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John Prine: God’s on the Phone

God’s on the Phone
November 19, 1991

Now that Bonnie Raitt has got hers, the most thoroughly accom­plished-but-denied veteran pop musician in America is John Prine (no arguments please). An insider’s favorite who dates from the initial early-’70s batch of sing­er-songwriters, Prine is far less eroded as a performer now than his more canonized peers. After 10 albums, first on Atlantic, then Asylum, and finally his own label (which has absorbed the Asylum catalogue), Prine offers still more evidence that being admired by peers guarantees nothing for your career: at various times Prine has been boosted by Kris Kristoffer­son, Bonnie Raitt, and the Eagles, while a passel of performers in­cluding the Everly Brothers, Bette Midler, and Tammy Wynette have sung his tunes. No doubt he’s held down by the vague but common impression he’s a sap. Prine always had a soft spot in his head for maudlin lost loves and wasted moments of innocence, but as he’s aged he’s learned the point is to risk sentimentality without quite touching it. There’s scarcely a choked-back sob in Prine’s new The Missing Years (Oh Boy), his richest record in a decade.

Prine has invited along a raft of singers (Phil Everly, Bonnie Raitt, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, others), though it’s more of a show of solidarity than a duet hoedown since most guests act as voice extenders, harmonizing from the shadows of the mix. An exception is “Take a Look at My Heart,” sung by Prine and Spring­steen, written by Prine and John Mellencamp, and delivered with a Midwestern-plains dolor that makes it a potent bruised-rugged-­guy testament. More prominent and abiding help on The Missing Years comes from the likes of Da­vid Lindley and Albert Lee on stringed instruments and John Jorgenson on reeds; linked with Prine’s twang, which has devel­oped some pleasant leather coating, these players shape a record that can travel from the naked bulb in the flophouse hall to the lights of the midway at the county fair.

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The personnel work as a dense ensemble, with many defined dabs of color only when Prine wants a wide-screen production with special effects galore like “Picture Show.” He surely knows, however, that bombastic, flashy presentations of trite love songs are just about ruining the form right now. Even when half a doz­en musicians back him up on the thankful praises of “Unlonely,” Howie Epstein’s production keeps Prine as huddle close as he is with just his guitar on “Everybody Wants to Feel Like You.” The jaunty tone of that song and the popping, single-string commen­tary behind “Daddy’s Little Pumpkin” disguise the fact that Prine has become drier and dark­er than ever before. The narrators of these two tunes, while not as discomforting as Randy Newman would have made them, are guys alienated from themselves, trapped in romances and binges that are spinning out of control faster than they know. One of Prine’s triumphs here is the flat, conversational vocal on “Daddy’s Little Pumpkin,” with its leering little swells and dips, so precisely the sound of a bad-time Charlie swinging between vivacity and malice.

Somebody can drop off the end of their rope or start to climb back up it at any place, and that mo­ment that wavers between final despair and the rebirth of confidence is one of Prine’s favorites. It’s a regular source of the off-­center states of mind and corre­sponding imagery in his work. He can be simply whimsical (“It’s a Big Old Goofy World”) or tartly hermetic (“The Sins of Mephisto”), but the songs that out­strip those of his old pal Steve Goodman and pull Prine into the realm of Big Daddy Dylan are those like “Everything Is Cool” and “Jesus the Missing Years”­ — unclassifiable kinds of modernist religious meditations.

Prine never gets caught shouting and banging on the high keys about this. His sense of the super­natural derives more from the ev­eryday wonderment that causes people to invent phrases such as “I felt like I’d been pulled through a knothole backwards” rather than the literature of surrealism or Biblical frescoes. Still, the man has been haunted by Christianity since his debut album 20 years ago: “Pretty Good” sent up all religions; God got mentioned frequently; Jesus died for nothing at the core of “Sam Stone,” disapproved of killing on “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heav­en Anymore,” and had to be found on your own in “Spanish Pipedream.” Counterculturists and the Nazarene were regular as­sociates in those years, but to this day, when the celestial mood grips Prine the sky is thick with black angels, Jesus covers the waterfront, and God’s not in his heav­en — he’s on the phone and won’t let well enough alone.

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People are a little ill at ease with artists who have a persistent, unconventional relationship with the divine, especially when they insist on using conventional names and symbols — it implies that standard theology is correct but that everybody else got it wrong. Long before he got bitten by T-Bone Burnett, the young Dy­lan did rambles where the Son of God had a walk-on as an ordinary soul passing through absurd mis­adventures and Prine goes one further here with “Jesus the Miss­ing Years.” During that notorious gap in the Bible biography, Christ shatters time and space to get tan­gled up with James Dean and get on stage with George Jones and generally act out the fantasies of, as Prine puts it in another song, “A young man from a small town/With a very large imagination.” The singer’s identification with the Redeemer is plain, but again he’s not puffed up about it. The proposition seems to be that Prine, Dean, Mark Twain, you, me, and anybody at all could be Jesus.

A performer with the gumption to stick with that hoary hippie no­tion just might have the endur­ance to make it through the cur­rent harsh cultural climate in which he’s just one more low-sales loser. Forget the punk era — the next two or three years will test as never before who’s still got the guts to be a pop independent. After The Missing Years, I’m going to double my bet on Prine.

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Bob Dylan’s on Fire, Rolling Down the Road

Bob Dylan’s on Fire, Rolling Down the Road
November 10, 1975

Perhaps it’s happening because nothing was happening. Maybe it means more because the lines of our interdependence are so strained, so fragile — yet overgrown, layered, and incestuous. Maybe because we’re so vulnerable now; especially in this impacted city, either hoofing it in the chorus line or hopscotching in the spotlight. But for whatever reason that you might need Dylan, and for whatever need he has of you, he’s back.

It’s like the first page of a book of miracles, Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, when the magic gypsy returned to Macondo, the city in the jungle bearing the first magnet ever seen there. The pots and knives flew from their shelves, the nails creaked from the beams, and the gypsy, an honest man, proclaimed, “Things have a life of their own. It’s simply a matter of waking up their souls.” And so it is that Dylan, and Joan Baez, Allen Ginsberg, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Bobby Neuwirth, and friends are out on the road, in a bus named Phydeaux (a black-humored greyhound), waking up souls in what, along with Woodstock (and Altamont if you have a taste for that side of things), is probably the most meaningful musical energy nexus of our time. The man has actually gone out and done it, and in the process discovered himself at the height of his powers.

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***

In early July Dylan was dragging around New York like an out-of-work folksinger, living in a borrowed loft on Houston Street. His marriage had (reportedly) busted up and he had come back to the Village from Malibu for solace, for a transfusion, or simply to be home to visit. In any event it was obviously “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog” time. He would show up almost every night at the Other End, usually alone, occasionally with director Jacques Levy and boulevardier Bob Neuwirth.

At a show during the July 4 folkie-smorgasbord, Neuwirth coaxed a reluctant Dylan onstage to sing harmony. Neuwirth, the high potentate of Max’s backroom, high living storyteller, song-writer, catalyst, and nonstop dancing partner to rock and roll royalty, prepared to do a week long Other End engagement. Rob (Rockin’ Rob Rothstein) Stoner on bass, guitarists Steve Soles and T-Bone Burnette and fiddler David Mansfield all were pressed into service, with Soles flying in from California, and T-Bone from Texas. Ramblin’ Jack stopped in; English rockers Ian Hunter and Mick Ronson fell by. The show itself was splotchy and shapeless. But it seemed to spark something in Dylan, and one night the Other End’s bar suddenly turned into Johnny Cash’s living room, as Dylan & Company held forth till almost 6 a.m. with a bunch of new songs, including the wild-eyed “Joey,” about Gallo the mobster in prison reading Wilhelm Reich. At one point Dylan leaned over to Ramblin’ Jack and suggested that they all do a tour together. I don’t think that anyone who heard it took the suggestion seriously. That week Dylan went into the studio to work on his new album. He then left New York for California and Minnesota.

In October, he returned to New York having definitely decided to tour. It was to be essentially a folk-oriented assemblage, an almost literal extension of the jamming at the Other End. Everybody gets to play and sing, trying to bring some music back down to livable scale and into an accessible intimacy. He needed professional help and he brought in longtime aid and childhood friend Louie Kemp from Duluth, ex-Bill Graham associate and Santana manager Barry Imhoff, ubiquitous tour-lady Chris O’Dell, and Boston promoter Don Law. Joan Baez was called and asked to come along. They set up shop at the Gramercy Park Hotel and booked a midtown rehearsal studio. But if the tour arrangements were in safe hands, the band was not.

Dylan doesn’t have the musical chops to lead or create the kind of band he’d like to have. That task fell to Rob Stoner. He’d been knocking around New York for years, falling in with Neuwirth and eventually Dylan in July. Stoner’s an amazing rock and roll mutant, a sort of a cross between Jerry Lee Lewis and Fabian. Fabian? But he literally put the touring band together, with the help and stage direction of Jacques Levy. The musicians, to a man, all credit Stoner with “taking a diverse and formless group, who’d never really played together in a context that demanded any precision, and whipping ’em into shape. He brought in his old friends Howie Wyeth, who does unlikely double duty on drums and piano, and percussionist Luther Rix. Violinist Scarlet Rivera, who’d been playing with Dylan since June, also signed on. Surprisingly, things fell into place, institutionalizing the loopy informality of the late night jam sessions.

On Wednesday, October 29, Dylan, Neuwirth, and a few others arrived for David Blue’s closing set at the Other End. Ronee Blakley showed up as did Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, and Denise Mercedes of the glitter group Stutz. After the club closed, Dylan and Ronee Blakley shared the piano and crooned, Roger McGuinn played guitars, and Ginsberg sang. “Allen, you’re the king,” said Dylan repeatedly. “You’re the king but you don’t know your kingdom.” That night Ginsberg was invited to join the tour, followed two days later by invitations to Denise and the always helpful Orlovsky, who was sort of given a job as a baggage handler.

At 3 a.m. Eric Andersen phoned from Woodstock. He spoke to T-Bone Burnette, asked if he should come down (one-and-a-half hour drive). “Well,” T-Bone replied, “it’s really happening.” “Has it peaked yet?” Eric asked. “It won’t peak for another month,” came the answer.

The next night (Thursday) they played Mike Porco’s birthday party at Folk City. They rehearsed Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. On Monday at 1 p.m. they left the Gramercy Park with the band on board the $125,000 Phydeaux and Dylan in a red Cadillac El Dorado convertible. The tour was to be unadvertised, playing mostly small halls, $7.50 top, with only five days notice given by handbills in each town. The secrecy was such that even the musicians didn’t know where they were headed.

Meanwhile, in Plymouth, Massachusetts, home of the Rock and Pilgrim fame, the biggest thing in 355 years was about to happen. Advance men Jerry Seltzer and Jabez Van Cleef walked into the town hardware store. They had booked the Plymouth Memorial Auditorium earlier for a Joan Baez concert. The town fathers asked that Joan not make any overtly political statements on stage. The hall was rented, 1800 seats, for $250 dollars per night (two nights), $100 over the regular rental price after assuring the house manager that, yes, they could fill the second balcony. In the hardware, store they gave a Rolling Thunder Revue handbill to two young guys buying spackle. The first guy screamed, “Get out, I don’t believe it.” He was reassured. “You’d better be right or I’ll rip this town apart.” “It’s your town,” Van Cleef replied. The second guy turned and said, calmly, “Look man, there are some things in life that’re real. This isn’t one of them.” He was wrong, and he was right.

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***

The Sea Crest Hotel in North Falmouth, Massachusetts, (“on captivating Cape Cod”) is right on the beach. It has 200 rooms and is magnificently secluded. The tour arrived there Monday afternoon. On Tuesday I called for a reserva­tion and was asked if I wanted an ocean-front room. “Something close to the Dylan party,” I re­plied. The clerk lied telling me that the only large group in the hotel was a Mah-Jongg convention. That evening, Dylan, introduced by the Borscht Belt MC as “a dynamite entertainer,” sang in the dining room, Ginsberg recited “Kaddish” and danced a pas de deux with Ronee Blakley. Thursday evening I flew into Boston. The next morn­ing I headed for the Sea Crest.

I met Peter Orlovsky in the lobby. He said I shouldn’t be there, security was very tight. No press, no girl friends, no business like show business. He suggested I talk to Louie Kemp. Kemp was amazed that I’d found them. I’d have to leave. I said I’d register. We struck a bargain. They’d give me a room and send people up to talk. They’d send up lunch and two security guards, one to run errands for me, the other to make certain I didn’t leave the room and to ac­company me if I did. Like Camp David, or Los Alamos. Fair enough. So, under virtual house arrest, I enjoyed my first visitor, Steve Soles, who told me that “Everyone cares about everyone else here, we’re all feelin’ good, no tension. It’s really run by pros and it’s a grown-up tour. Nobody’s on a bad trip or fucked up with drugs. And it’s all spontaneous. We don’t know where we’re goin’, neither does Dylan. We just walk out, tune up, and fall into the song.” Soles is half-N.Y., half L.A., but all of it came together in N.Y. “L.A. doesn’t breed this kind of en­ergy.”

The tour represents an enor­mous financial investment for Dylan. There are no super banks of amplifiers or special lighting, but it still involves at least 50 people. It’s been a dream of the collective rock consciousness to do a tour like this. Small halls, no advertising — “the real magical mystery tour,” as Neuwirth says. And whether or not Dylan makes a profit — there will be a film, of course — he’s still doing something admirable. But it’s like the old J.P. Morgan riposte: “If you have to ask the price, you can’t afford it.” If you’re a big enough star to warrant a secret tour you a) don’t need the money, b) reap compensatory free publicity, c) stoke up your own emotional capital, and d) what the hell else would you be d0ing — sitting around the pool with Ali McGraw and occasionally switching your drink from hand to hand?

Meanwhile, outside on the beach, Jack Elliott, looking like a lawyer in Miami, is chasing Joan Baez, incredibly beautiful in just a towel. The cormorants are diving for fish and the Mah-Jongg ladies are walking around with their hands behind their backs.

Howard Alk and Mel Howard are there making a movie with Sam Shepard feeding them images; Jack Elliott talking to the wax pilgrims in the Mayflower museum; Rob Stoner as Gene Vincent and T-Bone Burnette as Buddy Holly in rock and roll heaven with Joan Baez as a red-afroed hooker and Paul Colby as a nightclub owner. Or, a scene in a local diner with Ginsberg as “the emperor” and Dylan as “the alchemist.” Allen: “Are you the alchemist? I’m the emperor, here’s my card”; he hands Dylan an orange maple-leaf. Dylan: “Your kingdom is bankrupt after all the wars, after sending off to Indochina for a shipload of tears you still haven’t paid your karmic debt.” Allen: “What’s the alchemical secret that’ll help?” Instantaneously (all improvised), Dylan smiles: “Invention.” And he proceeds to mix up a bowl of remedy, going behind the counter for Ritz crackers, honey, pepper, milk, Tabasco sauce. “Your using ordinary materials,” cries Ginsberg. “That’s the point,” says Dylan.

But like all rock and roll tours this operation is functionally schizophrenic. It’s understandably bizarre, this institutionalized intimacy, this paramilitary folkyness. Dylan’s aides are there to protect him, and like any other zealots, they overdo things. My incarcera­tion was probably just a mistake, but a mistake very much in keeping with the tone of the tour. Kemp put a sign “Quarantine — Lepers Quarters” on my door.

So I threaten to sue, to call the police, the FBI (kidnapping is a federal crime), etc. And suddenly they’re very nice to me. McGuinn, Neuwirth, T-Bone, and Rockin’ Rob arrive. Room service comes in with a tuna salad and some wine. I insist McGuinn taste the wine first. I turn down some ha­shish because smoking makes me paranoid.

Mick Ronson, wearing just a towel, wanders in. He’s one of those English guys who, if rock ‘n roll hadn’t intruded, would’ve been a hairdresser. He’s a gen­uinely sweet man, and totally blown out by the whole idea. “I can’t believe it, this is the greatest thing that’s ever happened to me,” like a Child of God or a Hari­-Krishnoid, “the rest of my life, before this, was all bullshit.”

McGuinn, one of the world’s great gadget freaks, brings out a Polaroid and waits for a gull to fly past the sun. Neuwirth, looking calmer and softer than ever, starts talking about the 10 years of talk­ing that preceded the tour. “It’s gonna be a new living room every night. This is the first existential tour, it’s a movie, a closed set, it’s rock and roll heaven and it’s his­torical, no, hysterical. No, spell it h-y-s-t-o-r… “and never finishes the word. “It’s been Ramblin’ Jack’s dream for a long time, he’s the one who taught us all and the dream’s coming true.” And then, “Aw, shit, let’s just watch the sunset over the Atlantic.”

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***

Nowadays the residents of Ply­mouth eat grinders and drive around rotaries. It’s like any other medium-sized New England town filled with nice clean-looking kids, a lot of ’em still wearing their Army field jackets because the working class fought the last war. Even $7.50 is a steep ticket in Ply­mouth.

The Memorial Auditorium seats about 1800, including 400 folding chairs on the floor, ordinarily a basketball court. With the chairs set up it’s just like your high school auditorium, if you went to a small old high school. It was Halloween, but with the exception of a human toothpaste tube the Plymouthians were all dressed up as Bostonians. And the local police frisk you for wine at the door, but two New Yorkers, singer Garland Jeffreys and guitarist Alan Friedman, out­smarted them with bottles of Soave Bolla and Southern Com­fort, respectively.

At 8:20 the show started. The band came out in Lone Ranger masks, with Steve Soles, who looks like John Astin, made up in whiteface. Neuwirth was wear­ing a khaki flak vest and served as MC. Throughout the show a guy behind me kept referring to him as “‘Nam,” saying, “He’s all right, see that vest, he’s been to ’Nam.”

Everyone on the show is in another band or plays solo, so the first half-hour was taken up by their solo spots. Rockin’ Rob Stoner did “The Moment’s Too Good to Be Wasted, But I’m Too Wasted to Be Any Good,” assisted by Quacky Duck’s David Mansfield on fiddle. David, only 19, looks like a Tintoretto angel and continually amazes everyone with his virtuosity. Neuwirth waltzed across the stage in those sliding glide steps you used on polished stages when you were a kid, he sounded great as a singer, too. T-Bone, who sounds like Roy Orbison singing underwater, came next followed bizarrely by Ronson’s Bowie-ish “Is There Life on Mars?” Then Ronee Blakley as Betty Boop with a mustache, the only real stiff on the bill. In toto, though, they’d taken all the dumb random jam session energy and drew it into focus. Then Neuwirth sang Kristofferson’s song to Jack El­liott, while Jack wandered out looking loony as ever in a Hawaiian shirt, knickers, and ever-present Brooklyn-Cowboy hat. El­liott’s one of the threads that ties the whole thing together. Ginsberg first met him in 1950 when they dated the same girl. She fell for Jack, sez Ginsberg, and Allen turned homosexual. Anyway, Jack’s the real thing, an authentic beatnik weirdo and he got tremen­dous applause, like they recog­nized a real freak. He sang, howlin’ and happy, getting down on his haunches or pointing his guitar like Lou Costello with a bayonet. At that point the show really took off.

Now, I want to say this now, before I get into telling about Dylan. Despite all this horseshit, like starting in Plymouth (“How Bicentennial of him,” says my friend David Schwartz), and all the too obvious loops of symbolic meanings and great chain of po­etry, i.e., Blake to Whitman to Ginsberg to Dylan, it’s just a show. I’ve seen a lot of shows. And this one is the greatest show I’ve ever seen. Better than the Russian Circus when the troika disap­peared. Better than Fiddler on the Roof.

Dylan comes out in a mask, like a Clockwork Orange droog, in his black leather coat, long scarf, and that old porkpie sombrero of his festooned with flowers. He and Neuwirth start “When I Paint My Masterpiece” together and that’s the only metaphorical teat to suck on. This tour is Dylan’s master­piece. With a tiny little Gibson sunburst guitar, it was old “Alias” again, weird like a Goya, in the land of Coca-Cola.

You see him and you hear him and you say No Way. You can’t believe it. He’s tight like a mata­dor and he turns slowly into a dark, bloody version of “It Ain’t Me, Babe.” He sounds more natural than ever before, so that his vocal affectations work better. Ronson drops a letter perfect solo and Dylan slowly takes up a harmonica and lifts it to his mouth. But he can’t play it because he’s still got the mask on. He turns around, takes it off, faces the audience, the place goes crazy like a Saint Vitus’s dance or Saint Elmo’s fire. Dylan responds with virtual Clapton on the harp, hips thrust forward, electric on the balls of his feet. Suddenly it’s over, and Neuwirth says only one word — “Dylan.”

He plays “Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” next, reciting the overlong verses, the words rolling faster and faster and Ronson takes another solo, with his guitar low on one knee, right foot forward. And I think, “Yes, if he lives to be 100 this is the best thing Ronson’ll ever do.” Dylan takes it all in, strutting, sauntering around the stage, abso­lutely 100 Per Cent All There.

He does the new “Durango” and “Isis,” both coauthored by Jacques Levy. During a guitar solo someone tosses a rose on stage. Dylan turns on left heel, throws scarf over shoulder, and in one motion, like a shortstop, picks up the rose and tosses it back. And throughout the rest of the song he rocks on his heels, hands hanging in fists, tossing his head from side to side. You gotta see Dylan dance.

That’s only half of the show. When the curtain comes up again there are four legs showing and two of ’em are Joan Baez’s, on the left. Together they sing ”The Times They Are A-Changing,” “Baby, You Been on My Mind,” and a new Dylan song that sounds like “For Sentimental Reasons,” with Joan and Dylan trucking in and out of the mike like Sam and Dave.

Then Baez solo: her Dylan song, “Diamonds and Rust,” an exces­sive a cappella “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” a Lily Tomlin imitation, and three more numbers. Next McGuinn, who’d been playing banjo, does “Chestnut Mare,” another Jacques Levy tune, and Joan returns for “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” Garland Jeffreys, sitting next to me, seems to explode with happiness.

Dylan comes back alone, harmonica holder on his neck, for a syncopated, faster version of “I Don’t Believe You.” Even his guitar playing is getting better. Followed by his new single, a topical song, “Hurricane,” about Reuben Carter in prison. The lyric is long and chilling, accentuated by Scarlet Rivera’s playing. Followed by two more new Mexi-Gothic love songs. Then, yet another love song. Amazing: “Sarah, loving you is the one thing I’ll never regret, Say-­rah, Sweet love of my life.” And how could it be, how could his personal life, the part that counts, come to so much pain as he segues into “Just Like a Woman”? Final­ly Ginsberg comes out all in white, (inexplicably he doesn’t do much on stage; he should open the show) and Joan, in a Bozo-the-Clown mask for, inevitably, “This Land Is Your Land” with Ramblin’ Jack singing the verses nobody else knows, cause Jack knew Woody Guthrie and Guthrie knew William Blake.

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***

“It’s Dylan’s mudra,” said Gins­berg, holding up three fingers to make a sign like a Bombay Boy Scout (which he is). “It’s his ges­ture, his act of significance. It’s the actualization of his best fanta­sies. His lesser, aggressive fanta­sies have been exhausted.” From one Jewish Gemini to another, Planet News to Planet Waves, 10-4.

Dylan’s survived, grown up. He’s not burnt out; his best work might even be ahead of him. He’s a giant, like Chaplin or Picasso. Like Brando or Muhammed Ali. He’s always got a plan. This one works on every level — body, head, intel­lect, heart. Nobody else even comes close — Jagger, Springsteen, Paul Simon.

The radio, next day, seemed to play only Dylan and Baez. It was some sort of reassurance that the miracles had actually taken place. Or were about to take place, because Dylan was on fire and the Rolling Thunder Revue was filling the sky.

“Aw, shit,” said Neuwirth, “let’s go watch the sunset.”

 

The back page of the November 3, 1975, Voice gave a preview of Dylan’s tour

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Jeff Bridges & the Abiders

With over 20 years of a film career under his belt, Jeff Bridges returned to his first love, music, in 2000 with the release of his first album. Following his Academy Award winning role as a grizzled country singer in 2009’s Crazy Horse, Bridges, together with his band, The Abiders, made his major label debut in 2011 with a self-titled album on Blue Note Records produced by long-time friend and Crazy Heart collaborator, T-Bone Burnett. If you’ve never heard his soulful music before, you might reflexively think the dude should stick to acting. But that’s just, like, your opinion, man.

Fri., Aug. 29, 8 p.m., 2014

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BAND OF BROTHERS

Williamsburg’s Nitehawk Cinema is known for its in-theater luxuries — comfortable seating, efficient food-and-drink service — so it’s a measure of the cinema’s admirable adaptability that, during the summer months, it dedicates several weekends to a premiere outdoor-moviegoing experience. The Nitehawk Outdoors series combines free-entry screenings with food, beverages, and live musical performances. (Though general admission costs nothing, $12 VIP tickets —which include amenities like beer, popcorn, and prime-location folding chairs — are available for purchase). Tonight’s opening-night lineup showcases the Coen brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou?, featuring a T-Bone Burnett-produced soundtrack that ought to jibe well with the bluegrass sound of the Birdhive Boys, slated to perform before the screening. At 50 Kent Avenue.

Sun., July 20, 7 p.m., 2014

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Punch Brothers

Inside Llewyn Davis executive music producer T Bone Burnett considers The Punch Brothers mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile the Louis Armstrong of our time for his genre-bending reshaping of folk classics, incorporating both classical and pop. That’s why he hired the Brothers to sing Irish folk ballad “The Auld Triangle” on the film’s soundtrack. Though it’s been a year since they released a new album, they’ll be ringing in 2014 with a three-night run of music that, like the film’s eponymous hero tells us, has timeless appeal: “If it was never new and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song.”

Dec. 29-31, 9 p.m., 2013

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Interview: Oscar Isaac of Inside Llewyn Davis

Three types of artists hinge on authenticity: punk bands, folk singers, and rappers. Actors, like Oscar Isaac, are by definition phonies. But the star of Joel and Ethan Coen’s new film, Inside Llewyn Davis, gets that pressure to keep it real. In high school, he was a straight-edge punk frontman in bands like The Worms and The Blinking Underdogs. And to play Llewyn Davis, the cheerful Guatemala-born, Miami-raised performer sank into the self-sanctified life of a homeless singer-songwriter in 1961 New York who’d rather starve to death — or, really, rather mooch off his friends — than sell out. (As for rapping, maybe he’ll make that movie later.)

“You’re always looking for who means it more,” says Isaac. “That’s why you have artists who end up killing themselves, so you knew they meant it — so it wasn’t some affectation.”

He couldn’t fake it, either. For chunks of the film, the Coens plant their camera to watch Isaac strum and sing old songs about fishing and lynching that neither he nor his character wrote, but that both have to channel through their soul.

See also: Inside Llewn Davis film review

Folk singers like Llewyn “were the DJs of the time,” notes Isaac. “They would find all these old songs and they would present them to you.” Guided by 11-time Grammy–winning producer T-Bone Burnett (who won four of those statuettes for the Coens’ O Brother, Where Art Thou?), Davis buried his punk roots to master six folk standards that he had to perform in their entirety for the film.

“I haven’t worked with an actor who could play and sing this style of music this well,” admits Burnett. “You can’t do it with bluster; you have to do it with the rawest honesty you can.” Isaac even learned a tricky bit of finger-picking that Burnett describes as “a little bit like patting your head and rubbing someone else’s stomach — in another country.”

Llewyn is talented. But he’s also a drag, a narcissist who doesn’t have enough charm to win fans or convince his married friends Jim and Jean (Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan) to give him one more night on their couch. (It doesn’t help that he’s secretly knocked up Jean.) Llewyn can’t even stop himself from risking an audition with a record producer by singing a super-bummer about death during childbirth.

Instead of the regular rags-to-riches-to-repentance arc, Inside Llewyn Davis is a subversive faux-biopic. “It just keeps descending and descending,” chuckles Isaac, who calls it a “screwball tragedy.” Loosely inspired by musician Dave Van Ronk — an almost-was who left his fingerprints on the culture without having one-fifth the fame of his friend Bob Dylan — the Coens dangle Llewyn’s big break before us until we realize it might never come. What will happen to him if it doesn’t?

“He wants to do his thing without compromising, and that’s what you need luck for,” says Isaac. “The Coens in particular recognize that. They’ve been really lucky from the get-go. From Blood Simple on they haven’t had to compromise ever, and that’s completely unusual.”

For the 33-year-old Isaac, it’s been more of a climb. He enrolled in Juilliard on a goof, then spent the next decade doing earnest work in movies few people saw: a Russian security guard in Madonna’s W.E., a popular teacher who romances Maggie Gyllenhaal in Won’t Back Down, a pop star in the Chris Pratt and Channing Tatum comedy 10 Years. His most recognizable role was in Drive, where he also pisses off Carey Mulligan, that time as her ex-con husband.

“We have this doomed relationship thing,” Isaac laughs. “We have to find the third one — we’re talking about Macbeth.”

In Llewyn Davis, Mulligan hisses that the broke singer needs to sheathe his penis in two condoms and electrical tape. Ouch. But as co-stars go, Isaac was more afraid of the orange cats he had to tow around the set after his character accidentally lets a friend’s pet escape. Since 2008, his right hand has been scarred from an infected cat bite that got into his lymphatic system and sent him to the hospital for two days.

“Cut to five years later and the Coens are like, ‘We’ve got five cats, and these nervous wranglers are holding these cats, and the cats are all freaked out, and we’re going to attach these cats to you,'” groans Isaac. “I wasn’t thrilled about that.”

Still, the risk was worth it. The last unknown the Coens anointed, A Serious Man‘s Michael Stulhbarg, went on to take a flashy role in Men in Black 3. Hey, maybe selling out doesn’t exist when even Dylan is doing Victoria’s Secret commercials.

What would Llewyn make of his rival cavorting with Adriana Lima? Isaac knows — he’s met a real Llewyn, kinda. On another film set, he noticed an extra cast as a barfly. In between takes, the prickly old man would pick up a guitar and play exactly the kind of folk songs Isaac was trying to learn. Isaac introduced himself and discovered the man, Erik Frandsen, was a friend of Van Ronk’s who still plays open mics and lives in a rent-controlled apartment above the Gaslight Cafe, which the Coens re-created for the film.

“I go to his place, and it’s like a time capsule: There’s all these old guitars and all these records stacked everywhere,” beams Isaac. “He’ll go to these clubs and play, and if he see some kid who shows some promise, he’ll invite him over and teach him what he knows. And I think that’s what Llewyn would do, too.”

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Steve Earle

Steve Earle’s in town for three shows at City Winery, supporting I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive, his T-Bone Burnett-produced album from spring of last year. A record grooved with the familiar lines and life-worn tone of the veteran singer and songwriter’s 21st-century work, it also kicks with tuneful, tangy hillbilly guitar and plenty of the tasteful interplay you’d expect from Earle, particularly with Burnett at the helm. All three shows will also feature Allison Moorer and her band, so here’s hoping for a Moorer appearance with her husband on Never Get Out‘s standout ballad “Heaven or Hell.”

Mon., Jan. 9, 8 p.m.; Mon., Jan. 16, 8 p.m.; Mon., Jan. 23, 8 p.m.; Mon., Jan. 30, 8 p.m.; Mon., Feb. 6, 8 p.m., 2012

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Elton John+Leon Russell

Two pop-rock legends hit the Beacon in celebration of today’s release of The Union, a new T Bone Burnett-produced duo album on which John and Russell offer a slightly rootsier take on John and Lady Gaga’s collab from this year’s Grammy Awards.

Tue., Oct. 19, 8 p.m., 2010

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Elvis Costello & the Sugarcanes

Multiply Almost Blue with King of America, add pieces of an unfinished “chamber opera” about Hans Christian Andersen’s infatuation with singer Jenny Lind, and divide by producer T-Bone Burnett to arrive at the secret formula behind Costello’s solid new album of masterfully massaged Americana, Secret, Profane and Sugarcane. The Sugarcanes are Jerry Douglas (dobro), Stuart Duncan (fiddle), Mike Compton (mandolin), Jeff Taylor (accordion), and Dennis Crouch (double bass).

Wed., June 10, 8 p.m., 2009

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Tommy Keene

Even with boosters such as Paul Westerberg, Guided By Voices, and T-Bone Burnett, this DC native remains very much a cult figure after three decades in the business. Power pop’s gone and in out of style enough times since then to warrant a re-examination of his catalog, but not to the extent that it’s lifted him up to the level of his most famous fans. Just be thankful that he still hasn’t thrown in the towel and that you have another chance to become a booster yourself. With Wormburner and Ben Wise.

Thu., April 30, 8:30 p.m., 2009