Dar Williams

At last night’s concert Dar Williams sang but one song from her latest album. It was about going to Berkeley in the ’80s, “looking for the ’70s.” I think a lot of the audience, like me, was primed for the nostalgia she evoked. Peace, love, possibilities, a better world. Despite putting out seven albums this century, her playlist came almost exclusively from the ’90s, which was fine as it included perhaps my two all-time favorites: “The Christians and the Pagans” and “The Babysitter’s Here.” I was initially shocked by her troll-like appearance, a small figure on a big stage with only a keyboard accompanist, but she filled Marjorie Luke Theatre with her masterful guitar playing and clear, ethereal voice. She must have told her stories a zillion times, but her patter between numbers was disarming, as much a part of the Dar Williams experience as the songs. I couldn’t have asked for more.
But “more” I got, in the persons of the Amy Ray Band. If Dar is folk rock, Amy is country rock, reflecting her Georgia roots. I didn’t know any of her songs, but they were all melodic, mostly rocking and easy to follow. It took courage, or generosity, for Dar Williams, basically a solo act, to cede the opening gig to a seven-person band that played, as Dar did, for a full hour. They performed their encores together, which made Dar look even smaller, but left a final good-feeling community vibe in the evening air.
(Who produced this show?  There was no name on the program and almost no advertising. And during intermission between the acts, the Amy Ray bandmembers including Indigo Girl Amy, all had to come back on stage to dismantle the wiring and collect their sound system. The whole thing seemed more appropriate to a junior high auditorium, which this was, than a professional theater.)

Rock Cantatas

I don’t know what a “cantata” is, or what other term to use, but hearing “Jungleland” twice in one day on E Street Radio made me think of all the long-form rock songs that define an artist and elevate the genre. Many have a key change and/or tempo change or maybe seem to but are just long. They are not just a melody but a journey. They demand to be listened, not danced, to. (In fact, a defining criterion is you can’t dance to them.) I will list them in no particular order, giving me a place to come back to when another one comes on the radio and augments this category.

“Jungleland,” Bruce Springsteen
“Stairway to Heaven,” Led Zeppelin
“Scenes From an Italian Restaurant,” Billy Joel
“Bohemian Rhapsody,” Queen
“Paradise by the Dashboard Light,” Meat Loaf
“Taxi,” Harry Chapin
“Low Spark of High-heeled Boys,” Traffic
“Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” Crosby, Stills & Nash
“American Pie,” Don McLean
“Won’t Get Fooled Again,” The Who
“Magic Carpet Ride,” Steppenwolf
“Question,” The Moody Blues
“More Than A Feeling,” Boston

Van Morrison

At 79, Van Morrison is a living legend and, as expected, he took advantage of that to give his fans at the Santa Barbara Bowl the show he wanted, not the songs they surely would have preferred. Never known for his warmth onstage, Morrison’s night was epitomized for us when we saw his car pull away while his band was still performing the final number. That his final number was his first hit, “Gloria,” only reminded us of all the music we didn’t get to hear. With 44 albums to his credit, he had a lot of unfamiliar material to choose from; but of the dozen records I’ve listened to, often extensively, I recognized only “Into the Mystic,” and even that I barely recognized as he twisted and turned it around.
I will say that he kept the show moving, with one uptempo number after another, none lasting too long, and his backup band and singers were impeccable. His 80-minute set was unusually short: every other act I’ve seen ran right up to the Bowl’s 10 p.m. curfew; Van drove away at 9:15. His voice was remarkably intact, but his barking style came across as unfortunately harsh in the arena setting. Also unusual was the lack of  live video which made me glad, given Van’s diminutive stature, that we were seated close to the stage. I guess we were lucky to be graced with his presence, but I would have rather shared some “Tupelo Honey,” “Domino,” “Bright Side of the Road,” or even “Three Chords and the Truth,” not to mention “Brown-Eyed Girl,” instead of “Cotton Fields” and the dozen other traditional and cover songs that filled the program.

Cowboy Junkies

Kudos to the Cowboy Junkies for staying together for 35 years, putting out records consistently along the way. Their sound hasn’t changed, a credit to Margo Timmins’s 62-year-old voice. As expected, their live show featured more up-tempo and louder songs than their best records, which can mellow you almost to sleep. They may be a cult taste, in which case much of their cult was in attendance at the Lobero. A pleasant evening, nothing sensational.

Graham Nash

Graham Nash brought two hours of musical memories to the Lobero Theater last night, from “Bus Stop” with the Hollies to “Better Life” from his 2023 release, Now. I give great credit to an 81-year-old who is performing five nights a week on a tour through the U.S. and the U.K., hitting the high notes and performing as rock star, not a nostalgia act. (And his new record is not at all bad.) But it was nostalgia that carried the night. With two exceptions, however, the songs were never my favorites. In fact, one of the crowd-pleasing highlights, which also lifted my spirits in comparison, was Stephen Stills’s “Love the One You’re With,” which I hated at the time for its cynical message. One common thread of Nash’s own songs, which I had not noticed, was their narrative nature. They told a story or had a message–no “moon/June” or breakup tears. A highlight of the evening was Nash’s introductions, telling stories about how he came to write each song. As for the two numbers that count among my favorites, “Wasted on the Way,” a 1982 CSN hit, was damaged by the over-amplified or poorly mixed sound system. Instead of the clear voices and fine harmonies one expected, the first half of the concert, especially, was raucous and muddy. When called back for a second encore, Nash and his two backups did a sweet a cappella rendition of Buddy Holly’s “Every Day” and then, as I wished and predicted, ended with “Teach Your Children” from 1970.  More exactly, they let the audience end the evening by singing the final lines, “And know they love you.”
July 17, 2023

Diana Ross

At 79 her voice is still clear, crisp, loud and silky smooth. Diana Ross’s “Legacy Tour” was truly devoted to her legacy, with videos of her earlier career and Motown contemporaries filling the screen in place of any shots of her current self performing. Diana was in the full diva mode she rose to within the Supremes, then leaving them behind, as we were treated to four costume changes in the course of the 1:45 performance. I was never a fan of her post-Supremes music, but most of the sold-out Santa Barbara Bowl clearly was, singing along with The Boss, Endless Love and the equally endless Upside Down. For the wife and me, the first set made the evening worthwhile: Baby Love, Where Did Our Love Go, Stop! In the Name of Love, You Can’t Hurry Love and Love Child (note a theme here?) sounded better live than on the radio, a demand to dance, which we did. Her new album, Thank You, is not bad, at least in the non-disco numbers, and the title track served as a memorable encore, something I hummed all the way to our car. You have to respect what she has accomplished as a Black woman in the music business, and we glimpsed her human side when she brought seven of her eight grandchildren onto the stage, which made us think this concert was special for her too.

Turn-Off Songs

Most of my lists are songs I like. There are also songs I don’t like. And then there are songs–not necessarily bad songs–that grate like chalk on my personal blackboard (remember that cliche?) and lead me to change the station. In no particular order, this list includes…

Good Vibrations, Beach Boys. Yes, it’s a classic; yes it supposedly inspired the Beatles; yes it’s wildly overrated. The Beach Boys are the best when having “fun, fun, fun.” When Brian Wilson goes  operatic, with no danceable beat, no hummable melody, pretentiously silly lyrics (“she’s giving me excitations”) and runs on a minute longer than usual, I don’t get it.

Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This), Eurhythmics. Sickly sweet cotton candy for the ear, this is rock’n’roll goo. Here Comes the Rain Again is basically the same song, with the same effect. Ick.

Ain’t No Sunshine, Bill Withers. Just the sound of Withers’s dreary voice sends me to the radio dial. This number is undoubtedly the one that bothers me the most, although I’m no friend of Lean On Me, either.

My Sharona, The Knack. Aural assault, with no redeeming qualities. How this reached #1 and was named top single of the year is beyond me, marking a fallow period (1979) for rock.

(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction, Rolling Stones. Only slightly more melodic than My Sharona, with equally irrelevant lyrics, this shared the curse of being horribly overplayed; any initial joy was bludgeoned away the thousandth’s time you heard it, with a thousand more to come.

Hound Dog, Elvis Presley. What Sharona was in the ’70s and Satisfaction was in the ’60s, Hound Dog was in the ’50s. Recorded as a B-side joke, it became the King’s biggest-selling single. It has none of the authenticity of early Elvis, deserved Steve Allen’s famous mockery and does not improve upon multiple hearings.

Why Don’t We Get Drunk And Screw, Jimmy Buffett. Recorded as satire, but now played constantly on Radio Margaritaville, it’s no longer cute or funny. By using the Hawaiian Hula Girls to sing background, Jimmy tries to imply that it’s not offensive to women or children in the audience, without success. (Although trying to limit the list to one song per artist, I must add a special shout-out to the live performance of Changes in Latitudes that RM insists on playing. Buffett ruins the perfectly good song by shouting, off-key, the last word or each line, making the song literally unlistenable.)

Hey Jude, The Beatles. This song goes on and on…and on, for more than seven minutes. And unlike, say, Stairway to Heaven (eight minutes), it goes nowhere.

So Into You, Atlanta Rhythm Section. Threatens to put me to sleep before I can get to the channel. A minor drone.

To be continued…

Dylan’s Philosophy

If it weren’t already trademarked, copyrighted and patented, Bob Dylan’s new book could have been titled, Riffs by Bob, for that’s what The Philosophy of Modern Song is–in spades. He takes 65 songs–not greatest hits or his own favorites, just 65 songs–and riffs on a subject in, or suggested by, the lyrics. For example, “I Got A Woman” by Ray Charles opens with the line, “I got a woman, way across town, she’s good to me.” Dylan picks up on “way across town” and riffs on that long ride, the hassle of traffic, the hot afternoon sun, the thoughts going through the man’s head, the way excitement has given way to routine. “It’s not like he was gonna be great company either after driving way over town.” And the final kicker: “Desire fades but traffic goes on forever.”

After he riffs, for many of the songs but not all, he offers a history lesson, or an essay in musicology. And these flabbergasted me. I’m not surprised that Bob Dylan is a student of music, especially early blues and other influential sources, but even so the range is overwhelming. The most songs are from the 1950s, when Dylan was learning his craft, but he also writes about three songs from the 1920s. And in addition to blues, he covers doo-wop, pop, country, soul, punk, barbershop, Broadway and every blade of Americana. And by “cover” I mean he gives the inside story, something I’d never heard before, something I don’t know where he got it. But that’s nothing. Beyond music he puts songs in their context: what else was going on in America. Open any page and you come across a subject someone had to research: what drugs truck drivers were taking in the ’50s to stay awake; the travails of the Santee Dakota Indians; the myth of lemmings perpetrated by a Disney nature film. Maybe Dylan had a bunch of interns doing the research for him. I can’t see how anyone could write this book without working on it full-time for years–yet Dylan, all the time, is writing and recording songs, endlessly touring, and even painting.

The book is a tour-de-force, but I’m not sure it’s much more. I know a lot of songs, but I didn’t know a third of Dylan’s selections, and if you don’t know the song his riff isn’t all that interesting. In fact, the riffs are so similar–maybe written by ChatBot?–that you don’t want to read more than one or two at a time. Nor is the song selection terribly interesting. I mean, “Ball of Confusion,” by the Temptations? “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves,” by Cher? “Viva Las Vegas” by Elvis? My biggest complaint, though, concerns the illustrations, period photographs and posters. They are fantastic and evocative, but there are no captions, and the only photo credits are crammed microscopically onto one spread at the back of the book. How can Bob Dylan, a consummate artist, be so dismissive, so cavalier, about the intellectual property creations of other artists? When was the last time a book jacket’s back cover flap was blank? And I don’t even know who’s pictured on the book’s cover!

Cat Power

A sonic assault is how I’d describe Cat Power’s powerful indeed show at the Lobero. Singing in the dark, spotlight-free, and with two mics in hand, she scorched her songs, backed by a three-person band that sounded like ten. Touring in support of her “Covers” album, she deconstructed familiar songs by the Rolling Stones, Byrds, Jackson Browne, Frank Sinatra (“New York, New York”) and probably others I didn’t recognize, eliminating any obvious melody but building a tune just above a drone.  Liking something to hum along with, I wondered at first what I was doing there; but the mood took over and the sound reached inside me. I can’t imagine that any of this would sound good on a record, but in person the performance was hypnotic and I enjoyed myself. Maybe not as much as the dedicated fans around me, but it was another good Santa Barbara experience.  (9/9/22)

Jackson Browne 2022

Jackson Browne made me just as happy last night as he did four years ago when he sang at the Bowl. More than half his set list was different, which speaks to the size and quality of his repertoire. I started thinking that he must be the best songwriter of our generation, after Dylan and Springsteen; but his songs are so much more relatable. The early ones are about love and longing, the more recent tend toward political issues; but the words are always clear and thoughtful. Then there is the sound. His songs have a rolling rhythm that is infectious, and amplified by the Bowl’s sound system, they filled the air around me. As familiar as were most of the songs, they sounded so much better in person.

He treats the Bowl as his home court, which makes the evening extra special. “I played all these great places on this tour…but they weren’t Santa Barbara.” The crowd–not a young person in the bunch–loved him back, creating a sense of community. This was real Santa Barbara: no one was dressed up, everyone was comfortable, we all sang along. He opened loud and proud with “Somebody’s Baby,” right at 7; played till 8:15; took a 15-minute break, as promised; then played to 9:55, including two encores, ending, as before (maybe always?) with “The Load-Out” and “Stay.” In between he plucked numbers from ten different albums. His first was released a half-century ago, but the songs have held up: “Rock Me On the Water,” “Jamaica Say You Will,” and “Doctor My Eyes,” perhaps the biggest crowd-pleaser. My favorite album is Late for the Sky. I’ve written before about “For A Dancer.” “Fountain of Sorrows” melted me totally.

He chatted casually between numbers, offering explanations only for the four songs from his 2021 album, Downhill from Everywhere, the title song of which refers to the huge mass of plastic in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Although they were less familiar, these songs fit the groove, from the politically insistent “The Dreamer” to the soulful “A Little Soon to Tell.” He apparently altered his program in response to a fan’s shouted request for “The Shape Of A Heart,” further cementing his connection with the audience. Finally, it was nice to see an age-appropriate band backing Jackson. The lead guitarist was on the young side, but the slide guitar, drummer, keyboard and bass player looked like veterans of Browne’s career, maybe not David Lindley but the next best thing. And the two Black female backup singers have been with Browne for twenty years, he said, after he picked them out of a high school gospel chorus. There was nothing showy, a la Rod Stewart. This was laid-back Southern California at its best.