Friday, July 24, 2009

A non-Woodstock Legend

Although I have only been posting concert reviews of Woodstock performers, the man I saw this week could very easily have performed 40 years ago in Bethel, NY. He was certainly just as famous as any of the Woodstock performers, if not more so. You would have trouble finding somebody today who has never heard a Bob Dylan song. The man was never a politician, war veteran, or president, yet you can point to him as having a large impact on our nation's history and popular culture.

Bob Dylan performed with John Mellencamp and Willie Nelson at McCoy Stadium this past Tuesday. While Nelson and Mellencamp are legends in their own right, Bob Dylan carries a certain special quality. He has written some of the best protest music in our nation's history. He was on the front lines of the Civil Rights Movement in the 60s, spoke out against Vietnam, and was open to discussing his fears of a possible nuclear war. He is without a doubt one of the most important, ground-breaking performers in our history.

For most people, Dylan's lyrics were always more important than the way he delivered them. Many people can't stomach the voice of Dylan. I think he is definately an acquired taste. I can remember hearing Bob Dylan songs when I was younger and thinking "how can anybody listen to this?" As years went by, I really did find myself paying more attention to what Dylan was saying in his music. As even more time went by, I found myself starting to enjoy the music.

These days, Bob Dylan doesn't sound like he used to. After over 40 years of singing, his voice is much deeper. He growls a bit. Yet somehow, the legacy and mystery of Dylan keeps people coming to see his concerts and buying his albums. I talked to a few younger attendees of the show who came because they simply wanted to see the legend in person before he retired. This past year in my classroom, I had a few students start to admit they had come to enjoy Dylan. One student, in fact, felt so compelled that he went out and bought Bob's new album. I don't expect everyone to enjoy Dylan. As I said earlier, he was an acquired taste for me. However, it is important that we look to the messages of the songs and how Dylan impacted his generation with those messages.

Here is a review from Tuesday night's show along with a few pictures I took:

Review: Legends night at McCoy


PAWTUCKET - It was an off-the-wall triple Tuesday night at McCoy Stadium, as Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson and John Mellencamp brought their summer ballpark tour to town.The biggest threat of the night, other than a broken hip onstage, was the ominous clouds that looked ready to burst at any moment. After a day of forecasts that contained phrases like "flood warning" and "build an ark," it was not an auspicious start. However, the rain held off for the most part, and the show went on for the near-capacity crowd that ranged in age from 17 to 70.
The mix of performers seemed to be a good one, as each was greeted enthusiastically by the audience and returned the favor by delivering the goods.
Nelson, in his mid-70s and with his graying red mane flowing freely, delivered a low-key, loose set that concentrated mostly on the hits, such as "Georgia on My Mind," "Mama, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys," "Always on My Mind," and "On the Road Again." The Texas native did seem to want to sneak some religion in, though, tossing off a medley of "Will the Circle be Unbroken" and "I'll Fly Away." For good measure, there were also a couple of Hank tunes.
Lifting things a notch was Mellencamp, whose set rocked hard and included a handful of hits, as well as a few more mordant tunes from his recent albums. This band was loud: the kick drum was so punishing that it throbbed inside my chest. A few mid-set acoustic tunes helped ease that, and other than a few lost violin parts, the sound and mix were very good, especially for a ballpark. And, as if on cue, it started to mist a little during "Rain on the Scarecrow."The stage was set up in the centerfield stands, with a section cordoned off in front so thousands could stand and get a closer look. The rest sat in the stands, further away, but appreciating a little shelter from the partial roof.

As is de rigueur for outdoor concerts, both Willie and Mellencamp did a lot of pointing to the crowd and urged them to sing along and even take over the vocals of some of their biggest hits.
Dylan did no pointing. But he did seem to be in high spirits. Under a white, wide-brimmed hat and a blue suit, Dylan came out clutching a guitar. He played and sang the opener, "Cats in the Well," with a little Elvis leg shake, and later, at the keyboard, was bopping all night.The band was so good it not only blew your socks off, it took the hair off the top of your toes. They were lovingly gentle on tunes like "Po' Boy," but ripped it up on others, like "Highway 61" and "Jolene," the only track played from Dylan's excellent new CD "Together Through Time."
The quality of Dylan's singing is always an issue, and at the start of his set Tuesday all that came out was a gruff sort of growl. It got better, and by the time he hit "Masters of War," it became the Voice of Doom, spitting out lines like "And I'll stand o'er your grave 'til I'm sure that you're dead." On "Summer Days" and "Ain't Talkin'" the "voice of a generation" was rough, but somehow right.
Anyone unsatisfied or taken by surprise by Dylan's lack of vocal acuity these days can't complain: Simply logging on to YouTube before buying tickets and putting in "Dylan live 2009," they would have heard what they were in for. It's a far cry from the mid-'70s, when he was one of the best singers in rock, but it's an instrument that's still serviceable in the way he uses it.
Neither the 70-year-old guy next to me who almost didn't recognize "It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" thanks to the bluesy shuffle that briskly carried it along, nor the 'tweens who were dancing at the back of the crowd to a torrid "All Along the Watchtower" seemed to mind. Like everyone else, they came to see the man who wrote these songs and continues to pen sui generis gems even as dotage nears, and who changed history: An artist now trying to survive like the rest of us, still sounding his clarion croak for the world to hear.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Another Woodstock legend...

I had the chance to see Joe Cocker on Cape Cod this past week. One of the greatest voices in rock history, Cocker used the Woodstock stage in 1969 to really cement himself into the mainstream music world. His unique, powerful voice combined with odd stage movements made Cocker one of the standout performers at Woodstock. His version of "With a Little Help From My Friends" has become a true anthem of Woodstock and the 60s.
Although Joe is now 65 and has aged quite a bit physically since Woodstock, his voice is still very much intact. Below are some pictures of the show along with a review...

MUSIC REVIEW: At age 65, Cocker is still a rocker

The Patriot Ledger
Posted Jul 03, 2009 @ 02:02 PM

Any worries that Joe Cocker’s live show might be, like his recent albums, a bit ballad-heavy, were incredibly unfounded. Thursday night’s 90-minute barnburner was every bit as rocking and vibrant as his classic “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” live album from 39 years ago – except his current band is probably better.

Cocker delivered every notable song from “Mad Dogs” and a stunning cross-section of his career since then. At 65, he may be a few pounds heavier, and gulping water between songs instead of something stronger, but he’s every bit as mesmerizing a rocker as he ever was.

Cocker, dressed in a black suit and black shirt, made a fantastic entrance. As his eight-piece band unveiled the familiar funky lines to “Hitchcock Railway,” he strode down the aisle of the big tent, packed with one of its few sellout crowds this season. After a rollicking romp through that tune, Cocker shed his suit coat and careened through a vintage-quality “Feelin’ Alright.” There’s no other way to say it, but the audience of 2,300 went wild, and the gruff-voiced man from Sheffield had them right in his pocket the rest of the way. A good estimate would be half-a-dozen spontaneous standing ovations as the night wore on, as Cocker kept pushing the envelope on a truly bravura performance.

Cocker’s band deserves special note, as they really played the music with muscle and verve. Bassist Oneida James was a revelation with her visceral foundations all night long, and drummer Jack Bruno was equally potent. Guitarist Gene Black could be subtle or fiery as the occasion demanded, and pianist Nick Milo and saxophonist/percussionist Norbert Fimple displayed wonderful versatility. Hammond B-3 organist Mike Finnigan really hit the pocket, reprising some of those classic lines made famous by original Cocker band member Chris Stainton. And backup singers Nicki Tillman and Tyonee Reed were practically flawless in harmonizing with Cocker. James, Black, and Finnigan also provided harmony vocals, so Cocker had a real choir behind him.

After those first two bombshells from the past, Cocker unleashed a sizzling take on “The Letter.” It seemed like Cocker was trying to exhaust his fans early, and the next song only downshifted a little. “When the Night Comes,” a latter-day Cocker gem, rode a more mid-tempo groove, but the singer still managed to accentuate it with a joyful jump in the air at its finish.

That was the opening sprint, and then Cocker brought the sound way down for a quiet rendition of “Up Where We Belong,” the ballad from “An Officer and a Gentleman,” with Tillman deftly filling the role Jennifer Warnes did on the hit. A throbbing charge through “Shelter Me” got temperatures rising again, but then Cocker sang “You Are So Beautiful” with just Milo’s piano providing lovely accompaniment.

James’ funky bass was the crucible that turned the Beatles’ “Come Together” into something hot and steamy, and brand-new, and last night’s version was even better than the one on Cocker’s latest album, “Hymn for My Soul.” But then Cocker immediately topped that with “Now That the Magic Has Gone,” one of the best soul torch songs of the past couple decades. The song’s sweeping dynamics fit Cocker’s vocal power like a glove, and Black’s stiletto guitar solo was mind-bending.

During “You Can Leave Your Hat On” one besotted female fan strode onstage to embrace Cocker, who smiled at her, and never missed a beat as he continued to sing with her clinging on until security arrived.

Cocker’s homestretch would be daunting for a singer in their 20s, but he pulled it off with style and inhuman energy. “Unchain My Heart” was just a roaring march through the blues, while “With a Little Help from My Friends” simply drove the all-ages crowd bonkers.

“Delta Lady,” “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window,” and a pounding, B-3-focused “Cry Me a River” were all slammed out like it was 1969.

For his finale, Cocker did a scaled down, gospel-feeling take on John Fogerty’s “Long as I Can See The Light,” from the latest album.

Welsh singer/songwriter Paul Freeman opened with an appealing 30-minute set. Freeman’s own “Walking on a Tightrope” was lively rock, while his cover of the Traveling Wilbury’s “Handle with Care” had the whole tent clapping along gleefully.