It’s been a while since I posted anything here, so apologies. The usual excuses: work, family, more work, trying to finish a book of poems way too fast. Thinking the book was done and realizing it needed major revision. Major revision and more work. And so on. But I have made time for some reading and since I last posted here, I’ve noted that several seemingly credible scientists have determined that going out and listening to live music is good for your health. This is good news since I am trying to prioritize healthy living these days and because I live in an area that has live music every night of the week. I don’t get out to as many shows as I would like, but I’ve been lucky enough to catch a few good ones lately.
Last November, Bob Dylan rolled through and played at the Durham Performing Arts Center. I’ve seen Dylan in that venue twice before and it’s really perfect for him. The sound at DPAC is wonderful, so Dylan does not have to shout over a band that’s turned up too loud as I’ve heard him doing before. And his band, anchored by veterans Tony Gardinier on bass and George Recile on drums, is nimble enough to follow the moves of a musician who admittedly never plays anything the same way twice.
If you’ve caught Dylan since about 2002, you know that he no longer plays guitar onstage most of the time. His guitarists Charlie Sexton and Donnie Herron (who doubles on steel guitar, banjo, mandolin, and fiddle) take up the slack ably while Dylan plays keys. For a long while he played an electronic keyboard, and he may do that in other venues, but at DPAC he played a grand piano. One surprise this time around was that I was able to hear what a good pianist Dylan is. I shouldn’t have been surprised since Dylan’s first instrument was piano, but the acoustic piano added a texture to the band that wasn’t there sometimes when there were three guitars in the band or when Dylan was playing electric keys. Occasionally, Dylan stood to whack at the keys and sing and his voice seemed deeper and more resonant when he did.
By now all the grumbles about Dylan live are well known—he doesn’t play the songs like they sound on records, he doesn’t play all the hits (how long would that concert be?), his voice is shot. I’m not going to address those. If you’ve read this far, you have some interest in Dylan or just morbid curiosity. I’m a die-hard Dylan fan and have been for almost fifty years, so I have fewer complaints than most. I’ve seen Dylan close to twenty times since 1974 and some shows have been better than others, but I can say that of any band I’ve seen more than a few times.
In recent years, Dylan has stuck to pretty much one set list for an entire tour with the occasional surprise thrown in. Last time I saw Dylan he played only two songs from the sixties and two from the seventies with all the rest coming from the fine run of albums since 1997’s Time Out of Mind. This time around the selection was a bit more mixed. After opening with “Things Have Changed,” which won an Oscar (displayed on an amp), the band played two chestnuts from the sixties, “It Ain’t Me, Babe” and “Highway 61 Revisited,” then “Simple Twist of Fate” from what is arguably Dylan’s best album Blood On the Tracks. The set was a nice mix of songs from across Dylan’s career with no sidetrips into the Great American Songbook. “Like A Rolling Stone,” which has been the last number of the night at many Dylan shows came sandwiched between “Pay In Blood” and “Early Roman Kings,” two snarling numbers from Dylan’s last album of new material Tempest.
A few times Dylan took center stage and sang without the piano. While he looks a bit lost up there without an instrument in his hands, his awkward poses took on an almost Chaplin-esque quality. Make no mistake—Dylan knows exactly what he’s doing onstage and after more than fifty years he should. One day I plan to dedicate this entire column to Dylan and his impact on my life and listening habits, but for now I can only say that I’m happy to have lived on this planet while Dylan was playing for us.
A few weeks after seeing Dylan, I went to see Kamasi Washington’s band at the Ritz, a no frills venue in Raleigh that has very little seating but lots of concrete to stand on and a bar about every fifteen paces. I have praised Washington in this space before when I reviewed his album The Epic. Having noted the huge number of musicians he featured on The Epic and its follow-up Heaven and Earth (get it—you can thank me later), I was curious to see him live. How many musicians would he have with him?
The opener for Washington was Butcher Brown, a five piece band that nicely blends funk and jazz. I highly recommend them and predict it won’t be long before they are headlining their own shows, although for now they have found a niche opening for Washington and finding acceptance from his audience.
Washington brought two drummers, a keyboard player, an upright bass, a trumpeter and a backing vocalist with him, and they left no holes in the arrangements. Washington in his long robes and his mane of hair would command attention anywhere, and he is a charismatic bandleader who humorously introduced each band member, several of whom had grown up in Los Angeles with him. As wonderful as Washington’s arrangements on his studio albums are, his own sax prowess can get overlooked. Not so with his live performances. Comparisons to Coltrane are overdone, and often undeserved, but Washington’s powerful riffing reminded me of mid-era Coltrane, before he moved into the last phase of his music, the stuff my wife calls “Coltrane on acid.”
A true child of jazz (his father is the sax player Rickey Washington), Kamasi started the show with a cover of Freddie Hubbard’s “Hub-Tones.” This was followed by a lengthy tribute to Malcolm X whose music originally composed by Terrance Blanchard with lyrics adapted from Ossie Davis’s eulogy for Malcolm. Washington also yielded the spotlight to his keyboard player Brandon Coleman so Coleman could play the title cut from his album Resistance. The rest of the night was taken up with Washington’s own compositions. The standout of this segment for me was “The Space Traveler’s Lullaby,’ which came near the end of the night.
As a Johnny Come Lately to jazz, many of the greats had passed before I was aware of them, and while I have been privileged to see a few—Tommy Flanagan, Sonny Rollins, Wayne Shorter—I wondered more than once who was going to fill their places. With players like Washington, guitarist Mary Halvorson, Brad Mehldau and others still ascending, I worry less about the fate of jazz. Kamasi Washington is still young and seems to be doing everything right. Here’s to him being with us for many more years.
The last show I’m going to tell you about is the Lucinda Williams-Drive By Truckers double bill I saw in February, again at The Ritz, which was considerably more crowded than it had been for Kamasi Washington. And drunker. The Truckers draw a hard drinking crowd. I got there partway through opener Erika Wennerstrom’s set. I wandered the edges of the crowd looking for a way to get up close. As I walked, I ran into none other than Connotation’s own, John Hoppenthaler, editor of the Congeries column. We talked about poetry for a few minutes before John went back to his perch on the front row.
Lucinda Williams has been at it for four decades and has paid more than her dues. It was not until Car Wheels on a Gravel Road that she got anywhere near the attention she deserved (although my favorite album of hers remains its predecessor Sweet Old World). Backed by her longtime band Buick Six, Williams covered songs from the entirety of her career, including my favorite “Pineola,” tribute to Arkansas poet Frank Stanford (if you don’t know Stanford’s work, please remedy that as soon as possible). Also included was a song, “Dust,” that was inspired by a poem written by her father Miller Williams, who was one of my professors at the University of Arkansas back in the mid-80s. It is not the first time Lucinda has made song from one of her father’s poems, but this might be the best.
Lucinda struck the first political note of the evening during an extended coda to one song as she chanted “Don’t need no walls.” I saw her do this during her 2018 tour with Steve Earle and Dwight Yoakum, right after half the crowd had cheered and half had booed when Steve Earle delivered what was for him a rather mild political opinion. Forty years on, Lucinda Williams remains a vital performer and songwriter. If anything, her recent output is as strong as anything she has ever done. I would suggest seeing her as often as you can.
Five nights out of six The Drive By Truckers are the best rock and roll band in America. Led by Patterson Hood and Mike “Stroker Ace” Cooley, they deliver songs that are both literate and rocking, not an easy combination to attain. They are proudly southern without any of the pandering that some bands stoop to in order to convince their audience of their redneck credentials. It must be remembered that Patterson Hood’s father, David, was one of the infamous Swampers of Muscle Shoals fame (that’s his bass on The Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There), so southern musical lines run deep in the band’s blood.
The Truckers started strong with “Ramon Casiano” from their most recent record American Band, then went back to “Ronnie and Neil” from their two disc masterpiece Southern Rock Opera. By now I was leaning against a back bar alongside John Hoppenthaler, his wife and some other friends. But somewhere in the middle of the show, their energy seemed to sag. It was a weeknight, so part of that might have been me. I have to add that of the times I’ve seen the Truckers, this is the only time I’ve ever not been floored by their performance, even last summer when they were opening for the Tedeschi Trucks Band and didn’t have nearly enough time to play. I left before the night was over; it was after eleven and I had to work in the morning. Next time the Truckers come around, I will be there and if they play The Ritz, I might spring for the seated section.
Here it is April and I have a couple of concerts lined up for summer, Dead and Company (no review this time), Tedeschi Trucks Band, and possibly Hot Tuna. And I plan to catch more local stuff. But go see live music. It’s good for your soul. Here’s to the next show. Or as Patterson Hood says, “See you at the rock and roll show.”