A picture is worth about 75 words

Debosmita_Das_04

“She was bent forward, all her hair down – so long it nearly touched the ground – and she was drawing her comb through it and shaking it out. It was such a beautiful sight on this sunny morning – that cascade of black hair, swaying under her comb, and the posture of the girl, her feet planted apart, her arms caressing her lovely mane. Then she tossed it and looked up to see the train go past.”

Paul Theroux from The Great Railway Bazaar: By Train Through Asia

I underlined this passage while reading Theroux’s classic travel memoir earlier this year. I thought it a good example of something I’ve always admired about his writing: his photographer’s eye. When I recently came across this photo by Kolkata-based photographer, Debosmita Das (taken almost 40 years after Theroux described an identical scene) it seemed to me I had seen the picture before.

Hey, Houghton Mifflin Publishers, you should look into obtaining rights to use this photo on the cover of the next edition of The Great Railway Bazaar.

More by the same photographer here.

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A Dylan Groupie Reports on a Weekend of Concerts

A few notes about the Dylan concerts I attended over the weekend.

  1. To the best of my recollection, this was my 8th and 9th time seeing Dylan perform and the first time in nearly six years. For my 24th birthday, my then girlfriend, Wendy Combs, surprised me with tickets to a Dylan show in Columbia. Since then we’ve seen him once more at the Hearnes Center in Columbia, at the Fox in St Louis, Sedalia at the State Fair, twice at Starlight in KC and, most recently, at the Shrine Mosque in Springfield. After this weekend I can add the show I saw on Saturday night in Tulsa and the show the following night at the Kansas City Music Hall.
  2. The shows over the weekend were something different from all the others. Lately, Dylan has settled into a fixed set list. In the past, as much as two thirds of the set list changed every night. That was fun. You never knew what was coming next, what rarities he would dust off for one night only. But, I now see that variety came at the expense of polish and thematic flow. I preferred what I saw and heard this weekend.
  3. I’m glad I did the groupie thing and made the trip to Tulsa. The venue was intimate, comfortable with perfect acoustics. Though sold out, a lot of the tickets had been comped to casino guests who didn’t show or realized he wouldn’t be regurgitating his hits and left to get back to their slots. So there was lots of space to move around.
  4. The fan base demographics were wildly different at the two shows. I’m not sure how to account for that, but the average age of those attending the Tulsa show was probably close to Dylan’s own age; but at the Kansas City show, I might have been slightly older than average. Ticket prices, perhaps, had something to do with that. Or Dylan hasn’t yet caught on with the youngsters (ie, people my age) in Tulsa.
  5. Dylan is, more than ever, a working artist. He’s focused on challenging himself and others. He’s not your sing-along hippie jukebox. Before the encore, he only performed a single song from the 60’s and two from the 70’s. Six of the numbers were all from a recent album: 2012’s Tempest. Bob can do what he wants, of course. But I still felt bad for the guy who called out “Hurricane!” between every song. Never going to happen, dude. He’s recorded 40 some odd albums since then. Hurricane Carter’s not even in prison anymore.
  6. KC fans gave him lots of love during “High Water (for Charley Patton)” (Big Joe Turner looking east and west from the dark room of his mind/He made it to Kansas City, Twelfth Street and Vine/Nothin’ standing there/Highwater everywhere). But he didn’t do it for them; it’s a permanent fixture in the new set list. (12th Street doesn’t intersect with Vine, by the way, but either it once did or the city put up this sign post as a nod to Bob and Big Joe and Charley Patton. Nothing else is standing there.)
  7. Nothing was rehashed. Every song he chose brought something distinctive and previously unheard to the table. Even the songs from Tempest were significantly rearranged – musically and, often, lyrically. “Pay in Blood,” “Forgetful Heart” and “Scarlet Town” were even improved from the album, in my opinion, and I already loved them. “Pay in Blood” sounded more furious than ever due to, ironically, the band’s toning it down for most of the song and then kicking it up during the bridge to each refrain, eg: “Another politician pumpin’ out the piss/ Another ragged beggar blowin’ you a kiss” and then hitting it hard again in the instrumental interlude after each occurrence of the climactic refrain “I pay in blood, but it’s not my own.” Most rock performers would feel the need to bellow and gesticulate at the line; Dylan delivered it with a calm sneer while resting one hand in a coat pocket.
  8. Fans are making much of the fact that, after an extended break from touring, he returned for this tour sans wedding band. I don’t know much about his personal life. But  songs about lost love and angst certainly were prominently featured in the set. “Things Have Changed” (I used to care, but things have changed) opened the concert. “Long and Wasted Years” which explicitly references a failed marriage (embedded above) and “Autumn Leaves” closed the main set in sequence (Since you went away/ The days grow long/ And soon I’ll hear/ Old winter’s song).
  9. Dylan sang at times more beautifully and melodically than I’ve seen before. Pitch-perfect crooning of the high notes of a gorgeously re-worked “Simple Twist of Fate.” Notably so, as well, on “Forgetful Heart.” And most of all on the set and encore closers: “Autumn Leaves” and “Stay with Me” both from his latest album of Sinatra songs. Very spare accompaniment on both of those songs; just a microphone and Bob pouring out his soul through his clear though strained voice. So oddly crisp was his enunciation and delivery, I felt he intended us to feel the full effect of lyrics like “Should my heart not be humble/ Should my eyes fail to see/ Should my feet sometimes stumble/ On the way, stay with me.” That hymn-like song served as the final encore, a surprising but apt way to end this hand-curated collection of his own songs. I could hear my late Grandpa singing old hymns in church.
  10. And finally: I hope this tour culminates in an official live album release. Bob Dylan on tour doesn’t get any better than this. Long live Bob Dylan.

A footnote on my my early history with Bob Dylan.

A friend recently asked me how I started liking Bob Dylan. It so happens, I remember the exact first time I heard Dylan. When I was a senior in high school, I borrowed World Gone Wrong on CD from the Tulsa City-County Library. An odd introduction to Dylan in hindsight. The cover photo of a top-hatted old man in a cafe intrigued me. Truthfully, I didn’t think much of it. I liked atrocious music in those days: DC Talk, Carman, Petra, et al (shudder).  But later, my elder sister visited home and had a copy of Time Out of Mind, recently released. I guess my taste for Rich Mullins’ music had primed me by that time for something more authentic. Anyway, I loved it. I must have played that album a hundred times before she left. A year or so later, I borrowed Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 from a college friend who lived in my dorm. I was so loathe to return it to him that my then girlfriend, Wendy Combs, bought me my own copy. No wonder I married her.

An additional footnote on Dylan’s religious views

Much has been said and speculated – including by me – about Dylan’s religious views. Clearly his views have evolved and shifted a great deal over the years, and may be evolving yet. But this statement by Dylan himself ties a lot of his apparently conflicting comments together.

“Here’s the thing with me and the religious thing. This is the flat-out truth: I find the religiosity and philosophy in the music. I don’t find it anywhere else. Songs like “Let Me Rest on a Peaceful Mountain” or “I Saw the Light” – that’s my religion. I don’t adhere to rabbis, preachers, evangelists, all of that. I’ve learned more from the songs than I’ve learned from any of this kind of entity. The songs are my lexicon. I believe the songs.”

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No Other Love

Yet by no means

This photograph is from a collection curated by photographer, Sandy Carson, from
vintage slides, negatives, and super 8’s she collected (navigate the collection slideshow at the link with the right and left arrow keys).

The circa 1950’s collection – in particular the photo above – pairs well with the Jo Stafford song from the same era (embedded below). I happened to be listening to it as I browsed this collection having just discovered the song in Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest movie also featured in its trailer.

(Hat tips: to Feature Shoot, one of the best blogs I’ve found for interesting works of photography; and also to Frédéric Chopin).

Bonus Chopin set to sappily charming lyrics: Lang Lang also recorded a version of this same melody featuring singer, Oh Land, for his Chopin album:

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Quote for the Day: Omar Khayyám on religious fundamentalists

And do you think that unto such as you
a maggot-minded, starved, fanatic crew
God gave the Secret, and denied it me?
Well, well, what matters it! Believe that too.

– from The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám

I liked it so much, selections from this same poem were read at my wedding at my request. This particular passage was referenced by Christopher Hitchens in a conversation with Andrew Sullivan that Sullivan recently revisited and placed in the context of the Boston Marathon bombings.

Of all the characters involved in these recent events, the uncle, Ruslan Tsarni, interests me the most. His own estimation of what motivated the “maggot-minded” fanatics in his own family may be reductionist, – “Being losers,..hatred to those who were able to settle themselves” – but also strikes me as perhaps the single, best explanation in this case. Beyond that, his declared love of country as rooted in her ideals, his evocation of personal responsibility, and his embrace of his own identity – “We are Muslims. We are Chechens.” – and also the shame brought upon him and his family: a very striking, humane performance. The article linked above includes the full video of his conversation with reporters in front of his house.

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Quote for the day: Ray Charles on Jacques Brel

“It takes a very warm person to say the things that this song says. And, you know, it’s plain; it’s not difficult. You don’t have to be a scholar to understand it.”

– Ray Charles, interviewed by the French media before performing a stirring, soulful rendition of Brel’s beautiful chanson d’amour, “Ne me quitte pas.”

I’ve previously linked to a version of this song that I said almost embarrassed me for its raw, desperate begging. But I’ve found a very different version of the same song with Brel playing it cool. Oh, he’s still saying all the right things, but this is a guy who know he’s playing a game and also that he’s holding the winning hand. Compare these two clips of the very same song (desperate pleading vs. confident seduction) for an illustration of Brel’s finely tuned acting skills.

I also mentioned that the song had been frequently covered by other performers and I highlighted Sinatra’s version. But my favorite rendition by any American is Ray Charles‘ above.

There’s a short interview before the song. And by the way, something about seeing Ray Charles’ manner of speaking translated into French fills me with more patriotic sentiment than any flag or anthem ever could.

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Quote for the Day: Ivan Karamazov on the irreconcilable suffering of the innocent

Can you understand why a little creature, who can’t even understand what’s done to her, should beat her little aching heart with her tiny fist in the dark and the cold, and weep her meek unresentful tears to dear, kind God to protect her? Do you understand that, friend and brother, you pious and humble novice? Do you understand why this infamy must be and is permitted? Without it, I am told, man could not have existed on earth, for he could not have known good and evil. Why should he know that diabolical good and evil when it costs so much? Why, the whole world of knowledge is not worth that child’s prayer to dear, kind God!

– Fyodor Dostoyevsky in The Bothers Karamazov. In a chapter of the book titled “Rebellion,” Ivan concludes he would rather be left in a world without atonement for suffering than to purchase harmony at the high price of “the tears of that one tortured child.”

(Hat tip: Ross Douthat)

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What I brought home from the Harvest

“Rye whiskey, makes itself taste sweeter, oh boy!”

I had the pleasure of attending Harvest Music Festival in Arkansas this month with my wife and a couple of other friends. We camped on the festival grounds and took in three full days of live performances. This was my first music festival, but I’m thinking now that it won’t be my last. A big part of the fun was even before the festival began, sampling artists and groups I didn’t know to find out if I wanted to catch their performances. Here are a few of my favorite discoveries and highlights.

First, Delta Rae. Here is a music video of their song that has gotten the most attention. Here is another video that I think demonstrates they have real talent. And embedded below is a video of the performance I saw at Harvest. The sound equipment failed and they came down and played unplugged in front of the stage. I really wanted to post this video because Wendy, Bob, Lacey and I are in it, too.

When I first played Delta Rae for Wendy before the festival, she said “No, they sound too Christian.” I found a video that proved they are definitely not Christians. But that didn’t make any difference to her. When I hear “that sound,” I change the station, she said. And I agree, contemporary Christian music tends to have a distinctive production quality that I can’t quit put my finger on, and I guess Delta Rae does sound like whatever that is. But hearing them live, she actually liked them more than anyone else in our group. We sure did get to see them up close.

Some Split Lip Rayfield fans

One night we tried to go to bed before midnight. But I heard a sound coming from the main stage that sounded like a herd of buffalo thundering toward our tent. As soon as Split Lip Rayfield took the stage the next night, I knew they were the band I’d heard the night before. The bassist slaps away on something rigged out of a car’s gas tank creating a massive, rough-edged thundering; everything about them is raw and wonderful.

The fans at the Split Lip show were some of the strangest people I have ever seen. Half the time I couldn’t decide whether to keep my eye on the stage or watch the circus all around me.

I liked honeyhoney and in a different way that I expected to like them. I already knew they had some good songs and a lead singer easy to fall in love with. What I didn’t know is how hard they can rock with a full band. Though brimming with great music and many musical surprises including a cover of Hank William’s “Lost Highway,” their set managed to massively disappoint Wendy anyway for not including a song she likes called “Angel of Death” below.

And speaking of disappointments, this guy didn’t show up. But Joe Purdy was there.

Joe Purdy might have been my most important discovery at Harvest. That is because he was completely off my radar before and is now somebody I know I will listen to a lot, will closely track his output, and probably buy his albums. We’re talking Dylan-level commitment here. For me, that’s huge. Something clicked for me about halfway through the very first song of his set that he performed backed up by The Giving Tree Band. And then the next song was just as good. And the one after that.

The first song was “Goldfish” and below is a video of him performing it with the same band at an earlier performance.

Here is a cello, bass, drum ensemble called Tornado Rider that proves the cello a very untapped instrument for awesome rock ‘n roll potential.

The cellist is a Berklee College of Music grad, and he infuses their act with a manic sort of vaudevillian song-and-dance routine. The video below is a great sampling of his skill. But at Harvest, he traded this prep school attire seen in the video below for tiger-print rainbow-colored tights and a Robin Hood cap. Check that out, too.

The Punch Brothers, of course. They did not disappoint. The video below is of a song called “Rye Whiskey” that became my anthem for the festival (though to really get a flavor for why they are an important band, try the less traditional “Movement and Location“).

Punch Brother, Chris Thile recently won a “ genius grant” from the MacArthur Foundation. I’ve admired Thile’s mandolin virtuoso and song-writing skills since I first encountered his work on Nickel Creek’s first album. (Bonus: He’s not working with the Punch Brothers in this Tiny Desk session, but is in some pretty good company nonetheless.)

The way to listen to North Mississippi Allstars

And lastly, I just love this band, North Mississippi Allstars. When we heard them take the stage singing about shakin’ ’em on down, we were just then sitting around our campsite sipping our tent neighbors’ homemade cider and nobody else but me was in the mood to trudge the mud to the stage. So I grabbed my camp chair and walked over there by myself and I’m sure glad I did.

Here’s a song off their most recent album that weaves the hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” into a joyous chorus about “jellyrollin’ all over heaven”; it even manages to lend some irreverent sex appeal to the afterlife: “I love to see them sisters shakin’ that heavenly thing.”

I could go on, but I guess that’s enough. Harvest Fest was a great time that just keeps giving. I’d do it again, and hope to. Mud and all.

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