The Band | The Last Waltz

7 09 2010

The Last Waltz is probably the first of the hand full of spectacular concert films, many even regard it as the “greatest of all time”. Directed by Martin Scorsese back in 1976, it’s an epic film that commemorates the final days of The Band’s touring career by capturing their last live performance, which included a tremendous lineup of distinguished guests from the music community. Many of whom were closely connected The Bands history, like Ronnie Hawkins and Bob Dylan. As well as many others who are just old friends or occasional collaborators, like Van Morrison and Neil Young. Then there are even a few out that make hardly any sense at all, namely: Neil Diamond. That one I always found odd but I recently read it was because Robbie Robertson wanted to make sure the “Tin Pan Alley”  songwriters were represented and hence invited Neil. Apparently, it was weird to the rest of the band to as they have since admitted to objecting to Robbie’s decision… but went along with it anyway. Of all the songs that evening and of all the guest performances, there are a few that will forever stick out.  My all-time favorite (although it’s a tough call) would have to be Van’s appearance, doing the classic “Caravan”. This tune is awesome. Not surprising when you consider the talent. Van, as usual, knocks it out of the park, showcasing that Van The Man charisma and charm. If you’ve never seen it, it’s a must…

I’m also a big fan of Neil Young’s “Helpless”. Neil is fantastic, as crazy as ever. One of the coolest parts is that Joni Mitchell is lying in the shadows off stage singing backup. I always thought that was so weird but, I later read they wanted her eventual appearance to have more impact so they asked her to lay back early in the set. This song is so great, but accompanied by this band it’s larger than life.

There are too many good performances to start listing them all. One that thing that’s hard to comprehend based on the film is the magnitude of the evening. It was not just a concert. It was a major happening. Just consider the major players: Bill Graham, Martin Scorsese, Bob Dylan, The Band, and so on. From the word go, this thing was going to be an evening that would never be forgotten. It lasted all night long, literally. They served dinner early at 5pm, then partook in some ballroom dancing (presumably where the Waltz comes from in the title), the dancing was followed by a live poetry reading and then this very loooooong cocnert began. By the time they got to the encore, a cool version of Marvin Gaye’s “Baby Don’t Do It”, it was almost 3am. Like I said, the entire evening is full of great performances, but some of the best are from the original lineup of players that were being honored that night, The Band. Here are a few great examples:

This is the Rick Danko sung beauty “Stagefright”. I love this tune and Danko, the bass player, is fantastic on all accounts. One of the things I love most about this band is that everybody sings and they all have very distinct voices that alone sound great but in concert with each other become something much greater than the sum of it’s parts.

Of course the classics are always enjoyable. This version of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” is accompanied by a huge horn section arranged by none-other-than Allen Toussaint. Drummer, Levon Helm, sings with every once of breath the man has in him. As usual, he’s superb.

There is another “classic” that was shot on an MGM soundstage after the event. Scorsese decided to include this version instead of the live one from that night. I see why. It’s an amazing performance. The Staple Singers are great but more remarkable is the production. The sound quality and the video are noticeably better than the rest of the film’s footage. In the beginning of this clip, keyboardist/multi-instrumentalist Richard Manuel just finishes telling the story of how The Band got it’s name. If you’ve never heard the story, you got to check it out. It’s simple but Manuel tells it so well.

As I said before, this was a long evening presented in multiple parts. On of which was focused on the blues. I felt I had to include this footage of Eric Clapton guesting on “Further On Up The Road”. The song is nothing too spectacular but there is this moment that I love. At  about 30 seconds, Clapton takes the solo but about half a chorus in his guitar strap comes off and he yells “hold on”. Like true professionals, Robbie Robertson jumps right in and picks up where Eric left off. Robbie even tries to mimic Clapton’s style a bit. It’s pretty cool and I, frankly, I would regret not mentioning it.

I could go on and on about this memorable night, but I need to end somewhere. I figure this is a fitting end as it kind of sums up what The Band was retreating with their transition from live act to becoming simply a “studio band”. This is Dylan’s performance of “Baby Let Me Follow You Down”. For those that don’t know, The Band used to be Dylan’s backing band (a great one at that). Given the significance of the evening and their relationship, they invited him to do a 4 song reunion set. But, this is where it gets interesting. Bob was reluctant to participate because he had his own film coming out and didn’t want to detract from that release. He agreed nevertheless but negotiations took place all the way up to his appearance on stage… obviously a very sensitive topic of for old Bobby boy. Reportedly, Robertson assured Dylan that the concert film’s release would be delayed until after his film, and with that Dylan relented and agreed to be filmed. As the promoter, Bill Graham was also involved in the talks. As the story goes, “Somebody working with Bob said ‘We’re not filming this.’ And Bill just said, ‘Get out of here, or I’ll kill you’,” Robertson is quoted in the liner notes of the 2002 album re-issue as saying, “It all worked out.” According to Scorsese, Dylan made the stipulation that only two of his songs could be filmed: “Baby Let Me Follow You Down” and “Forever Young”. He added, “When Dylan got on stage, the sound was so loud, I didn’t know what to shoot,” Scorsese later recalled. “Bill Graham was next to me shouting, ‘Shoot him! Shoot him! He comes from the same streets as you. Don’t let him push you around.’ Fortunately, we got our cues right and we shot the two songs that were used in the film.” …and yet it all seems so friendly and simple when you watch the movie.

References:

More info on The Band

More info on The Last Waltz

More info on Martin Scorsese

More info on Bill Graham

More info on Bob Dylan

More info on Eric Clapton

More info on Neil Young

More info on Van Morrison

More info on Joni Mitchell

More info on The Staple Singers

More info on “The Weight”

More info on “Caravan”

More info on “Helpless”

More info on “Further On Up The Road”

More info on “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”





Journey | Lights

23 08 2010

I’ve written about all-time great guitar solos before, most notably Robbie Robertson’s on The Bands’ “Ophelia”. Well, here is another that I would put into that category. I’m not a huge fan of Journey for various reasons that I won’t elaborate on, but this song is a real gem from early in their career. It was written and recorded just as, lead singer, Steve Perry joined the group  in 1977. The story behind it’s origin is pretty cool. Perry has said that he wrote most of the tune while leaving in Los Angeles and it was originally about LA. In fact, the original lyric was: “When the lights go down in the city and the sun shines on LA”. He admits that it never quite sat right with him so he shelved it. Soon after, he joined Journey and moved to their home city, San Francisco. After a short time in the Bay City, it hit him… “the sun shines on the BAY”. And, like that, he penned a classic. Released on the bands fourth album, Infinity, it was the beginning of their most popular period as a band. To me the guitar solo has always stood out as the most compelling part of the song, which is played oh-so tastefully by lead guitarist and co-writer Neal Schon. Although the opening lick sounds a little too similar to the solo from Queen’s “Somebody To Love”, the statement as a whole is arranged really well. It’s succinct, lyrical, catchy and, above all else, memorable. As a little side note: Schon was actually one of the few original members of Journey. He was an alumni of one of San Fran’s biggest groups, Santana. After leaving Carlos & Co, they built Journey around his sound. I had no idea until just recently, but I’m not at all surprised.

Below is a live video that became the “official” video in the early MTV days. It’s decent if you consider the era. You may have to look past the poor audio dubbing but once you do, it’s pretty good stuff. To jump to Schon’s solo, go to 2:07 – 2:34.

References:

Official Journey Site

More info on Journey

More info on “Lights”

More info on Steve Perry

More info on Neal Schon

More info on Infinity





The Band | Ophelia

17 06 2010

Every time I hear the guitar solo in “Ophelia”, which is pretty often as I’m a huge  fan, I can’t help but comment on how good it is. It’s from their 7th album, the 1975 release Northern Lights – Southern Cross, which is far from their best work but this tune is a clear standout.  The Band’s lead guitarist and primary songwriter, Robbie Robertson, barely makes the “100 Greatest Guitarist” list but this solo may be one of the best studio rock solos ever recorded. It’s just so tastefully done, truly the epitome of short & sweet.  The melodic ideas are great and he mixes in some fantastic chord comping to further develop them. The whole piece utilizes just enough tension and release to make it compelling throughout. There is really never a dull moment. Below is the studio version of this track. The solo appears at 1 min 37 sec but don’t miss the intro he does right before that as it really sets up the whole thing, giving it great momentum.


Now this is not “Ophelia” related but I thought I had to include it if I was going to talk about The Band. It’s a really cool little video I found of them playing “King Harvest” in Robbie’s Woodstock, NY studio circa 1970. At the end there is an additional piece tacked on too. It’s a live video of them playing “Long Black Veil” from the documentary about the train tour they did with The Grateful Dead and Janis Joplin, called Festival Express. The latter portion is good, of course, but the real gem is “King Harvest”. A great song and a very cool presentation. Check it out…

References:

The Band’s Official Site

More info on The Band

More info on Robbie Robertson

More info on Northern Lights – Southern Cross

More info on “King Harvest (Has Surely Come)”

More info on “Long Black Veil”

More info on Festival Express





Partyup Prince

6 05 2010

Prince, formerly “The Artist Formerly Known As Prince” (aka TAFKAP), played at the TIMES 100 Gala here in NY the other night. I just heard that they used the nearby Village Underground on W 3rd St in the Village as their practice space during the day. After the gala on Tuesday, they then returned for a short set that evening. Now, those are exactly the types of things you live in NY for. You just never know. One night Prince just drops by and plays for an hour… how cool is that? You got to love this city.

Anyway, with the viral nature of things these days, I saw a surprising amount of negative things being said about Prince. In the face of such negativity, I would like to officially stand up as a long time Prince fan and supporter. Sure, he’s a little weird but the guy’s a genius. He’s a modern day musical prodigy who writes, produces and plays almost all the instruments. As one of the most prolific artist of the last three decades, he has written over 1,000 songs. Sure, I only enjoy a handful of them but that collection of hits is unstoppable. It’s not just “1999” and “Purple Rain”. How about “I Just Want To Be Your Lover” or “Partyup” or “Delirious”. The list goes on and on (and on) because you can find a ton of GREAT material amongst his huge catalog of deeper cuts.

My allegiance to this pop legend goes back to my youth. I recently found the very first album (it was actually a cassette) that I ever bought myself. And, guess who it is? That’s right… Prince. Well, technically it’s Prince & The New Power Generation. My first purchase was the 1991 release Diamonds & Pearls. It was his 13th album and was a bit of a turning point for Prince. It was his first to be co-credited and marked a new hybrid of styles by including hip hop into his funky blend of Pop and R&B. I was about 9 years old when I bought this beauty…

How did I even know who Prince was? I remember first hearing the singles “Cream” and “Gett Off” on a friend’s stereo and I guess the next time I had the chance I bought it. I don’t know, the details are very cloudy. Ok, so maybe I wasn’t that cool back then, perhaps it was actually the hologram on the cover that played a big part in the allure. Who’s to say? It was either that or the look of those guys on the inside cover. For the early 90’s, that was about as cool as it could get. I mean, Prince was like the Miles Davis of 1991.

Of the 13 tunes on Diamonds & Pearls, here are a few of my favorites:

Willing & Able

Cream

Walk Don’t Walk

Gett Off

Diamonds & Pearls

For any of the naysayers out there, I beg you to watch this video of Prince playing in a tribute to George Harrison at the 2004 Hall of Fame induction ceremony. He plays lead guitar and takes the solo on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”. With all the immense talent on this stage it’s like he’s the only guy up there. His presence is just amazing. Clearly, the guy is an icon.

*If that’s not enough, there is always THIS CLIP from Batman. Apparently, when the The Joker is feeling mischievous he loves to listen to Prince’s “Partyman”.

Listen Online:

“I Want To Be Your Lover”

“Partyup”

“1999”

“Delirious”

“Purple Rain”

References:

More info on Prince

More info on The New Power Generation

More info on Diamonds & Pearls

Prince’s complete discography

Download the set from The Village Underground








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