Tag Archives: Traveling WIlburys

Echo in the Canyon: A 12-String Serenade to the California Sound

21 Jul

A few months ago, I saw a trailer for Echo in the Canyon, a documentary focusing on California’s Laurel Canyon-based musicians who turned folk music into rock legend in the mid to late 1960s. And, for a brief few seconds, I saw my dear, departed Tom Petty on screen in a guitar store talking shop. I realized it must have been the last documentary project he ever did, so, with wistful anticipation, I planned to see it when it came to metro Detroit.

Thankfully, my partner saw it was playing at the Main Art Theater in Royal Oak on a hellishly hot afternoon when all any sane person would want to do was sit in an air-conditioned theater with an artisanal chocolate bar and iced black tea. I hustled over to catch a matinee.

The billed “star” of the documentary is Jakob Dylan, Bob’s fourth born and the lead singer of the middling Wallflowers. He and director Andrew Slater chose to focus on the prolific years of 1965-1967 to support their 2015 concert featuring stars of the 1990s and 2000s singing key songs by the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, the Mamas and the Papas, and the Beach Boys.

That is great material hobbled by a lousy premise. As much as I am glad Fiona Apple can still get a gig, the cover versions do nothing the originals didn’t do a thousand times better. Jakob has the sturdy timbre, diction and tone his father could never muster, but he is a passionless performer. He is stone faced during each recording session; he ably hits the notes and plays guitar, but there is no warmth or grit to hang your eardrums on. Additionally, no one benefits from Jakob’s staged conversations with Regina Spektor, Cat Power and Beck jammed together on a couch next to a coffee table piled with LPs. These talented, eccentric musicians say nothing about how the albums they hold in their hands affected their personal or professional lives. It’s a missed opportunity.

What Jakob does have is connections, and that’s where the documentary earns its cred. While it’s not stated, I imagine he has known many of these legends from childhood, and they easily open up to him. He gets Stephen Stills to admit he “booked” when the cops showed up one night, leaving Eric Clapton and others to get handcuffed for pot possession. Michelle Phillips, now a bright-eyed grandmother, gleefully shares how her dalliance with band mate Denny Doherty was the impetus for her husband (also a band mate) John writing, “Go Where You Wanna Go.” Brian Wilson jokes that Jakob and his backing band are playing “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” in the wrong key. Ringo confirms that George Harrison sent Roger McGuinn a note that he had based his opening riff in “If I Needed Someone” on McGuinn’s “The Bells of Rhymney.” Even Neil Young shows up, although he is only seen playing behind glass in a studio toward the end of the film without comment.

And, thankfully, Jakob’s dad’s brother Wilbury, Tom Petty, gets significant opportunities to be the consummate rock historian he was. He sets the record straight from the start: it’s Rickenbacker, not “Bach-er,” that made the 12-string guitar at the heart of the Byrds’ shimmering sound. Throughout the film, he provides the perspectives only he – as a lifelong fan, a musical beneficiary and a peer of the featured acts – could share. (I so miss that guy.)

Echo in the Canyon illustrates three years of pop music innovation and collaboration, nurtured by the woodsy Laurel Canyon culture where you could drop by your neighbor’s pad and noodle around on a song that would become rock and roll canon. It’s worth hunting for whenever you need a break from the heat while still enjoying the sunshine.

See you on the flip side …

Beware of Darkness

29 Nov

Nearly a year after it premiered on HBO I finally watched George Harrison: Living in the Material World, Martin Scorsese’s expansive documentary. For two weeks I’ve had an amalgam of “My Sweet Lord,” “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and “Here Comes the Sun” running through my head: sadness and bliss.

There’s not a lot I can say about Harrison or Scorsese that hasn’t already been said, other than to share my utter awe. When you have one of the world’s foremost music documentarians chronicling one of the most obscenely famous and talented musicians/spiritual seekers of the 20th century, it’s going to be good.

Before watching this I didn’t know much about George Harrison apart from the basics: regarded as one of the most influential rock guitarists ever; left the Beatles to explore Indian music and transcendental meditation; had a huge, semi-controversial hit praising Krishna; invented the megastar charity rock show with The Concert for Bangladesh (and strengthened its fundraising success by insisting on creating a film and double album); became a Traveling Wilbury; died way too soon and too young.

The secret of this telling of an almost too familiar story was how many surprises there were, some delightful and some dark:

  • He was a huge fan of Formula One car racing and became a good friend of Jackie Stewart.
  • His doppelganger son Dhani rebelled against his parents by going to military school.
  • He financed all of Life of Brian when the original producers backed out fearing the controversial content
  • When a mentally unstable man attacked George in his own home, stabbing him severely, his wife Olivia fended off the intruder by beating him with a poker and lamp. George later told his wife that during the attack, he had the awful realization that he was in the process of being murdered.

(Olivia is someone I’d love to have dinner with. She comes off as a grounded, intelligent and deeply compassionate woman who was well suited for the task of being married to George: an otherworldly man who, for all his pursuit of perfection, also committed all too common sins like infidelity. She also got the best line of the film: “What’s the secret to a long marriage? Don’t get divorced!”)

It would be wrong to say the best thing about watching this documentary is learning more trivia. George Harrison: Living in the Material World connects you musically and viscerally to his passionate world view, which he deftly made part of our own. That was made clear in one of the extra scenes available on the DVD, in which Dhani sits at a mixing board with Beatles producer George Martin exploring the various vocal and instrumental tracks that were used or discarded in the production of “Here Comes the Sun.” As George Harrison’s acoustic guitar offered the indelible final notes, Dhani points out that his father used an Indian rhythmic structure throughout the song.

If you transcribe that rhythm using Western time signatures, it’s hard to wrap your head around it. It traipses through 11/8, 4/4 and 7/8. It’s irregular and alien, so difficult to grasp that Ringo Starr said he had to plow through it because if he thought too much he just couldn’t play it. Yet Dhani points out it’s actually very simple. It’s  just : 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2, 1. The beats resolve themselves from 3 to 2 to 1.

The One.

See you on the flip side …

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