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(Above: Michael Stipe introduces what “may well be his favorite song in the R.E.M. catalog.” The classic “Fall on Me” gets the unplugged treatment for MTV in 1991.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

The first volume of R.E.M.’s “MTV Unplugged” collection is a perfect storm of both the band and the zeitgeist.

In 1991, “Unplugged” was just starting to take off, thanks to the success of Paul McCartney’s official bootleg from his appearance on the show. The show was gaining a reputation for a place where classic rock artists could rekindle their audience by playing stripped-down versions of hits and a venue for newer, but still established, bands could expand their palette.

The year was also a watershed for R.E.M. Signing with Warner Bros. and a massive tour for “Green” had catapulted the quartet from cult status. “Out of Time,” the follow-up to “Green” became R.E.M.’s first No. 1 album, and produced their biggest hit, “Losing My Religion.”

“Out of Time” was also uniquely suited for “MTV Unplugged.” After building success with riff-heavy arena-ready songs like “The One I Love” and “Orange Crush,” the band decided to scale back. Mandolin, acoustic guitar and organ dominated songwriting process and, in turn, the final recordings.

R-E-M-MTV-Unplugged-1991It seemed inevitable that R.E.M. would appear on the popular MTV show. The surprising part is that it took 23 years for the performance to see proper release. After surviving for nearly a generation as old, dubbed VHS copies and bootlegged CDs, R.E.M. “Unplugged” was finally released. It debuted in April as a Record Store Day Exclusive vinyl set paired with an encore 2001 “Unplugged” performance. Several months later, stand-alone editions of both shows were released in multiple formats.

As a time capsule, “Unplugged” stands somewhere between essential and curiosity. The 17-song set is dominated by “Out of Time.” More than half the album is present, along with one outtake. As such, the album does a great job fleshing out this under-recorded era. Because the band abandoned touring and focused on television appearances and music videos, “Unplugged” stands as one of R.E.M.’s longest sets of the early ‘90s.

That said, most of the arrangements stick pretty close to the album versions so there aren’t any big revelations present. The best songs include a jangly, sing-along version of “End of the World” and an energetic reading of “Radio Song” sans KRS-One that leans heavily on guest Peter Holsapple’s organ. A low-key, less urgent “Disturbance at the Heron House” is a rare revision of an electric number and makes me wish the band had tried a few more (“These Days” and “Driver 8” spring to mind).

Five bonus tracks that never made it to air follow the full broadcast performance. Driven by Bill Berry’s congas, “Get Up” takes on a new life. “Swan Swan H” and “World Leader Pretend” mirror their album counterparts. “Fretless” represents the one song that doesn’t work unplugged.  The studio version of this “Out of Time” outtake foreshadows the direction the band would take on “Automatic for the People.” Robbed of electricity, it lacks the sense of suspicion and dread that fuels the track.

R.E.M. did themselves a disservice by waiting so long to release this set. It undoubtedly would have sold better 20 years ago when the band was at its peak and fans were anxious for new material.  While die-hards and completists have owned this performance for years, the improved sound and bonus tracks make it a worthwhile addition to the catalog. Ultimately, “Unplugged 1991” is a nice complement to a band working at peak convergence of popularity and artistry.

Disclaimer: The Daily Record was sent a complementary review copy of “Unplugged 1991” from Soundstagedirect.com in exchange for promoting the site. Readers may purchase this album, or any other, with a 10 percent discount using code KWS10. Soundstagedirect.com is not the only online retailer carrying this title.

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 (Above: The voice of the Byrds, Roger McGuinn, transforms “Eight Miles High” and shows off his guitar chops with this stunning acoustic arrangement.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

The stage was empty, but the sound was unmistakable. The shimmering jangle from the 12-string blonde Rickenbacker guitar rang clear throughout the Folly Theater as Roger McGuinn, voice and architect of the Byrds, strolled out casually from stage right. The chorus of the opening song, a cover of Bob Dylan’s “My Back Pages,” resonated throughout the night: “I was so much older then/I’m younger than that now.”

For the next 100 minutes, McGuinn treated the two-thirds full theater to a stroll through his back pages, or, more specifically the music that influenced the sound of the Byrds and his songwriting. It took McGuinn half a hour to work his way up to the rock and roll era. He explained a reworking of “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desire” ended up as “She Don’t Care About Time,” a Byrds b-side, sang a sailor chanty, a spiritual and paid homage to Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly. He also used his own “Chestnut Mare” as an example of the cowboy songs from the old West.

These performances were interesting as a musical history lesson, but the show didn’t really take off until Elvis entered the building. Calling the transistor radio the iPod of its day, McGuinn explained how the portable radio freed him from having to listen to his parents’ music (and vice versa). The thrill of watching Presley inspired McGuinn to get his first guitar.

Now inspired, McGuinn told the audience about his lessons at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago, where each week not only was a new song taught but several different styles of playing it. From there he took the crowd on a expedition through the Limeliters and Chad Mitchell Trio in Los Angeles into Bobby Darin’s band before landing at the Brill Building in New York City.

It was there McGuinn first heard the Beatles and recognized the folk-chord structures they used. Alone in his vision to marry folk with the British Invasion, McGuin fled the Greenwich Villagescene for the Troubador in Los Angeles where he met Missouri native Gene Clark and group that would become the Byrds were born.

Each adventure was illuminated by a musical representation of the time, from the Limeliter’s “There’s A Meeting Here Tonight” and Joan Baez’ “Silver Dagger” to “You Showed Me,” the first song McGuinn and Clark wrote together, which later became a Top 10 hit for the Turtles.

McGuinn performed most of the set seated on a piano bench at center stage. The only musician onstage, he was surrounded by four instruments, an acoustic and electric 12-string guitar, a 7-string guitar and a banjo. The open cases around him made McGuinn look like a posh busker.

The crowd relished every note and story. The room was often so quiet you could hear McGuinn’s pick hitting the strings. He frequently had to prod the audience to get involved, even singing the chorus on major songs like “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” another Dylan cover.

Although his tenor voice had lost some of its range, McGuinn’s singing was strong and his guitar playing was impressive. The best moment was a fascinating new arrangement of “Eight Miles High” that was more Ravi Shankar than Timothy Leary. Appropriately, the autobiographical journey ended with a relatively recent song, “May the Road Rise To Meet You.”

Set List: My Back Pages; She Don’t Care About Time; Leave Her Johnny, Leave Her (Time For Us To Leave Her); Old Blue; Chestnut Mare; Pretty Boy Floyd; Rock Island Line; Heartbreak Hotel (excerpt); Unknown Spiritual; There’s a Meetin’ Here Tonight; Silver Dagger; Gambler’s Blues (aka St. James Infirmary); The Water Is Wide; You Showed Me; Mr. Tambourine Man; You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere; Mr. Spaceman; Dreamland; Up To Me; Eight Miles High; Turn, Turn, Turn. Encore: Feel A Whole Lot Better; Bells of Rhymney; May The Road Rise To Meet You.

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(Above: Justin Townes Earle performs the joyous/sorrowful “Harlem River Blues” for David Letterman.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star 

While he was living in Los Angeles in the throes of addiction, songwriter Steve Earle reached out to his son Justin, who was living with his mom in Nashville.

“I had very little contact with my dad growing up,” Justin Townes Earle said, “but once a month I’d get a package in the mail full of records.”

Steve Earle was a country sensation at the time, building on the success of his albums “Guitar Town” and “Copperhead Road,” but the albums he mailed his son bore little relation to ones he was making.

“I guarantee you I was the first kid in Nashville to have Nirvana’s ‘Bleach,’ because I got it from my dad in ’89 when it first came out,” Earle said. “I had all the AC/DC albums … Mudhoney. I got Ice Cube’s ‘Lethal Injection’ from my father.”

A few years later, the elder Earle — now clean of his addictions — offered some musical advice to his son: Write what you know and write honestly. By this time Justin Townes Earle, 14, had discovered the music native to his hometown.

“I took that advice and ran with it,” Earle said. “I’m the type of person who, once you point me in the right direction, just leave me alone and let me go.”

Earle plays the Bottleneck in Lawrence tonight. Fifteen years have passed since his songwriting career began, and although he suffered some of the same dark periods of substance abuse his father endured, Earle has persevered. He has released an album a year since 2007, each building on the last.

“My albums have been a conscious progression,” Earle said. “ ‘Yuma’ was me addressing my Woody Guthrie thing. ‘The Good Life’ addressed the honky-tonk ghost. With ‘Midnight at the Movies’ I was trying to push to the weirder side of folk, and then on ‘Harlem River Blues’ I was going for more of the gospel and blues.”

Last year’s “Harlem River Blues” opens with what may be the standout track in Earle’s impressive catalog, an upbeat, jaunty gospel number … about suicide by drowning.

“That song initially came from something I remembered when reading the ‘Basketball Diaries’ when I was young,” Earle said. “Jim Carroll and his buddies were the toughest kids in New York because they’d jump off the cliffs into the Harlem River.”

The darker elements draw on Earle’s days as a homeless junkie. Shortly after being fired from his father’s band in the early 2000s, Earle spent two years on the streets in perpetual search for the next fix.

“Because I am a drug addict, I have friends with fairly miserable lives and a few who actually took their own lives,” Earle said. “I talked with one friend about eight hours before he did it (killed himself) and as he told me his plan. I saw a look of ease on his face I’d never seen. It was what he wanted to do and why the song has a celebratory feeling.”

Barely 29, Earle feels like he has already lived several lifetimes. He quit school at 14 and ran off with some other budding songwriters at 16. A near-death experience hastened the start of his recovery from hard substances, although Earle still smokes and just swore off alcohol.

“The album ‘Harlem River Blues’ is about a man in his late 20s realizing he’s human and slowing down. The invincible part of my 20s are over,” Earle said. “I’ve run the gamut. There’s something about drugs that make you realize how delicate life is.”

Most of Earle’s immediate future will be consumed with touring, but he plans to take several weeks in October to record his next album. After that he’s moving from New York City to Europe for three years.

“I want to go to Barcelona on weekends and Paris for dinner,” Earle said. “I’ve been to Barcelona three times on tour but have never been to the beach. I want to spend a month in Marrakech. I just want to take in as much as I can.”

Thursday’s show will be Earle’s first appearance in the area since he opened for Levon Helm at the Crossroads in July, a night Earle calls “one of my favorite shows of all time.”

“I had done a couple shows with Levon prior to that night, but because his voice was bad he didn’t sing,” Earle said. “After my set I walked out and ordered a couple drinks from the bar at the right side of the stage. When the band kicked into ‘Ophelia’ and I heard that voice, I dropped my drinks and ran to the side of the stage.

“I didn’t move for the rest of the night.”

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(Above: Zimmy and band roll and tumble.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Two of the most iconic songwriters of the 1960s visited Kansas City just two weeks apart. But while patrons packed the Sprint Center and doled out big money to see Paul McCartney, acres of more reasonably priced empty seats could be found at Bob Dylan’s concert at Starlight Theater on Saturday night.

Part of this can be attributed to frequency. McCartney has only played Kansas City three times since the Beatles called it quits. Dylan rolls through town about every 15 months. But delivery also plays a big role. McCartney performs his beloved numbers exactly (or close to the ways) how everyone remembers them; Dylan plays nothing straight.

Saturday’s performance ran just shy of two hours and felt pretty much the same as Dylan’s many previous stops in town, including the show he played at Starlight just over three years ago. After opening with two tracks from the ‘70s – including a stunning “Senor (Tales of Yankee Power),”  Dylan and his four-piece band ping-ponged between his golden era in the ‘60s and material cut in the past decade.

The best moments were the ballads. The delicate “Just Like A Woman” opened with a lengthy instrumental section that highlighted the subtle interplay between acoustic, electric and pedal steel guitars, and Dylan’s organ, his preferred instrument of the night. The instruments danced deftly until the signature descending guitar riff entered, heralding the first verse. “Workingman’s Blues No. 2” had a similar feel later in the set, and featured Dylan’s best harmonica solo of the night.

Dylan gave a nice treat when he paired two of the best numbers from his protest era. Almost a half a century after their debut, “The Ballad of Hollis Brown” and “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” remain a potent commentary on poverty and race. Their impact was muted, however, by an arrangement of “Hattie Carroll” that rendered the number nearly unrecognizable.

The band mined the Chicago blues for two newer numbers, “My Wife’s Hometown” and “Rollin’ and Tumblin’.” The former was the only time Dylan strapped on an electric guitar. It should have been repeated. His prodding duel with lead guitarist Charlie Sexton seemed to invigorate the rest of the band.

A slump in the final third of the set ended with a spectacular “Ballad of a Thin Man.” The lone illumination from the footlights added an other-worldly atmosphere to the song as Dylan stepped away from his keyboard and sang into a microphone set just off center, in front of the drums.

Reliable encores “Like a Rolling Stone” and “All Along the Watchtower” still pack a punch and hold pleasant surprises. Dylan intentionally dropped his vocals after the second chorus on “Like a Rolling Stone” to give the band some space to play and let Sexton take an extra solo. “Watchtower” came in a staccato fashion that resembled the far-off gallop of the riders’ horses, before they suddenly stormed the gates.

The Dough Rollers: Dylan’s attraction to this duo isn’t hard to spot. Their 35-minute opening set included covers of John Lee Hooker, Mississippi Fred McDowell and early gospel numbers. The pair sounds like they have just been pulled off an old field recording cut by Alan Lomax. Malcolm Ford sounds like he learned to sing by studying antique cylinder recordings. Jack Byrne’s bottleneck slide on “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord” was especially tasty. The set also included an interpretation of “Goin’ to Kansas City.” They would be a great show at B.B.’s Lawnside BBQ or Knucklehead’s.

Dylan’s setlist: Watching the River Flow, Senor (Tales of Yankee Power), Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine), My Wife’s Home Town, Rollin’ and Tumblin’, Just Like A Woman, The Ballad of Hollis Brown, The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll, Cry A While, Workingman’s Blues No. 2, Highway 61 Revisited, I Feel A Change Comin’ On, Thunder on the Mountain, Ballad of a Thin Man. Encore: Like a Rolling Stone, Jolene, All Along the Watchtower.

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Bob Dylan – “Workingman’s Blues No. 2”

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Above: Smithsonian patrons deserve a space to discover and learn more about American musicians like Big Bill Broonzy.

By Joel Francis

The Smithsonian National Museum of American History’s two-year, $85 million facelift is a lot like the plastic surgery aging stars get – it attracts a lot of interest at first and does a good job of hiding the wrinkles, but ultimately accentuates all the other flaws.

A visit to the renovated Washington, D.C. museum in the week after it re-opened to the public revealed Kool Herc’s turntable and Afrika Bambaataa’s pendant as the most prominent exhibits of 20th Century American music. There was no acknowledgement to the richness of the museum’s own music archives and label, Smithsonian Folkways.

The National Museum of American History needs a showcase dedicated to the legacy of Smithsonian Folkways recordings. A place for visitors to learn about its artists – not only better-known names like Pete Seeger, Guthrie and Leadbelly, but the anonymous rural musicians label founder Moses Asch sought to document.

Asch founded Folkways Records and Service Co. in 1948 to “suppor(t) cultural diversity and increase understanding among peoples through the documentation, preservation, and dissemination of sound,” Much like his contemporary and fellow musicologist Alan Lomax, Asch captured songs from primitive villages to New York City’s avant-garde, ancient Greek literature to Russian poetry.

The permanent space should include an interactive map where visitors can hear and learn about indigenous music styles in a given area, and see how those forms migrate and influence each other. They should also house several kiosks where listeners can listen to recordings while learning about the performers. Rotating exhibits of instruments, lyrics and other memorabilia would also enhance the space.

When the Smithsonian acquired Asch’s library after his death in 1987, they adopted his mission of document “the people’s music” as their own. They also guaranteed that all the label’s 2,000 releases would forever remain in print. One wouldn’t know this promise has been kept by visiting the museum’s gift stores.

In the old configuration, the main retail store on the bottom floor was a clearinghouse for the Smithsonian Folkways catalog. Nearly every title and artist was at the shopper’s fingertips. All that remains today is a few compilations of blues, bluegrass, train and labor songs and the essential Woody Guthrie box set. Patrons deserve better than this. They deserve a place to flip over the rocks of American roots music and discover what lies underneath.

Addressing this need would not correct all the problems of the renovated museum. The public would have been better served had the curators waited until all their exhibit space was completed before re-opening.  More than a third of the building is still under construction and closed to the public. But the tapestry of American music the Smithsonian has preserved is too rich to be swept under the rug.

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