The latest platter from Bob Dylan, "Tempest," has spent a lot of time in my various players. This effort is of a piece with his work since "Time Out of Mind" kicked off his late-life revival. There is much less Chicago blues influence on this one - indeed, it starts with mutant Western swing on the Pennsylvania-connected "Duquesne Whistle." The songs are more tuneful than last time around, but the melodies are often provided by the music.
Bob's voice still sounds haunted; some vocals have more clarity than others ("Soon After Midnight"), while the pretty "Long and Wasted Years" has quite a bit of conversational vocalizing. Either way, it's Bob - it's not the pretty voice of Nashville Skyline, but that was long ago. The brilliant lyrics refer to everything from The Faerie Queen to John Lennon, from William Blake to Leonardo DiCaprio, and all tell a story, some at great length (almost 14 minutes for the title cut's waltzing with the story of the Titanic). I could go on, but we've other perch to poach.
The great Toots Hibbert played an acoustic set in State College last month supporting his new live album "Unplugged on Strawberry Hill." If the name doesn't ring a bell, Toots is the OTHER giant figure in classic reggae. While his lyrics lack the political-spiritual heft that made Bob Marley a prophet as well as a rock star, Toots is the guy with the voice and the humor. He has songs about chickens in the yard, shotgun weddings and monkey men to go along with his jailhouse anthem "54-46 That's My Number," and judging from the show, his voice has lost none of its warmth and texture. Toots embodies the lineage of soul singing in the reggae world - his version of Otis Redding's "I've Got Dreams to Remember" was spiritually stirring at the show. "Toots in Memphis," his tribute to American soul, is highly recommended.
Local musician Doug McMinn is seen performing. McMinn has been listening to Bob Dylan, Kevin Gordon and Neil Young.
Kevin Gordon is a Nashville-based songwriter from Louisiana, but there ain't much country in his muscular and poetic Americana. He visited Elk Creek Cafe recently and he's a treat. Gordon's amiably off-kilter stage persona may not be television ready, but he has the SONGS. "Deuce and a Quarter" was recorded by Keith Richards and "Down to the Well" is even better. "Kolfax/Step in Time" (from his new disc "Gloryland") is a corker, by far the greatest song about a high school marching band and the KKK in the whole canon of American songwriting. Among details familiar to anyone who suffered through the high school band syndrome, lurks a tale of courage and fortitude. Led by their African-American director, the kids arrive at a parade in Colfax, L.a., that's attended by robed Klansmen, but the band and its leader just step on, right in time.
In the wake of two new releases and an autobiography in the last year, two classic Neil Young discs from the 1970s appeared in the house recently. "On the Beach" from 1974 at first seems a bit depressed. Opening hit "Walk On" gets things off in a sprightly manner, but "See the Sky about to Rain" quiets things down immediately after. Several songs are called blues, but only the oil crisis-themed "Vampire Blues" has a lot to do with that style. Players are mostly veterans of the Stray Gator band that recorded "Harvest" a few years before, so heavy rockers are few. "For the Turnstiles" and "On the Beach" ("the world is turning, I hope it don't turn away") are other standout songs on this quiet collection.
"Zuma" (1975) is a Crazy Horse album, so the hard side of Neil is dominant. "Don't Cry No Tears" is loud country-rock up front, followed by one of Neil's extended jam songs, "Danger Bird" which displays his unique melodic gift, along with feral guitar. Some different moods are explored ("Through My Sails" features his mates from CSNY), but the minor-key hammering of "Stupid Girl" and the apocalyptic "Cortez the Killer" are the dominant sound of this one. "Cortez" is a classic loopy Neil lyric, carefully marshalling images of the conquest of Aztec Mexico, adding some hippie philosophy, then inexplicably bringing the narrator's girlfriend out at the end. Nobody else does it like this!