Saturday, October 30, 2004

Bob Dylan-Live Review

Bob Dylan & His Band
Carver-Hawkeye Arena, Iowa City, IA

It must be noted that if you’re considering an evening with Bob Dylan, don’t go with the expectation that he is obliged to give you anything more than a performance that allows you to be in his presence. He changed the face of music and that means he’s given you plenty, thank you very Goddamn much. Admittedly, The Rolling Thunder Review of 1975 was probably the last time Bob actually went out of his way to make a lasting live impression. Since that time, and especially in the past ten years, Dylan has settled into a role of the traveling troubadour, playing a selection of songs that include a few that just happen to be some of the most important lyrics ever created by a man.
Another important reminder is that Dylan’s voice plays a minor role in his career. It’s always been this way, of course, but it’s especially relevant now. His voice is fractured by cigarettes, a motorcycle accident, and this thing called life. I suppose one could argue that his phrasing is a critical piece to the lyrical genius, but I could argue that, in a live setting, phrasing also takes a back seat.
No. You’re there to pay your respect to the man. He knows it. You should too. He doesn’t owe you anything, and yet his most recent albums prove that he continues to produce challenging material with words that add to his already legendary gifts.
At the same time, I’ve got to believe that Dylan actually enjoys touring and performing live. After all, his 2004 tour started several months ago, brought him around the world and back in time to do it all over again. It’s not like the guy is hard to find: he played the Midwest just a few weeks prior to this late October gig and he continues onward to markets typically overlooked by even farm league performers. As I said, he’s a troubadour and he seems to have a desire to let everyone have an opportunity to see him in person just like Woody Guthrie did before him. It’s a nice role for him, and I wished that at least enough people recognize this opportunity to fill three quarters of the Carver Hawkeye arena.

Despite poor ticket sales, the Dylan faithful were present to pay their respects and hear some of his newer material and changing interpretations on the familiar classics. Who are the “Dylan faithful” these days? Judging by the audience demographics they include old hippies, Deadheads, intellectual types, Middle class baby boomers and the children of middle class baby boomers forced to attend the show with their parents because Mom or Dad bought them a ticket. Hey, it could have been worse: it wasn’t disturbing like the number of 7 year olds I saw with Dad at a Kiss concert several years ago. And while I’m confident that the children who attended Dylan on this night have less of a chance of growing up misogynous narcissistic pricks that spit blood from a demon costume, I don’t think there’s much chance they left the arena with a full appreciation of Dylan’s work.
First of all, undisputed classics that were performed like “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Stuck Inside of Mobile,” “Highway 61 Revisited,” and “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You” were so unrecognizable that in many cases it took some of the faithful a verse or two to figure out what song he was doing. Once they did, the faithful were then challenged by Bob’s rephrasing of it, causing many in the crowd who wanted to sing with the master’s words to become disoriented and resort to barking out lyrics before they actually left Dylan’s mouth. This happened to the middle aged guy who sat next to my friend. By the time of “Mobile,” he simply would preview each verse before it came, causing my friend to ask me in painful sarcasm “Do you hear an echo in here?”
But imagine for a moment that you’re Bob Dylan, The Man, and you’ve done a song like “Tambourine Man” thousands of times and you’ve heard from people how brilliant it is a thousand times, what do you do? You know you’re somehow required to examine it on stage once in an while, so why not chop it up, reheat it, and serve it up like a brand new dish? It’s his song after all. He can do with it whatever the hell he wants. Besides, it must get real annoying hearing people sing along with you after 40 years of touring.
The band took this material and his more recent songs and transformed them into a tight late 60’s country rock blend. Bob was dressed in a classy black western outfit and spent most of his time behind the keyboard with most of the band members watching his every move. Occasionally, Bob would break out the harp and serve up a dual instrumentation with the other hand on the keys. The stage was very basic with a curtain featuring the Dylan-eye logo as the backdrop for the first half of the songs and a plain white curtain the backdrop for the latter half. Even the band themselves seemed to complete the basic necessities look by having nothing larger than a combo amp for instruments. If the old fogies were worried about leaving the show with their ears ringing, Bobby made sure the mix was warm and clean with even his harmonica playing falling safely within OSHA noise standards.
What makes Bob Dylan “The Man” was his total ambivalence for the audience that evening. Throughout the set, Bob seldom looked at the crowd and didn’t acknowledge them once with words. The words from his songs were enough, and again, I think he was more interested in making sure that he had a good time rather than those in attendance. Dylan would move over towards members of the band every once in the while and tell them something, which I assumed might have been to add or change something to the night’s setlist.
One of the most annoying aspects of the show was with Bob’s delivery on several of the songs that evening. On five or more songs, Dylan would end the verse an octave higher than on the start. This created the impression of almost comical familiarity, which I’m sure wasn’t the intent. Actually, I’m not sure what the intent was, as the delivery created a blur between songs that were originally miles apart. There’s no reason for an updated version of “Make You Feel My Love” to sound the same vocally as “Tweedle Dee.”
Bob finally addressed the crowd during the encore, presenting the members of the band to the crowd and telling a joke about the drummer’s home state of Louisiana. This would mark the only time that he ever spoke to the crowd or face them. It should also be noted that those unlucky ticket holders on the left side of the arena saw nothing but the back of Bob Dylan up until that point as he rarely left his keyboard and, as mentioned, didn’t bother with any form of eye contact with the audience.
The encores, which remained the same tonight as they did on other dates of the tour, were the classic one-two punch of “Like A Rolling Stone” and then a nice jammy version of “All Along The Watchtower.” And just when the guitarist started to get some fires going with the Deadhead contingent, the show ended. A true Dylan faithful probably expected it while a casual fan probably left feeling either a little disappointed or understanding given the performer’s age.
But Bob doesn’t continually tour because he needs money or wants to somehow connect with his fans. He does it because, I think, he actually enjoys hanging out with the boys. There were times when I felt I was watching a rehearsal or watching a group of talented musicians devotedly backing a legendary icon. This isn’t a slag on the performance by any means, but one clearly has to approach a Bob Dylan concert nowadays with an understanding of what to expect. You’re there to be entertained to some extent, but entertainment has never really been a part of Dylan’s career. What brought him attention is the same thing that helped changed the course of rock music and made it a legitimate art form: his words. We were there to acknowledge this, to pay respect, to honor a man from Minnesota for the contribution he’s made to music. If Bob happens to enjoy himself performing live and living the life of a traveling troubadour, then we ought to respect that and grab at least a few opportunities to see how he’s going to present his art to us. After all, we don’t know how many times Bobby will be able to keep revisiting Highway 61.

To Be Alone With You
Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You
Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum
Mr. Tambourine Man
Cold Irons Bound
If Dogs Run Free
Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again
Love Sick
Highway 61 Revisited
Make You Feel My Love
Watching The River Flow
Honest With Me
Standing In The Doorway
Summer Days
Like A Rolling Stone
All Along The Watchtower

Sunday, October 24, 2004

Kittie/Otep/Crisis-Live Review

Quad City Live, Davenport, IA

Nu Metal, not to be confused with the “New Wave of British Metal” moniker from twenty-five years ago, seems to be a sub-genre filled with testosterone-filled young men filled with equal amounts of hatred and commercial desire. The irony, of course, is that the N.W.O.B.M. movement was also filled with plenty of hard cocks that seemed more intent on using them rather than whining about the state of their romantic lives, how unfairly the world has treated them, or how their upbringing was devoid of a strong male influence. There always seemed to be a hint of hatred, but much of the aggression was supplemented by a sense of humor, either by means of lyrical content or by their imagery.
But since grunge made it a little cooler for the metal boyz to discuss their feelings openly, and since hair metal made it cool to actually pursue the golden ring of Soundscan sales, their seems to be a prevalence of music acts that, well, just kind of sound the same. And where metal fans could rejoice in a community of non-conformity, there now seems to be a landscape of Nu Metal acts simply marching in line, which is something that record labels enjoy. At one time, there was no doubt that one could decipher the difference between Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Def Leppard, etc., but I’m hard pressed to see (or, more importantly, hear) the difference between Drowning Pool, Disturbed, Stain, etc.
Which is why I seemed a little bit more tolerant of the female faction of Nu Metal: at least I could hear the difference between the bands. They’ve also got to understand the track record for their ilk isn’t that impressive: The Runaways never really got beyond cult status, L7 never were able to get a gold record award, and the whole riot grrl movement never became anything more than a handful of fervent fanzines. Men seem to like their metal fronted by people with beans and franks and chicks seem to be content with letting the boys rule the roost, at least commercially speaking.
So the fact that Kittie was able to move over 500,000 copies of their debut Spit is very impressive. One has to consider the commercial impact that Ozzfest gave this all-female Nu Metal outfit and, therefore, it was interesting to see how the band faired after the limelight of metal’s most prestigious festival wore off. True to history, Kittie’s relevance, personnel, and sales figures have changed dramatically in the past four years as most consumers seemed intent of having just one album fronted by vaginal walls. I don’t understand why this anomaly occurs, but I do know that it took Lita Ford adding a bunch of synths before she was able to crack the top 40. Perhaps this act gave her the ability to cross-over to a larger demographic, and perhaps this is why Kittie has yet to match the limelight of their first release.
From Ozzfest to Quad City Live, a small club located on the Mississippi River in Davenport, Iowa. Time’s making changes for Kittie, and it’s time for a much needed change in metal’s appearance but I’m not confident that they’re the band that’s capable of doing it. What they are capable of doing is aping a lot of the same shtick of their male counterparts while holding a loose grip on the sound that brought them exposure in the first place: performing balls-out rock with only the vocals providing a telltale hint that there’s estrogen manning the wheel.
This tour, with the uncreative title of “Metal Movement Tour 2004,” brings three bands (Crisis, Otep, Kittie) of sexually common lineage across America with some very uncommon backgrounds. Openers Crisis, hails from New York City, has been around the block for over a decade and undergone numerous personnel changes themselves. The band struggled to find a touring drummer for the Otep/Kittie tour and settled on their original drummer while their current one recuperated from surgery. As a result, the band focused on their older material rather than selections from their latest release “Like Sheep Led To Slaughter.” They performed a truncated set that propelled singer Karyn Crisis’ dreadlocks perilously close to the stage lights. A nice set that deserved a little more allotted time.
Otep, another recent Ozzfest alumni, came next with a more politically inclined direction. Otep (also the lead singer’s name) hails from Los Angeles and mixes a blend of lefty-poli poetry-with a nod to Slipknot. There’s a hint of mysticism about the band and, from what I gather, a lot of Goth elements abound along with more than a hint of Morrison-esque pretension. They seem to have a fervent following too, as many in the audience were drawn to Q.C.L. to see this band. Marching out on stage with a prop pig head, Otep seemed intent on making a statement, and I was surprised that much of the band’s anti-war dogma was accepted by such a, um, unsophisticated town like Davenport, Iowa. But the crowd seemed to grow restless at Otep’s continual need to tone down the volume and turn up the spoken word theatrics. It was the musical equivalent of revving an engine at a stop light only to tamely accelerate once the light turns green. Marilyn Manson once declared of singer Otep: “That girl scares me.“ But the only thing that scared me was the notion that Otep herself started to morph into the decaying corpse of Jim Morrison, which is who she seemed to be channeling on more than one occasion. Things did manage to get close to redline when the band centered on “House Of Secrets” standout track “Warhead.” Unfortunately, by the time the crowd was awaken with this G.W.B. attack, the band exited the stage. And while the crowd began chanting “Otep!” in the hopes of an encore, the p.a. music came up (Slipknot, of course) and the house lights illuminated. In short, the band’s load-in took longer than their actual set did.
Which cleared the way for Kittie. It’s uncertain if both openers short set time was a result of muscle flexing or intimidation, but it obviously made things that much easier for the Ontario, Canada quartet. Probably 75% of the attendees remained for Kittie, including several small children who continued to dart around with Pepsi colas in hand and black Kittie t-shirts on their backs. It was also obvious that Kittie held the full sound and lights hostage until their set started, which came at least four hours after a very young local Evanescence wanna-bees started the metal shenanigans.
If Kittie’s line-up has changed, there is no indication of lack of chemistry between the new members Lisa Marx (guitar), Jennifer Arroyo (bass) and founding sisters Morgan and Mercedes Lander. All four ladies displayed something that seems entirely lacking in today’s nu metal bands: a sense of humor. From the set-opener “Looks So Pretty,” it became clear that, despite dwindling record sales and fan base, the band enjoys performing together and combining old-school metal requirements (hand devil horns, insipid stage banter) with nu metal workmanship (guitar chugging, double kick drum spastics). And it was very refreshing to see a young woman as the first person to stage dive and crowd surf a crowd comprised of at least 65% males. I wasn’t really sure of the woman in her late thirties wearing the “More Fucking Blood” t-shirt, but she seemed happy and the male crowd was tolerant of her stumbling head banging.
The only real concern, aside from a drunken lush with a lit cigarette weaving in a crowded area, was the occasional venture into polished, near radio friendly material like the title track from their latest release “Until The End.” While the audience seemed appreciative of the melodic aspects of this direction, they were very receptive when the ladies focused on the agro qualities that brought them exposure in the first place. They even enjoyed Mick Mars lookalike Jennifer Arroyo’s bass solo which points towards the Lander’s belief that this line-up may indeed be a little musically stronger than the original incarnation.
So while Kittie continues to hold up and exceed many of their male counterparts, it seems a tad disheartening to watch their talent become under appreciated. We’ve seen it before with Joan Jett, L7, Bikini Kill, and other ladies that pursue the territories that seem to be reserved for those with a penis. And while I hate to play the sex card and put everything in such simpleton terms, I can find no other reason why a band like Kittie loses appeal while another male-dominated band with sub-par chops can find a wider audience. The material that is more polished certainly isn’t at the level of a “Kiss Me Deadly” and the band doesn’t seem intent on reinventing the wheel like, say Otep, is (and failing, I might add). The only thing I can hope for is their declaration that they’re in the game “Until The End” because we need bands like Kittie to be around. Sooner or later, metal’s glass ceiling has to break and encompass a more diverse lineage.

Saturday, October 2, 2004

Joy Division - No More Ceremonies (bootleg)

On February 29th, 1980, Joy Division joined the band Killing Joke for a leap year performance at the Lyceum Theatre in London. This performance, or at least some of it, has been available on various vinyl bootlegs throughout the years under the titles “Komackino” (sic) and “Isolation.” In 1997, five of the songs from this Lyceum set were made available on the official Heart & Soul box set with much improved sound quality. No More Ceremonies marks the first time the entire Lyceum performance is available on compact disc with a limited edition run of 500 copies.
The set features a list that heavily borrowed from their then unreleased Closer album. As important as that album turned out to be, it’s nice to hear many of those song titles translated into a live setting. At the same time, there isn’t a lot of difference from the studio versions and the ones presented on this document. “Heart & Soul,” “Isolation,” and “Love Will Tear Us Apart” all suffer from lack of fidelity. The audience seems more enthusiastic with the familiar material like “She’s Lost Control” while one concertgoer seems to exclaim that the newer songs “sound the same.” Martin Hannett’s production would change that, of course, and according to accounts from the spring of 1980, Ian’s behavior became even more erratic to the point in which dates were cancelled. We know about the suicide that took place that May, which makes any document (especially a complete concert) even more enticing to fans looking for evidence of a downward spiral. They won’t find it here, but instead, a typical bootleg quality concert recording of an enormously influential band on the verge of releasing a landmark album and facing tragedy at the same time. For fanatics, that won’t prevent them from seeking out this unofficial release but for fans with a certain amount of control, the Heart & Soul box set is enough to satisfy their thirst for live material.

Friday, October 1, 2004

Joy Division - Refractured (box set)

Like many other fans, Joy Division’s music spoke to me at a pivotal moment in my life. Their influence continues to this day, and they have become a band that I’ve consciously continued to pursue to become what curious onlookers have called “completists.” It’s not an easy task, considering the band had only two proper studio albums, a posthumous odds & sods that did a nice job of sealing any loose ends, and an excellent greatest hits compilation (Substance, 1987) that provided novices with a nice introduction to the unit’s too brief career. Add to this, a top-notch box set (Heart & Soul, 1997) was released with the intention of completely cleaning out the vaults of any material worthy of release while collecting the band’s entire commercial output in one centralized location.
Given the facts around the band’s material and Ian Curtis’ suicide securing the group’s role as purveyors of darkness, it really should come as no surprise that fans continue to witness a virtual grave robbing of additional compilations as well as additional newfound concert documentations. The first effort came in the form of yet another greatest hits compilation (Permanent, 1995) that only signaled a new owner of the band’s masters and failed to come close to its 1987 counterpart. I could live without this release, however, as I already owned the material presented and felt no desire to add it to my own collection simply on the basis of updated packaging.
But fans such as me are saps when it comes to “new” live material presented to us, regardless of how many times a song title is repeated. This trend started with an authorized Factory release (Preston 28 February 1980, 1999), a document with such piss-poor fidelity and continual equipment problems, one could only assume the reason for its issue was to circumvent the floodgate of bootlegs of this performance that have been available for more than a decade.
Factory then issued another live document (Les Bains Douches 18 December 1979, 2001) of what sounds to be from a broadcast source that, again, was available on bootlegs prior to the official release. The performance at this date, however, proved to be an inspiring set that came as close to a definitive live document as one could hope for: tense, urgent, and tight. If you’ve ever felt that Joy Division was a band more at home in the studio, or if you’ve read about the power that they supposedly possessed on stage (but have yet to find proof of it) this is the album that denies and confirms these statements respectively.
Later that same year, Factory Records combined these two performances in a limited-edition set under the title Fractured. The fact that fans now had to choose between the original single disc sets as well as the Fractured compilation seemed to point towards cashing in and the “limited edition” appeal certainly secured that conception. Indeed, the pressings were limited to only 1,000 copies that hardcore fans quickly snagged.
So what to do? If you’re into milking Joy Division fans for all they’re worth, you simply “dress up” the Fractured box set again, up the limited edition quotient to 3,000 copies, and price it all a little bit higher. And that’s exactly what Alchemy Records has done with 2004’s Refractured box set. You get the Preston Warehouse performance and the original single-disc artwork, three live performances from Holland that were originally on the Les Bains Douches disc have been moved to the end of the Preston disc. You get the show from Paris and the original single-disc artwork and (here’s the draw for J.D. fans) you also get another often bootlegged performance from Amsterdam as a bonus third disc, making the whole thing qualify to be a “box” set and, therefore, become more expensive. Just in case you’re not completely sold on shelling out the cash, the “generous” folks at Alchemy Entertainment Ltd. have even included a reproduction of the Bains Douches concert poster, a t-shirt, and the limited edition box itself to store the entire contents. The problem is the concert poster is a small reproduction of the original and the t-shirt merely says “refractured” on it and has no reference to Joy Division whatsoever. I’ve also heard that the Amsterdam show was to have its own jewel case and original artwork as well, but finished product simply adds this disc to the Les Bains Douches case and contains no new artwork for the Amsterdam cd at all.
Since the bonus material does nothing to really entice Joy Division fans, the main draw would have to be the third disc, recorded at the Paradiso on 1/11/1980 in Amsterdam. As stated before, this performance has been the subject of several bootlegs for years, and the official Alchemy release does nothing to raise the fidelity or sound quality. The performance itself is a lackluster one that is hands-down better than the Preston fiasco but not as energetic as the Paris show.
Finally, and this is extremely important, it must be noted that all three of these live performance discs contain an unbelievably infuriating two second gap in between all of the songs. If you were thinking of getting at least an aural document of a Joy Division performance, you would be mistaken. Instead, what’s presented are live audio samples along the same lines as if you were to individually download each song by itself.
Without any sort of true collector appeal, without any evidence of professionalism in the mastering, and without any attention to detail in both packaging and liner notes, Refractured reeks of taking sheepish Joy Division fans for a ride. If Alchemy Records’ intentions were indeed pure, this would have been a perfect opportunity, even considering the low-fi source material, to properly compile a new aural view of how Joy Division approached their emotional conflict on stage. Because underneath all of the technical faults, there lays a sense of humility in the performances: imperfection, fear, anger, drama and talent are all prevalent here. Unfortunately, there’s no evidence of any redeeming human qualities found on Refractured. The entire release merely seems to settle on just trotting out the body of Ian Curtis for a fast buck once again.