Ripple in Still Water

(Special guest blog post by Todd Bauer)

As I approached Soldier Field on July 5th, 2015 for the final Grateful Dead show of all time, (and my 33rd), I was a bundle of emotions.  I was holding back tears the entire show, and choked up when talking to my wife at set break.  This intensity of emotion came as a surprise to me as I had made no effort to get tickets to these final three shows.  I would not have been there at all if not for my younger brother Scott lining everything up for me.  I still loved the Dead’s music, but going to shows was part of a younger me, and, of course: no Jerry.  I was skeptical and hesitant.  By the end of the first set of the first show, I was back in bliss.

Thank God my brother got me there, for attending those final three shows was the capstone of my 30 year Grateful Dead journey: one of the most profound experiences of my life.

As Scott wrote concerning the final shows in an earlier blog “It took us 20 years to be ready to say goodbye,” and it has taken me a year to integrate that goodbye.  What follows is my best attempt to put into words, something that ultimately, is beyond words.  As a critic from the 1980’s said “It is not easy to know what makes the Grateful Dead important, but it is important.  That is certain.”  Attending those final shows, reminded me just how important the Grateful Dead have been, and will always be, to me.

concert

“We sing when words are not enough.”

                              –Jonathan Wilson, theater director

I think it was Martin Mull who said “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”  I think that’s true, but in attempting to explain the phenomenon of the Grateful Dead, we have to begin with the music.  At their most basic, they were a band.  The most American of all rock n roll bands.  Ever.  For reasons both within and beyond the music.

Their music sprung from the Myth of America.  For just as we are a melting pot of people f every race, creed, and color, their music was a melting pot of roots, folk, blues, jazz, reggae, world, rock and many others.  As Bob Dylan said on the death of Jerry Garcia “There are a lot of spaces and advances between the Carter family, Buddy Holly, and say Ornette Coleman, a lot of universes, but he filled them all, without being a member of any school.”

The Dead’s music came out of, and embodied the American identity.  And the way they played it, the way they approached their craft, embodies that identity at an even deeper level.  Individually they ranged from gifted to genius on their instruments, but together, there was a synergy that went far beyond the sum of its parts.  As a critic noted “”The Grateful Dead are the most consistently cohesive band in the history of rock n roll.”  That cohesion was solidified by playing over 2300 shows—a historic accomplishment in and of itself.

“Maybe we’re one of the last adventures in America.”

                              –Jerry Garcia

Central to the American consciousness is the idea of possibility.  This is the Land of Opportunity! Our greatest export: the idea of the American Dream.  This belief in potential was forged by having a frontier where anything was possible.  As Wallace Stegner famously said “something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed.” Frontier, wilderness, exploration, allows for possibility and dream to exist.

The Dead went into every show without a net, not knowing what they were going to play, or how they were going to play it.  Every song was an exploration, a journey, an adventure.  So American.  Going to a Dead show was in the long American tradition of going into the wilderness.  And we all, band and audience, went on that adventure together.

“[The Grateful Dead is] six musicians struggling to play music.  But there is something that happens.  The audience is going through a transformation, we’re going through a transformation.  The unexpected becomes every day.  You don’t take it for granted.  You work at it real hard but you don’t work at in the usual ways.  It is something that just has to happen.  You set the stage for magic to happen.  Sometimes it does.”

–Jerry Garcia

IMG_3878

As anyone who has been to a live sporting event in a large, sold out stadium, with the game on the line knows: there’s an energy there that transcends the event going on on the field.  When the winning field goal is kicked, or the three-pointer drained as time runs out, the electricity created could light a city.  Can’t be described; is not the same as watching it on TV; can only be experienced in that moment.

Now picture that level of electricity without an opponent; where  aggression, conquest, the possibility of defeat, and competition are not part of the equation.  The energy is exclusively that of collective harmony and joy. That’s the magic of a Dead show.  As a critic noted “Grateful Dead music became culturally important…because it helped bring people together and conveyed the spirit of a better way to live.”

Or, put more succinctly by another critic “The Grateful Dead elicit more human energy in one show than most groups do in a career.”  It was a place where your first impulse is to trust, rather than be apprehensive; a place where it is impossible to be weird, where you are utterly free to be yourself without judgment; universally accepted.  How democratic.

As mentioned above, the Dead’s music, and the way they approached it, tapped into something deep in the American consciousness.  And when the audience is brought into the experience, it transforms into something even more powerful.  Something that transcends ethnicity, national identity and many other boundaries.  It taps into something on a basic human level and very old.

At the ripe old age of 81, noted mythologist Joseph Campbell attended his first Grateful Dead show and was blown away.  He commented “The Grateful Dead are the answer to the atom bomb.  For the atom bomb is a function of separation…people are separated from each other by lines of thinking.  They align themselves with this group against that group.  An evening with the Grateful Dead is one of those harmonizing experiences.  All differences between age, race, and economic situation were simply erased.  People were seeing themselves as human beings having…a common experience, an experience of joy and fulfillment and life in play…the more of that we can bring forth, the less there will be any trend toward the separation which the atom bomb represents.  They hit a level of humanity that makes everybody at one with each other.  I was carried away in a rapture.  And so I’m a Deadhead now.”

campbell

And Campbell was not alone.  I was hooked after my first show.  Other Deadheads have commented: “My soul was more at peace than ever before.” And “At my first show I immediately felt like I was at home, and I fit in.  Everyone was friendly and I quickly learned that the way I could live my life was much broader than I had grown up believing.”

Places where such levels of harmony and expansion are achieved are sacred.  And sadly scarce in modern society.  Garcia realized this, saying “That remained my goal, to walk out every night and play as if life depended on my every note, to wrest meaning from the jaw of entropy and decay, and to transform every place we played into a shrine of expanded consciousness. Every place we played was church.”  And Phil Lesh stated “After the Acid Tests, we had become shamans, helping to channel the transcendent into our mundane lives and those of our listeners.”

Ritualistic ecstasy may be very rare in today’s culture, but it is nothing new.  In fact, it is very old.

“Nietzsche argues that the tragedy of Ancient Greece was the highest form of art due to the mixture of both Apollonian and Dionysian into one seamless whole, allowing the spectator to experience the full spectrum of the human condition.”

                              –Nietzsche scholar

At an elemental level, we are a chaos of atomic energy, brought into a harmony, a rhythm, an order to form differentiated body and consciousness.  Just as words convey meaning by bringing the elements of letters into an order, or music disparate notes into a harmony. (The Dead conveyed this every time they evolved out of “Space” into a song).

Campbell points out “Life is rhythm.  Art is an organization of rhythms.  [The Dead] is one incredible Dionysian ritual.  It’s as if the rites of ancient Athens were compressed into one concert in one evening.  I got something there that made me note that this is magic.  And it’s magic for the future.  The Grateful Dead are a contemporary container of the body of wisdom that is relatively timeless.”

Phil recognizes this: “We’ve moved into a timeless realm where only the music and the people listening exist.”  As did a critic in 1970 “Magic is alive and well.  It exists in the form of one of the few truly unique bands rock has produced: the Grateful Dead.  They are an overwhelming almost mystical experience”

fare thee well

“I found the Grateful Dead right when I needed them.  I guess that’s about the time most people find them.” 

–Deadhead

At my first show (which I had the clichéd pleasure of going to in a hollowed out VW microbus that ran out of gas as we pulled into the parking lot) three large bolts of lightning descended directly behind the stage at the precise moment the Dead hit the first note of the first song of the second set.  It was cosmic!  Little did I know such hinges were common at Dead shows.

As the Dead play “Fire on the Mountain” in Portland, Oregon Mt. St. Helens erupted.

At Jerry’s last show, after the typical one song encore, Phil felt moved to launch into “Box of Rain” with the final lines “Such a long, long time to be gone.  And a short time to be there.”  The final notes Jerry would play with the band.

And as the first set ended of the first Farwell show, a rainbow appeared above the stage.

The movie that awakened my sense of wonder, the original King Kong, came out in 1933; the first time I ever played roulette I put my money on 33 and hit the number; I met my wife and embarked on my theater career when I was 33.

I saw the Grateful Dead exactly 33 times.  It took a show I had tickets for being cancelled, and getting tickets to all three of their final shows for this to be a fact.

Although such cosmic connections cannot be proven, they did happen.  And there are many, many more.  Ask any Deadhead.

rainbow

“[The Grateful Dead] are somehow hitting that chord of realization of the unity of God in you all, that’s a terrific thing and it just blows the rest away.”

               –Joseph Campbell

Joseph Campbell is best known for the phrase “Follow your bliss.”  This is often mistakenly interpreted as, just do what makes you happy.  More correctly, it means, honor the deepest calling within you in living your life.  This will not always be fun, or easy, will involve risk and disappointment, but  when you do, “doors  will open for you where there wouldn’t be a door for anyone else” and you will have the experience of being alive that is most meaningful to you.

Campbell’s teachings found me at precisely the moment in my life I needed to hear them, and they guided me to that path of deepest calling and experience.

The Dead were a part of that calling, and doors did open for me with regard to them.  My first show was included in the recently released 30 Trips Around the Sun boxed set, selected as the best show of that particular year.  One of my best friend’s Aunts became the Dead’s road manager, and several times I got backstage which was always a thrill.  Just by chance I ended up at one of the few shows where the Neville Brothers joined the band; at Brent’s last and Vinnie’s first show; and most meaningfully, at Jerry’s last, and the band’s final three—all of which just happened to take place in my home town: Chicago.  For me, it was all meant to be.

Through other adventures of following my bliss, I got to hang out with several of the Merry Pranksters, including Ken Kesey (and Babbs!); wrote for a magazine devoted to the Beats, getting to interview many of them; traveled the world, including living with indigenous tribes in the jungle; skied and hiked the spectacular mountains of Montana; began teaching literature which led to the best thing in my life: my wife; and had the courage to embark on a career in playwriting, which continues to give me peak experiences and nourish my soul.

It is not a stretch to say none of this may have happened, if not for the spiritual awakening the Grateful Dead ignited in me.

So after the final show was over, I cried.  It wasn’t just for them no longer touring, or for me being 50 instead of 20, but, just as the tears that come with the death of a loved one are filled with all the love that person shared with you, I cried for all the love the Dead made possible in my life by expanding my heart.

The simplest way I can put it is that the Grateful Dead expanded my capacity for joy.

Every song of every show was filled with ineffable epiphanies.  Epiphanies that go beyond words, but that are eternally real and true and will be with me forever.

So from the fullness of my shining heart: I am eternally grateful for the Grateful Dead.

“Fare the well, fare the well, I love you more than words can tell”

–The Grateful Dead, Brokedown Palace.

Indeed.

 

Note: quotes from critics and other Deadheads come from the book included in the 30 Trips Around the Sun box set.  Get it!  It’s great!

 

Todd Bauer is a blind playwright, whose work has been performed in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, and at the Kennedy Center.  Recent productions include: Downsizing Camus at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York, July 2015 and The Bird Feeder Doesn’t Know, Raven Theatre, Chicago, April, 2015.  He was awarded an NEA Grant, received a fellowship from the Ragdale foundation, and was nominated for a 3Arts Artist Award. Todd has taught British and American drama at the Newberry Library in Chicago for over ten years, and is an ensemble member of Apothetae Company in New York. 

jerry bears

 

 

“Judas!”

“Hello, yes,” came the voice with a British accent over my office answering machine early one October morning 18 years ago. “My name is Keith Butler and I’m looking for Scott Bauer. I’m the man who shouted ‘Judas!’ at Bob Dylan in 1966.”

dylan (Photo by Mark Makin)

Now, on the 50th anniversary of the concert where Keith Butler let loose with perhaps the most famous heckle in rock history, it seems like as good a time as any to recount the story of my small part in unraveling the mystery.

On May 17, 1966, Dylan was nearing the end of his first European tour with the Band where he played acoustic in the first set, then electric in the second. As has been well documented in the ensuing decades, the shift from acoustic folk (which was viewed as artistically pure) to electrified rock (which was dismissed as a commercial sell out) angered fans so much they booed Dylan and walked out of his shows.

The May 17 concert rose to prominence after being bootlegged in the late 1960s and improperly labeled as the Royal Albert Hall show, which actually took place over a week later. On the tape, after 40 minutes of catcalls and boos from the audience as Dylan played his electric set, he and the Band pause just before the last song of the show.

“Judas!” someone is clearly heard yelling, followed by a smattering of applause.

Dylan, or maybe Robbie Robertson, strum their guitars.

“I don’t believe you,” Dylan says back. “You’re a liar.”

And then, off mic but still audible, Dylan — or again maybe Robertson — urges the Band to “Play fucking loud!”

With a rocket-shot like kick of the drum by Mickey Jones, the Band opens up like a hurricane and Dylan sneers the opening lines of (in my humble opinion) the greatest rock song ever written: “Once upon a time you dressed so fine, threw the bums a dime in your prime, DIDN’T YOU?!!”

The Band, and Dylan, proceed to lay down a scathing, and utterly unmatched, performance of the song. There’s a reason why it gained so much fame and notoriety in the ensuing years.

In 1998, the bootleg was finally prepared for an official release. I was fortunate enough to propose writing a story for AP, and got to interview the drummer, Mickey Jones, and CP Lee, a British author who was there that night and wrote an entire book about the show called “Like the Night.” Dylan declined to be interviewed.

Dylan-Albert-Hall-cover

In the article, I described how a documentary crew on that tour interviewed some disgruntled fans as they left unidentified shows. Some of the footage ended up in a documentary called “Eat the Document.”

I ended the piece with a quote from one of them: “Any pop group could produce better rubbish than that. It was a bloody disgrace, it was. … He’s a traitor.”

And that was that. Or so I thought.

http://www.expectingrain.com/dok/cd/98/AP.html

A few days after the story moved worldwide on the wire, I came to work at our office in the Lincoln state Capitol. Back then, before voicemail, we used an answering machine. The light was blinking and I hit play. That’s when I heard Keith Butler’s voice.

butlerkeith

He lived in Canada and left me a phone number. He claimed to be the person who had yelled “Judas!” at Dylan. More than 30 years since the concert, no one had fessed up to the yell. But here was this Canadian banker on the other end of the phone, telling me that had hadn’t been able to sleep one night so he took a walk. He bought the Toronto Sun and saw my article. He read it all the way through, and when he saw the quote at the end, recognized his own words and recalled being interviewed by a film crew after the concert.

He also remembered yelling “Judas” and being regretful. He had no idea it had become “a thing.”

It was a story so incredible, but so hard for me to verify, I decided to enlist some help. I emailed CP Lee, the author of the book, who got in touch with Butler. Along with help from a British disc jockey, they brought him back to the Manchester Free Trade Hall where he sat in the balcony where he was that night and told his story.

“Judas” had been found.

The news was widely reported, and included in an update to Lee’s book. Keith Butler died in 2002, but he and I are now forever linked in Bob Dylan lore.

http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/judas-1075546.html

http://www.mtv.com/news/512709/fan-who-called-dylan-judas-breaks-33-years-of-silence/

http://expectingrain.com/dok/who/b/butlerkeith.html

http://www.expectingrain.com/dok/who/obituaries/butlerkeith.html

In the subsequent years others have come forward to claim they were the “Judas” shouter, but my money is on Keith. He was the first, and the most earnest. When Martin Scorcese put together a documentary on Dylan for PBS, he was able to find film of the moment at the concert when the yell is made, so now we can see Dylan as the band reacts.

A few years later, when I was doing a story on “The Last Waltz,” I was lucky enough to get to interview Robbie Robertson. Even though it had nothing to do with the story I was working on, I just couldn’t resist asking him about the “Judas” shout. Now here, transcribed for the first time since my 2002 interview, is his complete answer.

Give it a read while listening to the May 17, 1966, Manchester concert tonight, its 50th anniversary.

Me: “The famous comment is when the audience member yells ‘Judas!’ out from the crowd. Do you remember that actual moment?”

Robbie: “Yes.”

Me: “Do you remember who said ‘Play fucking loud’?”

Robbie: “No, I don’t.”

Me: “OK. I know people always wonder if it was you or Dylan and I mean it’s been 40 years ago, I’ve got you on the phone I had to ask.”

Robbie: “Oh right. I know what you’re talking about now. I haven’t listened to the ….”

Me: “A guy yells ‘Judas!’ and Dylan says ‘I don’t believe you’ and someone off mic says ‘Play fucking loud.'”

Robbie: “Right. I don’t remember if that was me or one of us just kind of lashing out. I don’t know. By the time we got to this part of that tour we had been booed all over United States and Canada and Australia and all over Europe. It wasn’t like our skins hadn’t gotten a little thicker and we hadn’t built some character by then. It might have been under those circumstances. At Albert Hall, and it’s questionable how much of this is from Albert Hall and how much is from Manchester, I guess that was one of the questions in the whole thing. At Albert Hall they have all these boxes there and they were all filled with the British music scene. The Beatles were in one box, the Who was in another box and the Stones were in another box. It was like all the whole music world was there for this.

It might have brought out a little bit more pepper in somebody in that they were just like, `Fuck you.’ We did play loud, you wanted to hear this bullshit.”

manchester(Photo by Mark Makin)

And for just $2,000 you can get ….

Blues Traveler will always hold a special place in my heart because of how I first got turned on to their music. I was a freshman in college when their first record was released. I had a copy of it on tape. “But Anyway” was getting a lot of airplay on 97X, the college radio station at Miami (just think of that scene from “Rain Man”):

 

So, when the word spread that Blues Traveler was playing outside of a fraternity house for free, I had to check it out. As an 18-year-old freshman, it was about as cool a scene as you could imagine. Here was this band, setting up in the street, with thousands of people all over the place trying to position themselves for the best view.

They launched into “But Anyway.” It was loud. Really loud. They even had professional lights mounted on the side of the fraternity (or maybe I just thought they did). John Popper was blasting his harmonica across the normally staid streets of Oxford, Ohio. People were dancing. It was a trippy scene.

But just as quickly as it began, it was over. The cops pulled the plug after just one song. Someone, probably a lot of people, complained. It was too loud. People were drinking in the street. It was chaos! It was glorious. And, even better, to my knowledge it wasn’t captured by anyone on videotape (no cell cameras in 1990, sorry) and it’s nowhere to be found on YouTube.

For anyone unfamiliar with the song, here it is:

 

A year later Blues Traveler returned and played Millett Hall. Another up and coming band, Widespread Panic, was the opening act. And yes, tickets were $12.50.

photo copy

 

Fast forward to 2015. I have to admit, I largely lost track of Blues Traveler over the years. They scored a big Top 40 hit (peaking at #8) with “Runaround” in 1994, and I did see them in the HORDE festival around that time, but other than that, I didn’t really pay much attention to their career.

But now this.

http://www.pledgemusic.com/projects/bluestraveler/

Looking past the actual music on their latest release, in which they make questionable decisions like partnering up with Hanson and a member of NSYNC to play faux reggae/pop songs, Blues Traveler is now offering a variety of things for sale beyond the normal digital download/CD/vinyl packages.

Want to take a harmonic lesson from John Popper over Skype? It’s yours for $1,000 (but hurry, as of this writing there were only two left). If you want a music lesson from anyone else in the band, also via Skype for 30 minutes, it will only set you back $500 (take your time thinking about that one, there are still seven left).

It gets weirder.

Want to jam with the band, live, onstage, during one of their shows? That’s $2,000. Want to take it a step farther? Your band can actually open for Blues Traveler for a cool $5,000. What if you have a song that you really want to have John Popper play harmonica on? Send $5,000 via paypal, and it will happen.

And then, for the truly deep pocketed spenders, there’s this: Blues Traveler will come to you and play a private show for $50,000.

That would buy a lot of patchouli.

It strikes me that maybe the guys in Blues Traveler are having a musical midlife crisis. There’s plenty of precedent for that. “Tattoo You” anyone? How about “Hearts of Fire” or just about anything Paul McCartney put out in the 1980s.

 

BroadStreetCover

 

Now, to be fair, Blues Traveler is far from the first band to offer unique opportunities to fans for a profit. There’s plenty of officially sanctioned goofy shit out there. And even the biggest names in the game (I’m looking at you Bob Dylan) have offered themselves up to private gigs for the right price.

This article about that is over a year old, but you get the picture. Hey, back then you could have booked Blues Traveler for less than $40,000!

http://priceonomics.com/how-much-does-it-cost-to-book-your-favorite-band/

Who knows, maybe someday Dylan will offer harmonica lessons over Skype, or you’ll be able to pay to apply makeup to KISS, or light Willie Nelson’s joint backstage.

For me, I just want to enjoy the music. I spend enough money on that. I don’t need to drop hundreds (or thousands) to have John Popper mow my grass while playing harmonica.

After all, as Blues Traveler themselves sang, “It won’t mean a thing in a hundred years.”

Summertime done come and gone, my oh my

Twenty years ago this July, my brother and I and a gang of like-minded misfits gathered to catch the musical circus as it rolled into town, like it did every summer.

Two decades on, I can’t remember who exactly was with us that hot night at Soldier Field. There was a rotating gaggle of usual suspects who hit as many shows as they could afford and as their schedules would allow. We were all in our 20s. We knew the ride would end at some point, but we didn’t know when.

Turns out, Saturday, July 8, 1995, would be my last Grateful Dead show. The next night, July 9, would be the last Grateful Dead show for everyone else, ever. Jerry Garcia died a month later, and while the band reformed in various incarnations over the next 20 years, it’s never been close to the same.

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Now, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the forming of the Grateful Dead, the four surviving original members — along with some very special guests — are reuniting for three shows at the same venue where it all ended in 1995. So much has changed over the interceding years it’s almost pointless to list all the differences. For one, tickets to the 1995 shows were $33.50, as my stub above shows. The best seats this time around are more than six times as much.

Bob Weir, one of the lead singers of the Dead, was 47 years old in 1995 — an old man to the 23-year-old me. But now, as I face 43 and my brother is staring down the barrel of 50, it seems like Bobby was just a young pup when he and Jerry opened that second-to-last show with “Jack Straw.”

 

There’s no denying that Jerry was in rough shape that night, and had been for years. While we couldn’t have guessed that he would be playing his final shows, all of us who had been watching him decline knew enough to treat every 1990s-era show as a gift.

The biggest gift of all that night, and the moment that stands out for me above all the others, was Jerry’s lead vocal on the Dylan classic “Visions of Johanna.” One vocal inflection and a raised arm, at just the right moment — “Mona Lisa must have had them highway blues, you can TELL by the way she SMILED!” (minute 5:39) — was all it took to send me and the crowd of more than 50,000 into a frenzy. Jerry, and many in the crowd, knew all too well what the highway blues were all about.

 

They ended that show, triumphantly, with “U.S. Blues,” which contains the bittersweet line: “Summertime done come and gone, my oh my.” They were the last words I ever heard Jerry sing.

 

Summertime will come again to Soldier Field this July. Joining the original Dead members will be Trey Anastasio from Phish along with frequent Dead collaborator Bruce Hornsby. Thousands of people who make one or more of these shows will have never seen Jerry with the Dead. For them, for all of us, it will be a joyous occasion.

You can’t ever go back, nor should you. Like Satchel Paige said, “Don’t look back, something might be gaining on you.” Middle/old age is gaining, or already caught, most who were at the final 1995 shows. Even so, many of us, hopefully my brother and I included, will gather, once again, when the circus rolls back into Chicago.

We will cheer. We will sing. Will will laugh. We will dance, poorly. We may even cry.

It’s the power of music and memories, friends. It’s what it’s all about.

See you in Chicago.

grateful-dead-fare-the-well-bb2-2015-billboard-510

 

Listening Party

“This is some psychedelic crazy ass ’60s stuff.”

“Wow. The snare drum sounds like it’s bouncing around the room.”

“I had a girlfriend once who was into Dave Matthews. It didn’t last.”

“Oh, The Band. I’m so humiliated.”

“It’s a beautiful song. Just listen to the words.”

***

music turntable vinyl record player 1680x1050 wallpaper_www.wallpaperhi.com_78

Listening to music is often a solitary thing, especially in these days of the iPod and other similar devices. We put in the ear buds, turn on the car radio, or listen at home when no one is around. It’s great to have that personal connection, but that’s not what it should be all the time. There’s a reason why concerts are so much fun. Music is meant to be shared, and heard, with other people. It reveals itself to you in different ways when you hear songs in the company of friends or strangers or both.

On a recent Friday night, a group of suburban 40-something dads got together for an inaugural listening party. Each of us was asked to bring music that inspires us, and everyone got a chance to spin two songs at a time. Vinyl was encouraged, but not mandatory. We had everything from CDs to mp3s played off an iPhone, with the obligatory 180-gram colored vinyl thrown in, along with some esoteric weirdness with performers like a guy named Squirrel on congas.

Over the span of a few hours, in a group of just eight guys, the music played ran the gauntlet from the jazz of Nina Simone to punk rock of the New York Dolls, with some Broadway musicals, Bob Mould, Gordon Lightfoot and White Lion thrown in for good measure.

 

 

 

We even learned a thing or two. For instance, who knew that Deodato’s version of “Also Sprach Zarathustra” was the inspiration for Phish’s version of the tune best known as the theme music for “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Don’t believe it? Compare them!

 

 

Some in our group got turned on to one of our favorites here at “tailgates and substitutes”: Sturgill Simpson, a country singer who takes the best of the old and mixes it with the new to create his own sound. Listening to him led to a discussion over why most modern country sucks, a topic nearly all of us should be able to agree with.

 

From there we branched out into people like Arthur Brown, the “psychedelic crazy ass ’60s stuff” quoted above, as well as Allen Toussaint , Jack White, Bruce Springsteen, and Ry Cooder. Of course, no listening party among men of a certain age would be complete without Wilco and Bob Dylan.

 

At times we were silent — like when listening to Dylan’s live 1966 version of “Visions of Johanna.” Other songs, like one played from “Rent,” brought back powerful emotions for members of the group with personal connections to the musical and that time in New York.

Say what you want about vinyl snobs, but the records we played just had a depth and feel that the digital downloads and CDs did not. Just imagine wading into an aural sea, surrounded by a mossy, thick sound. You can’t get that with the tininess of digital.

As the night wore on, the observations became more definitive — “Little Feat is the greatest band in music history!” — just as the volume got louder.

 

The next listening party can’t come fast enough. Anyone out there done something similar, or have suggestions for what should be played?

 

Lost on the River of Sukierae with Tweedy, Neil Young and a Prophet

There’s lots of new music news out there, so let’s not waste any time and dive Beneath the Waves!

Jeff Tweedy: The man behind Wilco has been all over the airwaves to promote his solo release “Sukierae.” The rec0rd, in a word, is amazing. Here are some places to check out some of the tunes, interviews, and other buzz that’s surrounding this deal.

First, if you only do one thing today, watch this video done for the song “Low Key.” Keep an eye out for cameos by other musicians and entertainers, and be sure to watch all the way to the end for the surprise twist:

 

If that whets your appetite for more, check out this amazing professionally filmed Tweedy concert from last week in New York:

http://www.bam.org/tweedylive

Still want more? Here is Tweedy on Colbert:

http://thecolbertreport.cc.com/guests/tweedy

And here is Tweedy doing an NPR tiny desk concert:

http://www.npr.org/event/music/350594224/tweedy-tiny-desk-concert?autoplay=true

And here is Tweedy getting interviewed on NPR:

http://www.soundopinions.org/show/460

If that still isn’t enough Tweedy for you, go out and buy “Sukierae” so you can enjoy it whenever you like.

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Neil Young: The venerable rocker is out with a new pro-environment song, “Who’s Gonna Stand Up?” It’s available in three versions for free on his website now. There’s the acoustic solo, live with Crazy Horse and the orchestral version. You can listen to all three versions here:

http://www.neilyoung.com/

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Chuck Prophet: Take a little Ray Davies, mix in some Tom Petty and John Hiatt, shake it up, and out comes Chuck Prophet. Sort of. The guy is wholly original and he has a new record out. Check out his first single/video here:

http://www.pastemagazine.com/blogs/av/2014/09/video-premiere-chuck-prophet—wish-me-luck.html

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Lost on the River: A week after Bob Dylan releases his Complete Basement Tapes in November, some friends including Jim James of My Morning Jacket, Elvis Costello of Elvis Costello and others of his who were given access to unfinished lyrics from that period in 1967 are putting out “Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes.” Three songs have been released so far, and I’ve got to say, they’re not doing much for me. Will this be a success like the Wilco-Billy Bragg “Mermaid Avenue” collaboration, that worked from discarded Woody Guthrie lyrics, or a miss, a la Dylan’s “Self Portrait,” which also hails from that era? We shall see.

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Here is a link to the videos from Lost on the River that are out now:

http://www.vevo.com/watch/the-new-basement-tapes/When-I-Get-My-Hands-On-You-(Lyric)/USUV71401916

 

Prince: As if this wasn’t all enough, Prince has two new records coming out tomorrow: http://store.artofficialage.com/

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Shut up and let him sing

One of the most magical things about great music is you never know when it’s going to transport you to someplace otherworldly, elevate your soul out of your body to a higher plane.

I’ve written a post about those rare times when that happens in concert. But these experiences aren’t limited to just live music. They can sneak up on you, when you’re listening to the radio, or your iPod, or even when you’re playing a song you’ve listened to a thousand times before but for whatever reason it strikes you in a new way. You can be alone, with friends or complete strangers.

This Friday night it happened to me and it still gives me goosebumps.

As has become a somewhat regular thing in our neighborhood, a group of about half a dozen Phish fans gathered to watch a live stream of their concert. We set up a screen outside, with professional-level speakers, and just blast out the live goodness to anyone within earshot. It’s always nice to rattle suburbia as much as possible.

On this particular night, Phish was locked in and delivering one nice, surprising tune after another. Neophytes and longtime Phish-heads were finding more than enough reasons to be ecstatic. It was the Friday night of the three-day Labor Day weekend, so everyone in attendance was in high spirits. We were laughing, sharing stories, talking about the music and generally making a ruckus. It was a grand time.

At intermission, as is also tradition, people request to watch YouTube clips to pass the time. The concert before turned into a Weird Al festival, which inspired my previous post about him. At other shows we’ve played Pink Floyd and even clips from movies. Really, whatever people feel like watching, it goes up.

This night was no different, with our host starting us off with a thoroughly entertaining, if not somewhat disturbing, clip of Shel Silverstein singing on the Johnny Cash show from 1970.

 

We were abuzz with commentary about how bizarre it was (Shel’s more of a screamer than a singer) and how incredible that this was broadcast to mainstream America on a major television network. Seeing that clip brought out the request to watch when Bob Dylan appeared on the show.

Cash invited Dylan to appear on the the very first episode of his show, taped at the Grand Old Opry in Nashville, and broadcast in June 1969.  Cash and Dylan were friends. Cash famously wrote a letter to 1964 to Sing Out! magazine defending Dylan from criticism about the direction of  his songs at the time, excoriating Dylan’s critics in the folk music world to “SHUT UP! …. AND LET HIM SING!” Dylan frequently referred to that letter throughout his life, including the statement he issued after Cash died in 2003 in which he said he has kept a copy of that magazine because the letter “meant the world to me.” Dylan referred to Cash as the North Star: “you could guide your ship by him — the greatest of the greats then and now.”

At the time Dylan appeared on Cash’s show, he wasn’t keeping the highest of profiles. Just a month prior to the taping he released “Nashville Skyline,” his country record featuring “Lay Lady Lay” where his voice sounds completely different than what it had before, thanks largely to his giving up smoking cigarettes (at least that’s what he said). Dylan wasn’t performing concerts, instead staying mostly at home to raise a family. Prior to the taping of the show, in May 1969, Dylan had been seen only once publicly before that since his 1966 motorcycle accident. In between he had been cutting the Basement Tapes with the Band.

But here he was on network TV, sitting down with the great Johnny Cash. The sing Dylan’s “Girl from the North Country.”

That’s the clip my friends and I cued up on this warm summer night, in between sets of the Phish concert. From the first haphazard notes strummed on acoustic guitar, as Cash tries to get in the groove with Dylan, mumbling something to his seat mate in the living room set, we were transfixed. No one in my group spoke. Cash looks incredibly young. Dylan looks like a child, his hair sheered short. They both are wearing suits.

“If you’re traveling in the North Country fair,” Dylan sings. His voice is clear, crystalline, it cuts through the night air. And then Cash. No one sounds like him. It’s a duet, but it’s rough. They’re not always on cue. They don’t always sing together. With Dylan sitting uncomfortably close,  they bob and fidget, duck and weave, like two musical prize fighters, never really engaging the cameras but still being utterly mesmerizing. The song ends . They shake hands.

This is a clip I’ve seen dozens of times. I’ve heard the audio of it even more. But on this night, for whatever reason, it sent chills down my spine. Our group, that just minutes before had so much to say about everything, is speechless.

When the final note floats out into the summer air, everyone takes a collective breath and reflects on what an incredible clip it is. Forty-five years after it was recorded, on a song everyone knew, two musical giants are able to captivate once again.

This is what great music is all about.