Flaco Sr., whom Dylan identifies as "the father of cojunto music". Of the younger Flaco, Bob simply writes, "I love Flaco Jiminez."



UPDATE 2 - 08/02/2022: Some more things I missed...

In Ray Padgett's recent interview with original Never Ending Tour drummer Christopher Parker, Parker mentions that the initial choice for bass player was T-Bone Wolk, also (along with Parker and G.E. Smith) a member of the Saturday Night Live house band. Parker reveals that early rehearsals in 1988 frequently featured Wolk switching to accordion, and that recordings of these sessions do exist in the Columbia vaults. Unfortunately, no tapes have found their way into circulation, so we'll just have to hope they get released someday.

There is, however, a bootleg from the previous year circulating called 'The G.E. Smith Audition Tape', featuring one of the guitarist's early jams with Dylan (backed by Steve Jordan on drums and Randy Jackson on bass). The biggest surprise on the tape arrives when G.E. picks up an accordion for 'Trail of the Buffalo' - I didn't know he was an accordion player, but he plays very well.


Another possible accordion appearance can be found on the colossal Dylan/Grateful Dead rehearsal bootleg, also from 1987, where keyboardist Brent Mydland is credited with accordion on 'Folsom Prison Blues'. I'm pretty sure it is an accordion, but there are moments when it sounds more like a synthesiser. Perhaps an accordion with some kind of effect on it? Anyway, here it is: you be the judge. 


Lastly, what would you say is the Dylan song that should feature an accordion, but doesn't? My pick would be the take of 'Tell Me' that appears on The Bootleg Series Volume 16: Springtime in New York. Can't you just hear it?

Tour Diary Part 1: London Palladium, 23rd and 24th October 2022

  I was lucky enough to be in the audience at the last two shows of Bob Dylan's London Palladium residency. Here are some thoughts about...