Monday, 22 November 2021

Bob Dylan's "Big Band Orchestrated Riffs"

Bob Dylan is back on the road. In a world where everything is more than a little scary and uncertain right now, there’s a lot of comfort to be taken from the fact that Dylan is out there doing what he does: playing, singing, performing. Another bonus is that, thanks to technology, it’s possible to follow the tour almost in real time via speedily-uploaded recordings. There’s been a lot to take in: a new drummer (Charley Drayton), a new guitarist (Doug Lancio) and an intriguing new stage setup. What’s captivated me the most, however, are the performances of ‘Key West (Philosopher Pirate)’, one of eight songs premiered from last year’s album Rough and Rowdy Ways.

The first performance, in Milwaukee, was probably the closest to the studio version. Since that night, ‘Key West’ has been tweaked with each show, with both the vocal delivery and musical backing morphing from one concert to the next. The continuing evolution of the song is fascinating, but I’m still drawn back to the Milwaukee version – particularly the last part of the performance, when Bob’s piano and Donnie Herron’s pedal steel guitar combine to create a spontaneous riff:

This is something I’ve seen/heard them do in the past, and it doesn’t always work this well. It does, however, seem to be something that Dylan wants people to notice, since he’s gone out of his way to call attention to it at least twice:

Bill Flanagan interview, 2009

BF: At the end of JOLENE I noticed that those riffs start happening. I’ve seen you do that live, but I’ve never heard that on any of your records. I assume that’s Donnie playing with you.

BD: Yeah, it is. The organ sound and steel guitar combined make those riffs

Bill Flanagan interview, 2017

BD: [W]hen the piano gets locked in with the steel guitar, it’s like big band orchestrated riffs. That doesn’t happen when I’m playing guitar. When I play guitar it’s a different band.

The “big band orchestrated riffs” Bob is referring to are the kind that were pioneered by bandleaders like Count Basie and Duke Ellington during the early part of the Swing Era in the 1930s. Different sections of the orchestra would lock in with each other to produce these "riffs", a term that music historian Ted Gioia defines in his book The History of Jazz as “a repeated phrase over changing harmonies”. Here’s the Basie Orchestra’s ‘Riff Interlude’ from 1939, which features the band’s soloists playing over a succession of riffs:

And, as another random example, here's the riff-based ending of 'The Donkey Serenade' by Artie Shaw and his Orchestra, also from 1939:

Going back to Dylan’s comments from the 2017 interview: it’s interesting that he says that these kinds of riffs don’t happen when he’s on guitar, because he has occasionally attempted it with some success. One example is a performance of ‘Tangled Up in Blue’ from Port Chester in 2012, where Bob immediately finds a guitar riff and locks in with Donnie to rebuild the whole song around it.

There’s also ‘Narrow Way’ from Bob's 2012 album Tempest. I’m pretty sure that’s Dylan himself blasting out the song’s main riff on guitar (locked in with Donnie once again), and that, if we had access to the session tapes, we would probably find an earlier take in which Bob stumbled upon this riff and decided to make it the focal point of the song. 

A large part of Donnie Herron’s role in the band appears to be homing in on these riffs that Dylan finds. Onstage, Donnie sits on a riser directly overlooking Dylan’s keyboard, which allows him to immediately zero in on any motifs that Bob might chose to pursue.

When did Bob start working these riffs into his shows? Surprisingly, it can be traced as far back as the early/mid 1990s, when Dylan’s band consisted of John ‘J.J.’ Jackson (guitar), Bucky Baxter (pedal steel/various), Winston Watson (drums) and Tony Garnier (bass) - an era of shows perhaps best remembered for long, experimental jams. For instance, check out this performance of ‘Rainy Day Women’ (from Pentage, Luxembourg in April 1993) from the 3:00 
mark onwards. You can hear Bob pick out a riff on his guitar, which is then picked up by J.J. (at 3:35) and then by Bucky at (4:03).

Perhaps the most pressing question of all is: what is the point of these riffs? Well, only Dylan himself knows for sure, but my guess is that it’s a way of keeping the music alive and breathing, keeping the musicians on their toes, and avoiding playing the same thing by rote night after night. If that is what Bob is going for, I’d say it’s been a success.

Here's Bob and Donnie at work, locking in to create a riff during a recent performance of 'Goodbye Jimmy Reed':

No comments:

Post a Comment

Bob Dylan's "Big Band Orchestrated Riffs"

Bob Dylan is back on the road. In a world where everything is more than a little scary and uncertain right now, there’s a lot of comfort to ...