Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The Raconteurs
Opening for
Bob Dylan

Enjoyed an interesting mini-tour on the eastern seaboard this fall where I had the pleasure of seeing Jack White and his Raconteurs open 4 different shows for the Man, the Master, Bob Dylan. The past and the future all rolled up in one. And that’s just Jack White. It says a lot for Jack’s drawing power that the Dylan show in Philadelphia, Nov. 18,2006, was my 101st lifetime but I wouldn’t have passed a hundred if the Racs weren’t the opening set. I was perfectly content to take in the 4 Canadian dates and end my Dylan concert-going career at 99 shows. I could then have spent the rest of my life saying: “I saw Bob Dylan 99 times! Would have seen him a hundred but three digits is a little excessive, don’t you think?” Not to be. The lure of Jack White, the lure of Boston, the lure of friends at every show and a party around every corner, were a little too much to convince me to show restraint.

The reasons this tour ticket was a match made in heaven are just too numerous to list here, I’ll focus on the opening act. The Raconteurs are bringing a limited set list and a lot of volume to the stage. Jack’s committed to making this manifestation of his unstoppable talent something distinctly different from the White Stripes. It’s a much more structured schtick. These are new-age outlaws. Their history reaches back to the spaghetti westerns of the ‘60’s, they grew up riding their broomstick-horses and fightin’ and ‘ ‘cussin’ in the mud and the blood and the ginger beer. (You see why we have Bang Bang in the set list?) They are boys and men and boys again. They are broken boys. They are soldiers and cowboys. Their sound is mired in the garage-band ethos of MC5 and the Stooges. (You see why we have the original composition 5 on the 5 and the cover, Headin’ For the Texas Border, in the set list?)

Four blistering shows, two in Boston on the weekend of the 11th and 12th of November. The next weekend we get one show in Fairfax and one show in Philadelphia. The Raconteur portion of the tour consists of 8 shows. We’re seeing shows #2,3,7 and 8. A few interesting sub-themes crop up during the two lost weekends. One is the volume. Two is the audience response. Three is the volume. Four is the band response. Five is the volume. Six is the anti-climactic ‘Jack ‘n Bob’ component.

The pre-show music, courtesy of the opening band, is Ramones, great feel good songs to get everyone’s eardrums warmed up. When lights go down the introductory music is supplied by Sergio Leone’s score for Once Upon A Time in America. Just to establish a mood. . (Check out some studio shots of that production to see where the album cover came from.) The band generally comes on during this segment and launches into a “Hands intro” before breaking into either Intimate Secretary or Hands itself. I prefer it when Hands is up front because that means we get something even more kick-ass to close the show. We got the variations split down the middle, two of each. One evening we get the distinct added pleasure of the band continuing the OUATIA theme music on their own instruments before switching to Hands.

The set is broken down into a few distinct components: The opening portion, primarily straight-up rock, consisting of the original tunes; Hands, and/or Intimate Secretary and Level. Steady As She Goes makes an appearance if Hands isn’t played. All these songs serve to warm up the band and the audience but it’s just an appetizer. The most notable change made in this segment was the flowering of Level, once a cute 4 minute pop-song, now an 8-minute guitar blow-out. Steady As She Goes was given a couple different treatments, the best of which was the slow version, emulating the single. The set lists are static but the arrangements change every night. OK, not so much the ‘arrangement’ as the delivery. Some variation is tossed into virtually every song to make it just a little bit (or a lot) different than the last time you heard it.

Band intro’s come after that brief opening three-song flurry. Brendan Benson alternates with Jack White when doing the band intros. Thankfully they are filling the air space with less ‘banter’ during these opening sets. Sometimes trying to be cute takes away from the act and Jack and Brendan have a tendency to egg each other on to the point of silliness. I could relate a show where the Capital of Asia was the subject under discussion onstage, but I won’t. Still the band intros proved to be the point where the artists would convey their feelings to us. Starting right up with the first night in Boston, only the second show, and already the news getting back to the band was that the music was too loud for the old Dylan fans. Not this fan, that’s for sure, but I did hear some comments to that effect, when I could hear anything at all. Brendan closes his introductions with this little quip: “You can take your earplugs out now, we’re going to do some acoustic numbers.” There was a day off in between the opening night in Portland ME and this show in Boston so the band had time to read some reviews, even scour the ‘Net or talk to flesh-and-blood fans. They didn’t see my blog or find my posts at the Dylanpool or drop me a line, because the last thing on my ‘complaint list’ would have been the volume. The following weekend Jack continues this theme by making similar comments and introducing the band as “The Earplugs”, instead of by their proper name. It was cute enough. Perhaps an easy target given the generation gap between the artists and their fan bases, but it threatened to grow mean. Following song #3, Steady As She Goes, Jack starts the intro’s by announcing: “OK, that was the duration of our set, we’re all done. HAAAAA! Some people, ah, some people would wish so…”

Second part of the Raconteurs extravaganza is ostensibly the “acoustic portion”, as Brendan alluded. This consists of Together and Yellow Sun, two original compositions, most likely written primarily by the more gentile Brendan. You get both, or you get one with a cover like It Ain’t Easy or A House Is Not A Motel. I absolutely love Together, the way it sounds, what it says, how it’s delivered. It contains one of the best rhymes of the millenia, to date: “I’m adding something new to the mixture, to bring a different hue to your picture.” Well done, A rhyme inside a rhyme within the lines and a subtle tongue twist on phonetically similar words to close the couplet.

Third part of the show is the heart and soul of the Raconteurs, a mini-opera in 4 parts, think of it as Jack’s 4 Seasons: Store Bought Bones – Bang Bang – Broken Boy Soldiers – Blue Veins! That is a killer 30 minutes any night. 40 minutes some nights. Once in awhile, if they are playing back-to-back shows in the same city, you’ll get a slight variance in the sequence. It’s all very alphabetical though: SBB-BB-BBS-BV. Economic use of letters, eh? Jack’s always had a thing for “3’s”, from the Stripes days. I love the acronym-cum-palindrome that the first three songs of this opera make up, SBBBBBBS. This segment of the show is live performance rock at its apex. From the extended intro to SBB, called the ‘Bane Rendition’ but eerily reminiscent of Norman Greenbaum’s Spirit in the Sky, through to the muddy blues intro on Blue Veins, this is captivating music. Every song is an emotional journey from ear-splitting screams to soft whispered wishes. From hard pounding drums, courtesy of the best drummer I’ve seen onstage this year, Patrick Keeler, through to Jack’s guitar, it’s relentlessly pounding, concussive, rock n roll. Even within this segment there’s room for movement. The treatment Bang, Bang gets every night is a little different. A copper mic set up at the rear of the stage is often employed in BBS and sometimes in BB, to the chagrin of many I’m sure. The intro to Blue Veins is a song by itself and the crowd often applauds at the end, thinking they’ve heard an instrumental, before Jack explodes into the song. One night, having missed his cue to return to the mic during an instrumental break in Blue Veins, Jack treated us to a little ad-lib, spoken-word, interlude: “I looked her straight in the eyes/there was nobody else there but me and her/ and I said straight to her/ I think you know exactly what I’m talking about/ you’ve probably all been there once or twice yourself/ and for a second you probably believed it….”

From here to the end of the show it’s all gravy. This opening set doesn’t allow for much in the way of extra songs so it’s been either Steady As She Goes or Hands coupled with a cover, Headin’ for the Texas Border, more often than not. In their longer set you’re likely to get a song in here with heavy local interest…a cover of Shocking Blue in the Lower Countries or The Beatles in Liverpool…just to show you they’re paying attention.

The tour ended with no reprise of the “Jack ‘n Bob” collaboration that I witnessed in Detroit a couple years ago. Didn’t think it would happen, but you can always hope. For the most part the Dylan community took very well to the band. That made the stage comments all the more strange. People either have a finely tuned ear for criticism or they don’t get enough opinions. Though it’s absolutely of no consequence there were a couple moments in the Philly that closed the Raconteurs portion of the tour, that could be construed to be sour grapes. OK, maybe that’s a bit strong.

Besides the blurb about the early set ending quoted earlier, during Store Bought Bones, just before the song breaks into a mantric chant of “you can’t buy what you can’t find what you can’t” Jack inserts: “All the hippies say.” Hmmm, is that a shot. Maybe some spill-over from not being invited onstage? If he felt at all slighted that Dylan didn’t even thank the opening band he shouldn’t be…Dylan rarely does unless the band has a buxom, smiling babe playing fiddle.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Bob Dylan
Grudge Match
London ON
Toronto ON

What a difference a day makes...well, three days really, as Dylan's Toronto set was vastly improved over the London show. Song selections aside, it seems the days of 'monster surprises' are behind us, the difference was all in the delivery...or, as they say on TV up here when hawking pizza (and that's all BOb's doing, isn't it?), the delivery was delicio!

The ACC is a cavernous, unforgiving bowl that holds 20,000, but the sound is superb. The pre-show music consists entirely of Johnny Cash.
Appropriate,for the headliner anyway.

The Foo Fighters open the show with the same set list we had in London, just a little tweak to the song order. Powerful stuff. Grohl is a rock legend simply for his proximity to the supernova that was Kurt Cobain. He deserves respect for his own immense talents that range from song-writing, playing multiple instruments (though we only had the acoustic guitar this evening) and his screamo-performance style of singing. Nothing to choose from when comparing the London and Toronto shows, both were consistently excellent and too short by half.

Which is to say that Dylan fears nothing. Least not challenges from anyone in the industry. The Foos were an "A List" opening act that made this leg of the tour a bargain. They drew a big crowd as they played their 1 hour opening set to 19,000 appreciative fans. Got themselves two standing ovations for their efforts.

Between London and Toronto there was plenty to choose from, in both quality and song selections. Both shows open with Maggie's Farm, which is a little unsettling. I do like the new 'arrangement', not drastically altered but different enough to make you take notice. I give the nod to the London performance, the vocals were sharper, he played more with 'dropping' the last word of the line into the music after an almost imperceptible pause. In Toronto, though his voice was strong, he seemed to rush the words. What was 'dime' in London, was 'daaaahhhhhhh' in Toronto. The same modified musical arrangement but you have to be wary of a song where the singer tells you: "they say 'sing while you slave!', I just get bored." It's not like you can honestly ask for a rebate an hour and a half later.

She Belongs to Me without the vocal stumbles. That's the way it oughta be. Letter perfect delivery and the band is just floating along that lazy river. The degree of disappointment felt over the botching of any one song over another is mostly linked to the stature of that song in your memory. I mean if he loses his place in the middle of Wiggle Wiggle it's hardly like that's a heartwrenching loss. Perhaps not the same as when he loses his place in a song with some majesty, like Visions, or Mississippi or ... She Belongs to Me. The stumble in the London version was like a balloon popping.

Lonesome Day Blues absolutely slays TDTD, almost by default. The Tweedles we got in London was interestingly fresh. Some new guitar lines by Denny almost give this song a reason to exist. Almost. LDB, on the other hand, needs no reason outside of it's excellence. This one didn't quite reach the exhuberant heights of the Rochester '04 version but it's always well treated. Musically the song is a little more sparse than it has been, it's not quite as fast as I remember it, but it's still time well wasted.

Positively 4th Street didn't have much competition in slot #4, being up against the anemic Girl of the North Country. A monster song not terribly botched.

It's Alright Ma, I'm only compeeeeting...with myself again. Toronto absolutely creams London in this cage match. Punchy, powerful version without being overly weighed down by the 'bass'y, thunder, sound blanket it's wrapped in.

Most Likely in London was the best I've heard it in years. Too bad it's facing a wonderful sounding, crystal clear, lifetime-debut-in-any-medium, When the Deal Goes Down. Add to the fact I really like this song, that I could make out over 75% of the lyrics and could tell the story the singer was trying to relate...well, then it's no contest.

A very good Not Dark Yet in London beats out a pared-down but always interesting Highway 61.

The debut of Rollin' and Tumblin' in London was the first song i've heard off the new album. Couldn't hardly make out more than 20% of the words, didn't like the ones I could make out. That won't be enough to carry it past a second strong outing for Masters of War. I spent a lot of years not really listening to this song, so for me it was really fresh. I'd say it deserves more respect than it gets but for a song written in 1962 and played regularly to loud cheers in 2006 I'd say it doesn't need my help.

The same two songs meet up in slot nine and this time the nod goes to the better performed Toronto version of Rollin' and Tumblin' over the more than adequate version of Masters we received in London. Tonight's Rollin', though no less offensive, is much clearer. The LDB sister-song.

London's Desolation Row, even with the unfortunate loss of tempo about 3/4 the way through, still kills DTTIA...again, by default. You can add Don't Think Twice, It's Alright to the growing list of old songs that are sounding much better with slightly modified deliveries. The upsinging, almost absent tonight, is most evident on this song, it's downfall.

Tangled Up In Blue sees the band all huddled together in a tight circle between Bob's piece of shit organ and the drums. Enjoyable version and while it never soars to heights it's attained before, it doesn't sink either. It gets the nod over a slim-line version of Hwy 61 we got in London.

From here on in it's head to head battles. All the Toronto versions were superior to the London versions. The two new songs for the sheer clarity. Nettie was cool. The three old songs for the energy of the performance.

Final score: London 3 Toronto 11