Dylan offers an evocative, expansive ballad for JFK: “Murder Most Foul”

Ghosts can drag on our psychic heels interminably – that’s why they’re called haunting. Damn hard to shake. So Bob Dylan was utterly apt in titling his new 17-minute opus “Murder Most Foul.” He’s quoting perhaps the most famous haunter in literature, Hamlet’s father — murdered by Hamlet’s uncle, who then marries the prince’s mother and gains the Danish crown. At one point, the ghostly father whispers, “Murder most foul, as in the best it is; But this most foul, strange and unnatural.”

The ghost of Hamlet’s murdered father in the Kenneth Branaugh film adaptation of “Hamlet.” Courtesy Kristlinglistics

Dylan was apparently among the countless of both the so-called “greatest generation” and the baby-boomers who could never quite let go of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. And have we really, as a nation? Ever since that fateful day in Dallas, America has indulged a weakness for conspiracy theories. It’s hard to not argue that Kennedy assassination isn’t the primary impetus for a collective national neurosis — the Warren Report be damned. I have an intelligent friend with a license plate that reads simply: “JFK,” and who eagerly unfurls intriguing conspiracy tentacles on the subject. I’ll admit I wrote one of the first poems of my young life, and then read a whole book, about the assassination back in the day. 1

So, we struggled mightily with the tragedy of it, the insanity of it, the mystery, skulduggery and intrigue. It brought this barrel-chested nation crashing to its knees and wringing its hands, after Kennedy had lifted us up with a noble challenge, the dream of the moon, and hope for a greater America – not in xenophobic isolation like our current president – but through the Peace Corps, and diplomacy, in service to the world. Even in largely outmaneuvering The Soviets in the Cold War, though that almost went awry.

What a different world ours might be had Kennedy (and M. L. King and RFK) lived to fulfill their promise and vision. Instead, we soon got the “Reagan Revolution,” neo-liberalism, and now, Donald Trump and his white-nationalist primary policy-maker, our currents state of affairs.

Rolling Stone is straightforward in striving for the song’s currency, certainly at an emotional level: “All across the country at this very moment, people are lost, scared, and grieving. The coronavirus crisis has transformed American life with shocking speed — and Bob Dylan wants you to know that he feels your pain,” asserts Simon Vozick- Levinson. 2

For sure, by transporting us with such skilled empathy, Dylan transfers our neurological focus away from our pain, in a similar way that certain tried-and-true medications, such as medical marijuana, work for countless people suffering chronic physical pain.

Dylan releasing this now also might help explain why, after becoming the unofficial protest spokesman of the ‘60s generation, he abdicated the role increasingly in the few years after Kennedy’s death in November 1963. He clearly cares that people hear it now, as if finally unburdening himself.  2

The summer of 1964 brought Another Side of Bob Dylan which stepped back from the heavy protest of The Times They Are a’ Changin’, with the exception of the magnificent “Chimes of Freedom,” a sort of farewell hosanna to justice. And by 1965’s rootsier, more personal and romantic Bringing It All Back Home, Dylan’s also beginning to plug in, and he chain-anchors the album with the long, searingly bleak “It’s All Right Ma (I’m only Bleeding)” which remains it’s very own surreal rough beast slouching toward Bethlehem. Yet, in retrospect, it’s chant-like manner and lyrics might also resonate as a conceptual trial run for “Murder Most Foul.” Consider the earlier song’s: “Disillusioned words like bullets bark/ As human gods aim for their mark/ made everything from toy guns that spark/ to flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark/ It’s easy to see without looking too far/ that not much is really sacred.

While preachers preach of evil fates/ teachers teach that knowledge waits/ can lead to hundred-dollar plates/ Goodness hides behind its gates/ but even the President of the United States/ sometimes must have to stand naked.”

This new piece won’t be everyone’s cup of tea; Dylan doesn’t even sing a single melody. It’s more like a minister’s funeral sermon. Yet, his voice is richly nuanced, by turns, ironic, quizzical, tender and garrulous. At the very least, let’s agree his bard’s technique remains peerless, including his uncannily effortlessness at rhyming couplets, which keep our mind almost helplessly hooked at his words’ rhythmic resonance.

Dylan contemplates what we lost by paraphrasing Kennedy’s most famous aphorism: “Don’t ask what your country can do for you…” and soon follows by yoking bluesman Robert Johnson with Shakespeare, ”I’m going down to the crossroads try to flag a ride/ the place where faith, hope and charity die…“What is the truth, where did it go? Ask Oswald and Ruby they oughta know. Business is business and it’s a murder most foul.”

Jackie Kennedy reacts to her husband being shot. Courtesy The Conversation

Arriving at the decisive moment, Dylan pulls a masterful trick by inhabiting JFK:

Riding in the backseat next to my wife
Heading straight on into the afterlife
I’m leaning to the left; got my head in her lap
Hold on, I’ve been led into some kind of a trap.

The songwriter, creator of many unforgettable characters who’d be nobodies if not for him, learned long ago the power of rhetorical illusionism. Of the assassination itself he comments, “The greatest magic trick under the sun/ perfectly executed, skillfully done.”

A simulation of the gun sight of JFK’s assassin. Courtesy The Guardian 

The Abraham Zapruder film, now replayed in slow motion, remains shockingly violent:

It’s a strangely compelling phenomenon – hearing the man who refused to speak for his generation doing what he can’t help but doing. Speaking for perhaps all generations, then and since, who cherish gifted, inspiring leaders. We feel we, too, must stand naked when they’re torn from us, as Martin Luther King Jr. and Kennedy’s brother Robert soon would be too. No wonder Dylan thought it was all too much for even him, or perhaps anyone, to fully grapple with then. Even now, he drolly disavows any special role: “I’m just a patsy like Patsy Cline.”

Nevertheless, his insight arises in several ways, including by changing points of view, so we look at life with a prismatic perspective. And it’s perhaps most powerful as emotional insight, well-honed empathy, a way of understanding the old rawness that remains, like heavy, rotting branches from our heart. Time heals, but somewhere beneath our psychic scars, many of us still carry a cross for our martyr, who carried an almost Christ-like aura, even if we knew his human weaknesses. Dylan curtly references the famous temptress who allegedly led two Kennedy brothers astray.

The instrumental accompaniment is also inspired, in its welling empathy and its softly buoyant restraint — from the most eloquent of instruments, the cello, and bowed bass, and piano. Lightly struck cymbals.

Yes, this feels like Dylan delivering the ghost of a beloved and blood-spattered leader into the existential consciousness of generations (Though Hamlet’s maker did as well, would that the poor prince been so successful):

“We’re right down the street, from the street where you live.

They mutilated his body/ they took out his brain

what more could they do?/ They piled on the pain.

But his soul is not there where it was supposed to be at

For the last 50 years they’ve been searching for that

Freedom, oh freedom, freedom from me

I hate to tell you mister, but only dead men are free…

Note the deftly swift switching of points-of-view here, as the author refuses to let us forget the horrid, cold-blooded nature of the deed:

Throw the gun in the gutter and walk on by…

Got blood in my eye, got blood in my ear

I’m never gonna make it to the new frontier.

The Zapruder film I’ve seen the night before.

Seen it thirty-three times maybe more.

Its foul and deceitful and vile and mean/ ugliest thing that you ever have seen

They killed him once, they killed him twice/, killed him like a human sacrifice.”

(Incredibly, Secret Service agent Clint Hill, on the Kennedy car’s trunk by then, reports that Jackie Kennedy climbed onto the hood not to flee, but to retrieve parts of her husband’s skull and brain matter.) 3

The Kennedy limousine in Dallas. Photo courtesy Getty Gallery

Dylan’s consolation is intermittent, almost as if only the innocent have earned it, by default: ”Hush little children you’ll understand/ the Beatles are coming, they’ll hold your hand.”

This nifty pop cultural reference preludes Dylan’s most inspired leap, an extended petitioning for grace even non-believers can understand. He invokes the period’s colorful, big-talking disc jockey Wolfman Jack, who hardly carries the gravitas of a Walter Cronkite. But Jack lets us down easier, we hope, in music’s healing waters. So hear Dylan, himself a disk jockey of note, riding his imploring waves, for the ghost’s sake and ours:

Wolfman Jack he’s speaking in tongues

He’s going on and on at the top of his lungs

Play me a song Mister Wolfman Jack

play it for my long Cadillac

play it that only the good die young,

take us to the place where Tom Dooley was hung…

Play it for me and for Marilyn Monroe.

Play please don’t let me be misunderstood

play it for the First Lady she ain’t feeling so good…

Play “Mystery Train” for Mister Mystery

for the man who fell down like a rootless tree…

Play Oscar Peterson, play Stan Getz, play “Blue Sky” play Dickey Betts.

Play Art Pepper, Thelonious Monk

play Charlie Parker and all that junk.

All that junk and all that jazz

play something for the Birdman of Alcatraz.

play Buster Keaton play Harold Loyd

play Bugsy Seigel play Pretty Boy Floyd…

play Nat King Cole play Nature Boy”

Play “Down in the Boondocks” for Terry Malloy…

Don’t worry Mister President help’s on the way

your brothers are coming

there’ll be hell to pay.

Brothers? What brothers? What’s this about hell?…

Was a hard act to follow second to none

They’ll killed him on the altar of the rising sun…”

Marlon Brando as dock laborer Terry Malloy in Elia Kazan’s classic film “On the Waterfront.” Courtesy MarlonBrando.com

The riffing’s cumulative effect is stunning, deeply gratifying, as the songwriter/poet/disc jockey neatly ties it together at the end, like a spiritual tourniquet, that increasingly eases the pain built up over half a century.

Yet Dylan challenges us to reconsider, give this tragedy its full due, once more. How can we, as a nation and people, do better? At times, like now, our leaders need to lead. And yet, “Ask not what your country can do for you…” John F. Kennedy’s ghost might quote John Lennon: “Come together, right now, over me.”

But this work also feels healing, the work of a kind of doctor, a pop culture witch doctor perhaps, or a shaman, posing as a mere patsy.

We all know how Patsy Cline went to pieces. By doing so, she began to help us pick up our pieces.

And so, this patsy-priest helps us to walk, with that ghost, away from the altar, to our own rising sun.

_________________

  1. My “JFK” friend, a deeply involved aficionado of the assassination subculture,  comments about official explanations: “An elaborate disinformation campaign by the CIA has led people astray at a Freudian level.”
  2. Here’s a Twitter message Dylan posted with the song’s release:
Bob Dylan Twitter
@bobdylan

Greetings to my fans and followers with gratitude for all your support and loyalty across the years. This is an unreleased song we recorded a while back that you might find interesting. Stay safe, stay observant and may God be with you. — Bob Dylan

March 27, 2020[1]

3. This video, narrated by SS agent Clint Hill, recounts the event with startling efficacy:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Tedeschi Trucks Band’s Wheels of Soul 2016 tour keeps on truckin,’ with Los Lobos…

IMG_0946

Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi, here performing in White River State Park in Indianapolis, may be pop music’s most talented and hardest-working couple.

A Southerly Cultural Travel Journal

Indianapolis — A wall of dark, broad-shouldered clouds hovered above the massive J. W. Marriott Hotel, surely one of the largest facades this side of the United Nations building, with mirror windows that reflect myriad aspects of the sky’s caprice. The building looms over the Farm Bureau Insurance Lawn, nestled along the refurbished White River Canal, which includes ancient canal lock foundations sitting in the middle of the water like giant grizzled, brick turtles. Those clouds felt ominous for the big outdoor concert headlined by The Tedeschi Trucks Band, which my girlfriend and I were walking towards.

IMG_0918

Just east of the park at Lucas Oil Stadium, The Indianapolis Colts prepared for a new season. But the sky eventually mimicked the clouds, merely growing darker as the sun set.

We arrived too late to see the opening set of the North Mississippi All-Stars, but the band’s star guitarist, Luther Dickinson, came on to jam on a couple of songs when Los Lobos hit the stage. This sort of band commingling is part of the “Wheels of Soul 2016” tour concept, in which members of the three bands sit in with each other. Soon, Susan Tedeschi walked on unannounced in a pastel green print summer dress and sang an impassioned version of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On?” with “the wolves” providing sparkling vocal support in high harmony. Gaye’s imploring lyrics resonated with our times, with such lines as “Picket lines and picket signs/ Don’t punish me with brutality./ Talk to me, so you can see.” Tedeschi especially drove home hard the line “For only love can conquer hate.”

Los Lobos

Los Lobos, going strong for more than 40 years, preceeded the Tedeschi Trucks Band.

Next thing you knew, guitarist Derek Trucks and his band’s three horn players stepped out and the impromptu ensemble cranked up a monster guitar ensemble riff (with four guitars now onstage), jousting with the horns, with heavy musical armor clanking.

Los Lobos, the remarkable Latino group from East Los Angeles, remains a force with the same personnel over 40 years, and a joy to behold. Their last album, Gates of Gold shows absolutely no loss of creative and performing powers. Yet, although the band soon fell into a deliciously rocking groove, they offered very little material from that album, aside from “That Train Don’t Leave Here Anymore.” But singer-guitarist Cesar Rosas remains a growling and prowling rock ‘n’ roll voice, and the train rumbled down its track with abandon.

The band members offer a study in onstage contrasts: Rosas is the voluble hipster in goatee and shades. Bassist Conrad Lozado bounces along merrily in shorts and a perpetual grin. Bespectacled and largely mum Louie Perez, the band’s resident poet/songwriter, resembles a college professor who just discovered the joys of the electric guitar, but his serious, pursed lips won’t let on. Behind him, the band’s only comparative youngster, drummer Enrique “Bugs” Gonzales, stokes the beat with zealous relish.

And beside short, slight Perez stands his hulking counterpart and old high school compadre, singer-guitarist-multi-instrumentalist David Hidalgo, who always seems slightly afflicted by soulful pain. To his left, keyboardist-saxophonist Steve Berlin lurks in shades and long, gray goatee, like a mysterious monk summoning the music of the spheres.

Their set was too short but rich, especially with the personnel mixing.

After a break on this sultry night, The Tedeschi Trucks Band ensued. Their latest album, Let Me Get By, bears a liberated Mongolian eagle as its iconic cover symbol, and the great raptor hovered majestically in a large background projection (below).

IMG_1001

IMG_1000

There are many aspects to singer Susan Tedeschi’s vibrantly expressive vocal style, including a tendency to sing out of the side of her mouth, as above.

And the group consistently liberates itself in pushing the boundaries of an array of genres – the blues, R&B, rock, gospel, jazz, and even country – by strapping them together in various stripes in their distinctive originals. So we heard such TTB standouts as “Bound for Glory,”  “The Storm,” “Let Me Get By,” the Sly Stone-esque “Don’t Know What It Means,” “Right On Time,” the pulsing rainbow of a song redolent of an old Beatles brass-band rave-up, and the raga-soul “Midnight in Harlem,” where tenor saxophonist Kebbi Williams took a superb solo in place of Trucks’ usual guitar spotlight. The sax conveyed a sudden revelation amid the song’s bittersweet story of loss and urban desperation, and felt like a tender smile and a sigh bleeding together.

Trucks seemed to share the spotlight more than usual this night, and yet he delivered an understated but stunning “raga” passage, which introduces “Midnight.”

This seemingly improvised raga works with the song’s tonalities more than its chords or melody, per se (until he states the melody at the end of the improv). It’s his time to explore the guitar especially with Eastern classical microtonalities, tunings and fingerings, as well as the spirit of East-meets-West. For this band, I think, Harlem might signify the essence of The West. The East, accordingly serves to illuminate things about the West.

So in this intro solo, Trucks uncovered some bizarrely enchanting sitar-related voicings that I don’t think I’ve heard on a guitar before. People like Mike Bloomfield and George Harrison opened the door for this, via the great sitar master Ravi Shankar, of course (with jazz guitarists like Gabor Szabo pioneering a jazz-middle eastern connection about the same time, the mid-60s). But Trucks is very quietly (considering his fame) expanding the vocabulary and expressive palette of the contemporary electric guitar through this realm, and his astonishingly developed slide-guitar technique facilitates that search, with its emphasis on striking and strange harmonics more than precise, Western-style chords. This all seems important to him. The sum of his effort works beautifully as an intro to the depths as “Midnight” plumbs — as if he’s setting a cinematic mood and scenario and a consciousness-expanding spirit for this vivid and powerful song.

Tedeschi Trucks Band

Tedeschi Trucks Band

Derek Trucks plays at the Wheels of Soul 2016 tour in Indianapolis on July 27. His highly developed bottleneck slide technique facilitates his exploration of Eastern tonalities in his “raga” modes. Photo by Chris Shaw of Indianapolis.

It’s a prime example of how these road-tested stagecoach riders know where they’re going with their reins on all those vernacular styles because they know where they came from. Tedeschi swerved into honky tonk on “The Color of the Blues,” where the blues married a barroom cowgirl in this chestnut by George Jones, the magnificent country vocal stylist who died in 2013. Accompanied only by her own guitar and background vocals from Mike Mattison and trombonist Elizabeth Lea, the lead singer mined the dolorous lyricism implicit in the blues.

She also tore into the old Bobby Blue Bland hit “I Pity the Fool” and ratcheted it up higher than when I saw her perform it in Madison on the band’s previous tour. Towards the end of the song, she unleashed a sassy rap like a righteous black woman putting her wayward man in his place. I mean, for a white woman from Boston with a little-girl talking voice, Ms. Tedeschi was dealin’!

Also convincingly covered were ZZ Top’s “Going Down to Mexico.” The Box Tops’ “The Letter,” and Sly and the Family Stone’s boisterous “Are You Ready?” which improbably tested the audience’s readiness for their almost comically drastic gear shift into an extraordinary rendition of James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain.” Here, a relatively new band weapon emerged when background singer Mark Rivers took the vocal lead. The song’s bittersweet reflection swelled into nearly operatic heights but never felt overblown, partly due to its doo-wop colorations.

If any band can redefine and re-invigorate American music by embracing the best its many vernaculars have to offer, it is Tedeschi Trucks. At times their idioms feel like a journey into valleys as shadowy as the mythical American  “Mystery Train,” but they invariably chug up to the crest where it all makes sense in the sunlight, like a train bound for nowhere else but glory.

______

All photos by Kevin Lynch, except as indicated.

 

 

 

 

Tedeschi Trucks articulates their full voice and vision on “Let Me Get By”

Susan Tedeschi’s soul-stirring voice soars and dips more majestically than ever, on an eagle’s wing. Listen to “Anyhow.” It’s a broken heart with tenacious muscles. Time after time, Derek Trucks’ slide guitar solos, searing and catchy, nail a song’s heart. Kofi Burbridge’s sinuously gleaming flute emerges periodically like a spectral angel. The band’s a glorious monster, like we’ve never quite experienced before. Yet there’s more, much more.

We’ve watched The Tedeschi Trucks Band grow before our eyes into the 12-musician offspring of the most blessed musical couple in American music. I’m hardly alone in thinking they’re the best performing band we have today. It’s also amazing how they become so great so fast, even while still coalescing. Their collective and individual talents have slashed through and absorbed thickets of influences, up the mountain to the roots-rock summit. Then, they reach out to pull you up with them. Their path betrays the sheer toil of inspired dedication, performing on the road for more than 200 days for the fifth straight year in 2015 — and they’re currently on another summer-long tour.

On Let Me Get By, their third studio recording,  they articulate overarching purpose and meaning more clearly than ever. That statement is quite evident on the basic album, as it should be. But it becomes more fully realized in the album’s two-disc deluxe edition, which includes eight bonus tracks, three of them live concert performances, and a David Bowie cover. I’ll address the bonus material in a second post, to try getting a handle on a great collective group finding its fullest self. Remember, TTB’s reputation remains foremost as a live band, despite their Grammy for their 2011 debut studio album Revelator.

Cover of the two CD deluxe box of “Let Me Get By.” amazon.com

The new album title and cover say something like “unchain your heart!” A Mongolian golden eagle has broken free from its master’s glove, and seems bound for new heights — bound for glory, as the band put it, on a great song from Revelator.

“’Let Me Get By’ actually refers to a lot of things,” says Trucks in their website profile, “like the band becoming more self-reliant than ever before—writing our own songs and producing our own music in our own studio. It’s about moving on to a new recording label (Fantasy/Concord) with a deal that gives us more freedom.

“It definitely took time for us to get here. I think the connections we have in this band and among the crew and extended family are the real reason why.”

His spouse and band co-leader, singer/guitarist Susan Tedeschi comments, “Derek hears everything from a big picture stance. Not just track-by-track but the album as a whole.”

Adds Trucks: It’s a bunch of different true stories meshed into one.”

So much feel-good P.R. talk? Listen closely, after you’ve felt the music, and judge for yourself. The road-tested communal feeling Trucks speaks of feeds into the band’s ethical worldview, which seems more clearly crystallized on Let Me Get By. Lyricist and background singer Mike Mattison’s emergence speaks plenty about the band’s step forward. He gets his first two lead-vocal spotlights on a TTB album (on “Crying Over You” and “Right On Time”), and his increasing mastery as a lyricist and songwriter is more central than ever to the band’s vision. Despite their prodigious musicianship and Trucks “guitar hero” status, they funnel those powers into the songs, and a sense that the collective sound fuels human aspirations.

Even vocalist Tedeschi, like her spouse, seems lacking in typical leader ego. She started a kind of joke about her joy and gratitude, Trucks says. “After shows, she started to say to everyone, ‘Thanks for letting me be in your band’ and we’d all laugh. Now we all say it.”

Joy and gratitude ooze from Let Me Get By, amid more complex emotions, and as qualities that might help heal and make a difference in a deeply injured earth and troubled society.

Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi at Red Rocks Amphitheater in 2015. Courtesy iwebradio.fm/Kell Yeah Photography

Hear the clarion call of Tedeschi bracing opening note of “Anyhow” signaling the “wreckage in my soul”: Running from a bitter taste/took a rest from all the chase/feeling something anchored in my soul./ played the game by all the/learning lessons no one gets to choose. The song continues about a personal relationship, but that first verse can speak to anyone in the economic 99% feeling betrayed by the game and its rules — the rigged system — whether you lean left or right. The song goes on to speak of cold-hearted desperation among the unemployed and even working poor, and invokes Biblical myth: “Cain and Abel lit the flame/we can never go that way again.” This clearly references brother-on-brother crime, whether it is inner-city shootings, police brutality/homicide, or white-collar financial betrayal.

Yet “Anyhow” is an absolute soul-stirrer — not a downer. And TTB doesn’t preach, they understand the philosophic pause and the medicine of laughter, in the ensuing “Laugh About It.” This band’s ethically-driven sort of communal political synergy resonates from the rapturous gospel choruses right into the groundswell roar of the Bernie Sanders political movement, a sense of empowerment and transformation.

_____________________________

Here is The Tedeschi Trucks Band in a NPR Tiny Desk Concert, performing “Just as Strange,” “Don’t Know What it Means,” and “Anyhow” from the album “Let Me Get By”:

http://www.npr.org/2016/03/24/471725403/tedeschi-trucks-band-tiny-desk-concert

______________________________________________

The instrumental break in “Laugh About It” shows how tight and rich their grooves and arrangements have become, with Truck’s guitar quick-stepping through horn and rhythm counter-punches. You can dance along to it or your music head can marvel. And Susan does laugh about it at the end.

“Don’t Know What It Means” shows this band reaching new heights in its pop appeal, in the power of call-and-response. The refrain glows with as much warm infectiousness as a vintage Sly and the Family Stone song, another collective-oriented stylistic precursor. That refrain melody descends like the slowing last yards of an exhilarating roller coaster ride, and the rhythmic hand-clapping helps turn that dynamic into a Juneteenth Day gospel-infused parade.

The lyric continues the previous song’s laugh-it-off wound-licking: If the story feels exactly like a dream/ don’t know what it means… And you can’t just turn the page and let it go/ things that you’ve been told/ deep down in your soul.”

Rather, it’s time to strategize: “Don’t make your move too early” or you may “surely lose your way.” And the shyster or con man may be poised to snooker the unwittingly earnest. Yet TTB believes self-empowerment perseveres: Now don’t look down in the dirt/ just to find out what you’re worth… To work hard and do it right/ learn to speak up and fight/ the truth is gonna beat them down the line.”

If that sounds preachy to some, it’s hardly fire-and-brimstone browbeating. Rather, it the sort of uplift that even the ostensibly angry American black writer James Baldwin articulated in the voice of his preacher father-figure in his transformative 1962 novel Another Country. The black minister’s own son had committed suicide, yet the father counselled his congregation, all grieving his own son’s death: “Don’t lose heart, dear ones, don’t let it make you bitter, try to understand. The world’s already bitter enough. We got to try to be better than the world ‘…Except for someone — a man weeping in the front row — there was silence all over the chapel…” 1

You find no comparable moments of low-key compassion on this recording, as this band has achieved on their brilliant story-song “Midnight in Harlem.” But the new “bunch of different true stories” now mesh into a bramble-strewn path rising toward sunlight.

“Learn to speak up and fight” can mean collective song as much as righteous chants. A group of remarkably persevering protest singers in Madison, WI have assembled every noon each weekday at The Capitol building for five years — over 1,300 consecutive weekdays — to sing. The Solidarity Sing Along sustains the spirit of the original massive protests of Gov. Scott Walker’s collective bargaining-busting, anti-education Act 10 “repair bill” — which has helped decimate and polarize my home state. The Sing Along’s 60-plus song repertoire ranges from Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” to adapted country blues classics and a Ramones song, to originals by participants. The Act 10 bill and its 100,000 protesters helped inspire Occupy Wall Street and now the Bernie Sanders “revolution.” 2

TTB’s solidarity stresses human commonality, via a collective gathering of cultural tribes, from Tedeschi’s ex-gospel choir singer-cum-blues mama roots to Trucks’ voraciously wide-ranging “big picture stance.” Trucks rose from country-blues bottleneck guitar to Allman Brothers’ band trademarks – gutsy singing, swampy blues, pealing guitar riffs for modal flights. And his Coltrane/Shankar micro-tonalities help summon this band’s patented “swamp ragas.” That simmering instrumental vocabulary facilitates exquisitely meditative introductions or segues, which help embrace a more worldly cultural vision.

Flutist-keyboardist Kofi Burbridge highlights “Swamp Raga for Holzapfel, Flute and Harmonium” on “Let Me Get By.” Courtesy Wikipedia.com

And all the band members seem attuned to the wellsprings of the blues, ‘60s-‘70s gospel and R& B, free and funk-jazz, and modern pop-rock, epitomized, of course, by the Beatles.

Which leads me to album’s next song, the slightly tipsy rollick of “Right on Time,” Mattison’s vocal seems to channel John Lennon’s gentle side, “What is it that you lack? What is it that you seek?” Then, the gently bouncing harmonized refrain: “Does a smile come alive when you share the wine..?” and a “Hey!” refrain, with woozy dance-hall horns. The whole effect, the George Martin-esque arrangement, could’ve fit right into Magical Mystery Tour or even The White Album. Heresy? So sue me.

Lyricist and backup singer Mike Mattison of Tedeschi Trucks Band gets two lead vocal spotlights on “Let Me Get By.” Courtesy pghintune.wordpress.com 

For blues-rock buffs who fear they’re getting too cute, the title song is another full-throated empowerment barn burner. “Let me get by/cuz time won’t wait!” And then, they pause again, for a reality check. “Just as Strange,” co-written by Doyle Bramhall II, is a stripped-down Robert Johnson-like wail about abject craving for sex or drugs, as pure  bedevilment.

Mattison’s fervent lead vocal on “Crying Over You” with the deliciously cheesy line “I caught you snooping ‘round swimming pool” segues to a lovely, haunting swamp-raga. The album’s last few songs tread in lost-romance/relationship territory, but very convincingly.

However, the final song (of the non-deluxe album), “In Every Heart,” resounds like a thematic recapitulation, blending reality and inspiration. Mellifluous horn harmonies, the ever-ready background singers, and an easy, reflective groove cue Tedeschi’s voice, honoring a warm primary influence, Bonnie Raitt. Yet “Heart” is TTB’s own statement: “In every heart there’s a name/under the perfume and the blame.” It’s about coming to terms with your true identity and your “story,” admittedly no easy task. “In every heart, there’s a song/ turning the pages… In every song, there’s a psalm/ coming to find you to sing along.”

With a surrogate family like the Tedeschi Trucks gang, one need not be alone. They deliver the power of the song. Perhaps some existentialists will call that mere sop. Me, I’d rather not stand in the rain of my spiritual solitude.

PART 2. I’ll consider the deluxe bonus disc of Let Me Get By and that 2-disc total package in another post, coming shortly.

______________________

  1. James Baldwin, Another Country, Vintage International, 1993, 121

2. Scott Walker, who survived a re-call election driven by the Act 10 protests, later declared, “If I can take on 100,000 protesters, I can do the same across the world,” in reference to defeating the terrorist group ISIS. The spurious analogy may have marked the beginning of the end of Walker’s short-lived presidential nomination bid. Meanwhile, he’s back in Wisconsin working his same far-right agenda and the singers continue, as they say, “until Wisconsin gets better,” as one of their mottos declares.The Solidarity Sing Along is open to anyone each weekday starting at noon at the Capitol. Their Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SolidaritySingAlong. At times, noted musicians have joined the participants, including Woody Guthrie’s famous son Arlo and Billy Bragg, who wrote music for and recorded unpublished Woody Guthrie lyrics in his Mermaid Avenue project with Wilco.

For the full story on the Wisconsin protests, see John Nichols’ book Uprising: How Wisconsin Renewed the Politics of Protest, from Madison to Wall Street.

“Let Me Get By” album cover at top, courtesy zumic.com