Friday, September 08, 2006

Listening to Modern Times, the new album by Bob Dylan, two different & competing thoughts pop into my mind. The first is that the sound is very much of a piece with his last two studio albums, 1997’s Time Out of Mind & Love and Theft, released on, of all dates, September 11, 2001. At ten years, this is the longest that the 65-year-old folk/rock chameleon has retained anything like the same aural presence. When one thinks of the multiple personalities Dylan inhabited during the 1960s – folk troubadour (Bob Dylan, most of Freewheelin’), protest singer (The Times They Are A-Changin), surreal balladeer (Another Side of Bob Dylan), inventor of folk-rock (Highway 61 Revisited), reclusive collaborator (John Wesley Harding, The Basement Tapes), & country crooner (Nashville Skyline), the sheer continuity of Dylan’s current renaissance is worth noting. You can hear (and see) a snatch of the music on, of all things, this iPod commercial.

The second is that this album contains Dylan’s very best band since … not The Band, but in fact the Paul Butterfield’s Blues Band, which accompanied Dylan first on the infamous electric betrayal at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, playing “Maggie’s Farm.” You can hear them on the soundtrack for the Martin Scorsese documentary, No Direction Home, where they sound tremendous. The late Michael Bloomfield, the great rich white kid blues guitarist of the ‘60s, lead guitarist for the Butterfield group, proved essential to the sound of Highway 61 Revisited, the one album more than any other that sealed Dylan’s reputation as the most creative rock musician in the genre’s most creative period.

Modern Times uses only one musician, bassist Tony Garnier, who shows up on either of the two previous studio albums & it’s true that Garnier’s work is as central to defining Dylan’s current sound as Bloomfield was then. The Butterfield band, the loudest group I’ve ever heard in person (a concert at UC Berkeley in 1965 or '66), wasn’t the first of the successful white blues acts of the 1960s – Koerner, Glover & Ray were the big musical act in the Twin Cities back with Robert Zimmerman first dropped out of the U. of Minnesota, “borrowed” a bunch of Glover’s LPs and began to refashion himself into Bob Dylan. And, in point of fact, the Butterfield band wasn’t all white either, including during its best years two veterans of Howlin’ Wolf’s band, Jerome Arnold & Sam Lay, as well as harmonica master & singer Butterfield, organist Mark Naftalin & bassist Elvin Bishop.

Where Koerner, Glover & Ray were masters of miming the sound of acoustic delta blues, the Butterfield band hued much closer to their own Chicago roots & the electrified urban blues pioneered there by Muddy Waters (whose earlier Alan Lomax recording back in the delta is well worth listening to, just to get a sense of where he was coming from), Wolf, Otis Spann & Buddy Miles. If the very first rock-n-roll tune ever recorded was Robert Johnson’s 1936 “Cross Road Blues,” the Butterfield band 30 years later represents the first clear moment when rock & blues clearly are no longer two separate genres. From Eric Clapton to the North Mississippi All-Stars, the influence of the Butterfield band has continued much further than the band itself. After two hit albums, the first simply entitled The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, the second East-West, the band’s make-up changed &, with it, the sound that had proven so effective both for Dylan & the band itself.

It’s interesting, sad even, that Dylan never made a record with the Butterfield band during its short-lived heyday in the mid-1960s. The Band, originally the Hawks, Ronnie Hawkins’ backup band, didn’t really gel on their own until Big Pink, their debut album. While they were the touring band behind Dylan during the Blonde on Blonde period, they aren’t the band he recorded with until 1974’s Before the Flood, not Dylan’s finest work. The Basement Tapes of course emerged a year later, after nearly a decade as one of the most widely distributed bootlegs ever made, but it’s clear there that these are musicians jamming. The unfinished sound of so many songs on that collection, tho, is an essential part of its charm.

Dylan’s approach to his bands often feels as tenuous as that of Chuck Berry, who is notorious for playing gigs around the country & simply presuming that whatever band the promoter hires will know his work & be able to follow along. Dylan at least has had a tendency to hold onto his bassists & keyboard players for longer periods (Charlie McCoy & Al Kooper being two examples from the early years), as tho these were the keys to his sound.

But it feels strange to think of Dylan’s 44th album as finally being the one in which he gets the backup band right. It lends his current sound, which is at once both cynical & nostalgic, retro &, for a balladeer, still restlessly innovative, all at once, a depth his work hasn’t held before. How very curious.