Saturday, August 31, 2013

Bob Dylan – Another Self Portrait (1969-1971)

Another Self Portrait (1969-1971): The Bootleg Series Vol. 10

I was 16 years old and heavily into Bob Dylan when Self Portrait was released in 1970. I knew every line of every song on every album he’d released in the 1960s and well remember the almost unanimous chorus of critical mud that was slung at the album.

“I once said I'd buy an album of Dylan breathing heavily. I still would. But not an album of Dylan breathing softly,” wrote Greil Marcus in his Rolling Stone review that famously asked, “What is this shit?”

Well, despite what Marcus and other critics had to say – less than five years later, I’d write my own first music reviews for the Montreal Gazette – I bought Self Portrait. While I recognized that it was easily Dylan’s weakest album to date, there were a lot of songs on it that I did like and the album grew on me. Sure enough, it wasn’t in the same league as Blonde on Blonde or John Wesley Harding (my favorite Dylan album to that point), but I liked it and I’ve returned to it occasionally over the years.

Listening to the newly released Another Self Portrait (1969-1971): The Bootleg Series Vol. 10 is revelatory. Although one track, a perfunctory version of “Minstrel Boy,” was recorded with The Band during The Basement Tapes period in 1967, the rest of the 35 songs date from 1969 to 1971 and includes outtakes, alternate versions, and alternate mixes from Nashville Skyline, Self Portrait, New Morning and Greatest Hits Vol. II – as well as demos and a couple of live tracks with The Band from the 1969 Isle of Wight concert.

There are Dylan songs, traditional folksongs and songs written by other songwriters. The set really shows how creative and interesting Dylan’s work of that period is and re-enforces my oft-stated opinion that most of Dylan’s work is very much part of the great folk continuum that reaches back to what the same Greil Marcus has called the “old weird America” of folksongs, blues and minstrelsy from the 19th and early-20th centuries, and which continues through and beyond the folk revival of the 1950s and ‘60s. As I wrote in my “Bob Dylan at 70” essay in 2011, Dylan never abandoned those traditions, he took them in new directions.

Mike Regenstreif and Tom Paxton
Before listening to Another Self Portrait as a whole from beginning to end, I went straight to a couple of songs written by old friends of mine that were recorded at the Self Portrait sessions but never released. Both Tom Paxton’s “Annie’s Going to Sing Her Song” and Eric Andersen’s “Thirsty Boots” are songs I’ve always loved. Tom and Eric, respectively, sang those songs at the Golem, the Montreal folk club I ran in the 1970s and ‘80s, and later as my guests on the Folk Roots/Folk Branches radio program.

“Annie’s Going to Sing Her Song” is one of three songs that Tom wrote about the mysterious Annie (the others are “When Annie Took Me Home” and “Has Annie Been in Tonight”). I long wondered about Annie and finally asked Tom about her during a songwriters’ workshop I was hosting at the Champlain Valley Folk Festival in 2001. It turned out that Annie was just Tom’s fictional creation. Dylan’s lovely version – with nice support from David Bromberg on guitar and Al Kooper on piano – is a nice nod to the man who was (in my opinion) Dylan’s greatest peer as a singer-songwriter on the Village folk scene.

Eric’s “Thirsty Boots,” also with Bromberg and Kooper, I think, is both a nice nod to Eric, but also
Eric Andersen and Mike Regenstreif
to the civil rights movement and the songs it inspired – a soundtrack to which Dylan himself contributed mightily.

I loved hearing Dylan doing the various traditional folksongs included in this set. Among the best are “Little Sadie,” a traditional Appalachian murder ballad, “Days of ’49,” a California gold rush ballad, and “Belle Isle,” a Newfoundland folksong, all stripped of the superfluous overdubs from the Self Portrait release; a beautiful version of “Pretty Saro”; a terrific version of “Railroad Bill” that I’m pretty sure is based on Ramblin’ Jack Elliott’s version; “This Evening So Soon,” a version of “Tell Ol’ Bill,” that Dylan acknowledges picking up from Bob Gibson; “Tattle O’Day,” a version of “I Buyed Me a Little Dog” that sounds like it was picked up from Dave Van Ronk’s version; “House Carpenter," the British ballad with an arrangement built around Kooper's piano; and a variation of “Bring Me a Little Water (Sylvie)” that seems quite different from any of the many other versions I know.

Other tracks from Self Portrait that are completely rejuvenated by having the overdubs stripped off are “All the Tired Horses,” a pretty throwaway on which the back-up singers sing the only two lines over and over; the wordless “Wigwam”;  and “Copper Kettle,” a faux-folksong from the 1950s that Dylan likely picked up from the singing of Joan Baez.

Among the other highlights are the slower, alternate version of “If Not for You,” from the New Morning sessions featuring Dylan on piano and an unidentified violinist; the acoustic demo version of “Went to See the Gypsy” that leads off the first CD; a version of “Only a Hobo,” with Happy Traum playing banjo and singing harmony that was recorded at the sessions for the Greatest Hits Vol. II bonus tracks; and the demo of "When I Paint My Masterpiece" that ends the album. It's an appropriate coda to the collection for a songwriter who has created so many masterpieces over the past 50 years.

There are also a couple of interesting alternate mixes of tracks from New Morning. The title song is nicely punched up by a horn arrangement but the orchestral overdubs on “Sign on the Window” are a drag on the song. I much prefer the mix of “Sign on the Window” from the 1970 LP. I also much prefer the swinging hipster version of “If Dogs Run Free” from the LP over the alternate take included here.

Those last two minor quibbles aside, Another Self Portrait would have made for a great album 40 years ago and is a great album today.

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--Mike Regenstreif

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Gordon Lightfoot to play at Ottawa Folk Festival

The Ottawa Folk Festival has announced that Gordon Lightfoot will perform a 75-minute concert at 8:00 pm on Sunday, September 8, the festival’s final evening.

Gordon, one of the greatest Canadian folk-rooted singer-songwriters of the past 50 years – he first played the Mariposa Folk Festival in 1962 – is a major addition to the Ottawa Folk Festival line-up. Click here for my preview of the festival.

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Sunday, August 25, 2013

Kevin Head – Live


Kevin Head is one of those people I’ve known seemingly forever or, at least, since 1971 when we were both young pups on the Montreal folk scene – me helping Chuck Baker run the Yellow Door and getting my feet wet MCing the Sunday night hoots and Kevin playing those same hoots and doing his first weeknight gigs there.

In 1972, as a student at Dawson College, I started my first concert series. Kevin, a fellow student, was the opening act for Bruce Murdoch on the first concert I ever produced, 41 years ago. So we go back a long way.

After his Montreal years, Kevin spent a few years living and working in Nova Scotia and has since been based near Kingston, Ontario. Although he has remained a very active performer – primarily a regional performer around wherever he’s been living – Kevin’s recordings have been few and very far between. An LP, No Frills, came out in 1979 (Kate McGarrigle, who I was working with in those days, played on a couple of the songs) and a CD, Hear Them Callin’ (which got a lot of play on the Folk Roots/Folk Branches radio show) came out in 1995.

Live, recorded off the floor last October at Stonewater Pub in Gananoque, Ontario, is just Kevin’s third album. All 10 songs in the 40-minute set are originals – two reprised from earlier albums and eight others, written between 1971 and 2009, are commercially released for the first time. Kevin, who plays acoustic guitar and gets solid support from Cam Schaefer on keyboards, bassist Bob Arlidge, percussionist Jak Thrasher and harmony vocalist Vanessa Burnett, seems relaxed and engaging throughout the live show.

The most compelling song is “The Arrow,” about a fictional tragedy that unfolds in a family already devastated by the Canadian government’s sudden shutdown of the Avro Arrow military jet program in 1959.

Other highlights include “Thanks Hank,” written back in ’71, one of the best and most infectious tributes ever to Hank Williams (hearing it brought back lots of memories of Kevin doing it back in the day in Montreal); “Saturday Night in South Margaree,” which captures a magical night of music making on Cape Breton Island (although I wish there was a fiddle player sitting in on this number); “Laying It on the Line,” a story about an intense love relationship; and the show closing band workout “Backyard” (known as “Everyone Needs a Backyard” in earlier versions), one of those songs that plants an earworm in your brain that never quite goes away.

I hope it’s not so long a wait for Kevin’s fourth album.

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--Mike Regenstreif