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  McCartney, Dylan, and Mitch - All at the Double

Back in the US - Paul McCartney
Live 1975: Bootleg Series Volume 5 - Bob Dylan
Travelogue - Joni Mitchell

Just one week in November. Three double albums by three of the legends of rock. Paul McCartney’s Back in the US may not be getting a UK release until March next year but by the wonder of the Internet it hardly matters to fans when an album sits on a shelf. If it is out, it is out! All three albums have similarities and marked contrasts. Ex-Beatle and Dylan both released a live document, but McCartney’s is from the recently highly acclaimed US tour where the roadies just arrived home whereas the roadies for Dylan’s release are probably long dead, the tapes of that particular tour being some twenty seven years old. Mitchell, like the other two, sings nothing we haven’t heard or bought before. Her take, though, is a complete reinvention; her classics done in the studio with a fully blown orchestra.

All three are reinventions. Mitchell in that sense exceeds all the demands. The raison d’etre was reinvention. Dylan has always been reinventing, making an already huge catalogue even more immense by so restructuring words and melodies that songs can sound nothing like the original, if within the Dylan art form there can ever be such a thing as an original. His live shows are so much more intriguing, if occasionally shambolic, as a result. With McCartney you feel for the poor band who has to play Beatle parts, too sacred to be too finger loose and fancy free, resigned in faithful reproduction to never to be a substitute for John, George and Ringo.

Paul McCartney ­ Back In the US
The last few years have seen some changes in the life of Sir Paul McCartney. His beloved Linda passed away and at the age of 60, the friendly granddad of pop got his leathers out and returned to The Cavern for some good old rock ‘n’ roll. He fell in love and put together a kick-ass young band to record his most potent album since Driving Rain. On the back of all that, the newlywed headed out across America on a critically acclaimed live extravaganza.

Here is the record of the tour; thirty-five songs, most of which are household names, and interestingly, twenty of which are Beatles’ songs. Of course it is more than good, but where it lacks is in any new slants on the old sounds. Where it is most satisfying is in the three songs off Driving Rain and then the acoustic set where familiar live chestnuts like “Blackbird,” “Every Night” and “Fool On The Hill” are complemented by the rarer “Mother Nature’s Son,” the recent soundtrack tune “Vanilla Sky” and a tribute to the latest Beatle to be taken from us, George’s “Something.”

Not that the success of the stripped back parts says anything about the band. There is no doubt that Rusty Anderson and Abe Laboriel, Jr. add a youthful edge to the arrangements. Everything has its worth but unlike Dylan’s Live 1975 this is not an essential addition to the art of Paul McCartney. Whereas Wings Across America, a quarter of a century ago revealed a band in the midst of something new looking back, this is almost completely retrospective. Then again Dylan himself has been a little too dependent on his sixties output in recent years. “And in the end…” as a document of a 60 year old performing as well as ever, it is more than worth the admission.

Bob Dylan - Live 1975; Bootleg Series Volume 5

Bob Dylan’s career is full of more nooks and crannies to be revisited and reassessed than any other rock icon. Not so long ago, I picked up an 80’s bootleg of studio outtakes and was soon burying me head in that section of Clinton Heylin’s biography and then Scott M. Marshall and Marcia Ford’s Restless Pilgrim: The Spiritual Journey of Bob Dylan had me ensconced in the “Christian” period and awakened me to many of the more spiritual of his rhyming couplets.

And so another reason to look back (did Dylan really suggest once not to?). The Bootleg Series Volume 5 is a long awaited official release of what many suggest to be his most startling and satisfying concert tour ­ the legendary Rolling Thunder Revue in late 1975. It is without doubt the final proof. This is a breathtaking double CD of a magical moment in rock music generally and Dylan’s career specifically. Contextually it was an interesting time. After a barren period of Dylan releases after 1967, Dylan hinted at something better with Planet Waves in 1973. A year before this tour he returned to greatness with maybe his best work, Blood On the Tracks, and was in the process of writing and recording Desire when he put this caravan of troubadours together and took off round the northeast of American and Canada.

This document of live concerts is also slap bang in the middle of two previously released live albums; indeed if we count Budokan in 1978, there are four live albums now available of a four year time span and this is where Bob beats Paul hands down. Where on Back In the US we ask ourselves do we really need a third, same live version, “A Hard Rains A Gonna Fall” is infused with a menacing apocalyptic groove and there is a reggae type casualness about “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.”

The entire circus smacks of a busking band who have been given a bigger stage and cannot believe their luck, but they are going to enjoy it while they are there. Not that there is anything less prophetic or two edged about Dylan’s delivery, it still twists and snarls as only his voice can, but never has it sounded so natural and unaffected. You wish that you could return to days when songs like “Hurricane,” “Romance In Durango” and “Sara” were fresh to those who were privileged to be there on nights like these. Breathtaking!

There is an interesting moment in the middle of “Oh Sister,” again most sensitively delivered where Dylan says that he and this “sister” “died and were reborn and then mysteriously SAVED!” As he holds the note on SAVED! he pauses and the silence is peppered with screams of affirmation from many who no doubt spat out derision when the man released an album called Saved just five years later. It is an almost prophetic moment on a mystical tour that saw Steven Soles, David Mansfield and T- Bone Burnett from his band experience a conversion experience.

Where Volume 5 beats Volume 4 is that the 1966 tour of Volume 4 is slightly compromised by controversy. The cries of Judas that make it a vital historical piece also caused it to be born in a clash of volcano and sea whereas this first part of the Rolling Thunder Revue was played out in a time of relative calm, albeit the beginning of Dylan losing his wife for good which perhaps explains the different vibe to the later dates released on “Hard Rain.” In the end this is an essential snapshot of a moment in time when Dylan was at the peak of current form as well as the owner of the finest back catalogue. If you own one Dylan live album then this has to be it. Nothing else comes close.

Joni Mitchell - Travelogue

Interpreting the pre rock ‘n’ roll classics was no new idea when Joni Mitchell took the classics of the last century’s first half and orchestrated them into an intriguing work. Most intriguing were her own compositions that sat in the collection, “A Case Of You” and “Both Sides Now.” Even more intriguing, she has followed it up with an album of orchestrated covers of her own songs. Orchestrated covers of songs like “Amelia,” “Woodstock,” “Cherokee Louise” or “Hejira” didn’t sound like a good idea, but now that it is done it is a revelation. Musical director Larry Klein has brought together an orchestra and jazz players to give his ex wife’s work new resonance and drama in the most tasteful and subtle of ways.

What is most revealing is to hear thirty years of someone’s work in the same musical contextualization. Yes, the Dylan and McCartney albums are live recordings with the same band covering entire careers, but because all the songs are rejuvenated to the same level on this Mitchell experiment gives everything a new perspective. Mitchell’s voice is the center of attention at all times in this vast array of players and that voice seems deeper than her original Baez-like wail, not just from the abuse cigarettes and but also the wisdom of maturity.

The packaging is immaculate. There have always been album covers of Joni’s painting and portraits have been very regular in recent releases but inside the outer box there is a book between the CDs in the digipack where we get her paintings complemented by quotations from her songs. Getting the opportunity to read her visual images alongside her poetic ones is a highly intoxicating mix. A live concert with her projected behind would be some experience. We get a taste of it the multi media bonus material here. The booklet is all wrapped in quotes from “Love,” her musical paraphrase of I Corinthians 13, her paraphrase of Yeats’ “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” and a few other snippets of “Refuge From The Roads,” “Amelia” and the spiritually drenched “Woodstock” and “The Circle Game.” Mitchell has confessed to having been in a “born again phase” when she wrote “Woodstock” and this album is an intriguing way to ask has her work ever since been a travelogue “back to the garden” that she called us to in that song?

What we need to keep going back to here is that voice and that poetry that make this a near musical drama which could only be bettered if she now brought it alive in the theatres of the world. The Opera House in Belfast awaits you, Joni!

Steve Stockman 1/31/2003

Steve Stockman is the Presbyterian Chaplain at Queens University, Belfast, Ireland, where he lives in community with 88 students. He has just finished a book on U2 - Walk On; The Spiritual Journey of U2, is the poetic half of Stevenson and Samuel who have just released their debut album Gracenotes and he has a weekly radio show on BBC Radio Ulster. He has his own web page - Rhythms of Redemption at He also tries to spend some time with his wife Janice and daughters Caitlin and Jasmine. 
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