Bob Dylan
More Blood, More Tracks: The Bootleg Series Vol. 14

The version of Bob Dylan’s iconic Blood on the Tracks that the general public is most familiar with, originally released in 1975, took a circuitous route to the stage. If I’d ever known about it, I’d forgotten the details. I’m a decade older than Dylan was then, and I’ve wasted a ton of time, but he did not. Blood on the Tracks ushered in yet another immaculate era of songwriting magic for the man who’d elevated the art on multiple occasions already. But you don’t need me to outline all that for you. You can just read about it in the liners to the 14th installment of Dylan’s esteemed Bootleg Series called More Blood, More Tracks.

After his turn in the “We Are the World” single, which just confused the hell out of me, the first Bootleg Series installment was my intro to Dylan. That one spanned three decades. From rough demos to outtakes from 1990’s Under the Red Sky. More Blood is more focused and more immediately comprehensible. The recordings are quiet and intimate, like Dylan is performing just for you. In a library. With his mouth all the way up against the mic. This set gets us that close to Dylan, and presumably nearer to the album he’d intended before he got twitchy and rerecorded much of the material with expanded instrumentation. It’s like a songwriting master class. And it gives the listener an unmolested view of Dylan’s under-appreciated abilities as a guitarist too. Hearing him play a (more or less) straight acoustic Blues take on “Meet Me in the Morning” is a grand slam. Some of the tunes include accompaniment by a bassist. Beyond that, it’s Bob, his voice, guitar, and harmonica. If you want to trim the fat off the Bard’s bones, this is the set for you. It’s a favorite in a series that I hold in the highest regard. I look forward to Bootleg Series installments like most adults look forward to retirement.

These sets take up more space on my shelves than any other series or collection by any other artist. They bully other records out of their real estate and they blare at you in colossal fonts announcing Dylan’s alpha status in the pantheon. You can read the spines from the front yard. But the packaging for More Blood, More Tracks is as understated as the material. The two discs are housed in a single sleeve, not even a gatefold. There’s a full-size fold over flier with liners on three of the four sides and a photo on the other. Download code included.

I’m like Marc Maron, I don’t know how much time I’ve got left. I’ll take the Clift’s notes and be happier for it. The best thing about these sets, beyond the music they contain, is that they point you back to the original releases that resulted from the sessions they celebrate. They add value to already priceless art. I’m coming back to Blood On the Tracks from an entirely different angle. Like listening with new ears. We knew the music would live forever, but now it’s been reborn. Again. A trick that Dylan has pulled off so many times before.

Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band
Almost Acoustic
Round Records

This year’s installment of Record Store Day’s Black Friday affair didn’t exactly re-write the rulebook for vinyl events. The list was not especially compelling. This was reflected in the lack of a line outside my normally bustling independent retailer. In retrospect, I could have waited until the store opened and still gotten the few titles I was after, but that’s not how I do it.

The usual suspects were in line and displaying all the telltale signs of a bunch of junkies waiting for their man when I showed up fashionably late at… 7:30am. We are not a proud lot. We do what circumstances require. Which involves having a bunch of dorky conversations, rampaging through a brick and mortar retail establishment like George Costanza escaping that false alarm kitchen fire, then retreating to our caves to lord over our purchases before taking a well-earned nap. I was most excited about the Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band’s first ever North American vinyl release of Almost Acoustic. Let us start there.

I’ve loved this recording for decades. Plural. I first stumbled upon it in my right-hand man’s oldest brother’s CD collection a couple of years after its release. I think. At this time, I’d have been at the party with a Pabst Blue Ribbon, quietly pretending to love the Grateful Dead as much as everyone around me when, in fact, I was sort of puzzled by the whole phenomenon. I still can’t call myself a true fan. But I can hunt and peck and find a seed here and there. Almost Acoustic is one of those.

It is, as the title implies, an electric performance only insomuch as the band’s acoustic instruments had to be amplified in order to be heard in the California theaters wherein the presentations occurred. The songs are mostly traditional, the playing is splendid, the production tasty, and Bob Weir, as a vocalist, is prominently absent. That’s because Garcia is the only member of the Dead involved in the performances at all. David Nelson, who somehow takes the only guitar solo on the Dead’s (stellar) American Beauty, plays guitar along with Garcia on Almost Acoustic. Other people play mandolins and dobros and fiddles and basses and snare drums. Greatly.

The original concerts were recorded on DATs, so there were no analog tapes from which to master this release. But the performances reach the listener just the same. Decent three dimensionality, better than average clarity, and a wide enough soundstage. The two green marbled pressings are good, but the few ticks that snuck into the show stand out like polo shirts in the lot scene due to the quiet nature of the material.

The performances are where the action’s at. I’d have given one of either leg to get to see this configuration of musicians play at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, but that event didn’t exist in the late ’80s. Almost Acoustic is what we’ve got left. Not sure why no reputable label, or any label, has taken on the task of issuing an audiophile take on Old And, In the Way, but this’ll get us through until they do. That album also gives you an uncut dose of what Garcia sounded like in his most natural element. His talent was special. His playing was pure. And Almost Acoustic is here to convince you of that.

Duke Ellington
Plays with the Original Motion Picture Score Mary Poppins
Reprise Records

I knew we were scraping the bottom of the Black Friday barrel when one of the titles that most enlivened my imagination was Duke Ellington’s take on… the Mary Poppins soundtrack. Not kidding. It was originally released in 1965, which is way past Ellington’s commercial prime, so who knows what the intentions were behind this chapter in his musical course. I suspect that this reissue’s appearance is tied into whatever update on the movie that Hollywood is in the process of foisting on us now. Isn’t there some re-release in theaters currently? Anyway, I bought the damn reissue. I was not expecting much.

And I’m way past pleasantly surprised. I assumed I’d be disappointed by the sonics even if I found the material compelling. But they’re both great. I couldn’t find any info on the sources used, but I doubt that Disney or Reprise dug too deep in the coffers to give this project wings. Somehow, it still lives. I swear. The talking trombones float right out of the speakers and into your ears. There’s plenty of air to buoy the Duke’s piano and the cymbals too. The instruments are well-placed on the stage, and the whole thing is a jaunty affair for the whole family. By design, I presume.

I haven’t seen Mary Poppins since I was a little kid, but the songs come right back when the Duke is driving. This is the second novelty title in my collection that he is responsible for. His take on the Nutcracker Suite is much less literal than the Disney material, and it’s phenomenal, and the Speakers Corner presentation of that record is a true audiophile event. The Record Store Day release is not, but it doesn’t miss by much. I’m as startled by it as I would be to learn that Dick Van Dyke could still do that hot shoe number with all those drums strapped to him. Am I remembering, that right?

I don’t think this soundtrack, billed as Duke Ellington “playing with” the Mary Poppins score, is going to inspire a screening of the original movie, and I certainly won’t be heading to the multiplex for the newer installment, but I’m keeping the record. I’ll listen to it sometimes. The music stands on its own. Familiarity with the original score is not required to prop it up. It’s a fun one.

The pressing is great and the sonics are fine. If you like Big Band music, and you’re even a little less jaded than my crotchety old self, you may consider picking this one up. I mean, you probably won’t, but you could. I’d almost say you should. Go ahead and live a little. Hell, Dick Van Dyke is still dancing, give yourself a little rope and have a good time. I’m sure glad I did.

John Lee Hooker
Early Recordings: Detroit and Beyond Vol. 1
Third Man Records

Third Man Records always gets in on the RSD action, but I don’t think they’re stuff is officially sanctioned by the event’s organizers. Their titles are typically not on the announced list. The label shows its hand a little closer to curtain time. This year, they did a few 7-inch singles, a reissue of Icky Thump, and a two-volume set of early John Lee Hooker recordings called, appropriately, Early Recordings: Detroit and Beyond. I snagged the first installment. Didn’t have to though. These titles aren’t scarce, you can get them any old time. There were some limited-edition colored vinyl copies for sale at the actual Third Man storefronts. Maybe there still are. But the standard black vinyl plays just fine, I promise.

It’s tough to find true audiophile Blues content. Analogue Productions has done some stuff. Mobile Fidelity did a Muddy Waters title a while back. They’re usually acoustic titles, which lend themselves a little more readily to a proper remaster. Early Blues music was clearly not recorded with the discerning listener in mind. The target audience was likely not too concerned about three dimensionality and transparency. Folks wanted to rock. Forget about their troubles at the juke joint after the fish fry. As do I, but my options are limited. Depending on the vintage, original tapes could be unusable or nonexistent or just crappy. Or they might not…

According to Third Man, the two Hooker titles were “remastered using original master recordings.” Doesn’t mean that they weren’t digitized along the way, but it’s obvious by listening that efforts were made. This is not the same old thing. This is John Lee Hooker in my favorite configuration. He performs mostly by his lonesome with a clean(ish) electric tone and his foot stomping off mic to keep the beat driving. A few of the recordings feature a second guitarist, or someone on harp or piano. Pretty lean. And plenty mean.

I felt like I’d discovered the key to time travel when I first heard R.L. Burnside. Like he’d appeared on this Earth fully formed, waving his pistol around at the party, and slinging slide guitar solos like flying daggers. But he had a template. Or the skeleton of one, anyway. And these recordings by John Lee Hooker might have been it. Hooker’s influence on Burnside is way more obvious to me after hearing these recordings. Hooker’s arrangements are less chaotic than Burnside’s, but there’s still plenty of wiggle room within the bars. Lots of room to boogie and stomp.

The mastering on these tunes is as good as you could hope for, and the pressings are admirable. I’ve had good luck with Third Man Pressing, so far. They’re clearly confident because they advertise their involvement, which I think should be mandated for all vinyl releases. At this point, I trust them as much as any pressing plant not named RTI. No download codes included with this release, and the artwork lacks luster. The content does not. Don’t let these get away.

The Germs
What We Do Is Secret

I’d been wanting to reintroduce myself to the Germs ever since I saw Pat Smear in that Sound City doc. I saw my chance when What We Do Is Secret cropped up on the Black Friday RSD list. It’s a compilation of songs the band recorded between 1977-1980. I’ve heard that their full-length called (GI) is the one to have. But I don’t have that, I have this. So, here we go…

Things kick off with a couple of false starts on a cover of Chuck Berry’s “Round and Round.”

The band eventually makes it all the way through a passable take on the song, kind of. This is Punk Rock in the realest way. It’s not pretty. Lead singer Darby Crash, deceased, was reputed to be a gifted lyricist, and he may have been, but I can’t tell. I don’t have the concentration needed to focus on the material long enough to decipher what is being said. Or sung. That’s not to say it’s bad. It’s not. You’ve just got to know what you’re getting yourself into.

And I did. I’ve read about how loaded the band often was when they performed. The falling, the vomiting onstage, all that punky goodness of the day. I knew that they were label mates with and championed by the members of X. And I like that band a lot. Saw them at the Fillmore with my dear mom just the other night, in fact. She liked X. She was less impressed with What We Do Is Secret.

But I think the Germs have an intriguing story. It’s worth remarking, for instance, on the fact that Belinda Carlisle was briefly in the band. As their drummer. Performing as Dottie Danger. So, there’s that. But my favorite part is that Pat Smear was a founding member and was with the band in every incarnation. He was also a latter-day touring member of Nirvana, which is not incongruous for a member of the Germs. Later, he joined the Foo Fighters, but I’m not too familiar with them. What they do is secret to me.

Here’s the rub: Smear ended up recording with the surviving Nirvana members along with… Paul McCartney. That’s right. The dude from the Germs recorded a song with the guy from the frigging Beatles, and it won a Grammy. A Grammy is an objectively vapid award, sure, but it’s still crazy. Smear was also in the original Blade Runner. I bet dude has stories…

Anyway, as wise woman I know might say, this little EP is good if you like it. Audiophiles and most people of a certain vintage will almost assuredly not. I think it’s fun. My Punk collection is deficient. I don’t even have any Clash records. Which I should. I could also stand to get a Ramones disc or two, and certainly Never Mind the Bollocks… As is, I have a few Against Me! albums, one by the Neckbones, the first three X records, and now this.

Sounds like Pallas probably did a good job with the pressing, but it’s hard to tell.

Things get loud quick and stay that way until the end. Just like the Germs did. For what it’s worth…