"Shine your light, move it on, you burn so bright, roll on John ... roll through the rain and snow; Take the right-hand road and go ..."
From "Roll on John," by Bob Dylan
My favorite, mostly true, story of Bob Dylan is one about his preparing for his 1979 recording "Slow Train Coming" and meeting up with guitarist Mark Knopfler, whose Dire Straits band had just hit the big time. It seems that Dylan goes up to Knopfler after an L.A. gig -- or a better story is that he calls him up in London and Knopfler does not believe it is really Dylan on the phone. Anyway, Dylan invites Knopfler to come and join him; the hot U.K. import is a little hesitant to "play back-up," but he knows that while Dylan can be sporadic in his artistic quality, when he is "on," he makes classics. "Slow Train Coming" is a classic, and one of the reasons is the guitar work of the Dire Strait.
On Dylan's newest, the just released "Tempest," Dylan invited David Hidalgo of Los Lobos -- one of my favorite bands -- to join him. We can only guess a similar discussion went on inside Hildalgo's head as went on in Knopfler's. And while "Tempest" is not a "classic" in Dylan's long and sometimes glorious musical catalogue, it is a fine recording and Hidalgo's Los Lobos Cool sound, along with Donnie Herron's similar twang, is a large part why. (There is great work by Herron on steel guitar and violin, and Hidalgo on Spanish guitar, accordion and violin.)
Of course, any Dylan recording lives and dies on the strength of his lyrics and songwriting, and his partnership with the producer -- in this case Scott Litt of R.E.M. fame. OK, technically, the album is produced by "Jack Frost," who is Dylan himself, and Litt is billed as the engineer. Whatever.
As for the album, it is Dylan's first recording of new music in five years and, coming on the heels of the absolutely atrocious 2009 recording of Christmas songs on "Christmas in the Heart," it is good to hear him back in the groove.
The first single release from the recording, "Tempest" begins with "Duquesne Whistle," a lively, if slightly dark, tune that not only tells us where Dylan's songwriting head is at, but also tells us where his voice is at, at 71 -- he sounds like Tom Waits' gravel with swing. As far as his songwriting is concerned, he is all about the storytelling this time out.
"Scarlet Town" may be the best track; it is Ol' Bob just telling his ol' stories. "Early Roman Kings" is also very good; classic blues with Dylan's slightly strange bent. "Tin Angel" is also old-school Dylan; a little more dark than sarcastic maybe, but still old school.
And on the title track, "Tempest," a rolling, epic story song about the sinking of the Titanic, he creates an image of the disaster, and memorable lines, that I will remember long after I forget the blockbuster film and pleasure of seeing Leonardo DiCaprio turning blue in the water.
The song on the recording getting the most notice, however, is "Roll on John," a tender ode to John Lennon. But when you listen to it, you have to wonder if Dylan is channeling his own mortality through the life and tragic death of Lennon. Does Dylan wonder, down deep, why he was given more good years and Lennon was not? Who's to know? Who's to question?
Just listen and Roll on Bob.
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Speaking of "rolling on," this will be my last column as Arts and Entertainment Editor of the Bennington Banner, and I will be leaving the job next week as my wife and I roll on to a new opportunity in Michigan.
As I leave, I want to thank you for letting me talk about some of the things I love: Springsteen, modern dance, "modern" music, unusual new art, and interesting people. Most of all, I want to say how much I enjoyed my two years and how I hope I leave the local and regional art scene a little more accessible to the community.
K.D. Norris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org