Chimes of Freedom (Amnesty Album)

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As I noted yesterday with regards to the passing of Joe Cocker, I haven’t spent much time this year thinking about cover versions of Bob Dylan. A couple of blog posts, but that’s about it. I could probably write for another whole year on the subject of Dylan covers, but I’m not going to do that.
I initially thought that I would skip the quadruple Dylan covers album Chimes of Freedom: The Songs of Bob Dylan Honoring Fifty Years of Amnesty International that was released in January 2012 except to note that they use his version of the title track as the last song. But you know how it goes, and I turned the album on while doing Christmas wrapping and wound up listening to the whole thing.
In a nutshell: It’s pretty bad.
Here’s the problem. More than any other singer, Bob Dylan is the best re-inventor of his own music. The process is constant – there is always a newer version of a song coming around in his live performances. Tempos change, keys change, even lyrics change. With certain Dylan songs you can get the sense that he’s performed it dozens of different ways. That doesn’t leave a lot of room for others to come in and “make the song their own”. Sure, there are artists who have done Dylan better than Dylan (Jimi Hendrix, Joan Baez), but that seems to come from a place of deep understanding of the songs. A quadruple CD like this, on the other hand, seems to have attracted a lot of limp versions.
I’m not going to name names of poor performances, but there are a number of people here who seem to just want to mimic Dylan (Mick Hucknell, sorry can’t help naming him). Sometimes mimickry works out just fine (Jackson Browne’s “Love Minus Zero/No Limit”), but usually it is just a waste of time. There are a lot of bands here who want to layer on loud guitars and shout some angry Dylan lyrics (Rise Against, Bad Religion, My Chemical Romance, State Radio), and the idea of listening to an epic version of Dave Matthews Band singing “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” was more than I could bear. So much of the album is just bland and not worth hearing (including a few true disappointments from people I otherwise generally always like, including Lucinda Williams and Kris Kristofferson).
Here are the ten best contributions in descending order.
10.  Thea Gilmore “I’ll Remember You”. I will admit that I wasn’t aware of Gilmore before hearing this, but quick research showed me that Joan Baez personally asked her to be the opening act on one of her tours. That makes perfect sense. This is a very traditional British folk version of this song, but it is beautifully sung. I’ll look Gilmore up when this project is finished.
9. Michael Franti “Subterranean Homesick Blues”. Franti is someone who I was once a big fan of but haven’t followed in literally forever. I owned everything by the Beatnigs and by Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, but sort of bailed out around the Spearhead period. This is a lively, fun version of this song that reminded me why I used to like this guy. He just sort of funks this one up, which is all it really needed.
8. Billy Bragg “Lay Down Your Weary Tune”. Dylan wrote this in 1963 but left it off The Times They Are a-Changin’ (it surfaced twenty years later on Biograph). This is a pretty straightforward version of this, and Bragg owes almost everything he is to the influence of Dylan, but it is the best version of someone other than Dylan doing the Dylan version of the song on the whole album.
7. Sinead O’Connor “Property of Jesus”. Weird one. O’Connor’s voice is filtered here so as to make it sound like it is behind the instrumentation – like she’s singing through a megaphone – and she hollers a lot of the lyrics, even though her vision isn’t all that angry (by O’Connor standards, at least). Still, it’s an interesting take and moreover, credit to Sinead for picking an obscure Dylan song that fits her perfectly. She’s been through an awful lot in her life, but this expression of faith is fascinating.
6. Miley Cyrus “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go”. Yeah, it surprised me too. I didn’t know what I was listening to when I looked up to find out that it was pre-twerking Cyrus. I can identify exactly no other Miley Cyrus songs, but I wasn’t aware that she had such a good voice. I look forward to listening to the mature Miley Cyrus covering Loretta Lynn songs about thirty years from now.
(This one got an actual official video!)
5. Dierks Bentley “Senor (Tales of Yankee Power)”. I don’t listen to a lot of contemporary country, so I was unaware of Dierks Bentley, but now I’m interested in him. This is a lovely bluegrass version of this with plenty of fiddle and banjo, and Bentley finds a new way to sing this. Another discovery.
4. Kesha “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright”. This is not the most unusual version of a Dylan song on this album (indeed, the very next track is Kronos Quartet doing this exact same song) but it is by far the most successfully innovative take. Kesha is someone like Cyrus that I don’t pay any attention to, but I really appreciated this version.
3. Patti Smith “Drifter’s Escape”. Smith just gets it. She made “Dark Eyes” a better song than Dylan did, and here she takes another obscurity and breathes life into it. What can you say about Patti Smith that hasn’t been said? I should spend a year blogging about her – I’d get a nice break in the middle of the year!
2. Carolina Chocolate Drops “Political World”. I adore the Carolina Chocolate Drops – so much great banjo! – and this is a fun version of this song. They have totally remade it, and they get huge bonus marks not only for using an obscure Dylan song, but for redeeming one of his songs that I don’t really care all that much for. On most albums this would be the best thing going, if it just wasn’t for….
(Seriously! I didn’t find a video version of this! What is the world coming to?!)
1. Joan Baez “Seven Curses”. This is astounding. Baez’s beautiful, haunting version of this Dylan rarity makes it sound like it is three hundred years old. Dylan wrote this in 1963 but didn’t use (it shows up on the first Bootleg Series) during a period where he was still very self-consciously borrowing from the templates of older folk traditions. He was trying to write an “old” folk song and I didn’t think he really succeeded until hearing this. The song is about a horse rustler who is condemned to hanging and whose daughter offers herself to the judge to spare his life. It all goes horribly wrong. Baez makes it sound like a regional folk tune that is vastly older than its fifty years. Her guitar playing is exquisite, and her voice has always been so.
(Also no video of the version on the album: Below she does it live from this year, noting its variegated origins)
What this album drove home for me wasn’t just that a lot of people are terrible at covering Dylan (Seal and Jeff Beck duet on “Like a Rolling Stone” and it is horrible) but, once again, the importance of Joan Baez in the life and career of Bob Dylan. I have no idea what their relationship might be these days – do they exchange holiday cards? – but I really hope that they have a relationship. They are two sides of the same coin, and “Seven Curses” proves it once again.

Presidential Medal of Freedom

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As we near the end of this project, the pace of awards has also picked up. Bob Dylan regularly receives lifetime achievement awards now – from the Pulitzer to the Polaris Music Prize – and he never seems to be all that impressed to be there. 2012 is no exception. Here’s Dylan, receiving his nation’s highest civilian honour directly from the president, and he fidgets through it like he needs to go have a smoke (maybe he did).
The Medal of Freedom is given for “an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors”. The list of musicians who have won it is actually quite long (Loretta Lynn last year, Stevie Wonder this year, for example). I watched the entire half hour long ceremony (below) and it wasn’t very interesting. President Obama came out, made a couple of jokes, and then spoke about each of the recipients in turn. The others include novelist and Nobel winner Toni Morrison, astronaut and senator John Glenn, and activists Gordon Hirabayashi (who protested Japanese internment in WW2) and Dolores Huerta (United Farm Workers). There is a moment that I found a bit odd. When William Foege got his award I was struck by the disaparity: Foege was one of the people most responsible for eradicating smallpox. Bob Dylan wrote some really great songs. Part of me thinks that even Dylan was feeling a bit out of place because of that.
There’s not a lot to say here. Obama starts to talk about Dylan at 5:15 of the video below, and he sings his praises in all the ways that you would expect of a ceremony like this one. Obama comes off likeable (more likeable than Dylan, who wears his sunglasses the entire time). This is the second Dylan/Obama meeting, and Obama always seems much more into it than Dylan does. It humanizes Obama, but it makes Dylan come off as a bit of a jerk. Dylan actually receives his medal beginning at 30:50. As I say, fidgety and not super-impressed to be there.
And that’s that! Then they all went and had dinner. I wonder what Dylan and Madeleine Albright talked about.
Edited to add this from Dylan’s 2012 Rolling Stone interview:
MG: Receiving the Medal of Freedom had to be a bit of a thrill.

BD: Oh, of course it’s a thrill! I mean, who wouldn’t want to get a letter from the White House? And the kind of people they were putting me in the category with was just amazing. People like John Glenn and Madeleine Albright, Toni Morrison and Pat Summitt, John Doer, William Foege and some others, too. These people who have done incredible things and have outstanding achievements. Pat Summitt alone has won more basketball games with her teams than any NCAA coach. John Glenn, we all know what he did. And Toni Morrison is as good as it gets. I loved spending time with them. What’s the alternative? Hanging around with hedge-fund hucksters or Hollywood gigolos? You know what I mean?

Brother Printer Ad

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It has now because my habit to begin each new week in the LongAndWastedYear by looking at the new advertising that has been created through the licensing of Bob Dylan music. Let’s not have an exception, this is a good one.

In 2012 Bob Dylan let Brother printers advertise a new line of quieter printers through an electronic symphonic performance of his classic work, “The Times They Are a-Changin'”. Over on Vimeo there is a little write-up about this clip from Chris Cairns, one of the people who put this together for Brother. He notes that the MIDI system will allow this to play other songs as well, or even to perform music live. I’m not sure if that ever came to pass, but what they’ve done here is actually extremely clever. Indeed, so clever is it that I’ve now wasted a whole bunch of time watching the other videos on the website of IsThisGood? I liked “Ghost Writer” the best, but everything over there is worth checking out – glad to have come across these guys who blend technology and art in interesting ways.

So, good ad here. I think you could possibly object to it on ideological grounds if you don’t think a generational song like “Times” should be used to sell quiet printers (I have no idea if they are actually quiet, by the way). If you believe, however, that a song like “Times” should be the source of inspiration for cool art – even if that art is used to sell quiet printers – then the above ad is for you.

Joe Cocker

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I haven’t written a great deal about singers who have covered Bob Dylan on this blog, but the news today of Joe Cocker’s passing makes me want to note that he was one of the best in this genre. His best known cover is certainly his 1969 version of “Just Like a Woman”, which was the last song on side one of Cocker’s debut album: With a Little Help From My Friends (the same album ended side two with a cover of “I Shall Be Released”). I’ve put that up top here.

Grooveshark has actually had someone compile a lovely little collection of nine Dylan covers by Cocker – including the unlikely “Catfish”! I’ll be listening to this play list today and thinking about the late, great Joe Cocker. Rest in peace.

Dylan in China

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I want to wrap up 2011 with a brief note on Dylan’s trip to China. In April, Dylan played a number of shows in Asia: Taipei, Beijing, Shanghai, Ho Chi Minh City, Hong Kong (twice), and Singapore. This became something of an international scandal. China had just arrested dissident artist Ai Weiwei the week before, and the irony of the American protest singer in China was a lot to take for political commentators. Rumours circulated that Chinese authorities refused Dylan permission to perform “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Desolation Row”. That seems extremely odd to me, particularly the latter, which doesn’t strike me as a very political song.
This article in The Guardian is fairly typical of the coverage that came out at the time, and it seems bizarrely misguided. Dylan is criticized for not playing “Desolation Row” in Beijing, but there is no mention of the fact that he played it in Shanghai, Taipei and Honk Kong. So if it was banned by Chinese authorities, they did a poor job of it. More likely, Dylan rotated the song out because that is exactly what Dylan does and did. His shows have had (until this year) a constant fluctuation. Dylan’s sets in China were extremely akin to the ones he did on the same tour in Australia.
This article by Azar Nafisi (Reading Lolita in Tehran), in The New Republic, hits the nail on the head when the author writes: “Yet I still hang on to the old-fashioned belief of my youth, when we listened to Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and Joan Baez, convinced that artists were effective because they were the consciences of their societies—because their commitment was not to any political ideology, sect, or party, but to truth. Truth that is dangerous no matter what times we live in, because it is always a call to action. Once we know it, we can no longer justify our silence.” Nafisi couches disappointment in a personal reaction that has little to do with Dylan and everything to do with her. She accuses him of “morphing into Barry Manilow” by singing love songs, which tells me that she has not spent much of the past four decades listening to Dylan.
Arguably the oddest article that I found was this one in The Telegraph, where Dylan’s show was live-blogged and tweeted to the British public. It is almost impossible to overstate how bizarre this reads after the fact – Dylan in Beijing is breaking news for a few hours, where his every move is tweeted out. By Shanghai, the furore was over, it seems.
Dylan himself put out a rare statement on the controversy, posted on his website. I’m dumping the entire text of that here:

To my fans and followers

Allow me to clarify a couple of things about this so-called China controversy which has been going on for over a year. First of all, we were never denied permission to play in China. This was all drummed up by a Chinese promoter who was trying to get me to come there after playing Japan and Korea. My guess is that the guy printed up tickets and made promises to certain groups without any agreements being made. We had no intention of playing China at that time, and when it didn’t happen most likely the promoter had to save face by issuing statements that the Chinese Ministry had refused permission for me to play there to get himself off the hook. If anybody had bothered to check with the Chinese authorities, it would have been clear that the Chinese authorities were unaware of the whole thing.

We did go there this year under a different promoter. According to Mojo magazine the concerts were attended mostly by ex-pats and there were a lot of empty seats. Not true. If anybody wants to check with any of the concert-goers they will see that it was mostly Chinese young people that came. Very few ex-pats if any. The ex-pats were mostly in Hong Kong not Beijing. Out of 13,000 seats we sold about 12,000 of them, and the rest of the tickets were given away to orphanages. The Chinese press did tout me as a sixties icon, however, and posted my picture all over the place with Joan Baez, Che Guevara, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. The concert attendees probably wouldn’t have known about any of those people. Regardless, they responded enthusiastically to the songs on my last 4 or 5 records. Ask anyone who was there. They were young and my feeling was that they wouldn’t have known my early songs anyway.

As far as censorship goes, the Chinese government had asked for the names of the songs that I would be playing. There’s no logical answer to that, so we sent them the set lists from the previous 3 months. If there were any songs, verses or lines censored, nobody ever told me about it and we played all the songs that we intended to play.

Everybody knows by now that there’s a gazillion books on me either out or coming out in the near future. So I’m encouraging anybody who’s ever met me, heard me or even seen me, to get in on the action and scribble their own book. You never know, somebody might have a great book in them.

I don’t know why, but “scibble your own book” on Dylan sounds appropriate to me now.
Should Dylan have said something? Well, that wouldn’t have been very Dylan. I’m actually sympathetic to the suggestion made by Nafisi and in The Guardian that he had nothing to lose and that the Chinese might have had an awful lot to gain. 
A fascinating moment: Dylan criticized in the western press for not playing “Desolation Row” in China, a few days after he played “Desolation Row” in China….
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Mumford, Avett, Dylan

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This was the moment that my son was waiting for all year.
If you’ll recall, on my very first pos this year I noted that my son – who was eight – objected to this blog because it meant that we’d spend the year listening to Bob Dylan rather than to his favourite band, The Avett Brothers. “Without Bob Dylan there would be no Avett Brothers,” I told him. He was not impressed at all. He knew what he wanted, and what he wanted was not Bob Dylan.
Yesterday we were doing some Christmas shopping and “Mr. Tambourine Man” came up on the display in the car. It was a cover version and my son sank back in his chair, pouting. “I only like it when Bob Dylan sings it”. Total victory in just eleven and a half months.
Actually, my son recently announced that his favourite singers were Bob Dylan, Cat Stevens, Billy Bragg, The Avett Brothers, and Katy Perry. One of these things is not like the other….
Well, at the Grammys on February 13, 2011, two of my son’s favourite acts played together for the first time. I do remember watching this, but since there is no chance that I watched the Grammys live, I must have watched a streaming version online the next day, which is the preferred way to watch any awards show (just wait for the viral videos the next day, don’t sit through four hours of celebrity speeches). 
Here’s the video:
We start with Mumford and Sons. I started listening to them in that short period between the time the band released their album in the UK at the end of 2009 and the release of the album in the US in early 2010. I was put onto the band by my niece, who is much cooler than I am. She knew that I play the banjo, and so she wanted to alert me to this cool new band with a banjo player. For a couple of months I was the cool middle-aged man listening to the next big thing, and then they exploded and were everywhere, so I guess they’ve achieved total mainstream status now and are no longer cool for a middle-aged man. Oh well.
Mumford and Sons were at the Grammys because they were nominated twice: Best New Artist and Best Rock Song (“Little Lion Man”) for their debut album, Sigh No More. The Grammy performance was one of the things that gave them a big career boost. Of course, two years later they won Album of the Year for their sequel Babel.
The band has become a bit of a joke, at least in the circles that I move in, because they are hipsters (trucker cap and bowtie on your banjo player is going to lead to such charges). Their own self-parodying video for “Hopeless Wanderer” (starring Jason Sudeikis, Ed Helms, Will Forte, and Jason Bateman) showed that they were at least cognizant of the way that people think about them. They are criticized for the fact that their songs, including “The Cave”, which they play here, all sound the same (slow -> fast -> banjo). I don’t care, really, I still enjoy them, and I really came to like Marcus Mumford in the documentary about the music for Inside Llewyn Davis – which he closes by singing Dylan. That said, we missed seeing them when they played here last year – the show sold out before we were even aware that they were coming.
Anyway, good opening by Mumford. I like the horns.
When the curtain pulls back, we get the Avett Brothers singing “Head Full of Doubt, Road Full of Promise” from their album I and Love and You. The Avetts were one of the rare performing acts at the Grammys who were not Grammy nominees. They were booked on the assumption that they would be nominated, but then they weren’t stupid Grammys.
I’m with my son: the Avetts are great. I’ve been a fan for many, many years. Their neo-bluegrass with post-punk influences is literally tailor made to make them my favourite band at this point in my life. I love their cryptic (Dylan-esque!) lyrics and their frenzied, funny performing style. I saw them headline the first night of the Calgary Folk Festival in 2010. I went with a friend who had never heard of them and by the end of that night they were close to being his favourite band as well – he’s even traveled to see them live without me, because that is the kind of lousy friend he turned out to be (still reading, Marc?).
The Avetts are hipsters too (well, not bassist Bob Crawford – he always seems like he’s an accountant that has been kidnapped by two crazy brothers from North Carolina), but that doesn’t diminish my admiration for them in any way, and while they’ve made a couple of musical missteps in the past few years, I still wear my Avett Brothers t-shirt almost every weekend. Plus “Kick Drum Heart” is still my son’s favourite song.
There version is “Head Full of Doubt” here is akin to the Mumfords: slow and soft -> fast and loud. It’s good, but I’ve seen them do it live better.
Then, finally, out comes ten time Grammy winner Bob Dylan and his touring band. Dylan stands in front of a line made up of the three bands, who play a lot of guitar, a lot of bass, and even two banjos as they belt out “Maggie’s Farm”. What can you say? Dylan is great here. My wife just trashed his singing and now we’re going to have get divorced. Look how happy Dylan is here! He prances! He plays harmonica! It’s great (though JLo seems unimpressed). Anyway, it’s a hootnanny.
What is really great is how happy the other bands look – particularly the Avetts – to be backing up Bob Dylan at the Grammys. It must be quite a moment for any band working that style in 2011, since Dylan is the gigantic gravitational force in the solar system of Americana, post-folk, and even neb-bluegrass.
My one knock on the whole thing is that I wish that they hadn’t had David Letterman introduce the whole thing. For me it would have worked better as a series of surprises, with the curtains dropping to reveal the next act, and then the next one. That’s not how The Grammys work though, and, besides, they pre-announced the fact that this performance would be on the show. Still, a little stage craft would have made this even better.

Hawaii Five-O Soundtrack

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Here’s something interesting that I learned today: the remake of Hawaii Five-O is still on the air. I would have lost a bet about that one. It’s in its fifth season on CBS, which lets you know how often I watch CBS. I really thought this was a one season and done kind of show.
Why do I bring this up? Because in 2011 they released a soundtrack CD. The kind folk at Wikipedia tell me that the show drew some attention for the way that they integrated new music and unknown music from major artists into their soundtrack, rather than just a collection of hits or the collection of tones that don’t add up to songs that CBS has made a staple of their procedurals. Falling into the second category is “Don’t Ever Take Yourself Away” by Bob Dylan.
This is a song that was recorded during the sessions for Shot of Love in 1981, so it is an oldie by this time. This one has a bit of reggae feeling to it. I had previously heard it on a bootleg of material that collects material recorded between Saved and Shot of Love, but I didn’t think much of it at that time. I still don’t. This isn’t a buried masterpiece that they’ve unearthed here – it’s a little too repetitive to be interesting. It sounds like something that could be used well in a crime tv show though, and the title (which is endlessly repeated in the song) has some faux-cop show gravitas to it.
The Hawaii Five-O soundtrack, which I did not bother to listen to at all, features Jimmy Cliff and Ziggy Marley, which gives you some sense of where they’re going with this whole thing. They also have a Jake Shimabukuro ukulele song, which I bet is great.
With this one you can tell how minor it is by the fact that it has never even shown up on a Bootleg Series disc and by the fact that it isn’t listed as a Dylan song on Dylan’s own website. That has to hurt.
Here’s the song with some Hawaii Five-O graphics laid over it.