Archive for December, 2008

Astral Weeks – Live

December 31, 2008
Fans of Van Morrison will be looking forward to Astral Weeks – Live At The Hollywood Bowl, due for UK release on 9 February.

Regular readers might recall Aussie Andrew Robertson’s rave review of the two historic gigs played by Morrison on 7 and 8 November (check it out in the Music For Grown-Ups Archive).

And readers who’ve been around for a while might also recall that the original Astral Weeks album topped this site’s poll to find readers’ favourite classic rock album:

Favourite Classic Rock Album:

Astral Weeks 35%
Blonde on Blonde 21%
Revolver 15%
Tonight’s the Night 14%
Exile on Main Street 13%

Gerry Smith

Purcell, Prog Rock, Michael Brecker

December 30, 2008
FREE! Music for grown-ups on the BBC in the next 10 days

Hidden among its vast TV and radio output, the BBC broadcasts some magnificent music for grown-ups every week of the year. Xmas/New Year is particularly good. And it’s all free – well, sort of….

Thurs 1 Jan
1400 Gounod’s Faust, with Alagna and Gheorghiu – BBC Radio 3
2300 Bob Dylan, Theme Time Radio Hour – BBC Radio 2

Fri 2 Jan
2100 Prog at the BBC – BBC Four
2200 Prog Rock Britannia – BBC Four

Sat 3 Jan
1600 Michael Brecker, Jazz Library – BBC Radio 3
1800 Puccini’s La Boheme, Live from the Met – BBC Radio 3
2100 Prog Rock – BBC Four

Sun 4 Jan
2400 Bob Dylan, Theme Time Radio Hour – BBC 6Music

Mon 5 Jan
1200 & 2200 Purcell, Composer Of The Week – BBC Radio 3 (1/5, continues Tues-Fri)

Tues 6 Jan
2315 Prog at the BBC – BBC Four

Thurs 8 Jan
2300 Bob Dylan, Theme Time Radio Hour – BBC Radio 2

Online access: many BBC radio programmes are broadcast live online – please see the channels’ web sites for details. Some BBC radio and TV programmes are also accessible online via iPlayer for a short period after transmission:

Gerry Smith

Leonard Cohen, Conor Oberst and John McLaughlin – top gigs for grown-ups in 2008

December 29, 2008
The year just ending was a vintage year for live music. From grand opera house to sweaty rock dive, and worthy municipal folk gig to massive arena poprock spectacular, I saw some great musicians for grown-ups performing in 2008.

The five gigs which will linger longest in my memory were:

1. Leonard Cohen – London O2
2. Conor Oberst – Portsmouth
3. John McLaughlin – Barbican
4. Bjork – Plymouth
5. Cecilia Bartoli – Barbican

And the two next best were:
6. Morrissey – Roundhouse
7. Hansel & Gretel – Royal Opera House

What were your top 5 gigs? Please share your list with other readers – please email me at

Gerry Smith

Gigs in 2008: probably my best year ever of live music

December 26, 2008
The year just ending was probably my best ever for live music. From grand metropolitan opera house to sweaty rock dive, and worthy municipal folk gig to massive arena poprock spectacular, I’ve seen some great musicians performing in 2008.

It really couldn’t get much better.

Here’s the calendar – be sure call back on Monday for the ranking of the Music For Grown-Ups Top 10 Gigs in 2008:

Jan 23: Morrissey Roundhouse
31: Roschmann – Lieder Musikverein, Vienna

March 8: Salome Royal Opera House (ROH)

April 22: Bjork Plymouth

May 2: Roberto Alagna Barbican
31: John McLaughlin Barbican

June 14: Don Carlo ROH
21: Ariadne ROH
29: Pentangle Royal Festival Hall

July 2: Beck Southampton
17: Leonard Cohen O2
19: Figaro ROH

Aug 26 Conor Oberst Portsmouth

Sept 12: Don Giovanni ROH

Oct 10: Calisto ROH

Nov 8: Elektra ROH
15: Jim Moray Lichfield

Dec 12: Hansel & Gretel ROH
13: Joyce DiDonato Barbican
17: Cecilia Bartoli Barbican

Gerry Smith

Seasonal greetings!

December 24, 2008
Seasonal greetings to you and yours, dear reader.

Whether you’re celebrating the birth of Christ, the winter solstice, or just a well-earned break from everyday toil, it’s time to slow down, be kind to yourself and reflect.

No blog here tomorrow, 25 Dec, but the site will be back to normal on Friday, 26 December. I hope you’ll be calling in!

Gerry Smith

Handel, Keith Richards, Prog Rock

December 23, 2008
FREE! Music for grown-ups on the BBC in the next 10 days

Hidden among its vast TV and radio output, the BBC broadcasts some magnificent music for grown-ups every week of the year. Xmas/New Year is particularly good. And it’s all free – well, sort of….

Wed 24 Dec
1200 & 2200 Puccini, Composer Of The Week (3/5, continues Thurs-Fri) – BBC Radio 3
1830 Carols from King’s – BBC2
1900 Bach at Christmas (3/3) – BBC Radio 3
2200 Bach, Christmas Oratorio from Weimar (4/6, concludes Thurs) – BBC Four

Thurs 25 Dec
1400 Festival Of Nine Lessons & Carols, from King’s – BBC Radio 3
1500 Hansel und Gretel, from Covent Garden – BBC2
1950 Handel’s Messiah, LSO/Davis, from The Barbican – BBC Four
2300 Bob Dylan, Theme Time Radio Hour – BBC Radio 2

Fri 26 Dec
1400 Bob Dylan, Theme Time Radio Hour – BBC 6Music
2200 Quincy Jones: The Many Lives Of Q – BBC Four

Sat 27 Dec
2200 Bob Dylan, Theme Time Radio Hour – BBC Radio 2

Mon 29 Dec
1200 Berlioz, Composer Of The Week (1/5, continues Tues-Fri) – BBC Radio 3
2400 Keith Richards, My Top Ten (1/2) – BBC 6Music

Tues 30 Dec
2400 Keith Richards, My Top Ten (2/2) – BBC 6Music

Thurs 1 Jan
1400 Gounod’s Faust, with Alagna and Gheorghiu – BBC Radio 3
2300 Bob Dylan, Theme Time Radio Hour – BBC Radio 2

Fri 2 Jan
2100 Prog at the BBC – BBC Four
2200 Prog Rock Britannia – BBC Four

Online access: many BBC radio programmes are broadcast live online – please see the channels’ web sites for details. Some BBC radio and TV programmes are also accessible online via iPlayer for a short period after transmission:

And on the commercial networks:

Thurs 25 Dec
1810 The Three Tenors – More4

Sun 28 Dec
2400 White Stripes Live In Blackpool – 4Music

Gerry Smith

Roy Orbison profile – good music, weak analysis

December 22, 2008
Watch out for repeats of the recent one-hour profile of Roy Orbison in BBC Four’s Legends series.

It has lots of inspiring career-spanning footage of the Big O crooning and soaring – from his early Sun days to the Traveling Wilbury sessions in the late 1980s. And clips from several revealing interviews with the man himself.

But the programme suffers from rather too many talking heads: Elvis Costello and Bill Wyman make intelligent contributions; the rest I could do without.

The danger with treating pop music in a grown-up, BBC4-type way is that few interviewees have anything to say that’s worth hearing. Like many of the pop subjects in the admirable Legends series, the Orbison programme suffers from a surfeit of show biz gush and weak analysis.

In show biz, entertainment and pop music, grown-ups are generally in short supply.

Gerry Smith

Bob Dylan’s new album, Tell Tale Signs: the verdict

December 19, 2008
Thanks to Martin Cowan:

I thought now the dust had settled it would be a good time to take a look in detail at the latest volume of Dylan’s Bootleg Series.

Having had the opportunity to live with this CD set for the last few months, it seems to me that Sony have wanted their cake and to eat it too. I believe that pickings are too thin to spread across three discs and while there are some gems on Disc 3, it is disgraceful that Sony saw fit to charge such an inflated sum for the 3 disc version.

My view is that there is a cracking 2 disc set here and one can only speculate on what further gems still remain in the archives. If anything, what this set suffers from is uncertainty about what it is.

Is it a collection of unreleased songs? Is it a set of “never ending tour” live versions? Is it a set of “never released before on a Dylan album” songs? Well, some of all these, and that could be the problem.

Funny also that the cover photo recycles an image previously in the deluxe version of Modern Times!


1) Mississippi #1
The pick of the versions of this song. The lyrics are in place (as heard on the later Love and Theft) but the simplicity of the twin guitar arrangement suits the song perfectly. An intimate vocal which shows how poorly served Dylan was by Lanois’ production of his voice on Oh Mercy and Time Out Of Mind. Superb.

2) Most of the Time # 1
Possibly the most radical thing here, Dylan sounds fresh out of the 70s, with heartbreaking harmonica to match. Again, the intimate vocal is superb and it is remarkable to hear this song in an acoustic setting.

3) Dignity
Again, the best version of this admittedly slight, Dylan-by-numbers song. This version gains immensely from the intimate vocal (he sounds like he’s in the room with you!) and the solo piano accompaniment.

4) Someday Baby
Hypnotic, with Dylan’s older than God vocals. The melody line is flattened to the point of being one note throughout, but as this has a more up to date backing, it hides its origins as Muddy Waters’ Trouble No More – the Modern Times version was too much of a straight lift for my liking.

5) Red River Shore # 1
One of the gems of this collection, this is classic Dylan. Again, the vocal is intimate and demonstrates that rumours of the demise of his voice are greatly exaggerated. The arrangement of the songs builds as it progresses and it is hard to find any fault with this at all. It reminds me of Angelina, and again you have to wonder how this didn’t find its way onto Time Out Of Mind.

6) Tell Ol Bill
Marvellously out of kilter piano, and a fine, understated vocal. Again, this is an improvement on the previously released version of this song. Lyrically, this is one of the more interesting songs on this collection as it eschews Dylan’s recent habit of recycling old blues lyrics.

7) Born In Time
Here is the Under The Red Sky gem dressed up in its Lanois shimmer. Not as good as the previously released version as it has none of that performance’s light and shade.

8) Can’t Wait
Another of this set’s gems, we hear Dylan suggesting they “do it in B flat” before a Dirge-like piano signals the opening of the song. Again, a superb vocal performance from Dylan, naked without Lanois’ studio trickery, and a song that makes more sense lyrically than the released version.

9) Everything is Broken
There’s not much to recommend the inclusion of this – a slight song in Dylan’s canon in any case. The lyrics are not as polished as the Oh Mercy version and much of the backing track sounds the same as the previously released version. Very much a work in progress.

10) Dreamin of You
This kicks off with a snap of snare and a hypnotic piano figure, before Dylan’s upfront vocal launches into what clearly sounds like a dry run for the (inferior) Standing In The Doorway which saw the light of day on Time Out Of Mind. This version is head and shoulders above that – Dylan in total control vocally, some fantastic lyrics, and a great production. Superb.

11) Huck’s Tune
This sounds like an old folk song – a beautiful melody, a sensitive arrangement, and Dylan’s superbly cracked vocals. One of the gems of this set, this song packs a huge emotional punch in the way the wistful lyrics, the folky tune and Dylan’s heartfelt vocals all come together.

12) Marchin to the City
Another highlight, this is an early version of Til I Fell In Love With You but is greatly superior to the TOOM version. Shorn of Lanois’ production, the vocal is vintage Dylan – up close and in your face – and kicks off like a song from Saved. The lyrics are mysterious and magical and vastly superior to the rather ordinary cliche-ridden Til I Fell In Love With You. Another of Dylan’s “why on earth didn’t he release this?” moments.

13) High Water
A smoking live version of this “Love And Theft” tune. It takes Dylan a few lines to get going, but once he is warmed up he attacks the lyrics with gusto. A showcase for his live band, 2003 vintage, Dylan leans into the vocals and whoops and hollers in the finest way possible.


1) Mississippi # 2
Again, lyrically intact, but the arrangement is all over the place here. Dylan seems to be singing in a key which doesn’t suit his voice – way too low – this version of what is probably Dylan’s last great masterpiece makes you realise why he didn’t release it on Time Out Of Mind.

2) 32-20 Blues
A great outtake from World Gone Wrong. Nice to have this at last.

3) Series of Dreams
This is where the pickings start to get slightly slim. This is in every way inferior to the previous Bootleg Series version. In fact, the vocal take sounds to me exactly the same as the Bootleg version (I don’t believe Dylan would be able to sing a song the same way twice even if he wanted to.) The only thing this includes is a second verse which was obviously excised from the previously released version.

4) God Knows
As with Born In Time, this is Lanois’ version of what became a vastly superior song in the hands of the Was brothers on the criminally underrated Under The Red Sky LP. Forgettable.

5) Can’t Escape From You
This kicks off like Can’t Help Falling In Love – Dylan growls and croaks in his best Tom Waits fashion, and the lilting melody recalls the folky nature of Huck’s Tune. My only reservation about this is that is that he does sound in trouble vocally and there is perhaps one too many verses. But overall, an interesting selection.

6) Dignity
Dreadful rockabilly version of this Dylan-by-numbers song. Horrible rubbery sounding bass, with Dylan sounding like he couldn’t care less – a clunker.

7) Ring Them Bells
Dylan’s 1992 Supper Club shows have gone down in folklore, especially as the shows were billed as Dylan unplugged (before he recorded his contribution to that franchise) and were allegedly filmed. It was widely hoped that an audio/visual release for these shows would make up a future Bootleg Series release. The fact that this heartfelt version of this song appears here would seem to suggest that this is all we are going to get. Dylan is vocally committed and this performance highlights Bucky Baxter’s sympathetic steel guitar. Lovely.

8) Cocaine Blues
A similar version to this has been previously released on the Love Sick CD singles, and this version adds nothing.

9) Ain’t Talkin’
Very similar in pace to the Modern Times version, though this has a rockier edge – in fact, the backing track sounds very similar to What Was It You Wanted. Not sure that this adds much to the previously released version.

10) The Girl On the Green Briar Shore
A nice live version. Remember when Dylan would play acoustic guitar on his own? This is a reminder of those days.

11) Lonesome Day Blues
This sounds like a field recording – somewhat tinny – and collectors have already got this version as it used to be available as part of the now sadly defunct performances section of the official Dylan website. That said this is a smoking version of the “Love And Theft” song, with Dylan attacking the vocals and the soaring guitars kicking up a right old racket behind him.

12) Miss the Mississippi
More sessions that have gone down in folklore, those recorded by Dylan with Dave Bromberg in 1992 – before he released Good As I Been To You. This has been available to collectors for some years but is a very good song – nice production and superb singing from Dylan. Not sure where this leaves us for the rest of the Bromberg sessions ever being officially released.

13) The Lonesome River
A nice recording, with Dylan on fine form vocally. However, this has been previously released on a Ralph Stanley album.

14) Cross The Green Mountain
Another late-period Dylan gem. Stirring lyrics, sympathetic arrangement, and a superb vocal performance from Dylan. This song exudes the American Civil War from its every pore – emotional, a cinematic tour de force. Superb.


1) Duncan and Brady
A stonking cover from the Bromberg sessions – has much of the gut-bucket flavour of Under The Red Sky. Loose as a goose vocal from Dylan, great smears of guitar, great fun, fantastic. A superb way to kick off the most expensive disc Dylan has ever released!

2) Cold Irons Bound
A great live version of this Time Out Of Mind classic – Dylan is fully focussed as he attacks the vocals, and the backing from his band swirls and soars like a great rattling stagecoach – fantastic.

3) Mississippi # 3
A dreadful reggae lilt adorns this, the weakest version of this song collected here. Lyrically all over the place, Dylan has yet to focus his late great narrative. One for completists only.

4) Most of the Time # 2
Rather like the version of Series of Dreams over on CD 2, this sounds to me like exactly the same vocal as the released Oh Mercy version. The phrasing and intonation is identical – the only difference is a couple of lyric changes, which were obviously “dropped in” prior to the release of Oh Mercy. In fact, listening again to this, it sounds like the new words are actually “dropped in” to this version. Superfluous.

5) Ring Them Bells # 2
A longer intro, less cluttered, naked vocal from Dylan – this kicks off starting like a superb alternate take. However, we’ve been had. While the first verse is clearly a different version, the rest of the song is the same vocal track as the officially released Oh Mercy version. Shame.

6) Things Have Changed
I’ve never been as much of a fan of this song as Dylan obviously is and this version is a case in point. The backing from the band is great, but the vocal is lacklustre – not a great performance, Dylan sounds on autopilot here.

7) Red River Shore # 2
Another version of this masterpiece, more muted than that which appears earlier on CD1. Dylan sounds like he’s maybe sung it one time too many, and the arrangement is not as sympathetic as the earlier version.

8) Born In Time
Another Lanois stab at this tune, long available to collectors and inferior in every way to the superb Under The Red Sky version.

9) Trying To Get To Heaven
This is one to get my pulse racing as Dylan does that which he is often accused of – completely reworks a song’s melody so it becomes another song. This is Dylan as Sinatra, a lounge version of the Time Out Of Mind masterpiece. Committed vocal, superbly realised alternate tune, he’s done to this what he did to I Want You and Tangled Up In Blue during the 1978 tour – magical and heartbreaking.

10) Marchin’ to the City # 2
Kicks off with some Rainy Day Women drums, and bounces along to an organ-driven back beat; not as good as the version that graces CD 1 but intriguing none the less.

11) Can’t Wait # 2
Spooky organ intro, spooky Dylan vocal. Mesmerising, this meanders along in mysterious and moving ways. Dylan as supreme blues singer, just great.

12) Mary and the Soldier
Another fantastic and touching performance from the sessions that spawned the superb World Gone Wrong album. Flawless.

Cecilia Bartoli: three world-ranking mezzos #3

December 18, 2008
Wednesday night’s Cecilia Bartoli gig at London’s Barbican was breathtaking. I knew what to expect from several earlier Bartoli gigs – she gives spectacularly good show. Last night underlined her credentials as the most grown-up of grown-up musicians.

Performing for two hours with only piano accompaniment a repertoire rarely heard – Rossini and other bel canto chansons from mid-19thC Paris salons – she demonstrated her trademark technical mastery and emotional depth time and time again.

Whether in playful coloratura trills or in sombre, doleful ballads she showed why many (f’rinstance me, babe) regard her as the world’s pre-eminent singer, in any genre of music. If I were told I could only ever attend one more gig and asked to choose one musician, it would be Ms Bartoli.

Extraordinarily expressive singer… peerlessly intelligent musician… and a great creative artist – following her own agenda.

It doesn’t get any better than this – you could have guessed that from the full house, the standing ovation and the three encores.

Gerry Smith

Joyce DiDonato: three world-ranking mezzos #2

December 17, 2008
Of the three world-ranking mezzo-sopranos performing in London this week, the Kansan Joyce DiDonato is the least established.

She’s a fast-rising star, though – I’ve previously enjoyed her 2006 performances in Barber Of Seville, the lovely Rossini opera, at Covent Garden, in a semi-staged Handel opera at the Barbican, and a Wigmore Hall recital.

Saturday’s Barbican gig, backed by chamber orchestra Les Talens Lyriques, was part of a European tour promoting the singer’s new disc, Furore: Handel’s Scenes Of Madness.

The lovely setlist and striking performances cemented DiDonato’s growing reputation. She has a rich, creamy tone, an expressive, intelligent reading of the texts and enviable voice control – her dynamics and legato are always a thrill. She delivered a very enjoyable gig: must buy the album.

But the empty seats in the hall told you that DiDonato isn’t quite yet first division – Bartoli, Gheorghiu, Fleming, for example, are substantially more popular – but I wouldn’t bet against her morphing into a top drawer diva in the next few years.

Another odd Barbican audience! As for Roberto Alagna earlier this year, a mix of the cognoscenti you also encounter at Covent Garden or Vienna’s Musikverein, alongside an overabundance of Classic-Lite seniors who get way too excited (usually over the wrong things).

Gerry Smith



Barber of Seville – another Rossini triumph for Covent Garden

Contrary to some tepid reviews, the new Royal Opera House production of The Barber of Seville, Rossini’s mature comedy, is a delight. While the Financial Times critic thought the staging “tedious, gaudy, boxy, contrived”, I found the production to be thoroughly engaging. And very funny.

Joyce DiDonato’s Rosina was well-nigh perfect. Her rich voice and expressive acting come from the top drawer: DiDonato’s a talent to follow carefully. Ditto George Petean, in the title role.

And, just as they triumphed with last season’s Rossini at Covent Garden, Il Turco, directors Leiser and Caurier presented a colourfully witty feast for the eyes.