Highway 61 Revisited at 50: we never engaged in this kind of thing before

<em>Highway 61 Revisited</em> at 50: we never engaged in this kind of thing before

Unlike Bruce Springsteen, I can recall no revelatory experience on first hearing ‘Like a Rolling Stone’. Indeed I cannot recollect the first occasion when I first heard the song – or any other track from Highway 61 Revisited, the album with which it opens. I can, however, relive the exact moment when I first heard ‘Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’ off Dylan’s next album. Such are the vagaries of memory. Continue reading Highway 61 Revisited at 50: we never engaged in this kind of thing before”

Sunshine Daydream: The Grateful Dead 50 years on

Sunshine Daydream: The Grateful Dead 50 years on

Hard to believe, but this year it will be half a century since Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, Ron McKernan, Phil Lesh and Bill Kreutzmann agreed that the Grateful Dead would be a cool name for the band in which they had been playing together for several months.

For a man in his sixties, I’ve spent a disproportionate amount of time listening to the Dead this past month -all because I laid out some bread in order to own Sunshine Daydream, the glorious box set that documents – across three CDs and one DVD – a show from the summer of 1972 that has long been regarded by aficionados as the greatest Grateful Dead live performance of all time.

Grateful Dead Veneta
The Grateful Dead at Veneta, Oregon in 1972: a sunshine daydream

As the psychedelic revolution began to sweep the San Francisco scene in 1964, guitarist Jerry Garcia met drummer Bill Kreutzman while buying a banjo at a local music store. The two got along, and Garcia began working at the store selling instruments and teaching guitar lessons. One of Garcia’s students was a 16 year old named Bob Weir. They got along, and early in 1965 Garcia, Weir and Kreutzman formed Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions.

The band soon added Ron McKernan, better known as Pigpen, to sing blues songs. Son of an r&b dee-jay, McKernan was a fifteen year old harmonica player who skipped school and enjoyed the odd bottle of wine. Pigpen convinced the other band members to go electric, and so they became the Warlocks.

The Warlocks needed a bass player and music student Phil Lesh who had a leaning toward jazz and avant-garde electronic music was chosen for the part. By the autumn of 1965 the Warlocks were performing as the house band for LSD-fuelled multimedia shows hosted by Ken Kesey that came to be known as the Acid Tests.

The Warlocks become the Grateful Dead, December 10, 1965
The Warlocks become the Grateful Dead: 10 December 1965

There was another piece of the jigsaw, without which the Dead would not have been what they became. Another firm friend of Garcia’s was Robert Hunter. In their mid-teens they had started a folk duo, imaginatively calling themselves Bob and Jerry, before a brief intermission during which Hunter left the planet while being covertly paid (along with Ken Kesey) by the CIA to ingest sizeable quantities of LSD, psilocybin, and mescaline and report on his experiences in a research project at Stanford University.

Returning to planet earth, Hunter became the chief lyricist for the Grateful Dead, writing the majority of the band’s original songs in collaboration with Garcia who composed the music. So important was Hunter that Garcia once described him as ‘the band member who doesn’t come out on stage with us’.

The first lyric Hunter wrote for the Grateful Dead was composed while on LSD – a song that would later become a staple of their live shows, ‘China Cat Sunflower’. (Hunter later swore that ‘A cat dictated ‘China Cat Sunflower’ to me. It was just sittin’ on my stomach, purring away, and sayin’ this stuff. I just wrote it down. I guess it’s plagiarism’.) ‘Dark Star’ was was the first lyric he wrote with the band as they improvised an early version of that long strange trip in the studio. Under the influence of its Phil Lesh-directed psychedelic improvisation, Hunter produced one of the archetypal lyrics of the psychedelic era:

Dark star crashes
pouring its light
into ashes.
Reason tatters
the forces tear loose
from the axis …

Shall we go,
you and I
While we can?
the transitive nightfall
of diamonds.

By 1966 the band members lived in a communal house situated on Ashbury Street in San Francisco, and were a fixture on the local music scene, renowned for their free concerts. By 1967 and the Summer of Love, the Dead had emerged as one of the top bands on the West Coast music scene, and had released their first  album, a disappointing effort which failed to recapture the cosmic sprawl of their live appearances.

The Grateful Dead: The Golden Road live (Whicker’s World 1967)

The follow-up, 1968’s Anthem of the Sun, captured something of the free-form jam aesthetic of their concerts, but after completing 1969’s Aoxomoxoa, the band were over 100,000 dollars in debt to the record company. Their response was to release their first live album, Live/Dead, whose highlight was a 23 minute version of ‘Dark Star’ that occupied the whole side of one LP.  This was the Dead in all of their improvisational psychedelic glory, the first Grateful Dead LP I heard. For me, though, it had nothing like the impact of what was to come.

What followed in 1970 was a pair of classic studio LPs, Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty, albums that I have never stopped listening to. Followed by two incomparable live albums – the 1971 eponymous double known from its cover art as Skulls and Roses, and the triple-LP Europe ’72, a record of what are generally considered to be among their career-best live performances on their European tour that year.

‘A box of rain will ease the pain and love will see you through ..’  
These four LPs revealed the Dead returning to their country, blues, bluegrass and folk roots, plus their jazz-like improvisational skill when playing live, an intuitive skill honed during those long psychedelic jams of the sixties. This was the moment when I fell in love with their playing – and with the songs of Robert Hunter. Gorgeous songs, such as ‘Uncle John’s Band’, ‘Ripple’, ‘Sugar Magnolia’, ‘Casey Jones’, ‘Box of Rain’, ‘Bertha’, ‘Playing in the Band’, and ‘Truckin’, with its iconic line, ‘What a long, strange trip it’s been’.

But the meaning of the Grateful Dead is about more than music.  More than any other band that emerged from the hippie era, they represented the counter-culture ideals of that period – the laid-back dream of drugs, free love and communal living that rejected consumerism and materialism, and instead favoured an alternative lifestyle of self-determination and self-sufficiency. A clear example is the way that the Grateful Dead have always allowed their fans to record and share tapes of their shows, as long as no profits were made on the sale. Sometimes the sound crew would allow tapers to connect directly to the soundboard, resulting in some exceptional concert recordings. Astonishingly, of around 2,350 shows the Grateful Dead played, almost 2,200 were taped, and most of these are freely available online at archive.org.

Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir in 'Sunshine Daydream'
Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir in ‘Sunshine Daydream’

Which brings me to Sunshine Daydream. Released by Rhino Records in September 2013, it’s an audio and video documentation of a concert long regarded by fans as a near-perfect Grateful Dead concert which took place on 27 August 1972 at Veneta in Oregon, a benefit for their old friend Ken Kesey. The author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, founder of the Merry Pranksters and instigator of the Acid Tests at which the Dead had played their first psychedelic epics in San Francisco, had served time for drug offences before retreating to the family farm in Oregon, where the Kesey family operated a creamery.

In 1972, the company was struggling, despite being the first American company to make yoghurt (their brand of Nancy’s Yoghurt was trucked to the San Francisco Bay Area by musician Huey Lewis). Kesey asked his friends in the Grateful Dead if they would play a benefit concert. Hand-drawn posters advertised the event for $3 in advance or $3.50 at the gate. The creamery turned Nancy’s Honey Yogurt labels into concert tickets. On 27 August, more than 20,000 came to hear the Dead on a sweltering afternoon when the temperature soared to 100 degrees. The creamery made around $13,000, enough to stay in business.

'Sunshine Daydream' a sweltring afternoon
‘Sunshine Daydream’: a sweltering afternoon

Bootlegs of the audio have circulated for years, but the concert was never officially released because the band’s intention was that the film shot that day should be included in the package.  Copyright issues – finally resolved in 2013 – held things up. But what we have now is a delicious treasure – perhaps the finest evocation of a counter-cultural gathering of the hippie era (even including a guy who spends the entire concert head-banging naked atop a pole). As Prankster Ken Babbs memorably expresses it in the sleeve notes:

It’s a time capsule, a vessel full of exuberant free spirit as exhibited by the enraptured, edified, and satisfied concert-goers, a spirit that can still resound, that can still fill our hearts with joy, with compassion, with that sense and knowledge of our oneness, our open sharing and caring and the belief that the goodness inherent in all of us will continue to shine just as it did in Veneta, Oregon, in 1972. And will prevail.

The complete concert is presented on three CDs, while the film made by John Norris, Phil DeGuere, and Sam Field has been digitally remastered and re-edited on the accompanying DVD.

‘China Cat Sunflower’ from Sunshine Daydream

The film weaves into the concert footage brief glimpses from the days of the Merry Pranksters, including a shot from the famous cross-country bus trip in 1964 with Neal Cassady at the wheel.  Also on the bus was Ken Babbs, Ken Kesey’s long-time friend since their meeting in a Stanford writing class in 1958. Over the years, Babbs was Kesey’s closest associate until Kesey’s death in 2001. Babbs was the compère at Veneta – heard memorably at the microphone, on CD and DVD, announcing measures to bring cooling water to the dehydrating masses, and issuing alerts of kids who have wandered into the lost children compound.

In a recent interview here, Ken Babbs expressed the opinion that:

We’re finding a resurgence of that spirit now; more and more people are realizing – as they did in those days – that the search for the ‘American Dream’ does not go through the materialistic, acquire-as-much-as-you-can world, but through returning to the natural world through health and spirit and body and community. More and more people are finding that out; more and more people are being forced to as they’re losing their jobs and their homes – and they’re seeking another way … and when they do, they’re finding a better way.

Few things have given me more pleasure recently than listening to this concert and watching the DVD.  As Nigel Williamson writing in the Guardian in September 2013 observed:

What is most striking about the recording from that sun-kissed day is the fluidity with which the Dead absorbed and transmuted every genre of vernacular American music, from blues, folk and gospel to country, R&B and rockabilly, and fed them into some of the most audacious, free-wheeling rock’n’roll ever made – past and future, outlaw spirit and hippy idealism fused into a soundtrack for a brave new frontier that birthed an alternative sub-culture which survives to this day.

An epic psychedelic jam around ‘Dark Star’ full of vaulting, free-form improvisation mutates alchemically into a loping take on Marty Robbins’ cowboy ballad ‘El Paso’. Merle Haggard’s country weepie Sing Me Back Home, delivered hauntingly in Garcia’s reedy but expressive voice, gives way to the Dead’s surging, feelgood acid anthem ‘Sugar Magnolia’, with its irresistible sunshine daydream refrain. Throw in the loose-limbed rhapsody of Chuck Berry’s ‘Promised Land’, the psyched-up folk-blues racination of ‘I Know You Rider’ and the group’s own storied, myth-making compositions such as ‘Truckin”, ‘Casey Jones’ and ‘Playing in the Band’ and you have cosmic American music at its most potent and joyous.

As for me, I won’t forget the shot of the little kid sitting there eating an ice cream: a dog appears and starts licking his ice cream while the band play ‘Jack Straw’: ‘We can share what we got of yours ‘cause we done shared all of mine’ – perfect.

‘Jack Straw’ from Sunshine Daydream

Sunshine daydream
Walk you in the tall trees
Going where the wind goes
Blooming like a red rose
Breathing more freely
Ride out singing
I’ll walk you in the morning sunshine
Sunshine daydream
Walk you in the sunshine

See also

Neil Young and Crazy Horse at Liverpool Arena: age cannot wither them

Neil Young and Crazy Horse at Liverpool Arena: age cannot wither them

Neil Young and Crazy Horse performing at  Arena

Grizzled and jowled beneath the trademark black fedora and wearing a baggy t-shirt emblazoned with ‘EARTH’, last night at Liverpool Arena Neil Young was on a mission.  To save the world, no less.

Young came on stage at around 8:45 with Crazy Horse – here comprising long-time collaborator in epic noise Frank ‘Poncho’ Sampedro (white-haired, tubby, wearing even baggier t-shirt) on guitar and keyboards and Ralph Molina on drums, with Rick Rosas on bass (standing in for Billy Talbot who recently suffered a stroke).  To the rear of the stage, were Dorene Carter and YaDonna West whose backing vocals burnished the band’s fearsomely physical interpretations of numbers from the back catalogue, plus some surprises.

They  began with ‘Love And Only Love’ from one of my favourite Young albums, 1990’s Ragged Glory. ‘Love and only love will endure’, Neil insisted. Two more songs from the same album, ‘Days That Used To Be’ and ‘Love To Burn’ seemed to reinforce the message:

People say don’t rock the boat,
let things go their own way
Ideas that once seem so right,
now have gotten hard to say

A theme was emerging, with Neil insisting that though we may be ‘just another hundred thousand miles away/From days that used to be’, the old values of sixties protest are still valid.  It’s not that simple, of course.  Outside the Arena we had had to pass the flags and banners of the Friends of Palestine protest against the Israeli assault on Gaza and Neil’s planned appearance in Tel Aviv (a concert now called off due to the security situation).  Young been under pressure to abandon the gig by the increasingly influential boycotts, divestment and sanctions movement. Pink Floyd guitarist Roger Waters had joined the pressure with an open letter to Young asking him to cancel the show – something which the otherwise politically-engaged, though often wayward artist had resisted.

It’s a debatable issue, but I wonder whether we are approaching a tipping point where artists will consider it as morally repugnant to perform in Israel as it once was  to appear in South Africa during apartheid.

However.  Young once said: ‘As I get older, I get smaller. I see other parts of the world I didn’t see before. Other points of view. I see outside myself more’. He has  been associated with many causes, particularly environmental issues and the rights of indigenous peoples. He campaigns against fracking and has toured Canada in support of  the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation and its fight against oil companies determined to exploit the tar sands of northern Alberta.

It’s all marketing. It’s all big money. This oil is all going to China. It’s not for Canada. It’s not for the United States. It’s not ours – it belongs to the oil companies, and Canada’s government is behind making this happen. It’s truly a disaster.

Neil Young and Crazy Horse performing at  Arena Picture Liverpool Echo 2 Neil Young and Crazy Horse performing at  Arena Picture Liverpool Echo

Neil Young and Crazy Horse at  the Arena (photos: Liverpool Echo)

So, three songs into the Liverpool set, we get ‘After the Goldrush’, his dream vision of environmental disaster from 1970 that seems more chilling as the years pass (and as Neil updates the signature line which now goes: ‘Look at mother nature on the run in the 21st century’).  Introducing his acoustic take on Dylan’s ‘Blowing in the Wind’ (‘a song that never ages’), Young observed that ‘this world is full of damage’.  It’s a song that he memorably reinterpreted on Weld in 1991 at the time of the Gulf War. Then it was drenched in angry, Jimi Hendrix-style electric guitar; tonight he returns to its original incarnation:

How many years can a mountain exist
Before it is washed to the sea?
How many years can some people exist
Before they’re allowed to be free?
How many times can a man turn his head
And pretend that he just doesn’t see?

Questions that remain unanswered.  Which is why it’s important that song continues to be sung.

As far as Neil was concerned, all this was leading to his new song, ‘Who’s gonna stand up and save the earth?’, unveiled as one of the two encores.  It’s a magnificent addition to the Young canon, a new ‘Ohio’.  Like so many of Young’s songs, it states its position simply, even it might be said, simplistically.  But what a shot of adrenaline it gives.  It is magnificent, a powerful assertion of environmental values, challenging the policies of  governments and multinationals:

Protect the wild
Tomorrow’s child
Protect the land, free the man.
Take out the dams
Stand up to oil
Protect the plants
Renew the soil.
Who’s gonna stand up and save the earth?
Who’s gonna say that she’s had enough.
Who’s gonna take on the big machine?
Who’s gonna stand up and save the earth?

The set, which lasted just over two hours, also featured more recent  and some obscure material. ‘Separate Ways’ is a song from an unreleased 1970s album Homegrown, while ‘Barstool Blues’ comes from from Zuma in the same period. Every now and again, Neil would wander over to the side of the stage to whisper in the ear of a tall wooden Indian that stood there, reminding me of Hank Williams’ ‘Kaw-Liga’ who ‘just stood there and never let it show’.  Then there was ‘Goin’ Home’ from 2002’s Are You Passionate? and the title track from 2012’s Psychedelic Pill.  The latter was illuminated in a timely way by one of those rotating light shows that were ubiquitous in the sixties in those places where you went ‘looking for a good time’.

Neil Young and Crazy Horse performing at  Arena 2

Light show recreation during ‘Psychedelic Pill’

For me, these were the least engaging moments in a great concert. There were many highlights, though.  The short acoustic interval in which Neil covered Dylan’s ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ and only had to strum the first two chords of ‘Heart Of Gold’ to be met with a roar of approval, was a high point, as was the finale – the great, ironic (and often misunderstood) anthem, ‘Rockin’ In The Free World’.

The band  returned to the stage for two encores – the first of them was the new song ‘Who’s Gonna Stand Up And Save The Earth?’,  an environmental battle cry that comes from the same place as ‘Mother Earth’ two decades ago.  But while that took the form of a soaring hymn to gaia, this one is a pounding cry to arms, full of rage against the money men and the corporations exploiting the earth.  It’s got the same elemental feel as ‘Rockin’ in the Free World’, and could be a hit single (if there is still such thing). That was followed by a spectacular rendition of ‘Hurricane’ which culminated in a ferocious storm of  electric noise – splintering mountains of bass rumble and feedback.

You are just a dreamer, and I am just a dream.
That perfect feeling when time just slips

Tectonic plates ground the world to smithereens as Sampredo manipulated a floating keyboard with great ferocity, Neil shredded every single string on his guitar, as he left the last lines shimmering and echoing around the arena:

I’m gettin’ blown away
To somewhere safer where the feeling stays.
I want to love you but I’m getting blown away.

It’s nearly 40 years since I last saw Young – at Wembley in 1974. I can’t honestly recall much about that, apart from the sense of a long autumn day in bright sunshine and fragments of Joni Mitchell’s set, though I have written about it in this post.  That astonishing event (The Band, Joni Mitchell with Tom Scott’s LA Express, plus four hours of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young on one bill) came at the end of CSN&Y’s legendary 1974 tour.  This week I listened to the newly-released collection of recordings from that tour (including some from the Wembley gig), curated by Graham Nash.  On the whole, it’s Neil’s contributions which stand out, surviving the test of time.

It’s also 40 years since the release of On the Beach, an album I’ve always appreciated, even though it was panned when it first came out, its bleakness too much of a contrast to its predecessor, Harvest.  The blog Johanna’s Visions has an excellent round-up of facts and opinions on the album: July 16: 40 year anniversary for On The Beach by Neil Young.

Now, nearly half a century later and a pensioner myself, I had spent an evening watching four grizzled pensioners deliver a performance of high-octane intensity.  Young, the godfather of grunge, had confirmed that his star still burns brightly. With the extended solos of wailing, distorted guitar, the strong riffs and heavy drumming, Young, Sampredo and Molina demonstrated that age cannot wither them.

As we streamed out onto the Liverpool waterfront a huge full moon hung in a cloudless sky: harvest moon (almost).


Love and Only Love
Goin’ Home
Days That Used to Be
After the Gold Rush
Love to Burn
Separate Ways
Don’t Cry No Tears
Blowin’ in the Wind (acoustic)
Heart of Gold (acoustic)
Barstool Blues
Psychedelic Pill
Rockin’ in the Free World

Who’s Gonna Stand Up and Save the Earth
Like A Hurricane

See also

Mike Scott’s raggle taggle gypsies reunited at the Liverpool Phil

Mike Scott’s raggle taggle gypsies reunited at the Liverpool Phil

Waterboys Liverpool

I wish I was a fisherman
Tumbling on the seas
Far away from dry land
And its bitter memories
Casting out my sweet line
With abandonment and love
No ceiling bearing down on me
Save the starry sky above
With light in my head
You in my arms …

Even now, a quarter of a century after I first heard these words, sung with passion by Mike Scott and with Steve Wickham’s fiddle sweeping and soaring around his voice like waves on the sea, I still get shivers down my spine. The passion and wide-screen romanticism of Fisherman’s Blues make it one of my all-time favourite songs and albums.  So I was in raptures a couple of months ago when I learnt that Mike Scott, after sifting through hours of session tapes, was releasing to the world a mammoth six-disc box set featuring 121 tracks from the Fisherman’s Blues sessions, 85 of which had been previously unavailable.  Even more electrifying was the news that he had reunited the legendary Fisherman’s Blues band to tour a show featuring highlights from the Fisherman’s Box – and that the British leg of the tour would open at Liverpool’s Philharmonic Hall.

Fisherman’s Blues first TV performance: Channel 4’s The Tube

Speaking of the Fisherman’s Blues sessions, Mike Scott has asserted that ‘music isn’t worth the air it occupies if it doesn’t change both its makers and its listeners’.  Despite being out of tune with a music scene in thrall to raves, ecstasy and sampling, Fisherman’s Blues would turn out to be the biggest selling Waterboys album, and you only have to attend a Waterboys concert to understand how much it means to those who have taken its songs to their hearts.

1984 First Waterboys show

1984: the first Waterboys show

As Dave Simpson put in a Guardian feature last Friday, ‘At the end of 1985, Mike Scott had the world at his feet. His band of three years, the Waterboys, had just entered the charts with The Whole of the Moon, a song that would become his signature anthem. … Had Scott been a different, more compromising character, he would perhaps have followed [U2 and Simple Minds] into stadium-filling rock. However, the impassioned singer-songwriter wasn’t having any of it’.  During Sunday’s concert at Liverpool’s Philharmonic Hall, Mike Scott explained how he ‘had got bored with rock, hating the sound of synthesisers and snare drum drenched in echo’.

1986 Mike backstage

Mike Scott backstage in 1986

As a result of Scott’s distaste for the scene, the Waterboys disappeared off the radar for two years. Moving first to Dublin and then the west coast of Ireland, Scott went in search of ‘something older, more real and more rooted’, regrouping the band around fiddle and mandolin and pursuing deep explorations of Irish music and all points west: , the country blues of Hank Williams, soul, gospel, jump blues – anything that was earthy and real.

In recording sessions that took place over two years, ranging from Dublin in early 1986 to San Francisco, and then Dublin again the following spring and summer, Scott and his raggle taggle gypsies recorded nearly 100 songs, sometimes in several different versions. From all of those sessions the final version of Fisherman’s Blues was assembled and released in October of 1988. As Scott put it in an interview, ‘We started recording our fourth album in early ’86 and completed it 100 songs and 2 years later’.

In another recent interview, Scott was asked whether he felt like a pioneer at the time:

When we were blending rock with folk influences, we weren’t the first ones to be doing it… You could date it back to folk rock, when the folk boom music, the protest music, met the beat boom and you had people like The Byrds and the Turtles coming out. In Britain, we had Fairport Convention and bands like that in the late 60s and early 70s. And so it wasn’t even new when the Waterboys were doing it. I always think that the Pogues and the Waterboys were the two bands at that time, in the late 80s, that took the trad Celtic music and merged it with rock. […] And rediscovering isn’t enough. There has to be something original brought to it. Certainly Fairport Convention did that and the Pogues did that and I believe the Waterboys did that with Fisherman’s Blues. We did certain blendings of folk and rock music that hadn’t been done. We did more of that on our follow-up album, Room to Roam.

Waterboys Spiddal House

A re-creation of the cover photo of ‘Fisherman’s Blues’, shot two years later during sessions for the follow-up, ‘Room to Roam’, at the same location, Spiddal House in County Galway.  Back row, L-R: Colin Blakey (flute, pipes), Diarmuid O’Sullivan (guest vocalist), Barry Beckett (producer), Seamus & Eileen Begley (guest vocalists), Trevor Hutchinson (bass), John Dunford & Jimmy Hickey (crew). Front, L-R: Anto Thistlethwaite (sax), Sharon Shannon (accordion), Mike Scott (guitar/vocals), Noel Bridgeman (drums) & Steve Wickham (fiddle).

In 2013, some 25 years after the conclusion of the recording marathon that produced Fisherman’s Blues, Mike Scott assembled a 6-CD compilation from the archive of session recordings, chronologically charting the progress of the band – gathering  discarded songs (many of them as much classics as those that made it onto the original album) and the varied  attempts at songs as Scott sought the sound he wanted. In his memoir, Adventures of Waterboy, published in June, Scott explained the purpose behind his task:

The twelve songs, six from Spiddal and six from Windmill Lane, told only a fraction of the story not just of the music we’d made but of all that had happened since I’d come to Ireland three years earlier. We’d recorded nearly a hundred tracks and twice as many out-takes, probably the largest body of work ever for one album; and the stylistic and personal changes the music documented were as deep and manifold as some bands go through in whole careers. Fisherman’s Blues could and should have been a double or triple album but most of the Dublin recordings, including many of our best moments, would remain unfinished for another decade. Three hundred and seventy four master reels, piled floor to ceiling and wall to wall in a room at Windmill Lane, waited for the day twelve years hence when I’d return to complete the work.

1987 Steve and Anto, Galway by Frank Miller

Steve Wickham and Anto Thistlethwaite, Galway, 1987 (photo by Frank Miller)

Having presented the Fisherman’s Box to the world, Scott then set about re-assembling the original band:

I talked to Steve Wickham [electric fiddle and mandolin] first and he wanted to do it, too. And then I contacted Antony [Thistlethwaite] our old saxophone and mandolin player, and he was up for it. And then I contacted Trevor [Hutchinson], our bass player. Once everyone was in, then I spoke to our agent and he liked the idea, too.

Steve Wickham and Mike Scott on stage at the Phil

Steve Wickham and Mike Scott on stage at the Phil

And so to the Phil. It’s been sold out for weeks, and now the auditorium is electric with anticipation.  On the darkened stage, a figure steps forward into the spotlight, long black coat, floppy hat covering his face as he stoops toward the mike and sings:

We’re sailing on a strange boat
heading for a strange shore …

We’re sailing on a strange sea
blown by a strange wind
We’re sailing on a strange sea
blown by a strange wind
Carrying the strangest crew
that ever sinned …

We’re living in a strange time
working for a strange goal
We’re living in a strange time
working for a strange goal
We’re turning flesh and body
into soul

Another figure strides out, and Steve Wickham’s haunting fiddle takes up the refrain as the rest of the band slide into their positions before a back-projection of the house in Spiddal where several of the Fisherman’s Blues songs were recorded.  With the exception of present Waterboys drummer Ralph Salmins, it’s the old eighties band reunited: Scott and Wickham, with Anthony Thistlethwaite (sax, fiddle and mandolin) and Trevor Hutchinson on bass guitar.

After opening with a couple of tracks from Fisherman’s Blues, Scott and the band paid tribute to John Lennon, as we near the 33rd anniversary of murder, with a blistering account of Cold Turkey.  The set included some of the great covers that peppered the Fisherman’s Blues sessions, including one of the best versions of  Dylan’s ‘Girl from the North Country’ that you’re ever likely to hear and a Celtic-flavoured  rendition of Hank Williams’ ‘I’m so Lonesome I Could Cry’.  Towards the end of the concert the band gave us their tremendous cover of Van Morrison’s ‘Sweet Thing’ with the segue into the Beatles’ ‘Blackbird’ at the close.

There were plenty of reminders, too, that the Fisherman’s Blues sessions ran the gamut of musical styles. ‘Tenderfootin’ was a Scott original, a ‘cautionary tale’ with echoes of jump jive and Robert Parker’s ‘Barefootin”; ‘Blues for Your Baby’ was a sultry, late-night conversation between Scott at the piano and Thistlethwaite blowing on sax; while the band stormed their way through ‘Meet Me At the Station’ a traditional gospel number recorded by Reverend Gary Davis and the Memphis Sanctified Singers – the version that Scott had heard.

Scott introduced ‘Come Live With Me’ with a lengthy anecdote about how he and the band first heard the song.  It was during the period in early 1986 when they had moved to California at the invitation of Bob Johnston, the legendary producer of Dylan (Blonde on Blonde, Nashville Skyline), Johnny Cash (San Quentin) and Simon & Garfunkel, who had called Scott to suggest the band record with him in his home studio in southern California. Down the valley was a small town with ‘the best record shop in the world’. It was there that Thistlethwaite came across the 1974 Ray Charles album Come Live With Me. When they got back to Ireland, the title song ‘just blew our socks off’.  At the time, Scott said, he had ‘just won – and lost a girl’ who had moved to New York.  Scott learned the song – ‘a gorgeous mating call from a man in love with his woman’ – and the band spent a whole night recording it.  Then Scott took the next flight to New York with a cassette tape of the track, found the girl’s apartment in Manhatten and said to her, ‘You gotta listen to this song…’

Come live with me
And won’t you be my love
Share my bread and wine
Be wife to me
Be life to me
Be mine
Oh, come live with me
And be my love
Let our dreams combine

Anto playing in front of the band's beautiful Spiddal House backdrop

Anto Thistlethwaite playing in front of the Spiddal House backdrop

Naturally, the set was crammed, too, with the widescreen epics that emerged from the marriage between Scott’s exalted vision and the insistent, electrified violins of Thistlethwaite and Wickham. There was the fierce urgency of ‘We Will Not Be Lovers’ in which the band dropped out to accentuate the timely lyrics of the last verse:

The world’s full of trouble
Everybody’s scared
Landlords are frowning
Cupboards are bare
People are scrambling
like dogs for a share
It’s cruel and it’s hard
but it’s nothing compared to what we do to each other

There was ‘Higher Bound’, one of the triumphant songs that didn’t make it onto Fisherman’s Blues:

I‘m the song of the river
speeding unceasing to the sea
I’m alive!
I’m in love!
Each and every time
there’s some for me
My head is in the stars
my feet are on the ground
I’m tumbling through the years
Higher bound!

And there were old favourites, iconic Waterboys anthems like ‘A Girl Called Johnny’ and ‘Don’t Bang the Drum’:

Well here we are in a special place
what are you gonna do here?
Now we stand in a special place
what will you do here?
What show of soul are we gonna get from you?
It could be deliverance, or history
under these skies so blue
could be something true,
But if I know you you’ll bang the drum
like monkeys do

Here we are in a fabulous place
What are you gonna dream here?
We are standing in this fabulous place
What are you gonna play here?
I know you love the high life, you love to leap around
You love to beat your chest and make your sound
but not here man – this is sacred ground

The encore featured a stunning performance of the delicate and beautiful ‘Saints and Angels’ –  just such a great song that it’s a puzzle why it wasn’t released on the original album:

It is a wide world we travel
and our paths rarely cross
and we do a whole lot of living in between

So come we’ll share more than time
We’ll put our cares far behind
while we sail the ship that never goes to sea (friendship)

It could be months, and it could be years
until we find one another once more standing here
until then my beautiful friend I have a wish for you

Many hearts to keep you warm
Many guides to speed you through the storm
and may the saints and angels watch over you

A magnificent and memorable show.

Waterboys and Sharon Shannon: Saints and Angels

Mike Scott and Steve Wickham play Waterboys live Fisherman’s Blues Epstein Theatre Liverpool 9th October 2012

The Waterboys Cold Turkey John Lennon Cover live Liverpool Philharmonic Hall 8th Dec 2013


  • Strange Boat
  • When Ye Go Away
  • Cold Turkey
  • Stranger To Me
  • We Will Not Be Lovers
  • Higher Bound
  • Girl Of The North Country
  • I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry
  • Tenderfootin’
  • When Will We Be Married?
  • Blues For Your Baby
  • Come Live With Me
  • A Girl Called Johnny
  • Sweet Thing/Blackbird
  • How Long Will I Love You
  • The Raggle Taggle Gypsy
  • Fisherman’s Blues
  • Don’t Bang the Drum
  • Meet Me At The Station
  • Saints and Angels

See also

Dylan’s Another Self Portrait: why did he throw it all away?

Dylan’s Another Self Portrait: why did he throw it all away?
Dylan in 1971
Dylan in 1971

Well, knock me down with a feather! Dylan produces new album that’s not only melodious and beautifully sung, but revelatory, too, casting new light on a period in his career generally held in low esteem by fans, including myself, and deeply suggestive of something else that might have been.

Plenty has been written in the last week or so about the latest official instalment from Dylan’s unreleased archive, the Bootleg Series (we’re up to volume 10 now), so I won’t recapitulate the whole story here. Suffice it to say that Another Self Portrait (1969-1971) is in some ways the most revelatory of the whole series.

What we have here are alternate and stripped-down versions of songs released on the infamous Self Portrait album and – most spellbinding – songs recorded in the same period but never released – indeed entirely forgotten.  There are two discs, with songs falling roughly into two groups. The first CD mostly comprises songs recorded prior to Self Portrait, and is where you find the real jewels of this set: amidst alternate versions of some of Dylan’s own songs are unreleased versions of traditional songs.  The second CD offers alternate versions of Dylan originals from Self Portrait, New Morning, and Nashville Skyline, plus remastered live recordings from the set performed by Dylan and the Band at the 1969 Isle of Wight Festival.  In many cases, the differences in these versions are striking, and make you wonder what the original Self Portrait might have been.

What it might have been was an anthology of American music – blues, folk, old-timey, country and pop tunes – but it came out all wrong, with songs slathered with syrupy strings overdubs and good stuff discarded in favour of some decidedly dodgy recordings – Dylan duetting with himself on the amateurish version of Simon and Garfunkel’s The Boxer was either a bad joke or a serious loss of judgement.

As much as ordinary mortals can fathom what goes in the mind of Bob Dylan, we know a bit more now about where he was coming from perhaps, having heard a much more spartan version of what this might have been two decades later on the albums Good As I Been To You and World Gone Wrong, and listened to Dylan present his radio show Theme Time Radio on which he celebrated all forms of American music – from jazz and blues, through country and R&B to classic pop of the fifties and sixties.

But back then, at the start of the 70s, was the heyday of the singer-songwriter, and Dylan was regarded as the greatest of them all.  To fill an album with songs written by others was taken as a sign that you had lost your mojo, and were playing a bad joke on your followers. Moreover, Dylan had gained a huge reputation as a protest singer, so we expected any new album to contain lyrics of social criticism.  The worst thing about Nashville Skyline, Self Portrait and New Morning for many of us back then was the overriding tone of domestic bliss and bucolic rapture.  For Christ’s sake, the cities were burning and there was a war going on: was this the best that the voice of a generation could do?

Dylan hillside

Time passes slowly up here in the mountains
We sit beside bridges and walk beside fountains
Catch the wild fishes that float through the stream
Time passes slowly when you’re lost in a dream

That was New Morning, a rapturous collection, apparently rushed out quickly by Dylan to obliterate the stain on his career represented by Self Portrait (notoriously rejected as ‘shit’ by Greil Marcus in his review for Rolling Stone that basically set the seal on the album’s reputation).  The general interpretation of Self Portrait in subsequent decades has been that it represented a deliberate act of career destruction – he just ‘threw it all away’ in order to get the rest of us off his back. But just as easily it could represent just one more example of Dylan’s legendary misjudgements in the choices he has made about what to put on, or leave off, an album.

As Mark Richardson observes in his thoughtful review for Pitchfork:

Though we’ll never know exactly what he was thinking, the idea of Dylan making a poor album on purpose never made sense. He worked with too many top-shelf musicians that he cared about, and had friends and colleagues investing too much time, to make something that would embarrass them. It seems more likely that the “intentionally bad” storyline was a defence mechanism for a mysterious artist who did, after all, have a pretty hefty ego and was deeply aware of his own talent. So it’s reasonable to conclude that Self Portrait was a strange and all-over-the-place album because, for one reason or another, that’s the kind of album Dylan wanted to make at that time.

Dylan tapes

Whatever the circumstances that led Dylan to release the sickly-sweet, sloppy, sprawling Self Portrait, the artefact delivered to us in 2013 is a different kettle of fish entirely.  Even before considering the tunes themselves, the remixing and the remastering, there is the fact that Dylan sings beautifully, in a voice far removed from the gravelly rasp of later years, a voice tender and expressive and melodious.  Mark Richardson again:

That is where the deep and immense pleasure of this set resides: hearing melodies – some new, some old, some borrowed – performed by a distinctive singer at the height of his powers.

Dylan has seldom recorded more lovely vocals that here on his beautiful unreleased reading of the traditional English folk ballad Pretty Saro, or on alternate versions of such songs as Belle Isle or Copper Kettle, with its bucolic, if not intoxicated, refrain:

You’ll just lay there by the juniper while the moon is bright
Watch them jugs a-filling in the pale moonlight.

Loveliest of all is the remastered, achingly beautiful rendition of Wild Mountain Thyme performed solo at the Isle of Wight.  James Reed,  writing in the Boston Globe, was entranced like me:

The joy of Another Self Portrait is hearing the music for its own merit. This is Dylan at his most tender-hearted, finding his way around songs that clearly made an impression on him. Because so much of the material is traditional or written by others, it allows you to ruminate on Dylan’s interpretive skills.

Anyone who claims Dylan can’t sing, or that he’s not the most soothing of singers, has never heard his previously unreleased version of “Pretty Saro” included here. His voice is soft, delicate, as if it’ll buckle under the weight of the song’s heartache over losing his beloved.

Listening to the album a few times you begin to realise that it’s not only that songs that were messed up on Self Portrait have now had the excess of overdubbed strings removed; it’s the rediscovered ‘lost’ recordings – traditional songs and songs by Dylan’s song-writer contemporaries that astonish, too. Dylan offers tribute to Tom Paxton with his lesser-known tune, Annie’s Going to Sing Her Song, This Evening So Soon is a version of Tell Old Bill by Bob Gibson, an old buddy from the Greenwich Village days, and there’s a great version of Thirsty Boots, written by another overlooked contemporary, Eric Andersen.

Mark Richardson puts it like this in his Pitchfork review:

The real revelations on the first disc are the unreleased versions of songs from the public domain … the songs Dylan grew up with and studied… The versions here of “Railroad Bill”, “Little Sadie”, “Pretty Saro”, and the especially powerful “This Evening So Soon” are brilliant showcases of his ability to inhabit old material and make it his own. And they benefit from the generally spare and acoustic sound. Dylan started his career singing traditional folk songs, but his understanding of them eight years later was far richer.

A picture begins to emerge of the album that might have been: Dylan’s own Anthology of American Music, a foretaste of 1992‘s Good as I Been to You and 1993‘s World Gone WrongSelf Portrait was top-heavy with less than inspiring versions of country and western standards such as I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know (recorded by just about every Country artist going, from Tennessee Ernie Ford by way of Skeeter Davis to Patti Page and Dolly Parton) and two songs written by Boudleaux Bryant, the man who probably wrote more country and western hits than anyone (including ones for Jim Reeves); indeed, the strings and vocal stylings were reminiscent of a distinctly square Jim Reeves LP such as one’s mother might have in her collection.  There were also passable versions of pop songs that Dylan had grown up with in the fifties, such as Blue Moon and the Everly Brothers’ Let It Be Me.

Dylan Portrait session

Imagine, instead, an album that truly lived up to its name: a self portrait of Dylan in the form of an intimate, acoustic session where, along with a handful of trusty musicians (David Bromberg on guitar, Kenny Buttrey drums, Al Kooper organ and piano, Happy Traum banjo, and Charlie McCoy on bass), he presented a showcase of the songs that had informed his musical sensibilities – a blend of blues and country, folk and pop.  Well, we’ve finally got to hear it – or something like it – albeit 40 years later.

Significantly, perhaps, the collection opens with a demo recording of Went to See the Gypsy, Dylan’s lyric apparently inspired by an encounter with Elvis in Las Vegas:

Went to see the gypsy
Stayin’ in a big hotel […]

Outside the lights were shining
On the river of tears
I watched them from the distance
With music in my ears

I went back to see the gypsy
It was nearly early dawn
The gypsy’s door was open wide
But the gypsy was gone

There’s another demo of  When I Paint My Masterpiece, a simple recording of just Dylan and piano, the song best known  through the Band’s superb arrangement with with mandolin and accordion released on Cahoots in 1971.
Other highlights of this magnificent collection for me include the thrilling remastered recording of Dylan and the Band tearing through Highway 61 Revisited at the Isle of Wight; an exuberant alternative take of New Morning with horns; Copper Kettle, stripped of strings with just David Bromberg’s shimmering guitar and Al Kooper’s delicate organ noodles for decoration; a 1971 recording of Only A Hobo with Happy Traum on banjo and harmony vocal that has the feel of an impromptu Greenwich Village coffee house session.

Time passes slowly up here in the mountains
We sit beside bridges and walk beside fountains
Catch the wild fishes that float through the stream
Time passes slowly when you’re lost in a dream

Ain’t no reason to go in a wagon to town
Ain’t no reason to go to the fair
Ain’t no reason to go up, ain’t no reason to go down
Ain’t no reason to go anywhere

Time Passes Slowly probably gives us the clearest sense of where Dylan’s head was at in those days.  It’s represented here in two very different try-out versions: one with a rambunctious overture from Al Kooper, the other a folksy account with George Harrison adding guitar and harmony vocal.  Another rather lovely New Morning alternate take is If Not For You, done solo at the piano with violin accompaniment.
And so it goes on: previously unheard (even un-bootlegged) versions of folk standards such as Pretty Saro, Railroad Bill, Bring Me a Little Water and House Carpenter and Belle Isle that sit well alongside contemporary folk classics like Tom Paxton’s Annie’s Going to Sing Her Song and Eric Andersen’s Thirsty Boots.

Another Self Portrait cover

Mark Richardson, the reviewer for Pitchfork, is clearly of a younger generation than mine, many of whom were perplexed, outraged even, by Self Portrait when it appeared in 1970.  He writes:

Returning to it, it’s hard for those of us a generation or two younger to understand the reaction to it not because it paled in comparison to the greatness that came before, because it obviously did. If you’ve spent any time listening to Bob Dylan’s 1960s catalog, you are still trying to wrap your head around the thought that one person wrote the 56 songs on Bringing it All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde, John Wesley Harding, and Nashville Skyline between 1965 and 1969. Self Portrait, next to these records, in that moment, must have seemed like a joke.

But later generations hear it differently. We’ve discovered Self Portrait in the used bins, torrent downloads, and streaming services alongside records like Street Legal, Saved, Empire Burlesque, Down in the Groove, and Under the Red Sky. And in this broader context, it sounds quite good, another weird and sloppy record from a guy who released a lot of them.

Hearing Self Portrait now, alongside the fantastic music now released on Another Self Portrait, casts Dylan’s efforts in the recording studio at that time in a whole new light, Richardson rightly suggests, arguing that the collection further cements Dylan’s Bootleg Series as one of the most important archival projects in modern pop history.

We’ll probably never know why Dylan, after recording all these wonderful tracks, decided to discard them and release something entirely different. Never mind; 40 years late, we have a gem to treasure

Once I had mountains in the palm of my hand
And rivers that ran through every day
I must have been mad
I never knew what I had
Until I threw it all away

Roadrunner: a love song for a road, for music and the modern world

Roadrunner: a love song for a road, for music and the modern world
Route 128 in the 1960s
Route 128 in the 1960s (photo by Alan Earls, author of Route 128 and the Birth of the Age of High Tech)

Several years ago I remember reading an article by Laura Barton in which the Guardian feature writer made a rock’n’roll pilgrimage, travelling Route 128 round the suburbs of Boston in Massachusetts to see for herself the urban landscape described by Jonathan Richman in his song ‘Roadrunner’, first released in 1976.

Laura Barton on Route 128
Laura Barton on Route 128

For Barton, ‘Roadrunner’ is ‘one of the most magical songs in existence’. This week I listened to the 15 minute prose-poem she has written being read by John Schwab on radio 4.  It was stunning, a panegyric to Route 128 in which Laura Barton gave voice to the road, telling of how it came to be built, how it spawned ‘the modern world’ of suburbia and shopping malls, high-tech industries and radio towers.

I was built to inspire a song. A love song for a road, for a car, for music and the modern world. A song about about going faster miles an hour. With the radio on.

Listen to it here: it’s a brilliant piece of writing.

‘Roadrunner’ was first recorded by Jonathan Richman and The Modern Lovers in 1972, though not released until 1977 due to legal hitches. Chosen as one of Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, it’s a favourite of mine, too: along with ‘That Summer Feeling’ there are few songs so simple and naive-sounding, yet so successful in capturing the magic and the optimism of youth.

Jonathan Richman
Jonathan Richman: young and free

‘Roadrunner’ was described by Greil Marcus as ‘The most obvious song in the world and the strangest’. Laura Barton writes that:

It is a song about what it means to be young, and behind the wheel of an automobile, with the radio on and the night and the highway stretched out before you. It is a paean to the modern world, to the urban landscape, to the Plymouth Roadrunner car, to roadside restaurants, neon lights, suburbia, the highway, the darkness, pine trees and supermarkets.

128 Tech
America’s first hi-tech industries were established along 128

Richman was 19 years old when he wrote the song in 1970 and began performing it in public with his proto-punk band the Modern Lovers. John Felice, the band’s guitarist, later recalled that as teenagers he and Richman ‘used to get in the car and just drive up and down Route 128 and the Turnpike. We’d come up over a hill and he’d see the radio towers, the beacons flashing, and he would get almost teary-eyed. He’d see all this beauty in things where other people just wouldn’t see it’.

radio towers
Radio towers, beacons flashing

AllMusic describes the song as ‘a garage band classic … it mostly jams on one driving chord, with a cheap-sounding organ droning away, before the band pounds on a second chord to emphasize the main refrain, ‘Radio on!’ It is a chant more than a song; an anthemic ode to the highway in the great rock & roll tradition of Chuck Berry’.

stop & shop 1957
A Stop ‘n’ Shop in 1957

The song is full of specific references to suburban Massachusetts, and in July 2007, Laura Barton wrote in The Guardian about how she had attempted to visit all the places mentioned in the various recorded versions of the song, including the Stop & Shop at Natick, Massachusetts, the Howard Johnson’s restaurant, the Prudential Tower, Quincy, Cohasset, Deer Island, Route 128, and Interstate 90.

One two three four five six!
Roadrunner, roadrunner
Going faster miles an hour
Gonna drive past the Stop ‘n’ Shop
With the radio on
I’m in love with Massachusetts
And the neon when it’s cold outside
And the highway when it’s late at night
Got the radio on
I’m like the roadrunner!

I’m in love with modern moonlight
128 when it’s dark outside
I’m in love with Massachusetts
I’m in love with the radio on
It helps me from being alone late at night
It helps me from being lonely late at night
I don’t feel so bad now in the car
Don’t feel so alone, got the radio on
Like the roadrunner
That’s right!

Well now
Roadrunner, roadrunner
Going faster miles an hour
Gonna drive to the Stop ‘n’ Shop
With the radio on at night
And me in love with modern moonlight
Me in love with modern rock & roll
Modern girls and modern rock & roll
Don’t feel so alone, got the radio on
Like the roadrunner
O.K., now you sing, Modern Lovers!

(Radio On!) I got the AM
(Radio On!) Got the car, got the AM
(Radio On!) Got the AM sound, got the
(Radio On!) Got the rockin’ modern neon sound
(Radio On!) I got the car from Massachusetts, got the
(Radio On!) I got the power of Massachusetts when it’s late at night
(Radio On!) I got the modern sounds of modern Massachusetts
I’ve got the world, got the turnpike, got the
I’ve got the, got the power of the AM
Got the, late at night, rock & roll late at night
The factories and the auto signs got the power of modern sounds

See also


Steve Earle: redemption songs

Steve Earle: redemption songs

Steve Earle

Steve Earle on stage at the Phil. (Photo: Simon Nicholl)

At Liverpool’s Philharmonic Hall last week, Steve Earle opened with the Woody Guthrie-styled title song from his excellent new album The Low Highway.  Later in the concert, Steve talked about the song’s genesis: travelling across his country and seeing everywhere the signs of economic failure, just as Woody did in the Great Depression: ‘I’m writing on the road, and the song is about what I was seeing out of my window as I travelled around North America last year. And the world too, because times are hard all over – we could see that just travelling from here from Manchester.’

‘The Low Highway’ is a song that observes today’s empty factories, unemployment lines and people ‘lining up for something to eat’.

Saw empty houses on a dead end street
People lining up for something to eat
And the ghost of America watching me
Through the broken windows of the factories

‘None of us remember the Depression first-hand. I realized that what I was seeing, not riding a boxcar but through the window of a three-quarter-of-a-million dollar bus, is a situation very similar to what Woody saw. Times really are that hard out there’.

Steve Earle sings with compassion and – like Rebecca Solnit in her essays – speaks of hope for the voiceless in the ‘bones of a better day’:

Wheels turnin’ round on the asphalt sayin’
Every sound is a prophecy

More than anyone (with the possible exception of Bruce Springsteen) it is Steve Earle who has carried the torch lit by Woody Guthrie into a new century (Bob Dylan having demurred the role), keeping alive the flickering embers of social conscience.  He’s quite explicit about this, singing in ‘Christmas In Washington’ (sadly omitted from his Liverpool concert) of the debt owed to Guthrie and other Americans who took a stand for freedom and justice:

So come back Woody Guthrie
Come back to us now
Tear your eyes from paradise
And rise again somehow

There’s foxes in the hen house
Cows out in the corn
The unions have been busted
Their proud red banners torn
To listen to the radio
You’d think that all was well
But you and me and Cisco know
It’s going straight to hell

So come back, Emma Goldman
Rise up, old Joe Hill
The barricades are goin’ up
They cannot break our will
Come back to us, Malcolm X
And Martin Luther King
We’re marching into Selma
As the bells of freedom ring

In the liner notes to his latest album, Steve articulates his mission in these words: ‘There’s something calling me out there. Always has been, ever since I was old enough to stand out on the highway and stick out my thumb’.  It’s more than 50 years since he stuck out his thumb – aged 14 and running away from home to follow his idol Townes Van Zandt around Texas. By the age of 19 he was in Nashville, working blue-collar jobs by day and playing music at night. During this apprenticeship he began to write songs and played bass guitar in Guy Clark’s band and on Clark’s 1975 album Old No. 1. It was around that time that Steve appeared in the wonderful film Heartworn Highways, a documentary on the Nashville music scene which included Guy Clark, Townes van Zandt and Rodney Crowell.

I’ve been a fan of Steve Earle ever since hearing the opening notes of Guitar Town back in the mid-1980s. That album – a perfect encapsulation of the frustrated hopes of small town life – sounds as good today as it ever did, with tracks such as ‘Guitar Town’ and ‘My Old Friend The Blues’ (both revisited at the Phil), ‘Someday’ and ‘Fearless Heart’ that remain great anthems of the dream of escape: ‘Someday I’ll put her on that interstate and never look back’.

Earle’s big break into mainstream radio play came with his swaggering, hard-rocking 1988 album Copperhead Road. But that success intensified a downward spiral of addiction to booze, cocaine and heroin that only ended a decade later, after he had come close to losing his life to drugs and spent a year in prison.

Yet Earle survived to turn his recovery and return to recording into a parable of redemption that has clearly been as much an inspiration to the man himself as for those who listen to his music.  In interviews he sometimes seems a little surprised to still be with us: ‘If I thought I’d live this long I would have taken better care of myself’, he remarked recently. But it’s the way that his experience on the edge has infused his writing that is significant.

From the start his songs had displayed an empathy with the small-town losers and ordinary guys who populated them, but since his return Earle’s commitment to empathise with those whom society would rather marginalise or condemn has intensified. In songs about the homeless, murderers on death row or – most controversially – about the captured American Taliban fighter John Walker Lindh – he seeks empathy not retribution, understanding before judgement.   It’s as if his own struggles, the prison time and successful rehabilitation have urged him to place the possibility of redemption at the heart of his artistic and social vision. His songs are truly redemption songs: subtle, eloquent and empathetic.

As Joanna Colangelo wrote on the Huffington Post earlier this year:

It’s well-known that Steve’s hard-drug living days, a year in prison and decades of life on the road have led him into the shadows of the country – nooks of darkness and shame, which can too often be swept under a patriotic rug. Yet, it’s his poetic embrace of the beauty and dignity in these nooks that makes Steve Earle the most important highway philosopher of American culture today. His songs are reminders of the complexities and contradictions that exist in a country as massive as ours, and his albums are a dose of humanity, often times when it’s most needed.

At the Phil, Steve sang ‘Invisible’ off the new album, a song in which he gives voice to the homeless guy living on the street, invisible to passers-by:

Everywhere I go
People pass me by
They never know ’cause I’m
A shadow hangin’ low
A footstep just behind
They carry on but I’m

Songs from the new album, The Low Highway, some of them inspired by Earle’s observations of people enduring hard times, others by time spent in New Orleans as a performer on David Simon’s post-Katrina saga Treme, made up a large slice of his set at the Phil.  On stage for well over two hours, and including assorted gems from his back catalogue, Earle made plain his respect for the latest incarnation of his band The Dukes: ‘the best band I have ever played with’.

True, too: this is a bunch of fine musicians, lending sympathetic support to songs from all stages of Steve’s career, from pounding rock to sensitive bluegrass or country melodies.  The Dukes now consist of original members Will Rigby (drums) and Kelley Looney (bass) joined by Chris Masterson (lead guitar and pedal steel) and Eleanor Whitmore (fiddle, piano and harmony vocals).  The latter two musicians also comprise The Mastersons, who opened the night as support performing a handful of songs from their album Bird Fly South.

Mastersons and Steve Earle

Steve Earle and The Mastersons on stage at the Phil. (Photo: Simon Nicholl)

Earle himself played an impressive variety of instruments including acoustic and electric guitars, mandolin, banjo, harmonica, and even keyboards on one song. Eleanor Whitmore is an extremely versatile musician; she turned her hand at different times to guitar, mandolin and keyboards, but most especially plays terrific fiddle, as exciting as that played by Lucia Micarelli, Steve’s busking partner in Treme. Whitmore also accompanied Earle on most songs, while Kelly Looney on acoustic and electric bass and Will Rigby on the drums provided a forthright yet varied pulse.

Since making his comeback Earle has been busy in many departments: as well as recording a string of critically-acclaimed albums, he has been actively involved in political campaigns, most notably in opposition to the death penalty.  He has published a collection of short stories and, last year, his first novel.  Alongside all this, he has appeared in two David Simon TV series: in The Wire Earle played a recovering addict, while in the first two seasons of Treme he played street musician Harley Watt.

Naturally, with Treme being so concerned with music, Earle contributed songs to the show, and several of these appear on The Low Highway and were featured at the Phil.  There were the two songs, co-written with Lucia Micarelli – ‘That All You Got?’ and ‘After Mardis Gras’, as well as the classic post-Katrina anthem ‘This City’:

This city won’t ever die
Just as long as our heart be strong
Like a second line stepping high
Raising hell as we roll along

Here, Steve talks about writing the song and performs it live in the studio:

While this is the band’s performance in Eindhoven last month:

Another New Orleans-inspired song from Treme is the languid ‘Love’s Gonna Blow My Way’ which featured great fiddle from Eleanor Whitmore.  This was the song performed in Glasgow two nights later:

Then there was that remarkable moment when Steve sat down at the keyboards.  As he explained: ‘hang out in New Orleans long enough and you start believing you should be able to play piano’.  This was by way of introduction to the bar room boogie of ‘Pocket Full of Rain’

Alongside the new songs, old favourites were dusted down: ‘Guitar Town’ rocked like it was still the 1980s with Chris Masterson providing that twangy Duane Eddy riff:

Hey pretty baby are you ready for me
It’s your good rockin’ daddy down from Tennessee
I’m just out of Austin bound for San Antone
With the radio blastin’ and the bird dog on

By way of contrast, ‘My Old Friend the Blues’ also from the debut album, began with Earle performing solo. It’s a simple song that still retains its power to move.  The pounding rock of ‘Copperhead Road’ and ‘Taneytown’ contrasted with the bluegrass fiddle sound of songs like ‘Warren Hellman’s Banjo’ and ‘The Galway Girl’, reflecting the engaging blend of genre influences that have defined Steve Earle’s albums.

Steve’s introduction to ‘Warren Hellman’s Banjo’ was interesting: he spoke of his admiration for San Francisco’s Warren Hellman – the only banker he has ever hung out with.  Hellman earned his praise for financing the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival held at The Golden Gate Park each year.  When Hellman died in 2011 he left sufficient funds for the festival to continue for a while. Earle’s song is a celebration of a wealthy man who didn’t lose contact with the ground he walked on or the society he lived in.

Steve Earle

Steve introduced ‘Nothin’ But You’ as ‘Bob Dylan’s favourite Steve Earle song’. I was pleased that Steve included a couple of songs -‘Ben McCulloch’ and ‘Mystery Train’- from Train a Comin’, the album he recorded in 1994 for a tiny independent label after he had served prison time and was was clean and sober for the first time in many years.  It’s a great record with a relaxed acoustic session feel, featuring some renowned acoustic pickers, including Norman Blake, Peter Rowan, and Roy Huskey, Jr. The mood is akin to the informal gatherings captured in Heartworn Highways.  There’s a great cover version of McCartney’s bitter ‘I’m Looking Through You’ that must have had a special meaning for Steve at the time.

Easily the most moving song on the new album, and one of the most personal songs that Steve has written, is ‘Remember Me’.  It would be difficult, I think, for any parent to hear it through with dry eyes.  As he explained when he introduced the song at the Phil, he wrote it for his three year old son, John Henry, who was born when Steve was 55. ‘I’m 58 years old; my son is four.  That has to be a definition of optimism’, he said.  He went on to explain that John Henry has been diagnosed as autistic: in Earle’s view, ‘This is  a worldwide epidemic. And it’s obviously something environmental. It’s one in 50 kids. Think about it: that’s far bigger than influenza; far bigger than Aids, polio . . . bigger than any epidemic we’ve ever faced. It could be pesticides they spray on crops. It could be genetically modified food. It’s universal. This is about the future of the human race’.

I wasn’t entirely sure about this, and did a bit of online research later.  Experts seem divided on the extent to which autism is primarily caused by genetic or environmental factors. For example, a page, Causes of autism and Asperger syndrome, on the NHS Choices website states:

New fathers who are older than 40 are estimated to be six times more likely to father a child with an ASD than fathers under 40. This is possibly because a man’s genetic material is more at risk of developing mutations as he gets older.  Researchers are currently studying the possibility that air pollution and pesticides may cause ASDs, under what is known as the CHARGE study. However, it will probably be several years before there is definitive information on environmental factors.

In the meantime, Earle is dedicating himself to ensuring the best care for his son:  ‘John Henry, I think, is gonna be okay – but he’s got resources’.  He performs benefits to support The Brown Centre for Autism and their work with early intervention for children with autism.  And he’s writing his memoirs with the aim of devoting the proceeds of publication to his son’s support.

So, Steve Earle continues to carry the Woody Guthrie mantle.  While the set at the Phil mainly featured the political songs off the new album, such as ‘The Low Highway’, ‘Invisible’ and ‘Burnin’ It Down‘, brought back for a third encore, the band blasted us with ‘The Revolution Starts…Now’, the incendiary title track of Steve’s 2004 album, a collection of songs influenced by the Iraq war and the policies of the George W. Bush administration that won a Grammy for best contemporary folk album.

The Revolution Starts…Now was one of a sequence of blistering and predominantly political albums released in the decade after 9/11.  Two years earlier he had released Jerusalem, his most explicitly political album with songs that took on the war on terror, capital punishment, poverty and the growing gulf between rich and poor.  The most controversial song was ‘John Walker’s Blues’ which, while by no means endorsing of Lindh’s actions, attempted to understand how an American boy could find a personal truth in Islam and take up arms thousands of miles from home.  It was an album packed with angry yet thoughtful lyrics presented in musical settings as loud and abrasive as anything from Tom Morello and Rage Against The Machine.

Steve and the band were brought back for three encores. They began with a Beatles cover (they were in Liverpool after all); less predictably, Steve chose ‘Cry Baby Cry’ off the White Album.  Then came ‘Continental Trailways Blues’, one of Steve’s great American road songs.Returning for the third and final encore, the band blasted into ‘The Revolution Starts…Now’ (would that it were that simple!) which ended with Steve raising a clenched fist before kneeling to fiddle with knobs and trigger an endless Hendrix-like chord on his guitar which continued to resound as he left the stage.

Steve Earle fist

The Revolution Starts…Now’ (Photo: Simon Nicholl)

I was walkin’ down the street
In the town where I was born
I was movin’ to a beat
That I’d never felt before
So I opened up my eyes
And I took a look around
I saw it written ‘cross the sky
The revolution starts now
Yeah, the revolution starts now

The revolution starts now
When you rise above your fear
And tear the walls around you down
The revolution starts here
Where you work and where you play
Where you lay your money down
What you do and what you say
The revolution starts now
Yeah the revolution starts now

Yeah the revolution starts now
In your own backyard
In your own hometown
So what you doin’ standin’ around?
Just follow your heart
The revolution starts now

Last night I had a dream
That the world had turned around
And all our hopes had come to be
And the people gathered ‘round
They all brought what they could bring
And nobody went without
And I learned a song to sing
The revolution starts now

Steve Earle encore

Steve Earle doing a Hendrix thing. (Photo: Simon Nicholl)

Leaving the auditorium, the PA played us out with Woody Guthrie’s ‘This Land Is Your Land’. Here’s Steve Earle singing it:

Set list

The Low Highway
21st Century Blues
Calico County
Hard Core Troubadour
I Thought You Should Know
That All You Got?
Love’s Gonna Blow My Way
After Mardi Gras
Pocket Full Of Rain
This City
You’re Still Standin’ There
Burnin’ It Down
Guitar Town
Copperhead Road
Warren Hellman’s Banjo
Little Emperor
Dominick Street/The Galway Girl
Mystery Train Part 2
Remember Me
My Old Friend The Blues
Ben McCulloch
I Ain’t Ever Satisfied
Down The Road
Cry Baby Cry
Nothin’ But You
Continental Trailways Blues
The Revolution Starts… Now

See also