T-Bone Burnett / Jakob Dylan – City Hall (Nashville, TN)
Speaking of the music he’s taken on the road for his first tour as a performing bandleader in twenty years, T-Bone Burnett told one interviewer that he wanted listeners to feel like they were being shaken, listening from inside a maraca, and another that he wanted not tired beats, but to rumble, while making pointed political and social commentary.
You can take control and work to make that experience real in the studio, and this producer of everyone from Elvis Costello to Ralph Stanley, Rob Orbison to Sam Phillips, certainly pulls it off on his new release The True False Identity with predictable aplomb. But the thing about going live — and maybe the point of going live — is that it’s not so controllable.
This second night of Burnett’s tour was shifted to City Hall, a cavernous warehouse-style venue, from the Ryman Auditorium shortly before the show date. Rows of bridge chairs were brought in, apparently because some early ticket-holders may have been expecting sit-down rock, or even a Down From The Mountain-style yuppified hoedown; bad call there if someone thought so. The logistics of getting the audience into those seats added to the delay of the much-anticipated show’s start for more than an hour an a half, with many concertgoers waiting outside the hall in line on the first really hot and muggy night of the year.
Tension between intentions and the physical realities turned out to be the night’s unintended theme. If recordings have long since dealt with the question of how you get pointed lyrics heard through rock or R&B or hip-hop din, and even maintain a connection with the audience while you do it, it’s not a given in a live hall, and it was an issue here.
Opener Jakob Dylan (whose breakthrough album with the Wallflowers was produced by Burnett) used to claim he had no interest in solo acoustic performances, loving so much to mix it up in a loud band, but he proved entirely capable of holding the stage mostly on his own. Originals introduced as Wallflowers jangle-rock — “Here He Comes”, “How Good It Can Get”, the crowd-rousing “Sleepwalker” — all were highly effective, either solo or augmented a bit with some organ or piano backing. His scruffy singing and guitar-playing have become varied and on-point enough for his increasingly straightforward, direct lyrics of complicated love and relationships to hold attention alone. It would be a treat to see him perform this way in more intimate surroundings designed for that style of performance.
For the main event, T-Bone brought out a genuinely spectacular band. Marc Ribot provided some stinging, genuinely dramatic guitar solos and fills unheard on the disc, and it was a rare event to see legendary drummer Jim Keltner at work onstage. He’s looking like William Petersen of “CSI” these days, and he plays like no one else, laying way off the beat and still suggesting it on one hand, but also actually hitting it with the other (the hands sometimes literal) — for a remarkable sort of phantom polyrhythm.
Burnett brought his almost jazzy-smooth vocals and monologues and his jittery presence to his self-devised indie-rock meets rhythm & rap arena, but the circumstances made it difficult to concentrate on the words that are key for his current approach. You’re supposed to follow the lyrics, which are strong and astringent and timely, as the central thread changing against the background of the incessantly pounding, pounding, pounding music, which sometime approaches a sort of numbed reggae.
On the recording you can, but the potency is lost when you can’t make out what the heck he’s saying, even on something as pointed as “(This is) Fear Country” (tough true stuff to hear anywhere, but for audiences in the relatively conservative Nashville region, maybe more so). With number after number attacked this way, if there was pacing to the show as a whole, it was more difficult to feel than would have been intended.
The material being new, most folks couldn’t turn to the often-heard and overly generous fall-back, “We know all the words, so what difference does not hearing them make?” As the evening wore on, after the late start in the hot room, attention flagged, and the crowd, not enormous to begin with, thinned.
It’s odd that decades after the brouhaha about actually hearing what the senior Dylan was singing when he “went electric” at Newport, the effect of the lyric-centered mix in sound-challenged circumstances should still be a subject. But I couldn’t help think of that on a night that was, by coincidence, Bob’s 65th birthday, with these two performers on hand. Heck, the last time I’d seen T-Bone live and scheduled as such, it was at Madison Square Garden exactly 30 years ago, for the Rolling Thunder Revue’s “Night of the Hurricane.” You couldn’t make out a lot of things they were saying then either, but this was no arena. Results in other towns may vary.