Touring with Bob Dylan

By Tom Von Malder | Feb 05, 2021
Photo by: The Criterion Collection The cover of Criterion's "Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese."

Owls Head — Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese (Criterion, Blu-ray, NR, 142 min.). This is not the first documentary that Scorsese has done on Dylan; he also crafted “No Direction Home: Bob Dylan” in 2005. Scorsese also has directed “George Harrison: Living in the Material World,” and is filming a documentary of David Johansen and the New York Dolls. The new Dylan film, first presented on Netflix, delves into Dylan’s band of troubadours, who performed mostly in small New England venues towards the end of 1975 and then a second leg in 1976, during America’s Bicentennial celebration. Here, Scorsese blends behind-the-scenes archival footage, interviews new and old and narrative mischief, the latter mostly in creating a character, Stefan van Dorp, who allegedly did most of the archival footage. But then, the whole thing starts with a taste of an illusionist’s show.

Dylan had stopped touring in 1966, but then reunited with The Band – whose 1970 album “Stage Fright” is receiving a deluxe, expanded re-release on Feb. 12 – for a tour in 1974. This jug band type assemblage and playing at smaller venues was the follow-up to that tour, intended as a more spiritual tour and a reconnection with his audiences.

For this film, Scorsese conducted a sometimes-revealing new interview with Dylan. Others interviewed, both archival and new, are tour participants poet Allen Ginsberg (there also is an interesting video in which Dylan and Ginsberg visit the grave of writer Jack Kerouac), violinist/singer Scarlet Rivera, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Joan Baez, Sam Shepard, Ronnie Hawkins, Ronee Blakley and Roger McGuinn, as well as van Dorp (played by Martin von Haselberg), actress Sharon Stone (she attended one show with her mother and later was invited by Dylan to travel on the rest of the tour), David Mansfield and Ruben Carter (the then-imprisoned boxer about whom Dylan wrote his terrific “Hurricane” song).

During the shows, Dylan either wore some white face paint or a mask – he tells Scorsese there should have been more masks, because when someone wears a mask, you know they are going to tell you the truth – with the paint idea influenced by the rock band Kiss’ facial makeup. We see Dylan’s ongoing on- and off-stage relationship with Joan Baez, whom he says was “like she came down on a meteorite,” as well as singer Joni Mitchell being invited to perform and the staying on as “a communal experience.” One very good scene has Mitchell, who would only perform new songs and not her hits, performing her then-new “Coyote,” with McGuinn and Dylan joining on guitar, in somebody’s living room.

Musical highlights of songs performed in full or near so include a terrific “Isis,” “When I Paint That Masterpiece,” “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” “One More Cup of Coffee,” “A Simple Twist of Fate,” “I Shall Be Released” with Baez, “Oh, Sister,” a cover of Peter La Forge’s “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” sung to a tribal gathering, “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” (with backing guitarist Mick Ronson of David Bowie’s bands more featured), “Hurricane” and “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” The latter has a great close-up of the heads of McGuinn and Dylan as they sing near its end.

As for the name of the tour, Dylan recalls he heard repeated peals of thunder one day which inspired him, then he was later told it meant “speaking truth” to the American Indians. And even later, he learned it was what then-President Richard Nixon code-named the bombing of Cambodia. Nixon and images of the social change happening in America at the time also play a part in the film.

Bonus features include an interviews with Scorsese (16:19), editor David Tedeschi (11:39) and then-Rolling Stone magazine writer Larry “Ratso” Sloman, featured in archival footage and author of “On the Road with Bob Dylan,” from which he reads a couple of passages (18:46). There also is a restoration demo, as only the work print was left of the film (2:36), and three bonus performances (13:48) of “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You,” “Romance in Durango” and an extended “Tangled Up in Blue.” There is a 58-page booklet with a new essay by novelist Dana Spiotta and writing from the Revue tour by Sam Shepard and poets Ginsberg and Anne Waldman (also interviewed in the film). Grade: A-

Stevie Nicks: The 24 Karat Gold Tour Live in Concert (BMG, Blu-ray, NR, 141 min.). The show by the 68-year-old singer-songwriter and Fleetwood Mac member covers 18 songs – all but one written by her, with two co-written – and lots of story-telling. And while she tells the audience that the show will be different, with her selecting songs that never made records but were stashed in her truck of unused songs, she actually only performs two new songs – a not-so-great “New Orleans” and a catchy rocker “Starshine,” originally recorded in Tom Petty’s basement – and one rare song, “Crying in the Night,” from her early days with Buckingham Nicks.

The Petty connection is strong, as the only cover is “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” the hit she recorded with Petty and The Heartbreakers and which, here, has a long introduction about how it came to be. Also mentioned several times is the late Prince, to whom she dedicates her performance of “Moonlight (A Vampire’s Dream)” that she wrote about the lovers of “The Twilight Saga” films, and whose image shows up on the video screen late in the show.

“New Orleans” is one of the co-written songs; the other is “If Anyone Falls,” one of the many hits she performs. There also are long introductions to “Belle Fleur,” which she explains was written in the wake of suddenly having wealth, and to “Stand Back,” which is the story of how she first met Prince and how the song is based on his “Little Red Corvette.” She performs a medley of “Wild Heart” and “Bella Donna,” then discusses the two songs. A long story about Lindsey Buckingham going off on tour with one of the Everly Brothers leads into how she came to write “Landslide.”

Guitarist Waddy Wachtel, who has performed with Nicks since 1971 and who serves as the musical director of the tour, plays aggressive slide guitar on “Stand Back” and less aggressive slide on “Crying in the Night.” Wachtel plays a long solo introduction to “Edge of Seventeen,” which stretches to nine minutes and has Nicks put on a flower crown wreath she receives from an audience member. There also is a 10-minute version of “Gold Dust Woman,” with Nicks doing a “go crazy” head- and shoulder-waving dance. The encores are “Rhiannon” and “Landslide.” The show also is available as a 2-CD and DVD combo. Grade: A

The Burnt Pines: The Burnt Pines (Adraela, CD). This is the debut album by an international trio that is made up of Danish-born singer-lyricist Kris Skovmand, veteran songwriter-instrumentalist-arranger Aaron Flanders on guitar and banjo, and Portuguese-born keyboardist-arranger Miguel Sá Pessoa. Also featured on the album are Fernando Huergo on 5-string electric bass, Luis Barros on drums and percussion, and Dan Fox on upright bass.

The album features textured folk-pop melodies, giving the album an overall lightness to the music, even as the lyrics are not always light. For example, “Song for Rose,” a guitar-strummed ballad, is rather sad and “Only in the Soul” says “real magic might kill you.” In “On the Burning Bridge,” the singer wants to start over as a stranger as he is feeling neglected. Overall, the album could use a little more musical bite.

The soft opener, “Diamonds,” is a guitar-driven ballad, while standout “Heavy and Young” is nice folk-pop with some banjo. The layered vocals – all by Skovmand – make “Murder on the Mountain” a bit bolder, and “Oh Me, Oh My” has more force to the drums. There also are harmony vocals on “Waiting For You,” but it says “hell is a place you can find anywhere.”

Their songwriting process was a bit unusual, but perfect for these days of a global pandemic.

“Kris and Miguel share a studio in Lisbon,” said Flanders, who is based in Boston, in a press release. “I would send my guitar parts over to their studio. They would work on it at that point. Kris would write all the lyrics. Amazingly enough, once I sent the guitar parts over there, Kris would always do these songs in one session of three or four hours. He would come up with all the lyrics and, in a good number of cases, all the melody. Once the initial rough version was down, we might play with it a little. But sometimes we didn’t have to, depending on the song.”

Flanders, born in Highland Park, Ill., studied at Boston’s prestigious Berklee College of Music, where he met Sá Pessoa, who was born and raised in Lisbon, Portugal, surrounded by a family of classical musicians. Studying at the Lisbon Conservatory as a classical piano student, Sá Pessoa’s musical interests soon shifted to jazz and he earned a full scholarship to Berklee College. While both of them were living in Boston, Flanders and Sá Pessoa worked together on a variety of projects, including designing all the music for Symphony in B., an award-winning interactive musical toy for young children for the Battat Toy Company of Montreal. Sá Pessoa also worked as a producer, arranger and engineer with several highly successful pop musicians in the Boston area, before moving back to Portugal and opening a recording studio in Lisbon. Skovmand, also a filmmaker, was born to a Danish father and American mother and grew up in Denmark, married a native of Lisbon and met Sá Pessoa when he moved into his studio. Skovmand and Flanders met when Flanders was marketing songs on the music platform, Taxi, and Skovmand sang on songs Flanders had written. Grade: B

Fairport Convention: Fame and Glory (Explore Rights Management, CD). This CD collects songs and tunes that represent some of the recorded highlights from a decade of Fairport’s contributions to the work of visionary Breton composer Alan Simon, from 1998’s gold disc-winning “Excalibur la legend des Celtes” song cycle through 2012’s “Excalibur III the Origins.” In all, there are tracks from six albums, including four from the live “Excalibur le Concert Mythique.” The closing “Goodbye My Friends” is previously unreleased.

This lineup of Fairport Convention includes Gerry Conway on drums and percussion (with Dave Mattacks on “Castle Rock”), Dave Pegg on bass, mandolin and backing vocals, Simon Nicol on lead vocals and guitars, Ric Sanders on violin and Chris Leslie on lead vocals, bouzouki, mandolin and violin. Guests include Martin Barre on electric guitar on four tracks, John Helliwell on saxophone and clarinet on four tracks, Alan Simon on bass and backing vocals on four tracks, and James Wood on acoustic guitar on seven tracks. Guest lead vocalists include John Wetton on “Lugh,” Jacqui McShee on live “Morgane” and studio “Sacrifice,” and James Wood on “Marie la Cordeliere.”

“Castle Rock” is a propulsive instrumental, while “Pilgrims” is about the isle of Avalon as “a land of promise.” There is a bit Scottish flavor to the folksy instrumental “Celtic Dream,” which again is propulsive. “The Gest of Gauvain” mentions a dragon and has massed vocals. Other highlights are “Sacrifice,” featuring McShee, the live “Behind the Darkness,” the majestic “Duchess Anne,” about saving Britain from France, and the very melodic “Goodbye My Friends.” “Mariela Cordeliere,” with its jaunty melody, is a song of warships. The CD comes with a booklet of the lyrics. Grade: A

Chuck Berry: The Original King of Rock ‘n’ Roll (2018, MVD Visual, Blu-ray, NR, 97 min.). Produced and directed by Jon Brewer (“BB King: The Life of Riley,” “Nat King Cole: Afraid of the Dark”), this is an officially authorized biography of the great musician’s life, sanctioned by Berry’s family and featuring an extensive interview with Themetta Berry, his wife of 69 years. Three of his four children are interviewed, as well as two of his grandsons.

A large number of musicians talk about Berry’s impact and/or their own interactions with him, including Steve Van Zandt, Nils Lofgren, Joe Perry, Jerry Lew Lewis, Gene Simmons, Johnny Rivers, Joe Bonamassa, George Thorogood, Nile Rodgers, Johnny Johnson, Gary Clark Jr. and Alice Cooper among them. Marshall Chess, sone of the founder of Chess Records in Chicago, for whom Berry recorded, is interviewed extensively too.

While at less bits of much of Berry’s music is heard in the film, the actual footage of Berry performing is very limited, which is a shame. We do get to see him performing “Maybelline,” his first big hit, as well as “You Can’t Catch Me,” “Johnny B. Goode” and “Too Much Monkey Business.” There are short bits of him performing with Keith Richards, as well as singers Etta James and Julian Lennon. The film emphasizes how great a lyric writer and song storyteller Berry was. It also rightfully points out how his music, one the radio and in dance halls, helped erase the lines between black and white teenagers in the 1950s, when teenagers were first able to drive around and listen to various radio stations in their cars.

The film does not shy from Berry’s run-ins with the law – some justified and some more due to the color of his skin. Two of these scraps are among the six portions of the film done “Sin City” style; that is, black-and-white with one spot color, usually red, but also blue once and pi9nk another time.

The bonus feature is expanded interviews. There are 13 and include Cooper (17:57), Charles Berry Jr. (6:33), Simmons (5:09), Thorogood (4:30), Ingrid Berry (10:04), Jimmy Marsala (4:29), Bonamassa (7:29), Perry (8:14), Rodgers (5:25), Lofgren (13:26), Van Zandt (6:05) and Rivers (4:14). Grade B+

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