Three More Fine Albums From 2002

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Johnny Cash - At Madison Square Garden

The good folks at Columbia Records have deemed 2002 to be "The Year of Johnny Cash." In celebration of this auspicious annum they have been releasing re-mastered versions of his entire back catalog. By and large this flood of old recordings has done little to improve Cash's reputation for uneven studio work. Just because throwaway sessions such as "Johnny Cash Sings Ballads of the True West" and "Silver" sound better, doesn't improve them musically. But among these old recordings, many of which would be better left unrediscovered, appears a gem - Johnny Cash At Madison Square Garden. At last, on one recording, we can hear for ourselves why Johnny Cash is indeed a national treasure.

What makes Johnny Cash At Madison Square Garden so much better than most of his other recorded output? It captures what Johnny Cash does best - play music live in a direct unadorned manner. No extra string parts, layered mixes, trendy arrangements, or added sweetening dilutes his music on Johnny Cash At Madison Square Garden. Instead we have twenty-five songs delivered fresh, hot, and steaming from the Man himself. It doesn't hurt that his regular touring band is populated by the likes of W.S. Holland on drums, Bob Wooten and Carl Perkins on electric guitars, and the Statler brothers and Carter family on background vocals. Not only is his band made up of seasoned pros, but also they have played with Cash for many years. The results can be heard in this live set, taken from just one night. His ensemble has a loose tightness that only comes from playing countless dates on the road together. They know what Johnny will do next, often times seemingly before he does himself.

The format for this concert is a cross between a slick musical review and an old-fashioned song-pull, where singers just do whatever catches their fancy. Beginning with "Big River" Cash works his way through "Five Feet High and Rising", "I Still Miss Someone", "Long Black Veil", "Folsom River Blues", "A Boy Named Sue" "Cocaine Blues", "Ballad of Ira Hayes", and "Were You There When They Crucified my Lord." During the show Cash gives his sidemen a chance to shine as well. Carl Perkins does a cameo spot on "Blue Suede Shoes," the Statler brothers perform "Flowers on the Wall," and Mother Maybell Carter sings her classic  "Wildwood Flower." 

For folks, especially younger folks, who have made an effort to get into Johnny Cash and come away wondering why people think he is so great, Johnny Cash At Madison Square Garden goes a long way toward showing why he's special. If you want only one Johnny Cash recording, this is the one to own.

 

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Old and in the Gray - Old and in the Gray

17 years ago Jerry Garcia, David Grisman, Peter Rowan, Vassar Clements, and John Kahn released the first and only Old and In The Way LP. Although it didn't make a huge splash initially, its impact grew exponentially through the years. Few albums have been as influential in introducing impressionable young listeners to the joys of traditional acoustic music. After far too long a time-span the remaining original contributors finally released a second helping called, appropriately enough, Old and in the Gray. Joined by Bryn Bright replacing the late John Kahn on bass and Herb Pederson filling in for Jerry Garcia, this new amalgam's music has that same joyous spark as the original.

Old and in the Gray isn't bluegrass exactly, more like folk-grass or olde-timey-grass. Less traditional material like John Hartford's "Good Old Boys," Townes Van Zandt's "Poncho and Lefty," and Jagger/Richard's "Honky Tonk Woman," join bluegrass standards Carter Stanley's "The Flood," Ira Louvin's "Childish Love," and Bill Monroe's "On The Old Kentucky Shore," to form an eclectic song mix. Compared to bands like Ricky Skagg's Kentucky Thunder or Del McCoury's boys, Old and in the Gray sound sort of raggedy-ass. Instead of the lock-step almost Prussian precision of many modern bluegrass bands Old and in the Gray are looser than a dishrag. Harmonies, especially the baritone parts, have a certain elusive vagueness to their pitch. Even Peter Rowan's lead vocals often slide around notes like a monkey on a well-greased pole. But Old and in the Gray's looseness is endearing. These folks don't have to prove anything - they just want to have fun.

If you haven't heard any Acoustic Disk recordings you might be surprised by how wonderful this disc sounds. Those of us with more than a few Acoustic Disk releases on our shelves are used to their characteristically superlative sound. Clarity and warmth abound, along with perfect balance between instruments and vocals. Old and in the Gray combines loose light-hearted performances with first-rate sound.

 

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Bob Dylan - "The Bootleg Series" - Vol. 5

Bob Dylan Live 1975: The Rolling Thunder Review

Bob Dylan. Easily the most influential single musician of the second half of the twentieth century, his name alone conjures up a mélange of images. Dylan has never confined himself to one kind of music. At various times he has appeared as a finger-picking folk purist, protest-song singer, rock innovator, roots spelunker, and country crooner. Throughout his career Dylan has worn his mantle of inscrutability with a single-mindedness that at times bordered on downright curmudgeondom. His ability to change from one thing to another often left his fans wondering which Bob they were going to get - the "good" Bob, or the "bad" Bob. Depending on their own personal tastes, one person's good Bob IS another person's bad Bob. On "The Bootleg Series" - Vol. 5 we get a little bit of all the Bobs. Lucky us.

In 1975 Bob Dylan came up with the idea of putting together a touring group, not just a band, but also an entire musical revue. Instead of a headliner supported by a couple of opening acts as was the norm, Dylan wanted a troupe of musicians, a changing cast of characters, capable of entertaining an audience for an entire evening. In retrospect, his recruiting methods were not all that strange - assemble a group of musicians and see if they could make music together. But at the time his methods seemed like madness, picking musicians seemingly at random, but after a few false starts, the final result produced a remarkable band named "The Rolling Thunder Review." Personnel for "Rolling Thunder" included Joan Baez on vocal and guitar, Bobby Neuwirth on vocal and guitar, Scarlet Rivera on violin, T. Bone Burnet on guitar, Roger McGuinn on vocal and guitar, Steve Soles on vocal and guitar, Mick Ronson on guitar, David Mansfield on steel guitar, mandolin, violin, and dobro, Rob Stoner on bass, Howie Wyeth on piano and drums, Luthar Rix on drums, percussion and congas, and Ronee Blakely on vocals. Besides the musicians the revue included Alan Ginsburg and Peter Orlovsky, sound and lighting technicians, fifteen members of a film crew (their footage became "Renaldo and Clara"), and assorted friends and guests. The entire entourage added up to 70 people. Imagine a very hip, very wigged-out Grand Ol' Opry.

Of the 22 different songs on the two CDs, not a single selection lets you down. From early material like "A Hard Rain is Going To Fall" and "Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" right up through "Isis" and "Tangled up in Blue," the performances and arrangements are still fresh and exciting. My personal favorites are "Just Like a Woman" and "The Water Is Wide" which feature Joan Baez' soaring soprano harmonies. 

Although may fans taped the shows surreptitiously, and bootleg tapes have been circulating among hardcore Dylan fans for years, Legacy chose to use only material recorded by the official sound truck, who taped the revue's shows in Worcester, Cambridge, and Boston, Massachusetts, and Montreal, Canada. While some cognoscenti will argue that these are not the best performances from the tour, they are the only recordings where the audio quality is at least equal to the level of the performances. Producers Jeff Rosen and Steve Berkowitz did a fine job with the song selections as well as the seamless way the songs flow from one to another.

With the sheer number of Bob Dylan albums available, any new release must offer something special and compelling to warrant its purchase. It's gotten to the point that Bob Dylan is competing against himself. Even with the stiff competition, "The Bootleg Series" - Vol. 5 demands to be heard and owned. "The Bootleg Series" Vol. 5 certainly equals any previously released live Dylan album in the quality of the sound and the performances. For those who consider themselves a Dylan fan, this CD is a must-have.    

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