Gospel Bob: guitarist Fred Tackett on playing with Dylan, 1979-1981

Gospel Bob theatre

This week, Sony releases the latest Official Bootleg Series set, Trouble No More, focusing on the Gospel years, 1979-1981, and comprising more than a hundred previously unreleased performances on the 8CD and 1 DVD deluxe set. 

To accompany the special feature on The Arts Desk, which features an interview with the guitarist on all the Gospel tours, Fred Tackett, here is the full text of my interview with Fred, done by phone between London and Topanga Canyon. He’s a good storyteller, and I hope you will enjoy what he’s got to say about working with Gospel Bob during those three extraordinary years.

 Gospel bob band

THE INTERVIEW

How did you start working with Dylan?

It was after Lowell George died. I’d come off the road, I was in a session, and my wife said, Bob Dylan’s office called, and they want you to come down and jam with them. So for three weeks I’d drive down to Rundown Studios in the middle of Santa Monica, a funky little place upstairs, and I started jamming with Tim Drummond, Jim Keltner, Spooner Oldham and Terry Young – who was an amazing gospel piano player – and Mona Lisa Young [her voice graces BA’s famous “Flower Duet” commercial] as well as the gospel singers. I remember grousing to myself, thinking, man it’s been three weeks. Are we gonna go on the road? Then I started thinking, there’s about 50 thousand guitar players who would die to do this, what are you bitching about? [laughter]

Eventually, Bob called me on the phone, days before the were going on Saturday Night Live. “We’re doing this tour, this TV show, can you make it?” And I said, sure man, have your manager give me a call. He says, “I don’t have a manager.” Okay. So the next day I went in to the rehearsal and after that he told me to come in to his little office, and said what’s the story. And I said, well Bob – and he put a finger up to his lips and pointed to his ear. So I put my face right up against his ear and said, you know Bob, I get uuh double scale, which is $600 a day for a six-hour session. So that’s seven days a week for three weeks…And he’d listen to me then pull back as if saying, you kiddin’ me? And stick his face right back in my face. Just playing with me, that’s all he was doing. He has a great sense of humour. Very dry. That’s how it all went down. He called me the next day and said, that’s cool. There wasn’t any negotiation about it. He just went through that whole little thing, which I thought was hysterical. I think he thought it was hysterical too. [laughter] Otherwise he wouldn’t have been doing it.

So we played all the songs from Slow Train Coming and the new songs from Saved, then we went on the road, which was a first for me, playing songs that hadn’t been recorded yet. It was only after we’d been on the road for I don’t know how long that we drove into Muscle Shoals, got off the bus, went in to the studio, recorded for about three days, got back on the bus and went to the next gig. And that was Saved.

Gospel Bob guitarThe Toronto recordings [which feature on the deluxe set and on the Trouble In Mind film] were spread over several days, with three cameras. It was a big thing that we were going to do this, and then no one heard anything more about it. They sat on a shelf for years, and now they’ve put it out. They have really done a good job editing it, and it’s just fantastic, the sound and the close-ups are really good.

What was the feeling in the band – were members of the band partaking of the spirit of it?

Everyone was into the spirit of it. I grew up playing sacred and secular music, so it wasn’t unusual for me, and I was glad to have the opportunity to play sacred music. We used to have a kind of prayer grouping every night, with all the girl singers and all the guys in the band before we went on stage, and even though I wasn’t an evangelical born-again Christian I would participate, because the idea of doing it was fine with me. We did that every night. I understand the power of faith, but I didn’t have it. Some of the guys in the band did. Most of the singers were pretty much Gospel all the way.

But it was a really good gig, I just love Dylan. I’m a huge Bob Dylan fan, so if he wants to sing about Jesus, that’s great, go ahead… And I love everything that Jesus said. The problems I have are with organised religions. Organised religion seems to be like a bad charity, and not an efficient one.

How did it go down when you did Saturday Night Live?

That was our first show! Everyone was extremely respectful, everyone was blown away that Bob was showing up. Because Bob wouldn’t be a part of any of the skits, they got Al Franken, who is now a senator, to dress up as Dylan, and he came over to us and was so humiliated. “I want you to know that I don’t want to do this, please don’t hold it against me…” It was the first night Bill Murray was in the cast, and it was the first show without Belushi and Ackroyd, and they called up Jim Keltner to wish us all good luck. Everyone was really excited about us being on the show, and it went down great.

How much antagonism did you face at the first run of gigs at the Warfield in San Francisco?

The reviews were terrible. That was a whole drama. We had Madalyn Murray O’Hair, a famous atheist, protesting. There was a guy walking up and down outside with a giant cross. It was a whole theatre going down on the street. One of my subsequent friends who I met at that time was making good money busking old Bob Dylan songs, because you couldn’t hear them inside. [laughter] The best thing I saw was a guy in the front row with a sign that said, ‘Jesus loves your old songs’, which I thought was a good point.

At the same time, people were digging it, and we had everyone in San Francisco there, Gospel Dylan Roxysfrom Jerry Garcia to Maria Muldaur and Mike Bloomfield, all these people came and sat in with us. It was exciting being in the same spot for a couple of weeks. But the newspapers – one review was headlined, God-Awful Dylan. Most of the press was so bad, Bob told me once he called up one of the reviewers, got his number, and called him on the phone, and when his wife answered and he could hear the sound of children in the background, he was so shocked that this dude would have a wife and family that he was speechless and hung up. [laughter] Like, what in the world are you writing about me, man, and then thinking, my God this guy’s got a wife and kids… I don’t even know what to say.

The reviewers hated us, but the audiences, they were pretty enthusiastic. I have tapes of all those shows. There were hecklers, but not so much in San Francisco as in other cities. I remember in Arizona he had people turn on the lights, like, let’s see who these people are. Some funny stuff. I remember him saying, I was telling these people about Jesus and they were going boo, and he was making this weird sound [a long, low-pitched boooooo], like he’d never heard anyone say ‘boo’ before. He thought that was so strange.

Does that kind of adversity fire up a band or hobble it?

Well, it was exciting because it was controversial. I really enjoyed it when we played the old songs, but the concerts by then were like a really good concert. The first ones, Bob was on a mission, and we felt like our job was to fulfil the musical vision that he wanted to put out. We tried to make it as good as possible so that people couldn’t deny it. It was undeniable, you couldn’t say it was horrible. If you did, you looked silly. A lot of times people said, I don’t like what Bob’s doing but the band are good. That was an easy ‘out’. But taken as a whole, it was undeniable what was going down.

There’s a sense of real intensity in 1979 and 1980. Did that change further down the line, and with the older songs in set?

It wasn’t quite as special. It was more like a really great Dylan concert. I mean, the first time we played Like A Rolling Stone at the second residency at the Warfield, that was the first song we played, and when we started the intro to that people just went crazy and this chill went up my spine. It was really, really special. We were still playing some of the Gospel songs, but when we first went out and were playing only those songs, it was definitely passionate and dangerous. People got upset, and also, John Lennon was shot in the winter of 1980 and that concerned everyone, because you thought, my God if someone went after John, why wouldn’t they go after Bob? So we were much more concerned. When we started the European tour everyone had bullet proof vests, and all this kind of stuff, special security guys checking out all the apartment buildings around the venues. That lasted for a little bit. Maybe one concert we wore those bullet proof vests, and then someone said, this sucks, enough of that. But there was a feeling of danger, something that was different from just going out and playing a bunch of good songs.

There are versions of amazing studio songs on this set that took years to come out. What was the experience of working on those in the studio?

Dyhlan writingWe’d rehearse all those songs in Bob’s studio, and Every Grain of Sand was really informal. Everyone had taken a break and gone off, to do whatever they were doing, and Bob and I and Jennifer Warnes were standing around the studio, and Bob started playing guitar. I started playing along with him, and they sang. It was very informal, and it came out really great. Caribbean Wind was a funny incident, I don’t know what versions they have on the boxed set but we got a call from Jimmy Iovine, one of these guys who thought, if I could just get Bob in the studio with the A-team guys, and really do a good basic track, all that stuff. ‘It’ll be huge, it’ll be great’. So he got all of us down early to Studio 55, an old studio that they had redone. An A-team LA pop music studio of 1981. He put me and Dave Mansfield in a room at the back. I had mandolin, Dave was on fiddle, and they had Jim boxed in with baffles and all this stuff, everything separated, everything discrete, and eventually Bob shows up with his guy, whoever was helping him out at the time, running errands and things, and he’s standing there, and they start telling him, Hey Bob this studio is where they cut White Christmas, because Bob loves old studios and is always looking for old studios and mics and stuff, and then they play this track of Caribbean Wind that they want Bob to sing over, and he stands there and listens to it straight-faced, waits until it finishes, and turns to his guy and he says, go get me the music for White Christmas because I can’t cut any of my music in here. [laughter]

And then he goes, Fred, where are you, and I say, I’m back in this back room, and he goes, get your guitar and get out here. So all of a sudden there’s me and Steve Ripley and Keltner and all the baffles are gone, and we’re all sitting in a circle in the same room and we’re all playing live again, and we start going through tunes. We’re doing Groom, and I’m looking down and the mic isn’t even pointed at my amp because someone’s kicked it, so I’m putting it back in front of the amp where it’s supposed to go, and we look up and Jimmy Iovine and his engineer have gone. [laughter] There’s no one in the control room apart from the second engineer.

Is there one gig, session, or song, that stands out for you?

Bob bwI really love Pressing On, from Saved. That is very funky, one of the funkiest things we ever did. I like that one a lot. Every Grain of Sand is another of my favourites, because it came down so naturally, but then all of them came down pretty naturally. I think we’d played most of the other songs a lot on the road, so they were a little more worked out. That’s always the thing Bob tried to avoid. He wanted to stop people getting a part that they’ll play every night, which tends to happen. You find something that works and you stick with it and the next thing you know you have this set- in-stone arrangement. Pressing On was more spontaneous, because I don’t remember us playing it as much as we did the other songs, like Saved. Now Saved is pretty great, especially when you hear these new live mixes. And Solid Rock, that’s a really good one.

For you, how does it all stand up today, 37 years later?

I have only seen the film, but I was amazed, man, it was so good. Everything was just so good. They picked the very best songs for it. Him and Spooner Oldham playing this harmonica and Hammond organ together at the end of What Can I do for You. Spooner would play these chord substitutions under Bob’s harmonica, and it was just so cool and hip, and Bob is playing so great. They found the best stuff of all that and put it in this movie. Ain’t Gonna Go To Hell is in there, all kinds of great stuff. It is really impressive sounding.

What were the recording sessions like?

We treated each of the songs as an individual. We were knew what the point of a song was, but we were just trying to figure out the best musical arrangement for it, and that was partly down to Bob. ‘Try it this way. Do it as a reggae’ [laughter]. We’d do everything as a reggae once.

He had this really cool thing. When we were working on Saved, we just worked on those tunes. He was writing them and we were learning them before we recorded them. But later on, when we started playing his old songs again, he’d give me a tape of someone else’s song. One time it was Bob Seger’s Night Moves. Another time it was Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline. We even did a version of the Muppets song, Rainbow Connection. He’d say, teach the band this song, so I’d write the chord sheets, the guys would come in and I’d teach them Night Moves, Sweet Caroline, and so on, and he would sing it, then he’d send the recording to Bob Sager or Neil Diamond. [laughter]

He never said anything about it, but I always thought he didn’t want us to have these set-in-stone arrangements down. He wanted us to rehearse as a band but without us butchering his tunes over and over again, banging them into the ground. So he gave us these other songs to play. Then we’d go out on stage and play his songs. We’d rehearse them a bit, but not enough to be set in stone or to get our parts down. And I thought that it worked great. It was a great tactic, and I’ve never run across anyone else doing that. It’s a great way to rehearse a band, where you’ve got everyone together playing, without wearing the songs out.

Very much like Miles Davis, perhaps?

Exactly. I think Bob is very much influenced by Miles, He told me one time that when he first started living in the Village he got all his ideas of what was cool from watching Miles Davis. And I can dig that. I understand that. The Carnaby Street shirts, the cool clothes, the ‘don’t tap your foot, tap your heel’. Miles always said don’t flap your foot up and down. Use your heel, it’s much cooler, man. We used to say on the band stand – watch Bob’s heel, man, to keep up with whatever was going down, or what was supposed to be happening – watch his heel. He had really good timing. He is really good musician, and he doesn’t really get the credit from a lot of people who don’t think he is as incredibly unique as he is. He has got a great sense of vocal phrasing. There’s that thing he does where he back-phrases, where he won’t come in right away and plays catch-up with the melody, and at the chord changes he just shows up at the right word. It’s clever, complicated stuff.

I once said to him after a show, man I didn’t think you would ever get to the four chord because you waited so long to come in, and the next night he did the same thing, turned around and looked at me, as if to say, ‘oh yeah?’ [laughter]. He has an amazing sense of phrasing. And he’s invented guitar stylings. There’s certain way he plays rhythm guitar where it goes from a swinging folk thing to being a really straight thing on top of it, and he invented that. No one did that before he did it. He’s just a really good musician.

Bob-Dylan_Trouble-No-More-Bootleg13_Deluxe_pshot

All images courtesy of Sony Music

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Gnawa Festival at 20

The marvellous Gnawa Festival in Essaouria celebrated its 20th birthday this year, and I celebrated my 11th visit to the festival, armed with drawing books, brush pens and black pens, friends including writers Andy Morgan and Jane Cornwell, and musician, DJ and all-round magician of London-Moroccan culture, Moulay Youssef Knight. Here’s some of that image hoard.

Full Nelson

 

God's Problem Child packshot

First off, here’s a link to today’s review on The Arts Desk of Willie Nelson’s new album, God’s Problem Child. It’s got some crackers on it, and Leon Russell’s last recorded vocals on the title track. To go with this, below is the text of a feature published in The Independent, written overnight back in March 2005, after joining Willie on his bus to talk to him en route between Kay West Hotel and Shepherds Bush Empire, where he played a great set. The paper needed it the next morning, and I remember sitting up till the early hours with the poet Gordon Wardman, who’d joined me on Willie’s bus and asked the best question – “Did you ever meet Buddy Holly?”. [No].

“God may have a problem, but Willie’s cool” 
http://www.theartsdesk.com/new-music/cd-willie-nelson-gods-problem-child

 

On the bus with Willie Nelson, West London, March 2005

Written overnight, published the next day, and Willie was playing a second date at the Shepherds Bush Empire. Mid morning, The Independent calls to say someone called
David Soul wants to speak to me. Turns out he used to hang with Willie on his bus
in the 1970s, and wanted to reconnect. I did the connecting, and there he was,
sat on a chair at the side of the stage that night. 

Willie Nelson’s bus is something of an American legend, one you can walk all the way around and still see nothing but that legend staring you in the face, albeit with darkened windows and all the mod-cons money can buy.

Willie probably spends more time on the bus – he plays over 100 dates a year – than anywhere else on earth. When you climb up the steps behind him, you find yourself in Willie’s world; there’s the faint aroma of grass, the windows are completely opaque, and the mirrored doors create a sense of unreal space – you could be anywhere on earth, or suspended above it.

Right now, we’re travelling from the band’s hotel to the artist’s entrance at the Shepherds Bush Empire, the only indication of where we are in the world from a distant siren, and the occasional judder of the brakes.   Willie is dressed casually in a grey tracksuit top with IRISH PUB BOXING down the sleeve. There is absolutely no indication from his relaxed, casual manner that in twenty minutes or so, he will be leading his band onstage to play a two-hour set before a packed house. He does look older than when he last played here –his hair is perhaps thinner, but still hangs down to his waist, and the beard is pure white. He is big on eye contact, and though he’s hard to get to, once you’re there he completely accommodating. There is no one who wears their ‘legend’ status as casually or gracefully as he does.  He and the likes of Merle Haggard – yes, he’s still alive and touring America with Bob Dylan – are among the few surviving elders from Country’s rebellious pantheon, the ones who blazed a trail out of the saccharine stupefaction of 1960s Nashville and laid down the prototype spirit of rugged individualism that has inspired the alt-Country/Americana revival of the last decade.

‘They had their own individual style,’ he says of a generation of which he is one of the few survivors. ‘When you heard Johnny Cash, you knew it was Johnny Cash. Same with Hank Williams, or Waylon [Jennings]. The guys who have their own sound are the ones who’ll always be hanging around, and we’ll always like their music.’

With his headband and long, tied-back hair, he still looks like the original Cosmic Cowboy, a left-field, sometimes outspoken figure in a deeply conservative industry – witness the fate of the Dixie Chicks after daring to criticise Bush – and whose music and aura hits you like direct eye contact in a world of mirror shades.   And he is as busy as ever – there is a new album being released on I-Tunes, a batch of gospels songs with his sister Bobbie, and he scoffs at suggestions that this may be his last international tour; the idea of last anything doesn’t really figure on Willie’s internal route map.

There will also be a chance to hear a reggae album recorded in the mid-90s for Island, but never released. ‘Toots Hibbert (of Toots & the Maytals) and his engineers did some tuning up on the album,’ he explains, ‘they added some great rhythms and took off some things and stripped it down. I’ve been listening to it, and it sounds really different, but it sounds good.’

Over the decades, Willie has become an expert in the fine art of song-catching – virtually the whole of the American song book can be found rolling around in his oeuvre of more than 100 albums and countless concerts over five decades. ‘When you hear a great song you know it,’ he says. ‘You can’t explain why they’re great, but you know they are and you want to sing them.’

The same song-catching spirit applies to his own compositions. The ambivalent romance of the title track from 2004’s It Will Always Be, shows how, with a few words, he can speak volumes, and say different things at the same time, for beside the song’s affirmative chorus are verses of doubt and profound isolation. ‘That song came all at one time,’ he says of its composition; it’s as if he’s talking about a flower coming into bloom. The elongated, conversational phrasing and half-rhyme of the opening verse tells you a lot about his famously around-the-beat vocal style. It’s so simple it’s almost see-through, but the more you listen, the thicker it gets; and it’s not half as sentimental as it first sounds. The lines and delivery are loaded with feeling and executed with a masterly minimalism learnt on Nashville’s front lines.

‘The shorter that you could make it and still get your point across, the better the chances of airplay,’ he remarks of those early songwriting years, ‘so we writers were sort of taught to see what you could say in nine lines of verse or whatever, and that makes you concentrate on the lines you wanna use and put more thought into them. I’d sooner lose thirty mediocre verses and come up with three good ones. Good songs are timeless, you can do em today or a hundred years from now, they’re still good.’

Born in Abbott, a small town on the plains of central Texas, in the depths of the great Depression, and raised by his grandparents, his life journey is the archetypal Country ride through lucky stars, ill omens, and fortunate catastrophes. His mother, who left when he was six months old, was part Cherokee, a singer in her own right, while his father was also a player – he would later do stints in Willie’s family band decades later, when Nelson had finally made it through.

‘I have Indian blood and I’m proud of it,’ he says, ‘There’s a lot of Indian and Irish ancestry in there… Native Americans have a lot to teach us, their attitudes and way of life, the way they love and protect the earth.’ And perhaps the roving mother who left him soon after he was born – though she became a part of his life in adulthood – is the absent figure to whom so many of his songs launch their appeal. The likes of Everywhere I Go and Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground aim straight for the heart, and they rarely miss.

It’s been said that Willie Nelson wears the world like a loose garment, but finding that loose fit was some way up the line, and the distinctive voice and phrasing, his easy, elastic turning of a line, was way out of step with the times. By the end of the Sixties, with his songs finding success only in other people’s hands, he had semi-detached himself from the music business to run a hog farm just outside Nashville before a fire sent his home, his business, and most of his belongings up in smoke, and he returned to Texas, took his band on the road, and found that the music Nashville had dismissed, Texans loved.

He bought some land outside Austin, and hit the local music scene, which included the likes of Guy Clarke and Townes van Zandt. ‘There was a place called Armadillo World Headquarters,’ he says, ‘and I was playing the real cowboy redneck places down there, and I started hanging out at Armadillo; there was a lot of young people around, and I knew some people who owned the place. They had a beer garden there, and I thought, listen, we can try out some Hank Williams here. So I started playing there, and sure enough, they were big Country fans. There were guys doing it already,’ he adds, ‘like Gram Parsons and Commander Cody, but the traditional guys like me, hadn’t started to hang out with that crowd yet.’

He teamed up with the likes of rocker Leon Russell. ‘We started realising these things can mix up good,’ he says, ‘and we really mixed it up, and proved that it can be done.’  With 1975’s Country concept album, Red Headed Stranger, he had his first million-selling LP, and by the end of the Seventies, he had been elevated to iconographic status, a national monument etched into the American fabric as firmly as the heads on Mount Rushmore.

There were numerous crossover hits through the 80s but by the decade’s end Country radio was tuning out the old guard for a shiny new breed. There were further severe setbacks in 1990, when the IRS raided his compound in Luck, Texas, and took everything that could be taken, down to the glass between the control room and recording booth. Willie picked himself up, dusted himself down and released the IRS Tapes, went on the road and by 1993 had paid off his debts, moved back into Luck, and resumed an itinerary of touring, recording and golf that continues more or less unbroken to this day.

As he is often wont to say when asked about retiring, ‘All I do is play music and golf; which one do you want me to give up?’  His genius may be casually worn, but there’s a powerful sense of continuity about his music that ensures it never strays far from its sources. He has played the same guitar, and led the same band for decades, and on stage at Shepherd’s Bush, with Mickey Raphael’s harmonica blowing like tumbleweed across Willie’s guitar runs and sister Bobbie’s bone-dry gospel piano, the Family band – including guitarist Jody Payne, drummer Paul English, the Gothic cowboy looming darkly over his one snare drum, and Bee Spears on bass – are one of the longest-serving and sweetly-seasoned bands in the business.

Their subtle, mercurial sound summons up the spirit of classic songs with uncluttered playing that leaves plenty of room for Willie’s incredible guitar playing and vocal phrasing.   They may have been playing more or less the same set for decades but there’s room enough for Willie, the band and the whole audience to move about in those songs, and it seems that Willie is never going to get tired of reconstructing and rephrasing his work in new and refreshing ways.

‘It’s something that you wanna do it bad enough that you just go ahead and do it,’ he says, when asked about his career’s legacy. ‘It’s not ever easy. There’s always someone saying you can’t. But you can. If you think it’s the right thing you can do it’

And what is the most important lesson a life in the music business has taught him? He considers for a moment. ‘Patience,’ he says, and laughs. He tries to think of something else, but that’s about all there is. ‘Mainly patience,’ he says, and laughs again.