Led Zeppelin :: Celebration Day


Led Zeppelin never did get a proper send-off. I suppose there’s Knebworth ’79 , with a bloated, but still brilliant, John Bonham behind the kit. That was his last stand, certainly. But by then Plant had grown up, discovered irony and started to parody his own Golden God ridiculousness. Knebworth was good. It wasn’t great. Let’s not even go there with Live Aid (Phil Collins was the drummer). Then, to honour their mentor Ahmet Ertegun, who had signed them to Atlantic after hearing one demo, they did reasonably well, with Bonzo’s son Jason on drums, at the Atlantic Records 40th anniversary do in 1988. A couple years later they all jammed at Jason’s wedding. Seriously. And that was that. Until Ertegun passed away and, for his charity foundation, they agreed to do one big show at the O2 in 2007.

It’s been felt that Plant is the one who has moved on most successfully, professionally and personally. He’s a clever and engaging man, a blues scholar, a country bluegrass singer, a wonderful interpreter of song , and a hundred other things including a very private fella (so would you be if you’d had kids with two sisters in different decades). But this show, this one night, was his last chance to just drop it all and say ok, I give in, I’ll shake my mane and tilt my hip and play the part all over again. Everyone who attended went crazy about how good it was and then that was that – a DVD was expected but never arrived. Everyone knew it was recorded so what was the problem? Well, anything that has the Zeppelin name has to be perfect, and every fan knows that. It’s why their Live Aid show was kept off the box set. It’s why Plant refused to let half of his performance at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert go onto the DVD. That’s how they are. So what a shock when, a month ago, it was announced that, five years after the O2 show, it was coming out on DVD and in the cinema. Cue fan frenzy. I had to go and see it on the big screen. I’ve just returned and I’m waffling because I don’t know how to begin to describe this overwhelming, extraordinary musical experience I’ve just witnessed. I should say that I had a bootleg CD of the show the day after and a bootleg DVD the week after so I knew the content. But seeing it properly fixed up, on the big screen: it just knocked the wind out of me.

Right from the start – Good Times, Bad Times, track 1 from their 1969 debut album – the band crowd round the drum riser, and they barely move from that central square throughout. They’re connected, in a way that very few musicians are, and every nuance, every note, every smile, every single aspect of the performance is utterly, completely, inevitably and beautifully perfect. Every band member is on his own personal journey. If Bonzo himself were alive there’s not a chance he’d have been as good as Jason was that night. His powerful, muscular, frenzied energy powers the entire concert; he’s the rock on which everything builds from, and it’s clear how much everyone else relies on him to provide that explosive foundation, as strong as the one his dad built those 40 years ago. Listen to The Song Remains the Same and tell me that he doesn’t outdo his old man with ease. Listen to Kashmir and try not to feel your spine bending with those thunderous bass drum kicks. And listen to that final flourish in Rock and Roll and you’ll know in that moment that not a drummer on earth could have done it better.

John Paul Jones, then aged 61, has carved out a rather fascinating career as a collaborator, with the likes of Diamanda Galas and Brian Eno, and as a producer/arranger, most notably creating the gorgeous string parts on R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People. After this show he found his taste for playing live again with Them Crooked Vultures but at this performance he’s a serene, anchoring presence, though I could have stood to hear his bass a little more crisply in the mix. He comes into his own on keyboards and organ on a flawless No Quarter, fluidly nails the lovely melody line on Ramble On, leads the show during Trampled Underfoot, and what a pleasure to hear that bass run on the big finish at the end of Dazed and Confused. He and Page have an almost telepathic connection, two old stagers butting heads and grinning at each other when they know they've hit a perfect moment, when everything has gone just right.

Jimmy Page, then aged 63, is looking a little haggard these days, but so would you if you’d lived the life he’s had. There’s a reason that kind of guitar playing died out – surely looking at those scrunched up faces just got too funny after a while. In a way he has the hardest job of all, because he’s not played these songs, or indeed any songs, on stage regularly since the band broke up. He turned up for Plant’s 1990 Knebworth Festival encore , and reunited with him for a quite brilliant 1994 TV special for VH1, followed by two well received tours together in 1995 and 1998. But on the whole you know he’s the one who’d most love to be that guy again. The one who is the least creatively satisfied with what he’s accomplished in the last few decades. (Whisper Coverdale/Page if you dare.) He just wants Plant to be his guy again. And there’s no way he can play like he did when he was 25, just as Plant can’t possibly sing like he did when he was 25. But with all that said, he delivered one of the performances of his life. Not every note was perfect, not every run was as fast as it used to be, but he put every single shred of himself into that performance – from riffs to solos to violin bows to a bit of Theremin, it was all there. And he got better and better with each passing song, as if he was finding inside himself some internal clock that he was able to force backwards.

Oh Planty, Percy Plant, the former layer of tarmac on the road to West Bromwich. The Golden God (age at gig time: 59). The man who survived the 80s, somehow, to go on and win the Grammy for Album of the Year . The man who launched a thousand utterly terrible copyists. The man who shook his luscious blond hair, wore the tightest pants in rock, stuck his bare chest out, and howled like the hammer of the Gods was upon him. He has so very much to answer for. It all rests on him, truly. The band played like demons and shook the foundations of the venue, the cinema and my aching, bruised head (I fell off a spaceship the day before, but that’s another story). The groove these guys got going behind him was out of this world – no pressure then. But which Plant would turn up? The one who’s barely bothered to look back to those days, to his credit? Could he just shove it all aside and play that role for one night only, for the last time ever, and not ruin it by winking or getting the tone wrong? He had to be the last hold-out, the last person who wanted to do this, but he was doing it for Ahmet, not for himself. So he just stepped out onto the stage and, like an actor playing a classic role in his twilight years, he howled and preened and nailed the shit out of the songs. He took it seriously, finally. Not the songs themselves, after all, half of them are about rescuing maidens from castles or climbing mountains dressed like Gandalf, but the music. The sound, he just used the noise itself to push his performance to the limit. And, like Page, he just got better song by song and, being as smart as he is, he knew what to hit and what to leave. He knew which songs to excise (no Communication Breakdown or Rain Song; too high, they’d sound wrong sung lower) and he knew which moments to let go. He’s no fool: there were notes he’s a mile away from being able to hit so he used his voice, as he has been doing for the last 20 years, very cleverly and gained power and confidence with each passing minute. He’s still snake of hip (if not of jowl) and manages to exude sex almost every minute he’s on stage. And blow me down, he truly looks like he’s enjoying the night, getting off on every second and the camera captures some wonderful moments of exchanged ‘we’re really doing this!’ recognition and affection between him and Page.

They turn to Jason often, and these precise, insanely powerful songs just come at you in waves. It’s actually highly moving, seeing these four people on stage side-by-side. And that’s why they should never do it again – because it was so perfect. I hear people say that there are no bands like Zeppelin around any more. And perhaps it’s good that the more bloated bands of that ilk are long gone. But I tell you what – there were no bands around like Zeppelin even when they were around. No-one could touch them. They were out there on their own for so many years. And that’s not bad considering that I can’t tell you what a single song lyric is about. It’s the sound, it’s the interplay, it’s the alchemy – man for man, Zeppelin are the best rock band there’s ever been. And that holds true in 1969 and in 2007. I used to say that, if I had a DeLorean, and I could go back in time for certain gigs, I’d choose a particular bunch, like Bowie at the Hammersmith Odeon ’73, Hendrix at Monterey ’67, and a dozen more. And then I would always add to that list, Zeppelin at Madison Square Garden July ’73, aka The Song Remains the Same concert film. But now, today, right this minute, I’m taking it back. That night, December 10th 2007, is the one I’d choose as the crowning night of their career and the one I’d have given anything to attend.


Lou Reed, Berlin

In 1973 Lou Reed stood at the crossroads of the career he had been working for. The previous year had seen the Bowie/Ronson co-produced Transformer scoop him from the record collections of those in the know to the pop charts. His record label, RCA, were understandably keen to receive Transformer 2. Reed, always as contrary as he can be, stood at the fork in the road. Down one was the smooth sail toward success, another hit record and widespread acclaim. Down the other road? His principles, his loyalties to himself and his own passions and the tug of the darker directions in which he knew he needed to go. He chose the latter road, delivered 1973's Berlin to a horrified RCA and set off on the career path that brings us to his current, exalted, position in rock history.

Once Dylan had shown the way, that you didn't need a sweet crooners voice to get records made and sold, artists like Reed found themselves with a future they could reach. In remaining true to himself and releasing the bleak Berlin, a tale of drug addiction, suicide and depression, a theatrical almost rock opera, he destroyed his own chart-bound career singlehandedly. Produced by Bob Ezrin - best known for his heavier rock work with Alice Cooper and Kiss - it was a shock to the system and, with reviews mixed and sales sluggish, Reed and Ezrin abandoned plans for a stage interpretation of the material. It was a forgotten record. At that time, Reed hadn't even visited Berlin. As years passed the maligned album was rediscovered and anointed a misunderstood masterpiece. Indeed, one can only imagine the effect it had on Bowie at the time who, three years after the albums release, fled to Berlin to escape his own addictions and found the inspiration there in person that Reed had found in absentia.

At the end of 2006, these dark, orchestral songs found their way out of the dust and into Brooklyn, Reed's birthplace. An idea to perform the entire album with the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, brass section, backing vocalists and a collection of acclaimed musicians had come to fruition. Over five nights at the tiny St Ann's Warehouse, artist turned film director Julian Schnabel filmed the performances, staged in front of his own set design.

The film starts with Schnabel's brief on screen introduction, welcoming the audience and Reed's mother and sister to the show. Then the band, including original album guitarist Steve Hunter, take the stage, as the lights swirl. Hunter sports a beanie hat, Zappa-esque facial hair, glasses and a crooked toothy grin that remains on his face throughout the film. His playing, perhaps the only mainstream aspect of the performance, dazzles throughout. The songs are staggering in both their complexity and simplicity. Behind the band is a screen playing the story of the album's protagonist Caroline, played by French actress Emmanuelle Seigner; beautifully shot by directors daughter Lola. The dramatic scenes linger over the music, overseen by original album producer Ezrin and Hal Willner, wrapping around the story. But the camera lingers on Reed - as inscrutable as ever, but allowing himself a few stolen smiles. Berlin might be his masterpiece and he knows it. This film is no Shine A Light. There are no rich bankers and their young girlfriends in the audience, whooping as they hold their sponsored beer holders aloft. The deep lines on his face are all that connects him with that world. He trades guitar lines with Hunter and vocal lines with perfect guests - backing vocalists Sharon Jones and Antony Hegarty.

This assault on your senses comes to an end with a searing take on Rock Minuet, from 2000's Ecstasy. Going further back than the film's subject, Velvets classic Sweet Jane plays out over the credits. This film is masterful; it puts you not only in Brooklyn on those December nights but also sends you to 1973 - where a future of certainty was rejected for something from the dark heart.

Berlin, opens July 25 2008.

Shine A Light

In 1965 my mum went to see The Rolling Stones. Brian was her favourite. She always liked them more than the Beatles. She was 13. She saw them again in 1967 and again in 1969 at Hyde Park, their tribute to Brian and first show with new guitarist Mick Taylor. The Stones have always been an important band in our house - with dad preferring the Beatles I always felt half way between both bands. The Beatles mean as much to me as they ever will, I couldn't possibly love them more than I already do. But for some reason, probably because they're still around, my love for the Stones has grown over the years up to the point where I can honestly now see them as my joint favourite band with the Scousers.

In 1990, when I was 13, the same age as mum was when she saw them first, she took me to see the Stones at Wembley Stadium. As I gazed upon Keith's weatherbeaten Sid-James-looking visage I knew this band would be with me my whole life. I didn't anticipate growing up with them as mum had but that's what's happened. They are, arguably, now a better band live than they were 20 or 40 years ago. I put a fair bit of this down to the recruitment of the masterful and solid bassist Darryl Jones (born the year before the first Stones single Come On was released), who earned his apprenticeship playing with Miles Davis at age 22, which must have been quite a baptism. He gives the band a kind of grounding that they've never had before and Charlie seems more at one with this jazzman than he ever could have been with Wyman. I saw the Stones live again in 1993 but not since - I simply can't blow a hundred quid on a bad seat in a stadium, on finance and principle. I have a wealth of material at home on film, though nothing compared to a real Stones collector of course. But from 25 x 5 (VHS only, it's never come out on DVD) to the Double Door to Four Flicks, Bigger Bang, Gimme Shelter, Sympathy for the Devil/One Plus One, Cocksucker Blues and more, I've got the cornerstones of their career to hand, the visual markers by which one can trace their history. I will soon add to that the tremendous concert film Shine A Light.

There is no other filmmaker who understands the Stones as Scorsese does. Mean Streets, Goodfellas, Casino and the Departed all featured their music to great effect - Jumpin' Jack Flash in the first, Gimme Shelter in the others. And with his recent masterpiece of Bob, No Direction Home, he was the only choice to capture this small show at the Beacon Theater in New York. It's essentially a live concert film with a number of interwoven news clips of them being asked the same dull questions about how long they can keep on going for going back to the 60s. These clips are comical, provoking much laughter from the audience, especially in response to Charlie, ever unimpressed and nonplussed by the swirling circus around him. As you watch it you realise what odd lives these four extraordinary Englishmen have had and continue to have. Mick is the businessman, he was ever thus. Keith is on a constant quest to bring out the sincerity from his old friend, knowing that the real Mick is in there somewhere. He stops Mick from becoming too much of himself. All the while practicing the 'ancient form of weaving', as they call it, with Ronnie, always the most positive, excitable, force of togetherness in the Stones camp.

Scorsese does a magnificent job with the limitations of what I feel was probably not the best venue to set the show in. A fundraiser for a Bill Clinton sponsored charity the show takes place in front of the kind of corporate crowd you might expect - businessmen at the back doing a self-conscious head-bob to the songs they know while their 20-something trophy girlfriends swoon adoringly on the front rows at this grandfather on stage, his perfect washboard stomach pulling focus. Dad and grandad he may be but every woman in that theatre would go home with Jagger without pause. Surely a knight of the realm has never shaken his behind so much? Mick is simply extraordinary; cheeky and charming, his voice as strong as it was before I was born, his powers as a frontman undimmed.

Because of the size of the venue and the need to light it effectively, it almost has the feel of a TV show rather than a gig, which seemed to be the band's fear before filming started. Scorsese's previous rock concert film, The Last Waltz, was shot in the cavernous Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco, a venue wide enough to hide cameras in behind the band and, due to a spectacular set of chandeliers, easy to light without anything looking added or contrived. That was Scorsese's choice - you would only see the audience from the back of the stage for a few brief moments. Other than that, there were no audience shots at all, which put the viewer inside the gig. This Beacon show has altogether too much audience in it, though that's a minor quibble. What delighted me was the setlist. It contained, as it had to, some of the classics you'd expect to hear but also a fair few obscure album tracks. I jumped in my seat as All Down the Line and Loving Cup (the latter with a beaming and brilliant Jack White duetting) from Exile made their appearance. And the two ends - youth and experience - of the Stones spectrum made their bow too - exuding sex, as ever, was Christina Aguilera, doing a fine job on Live With Me. Their roots got the nod with the evergreen Buddy Guy on Muddy Waters song Champagne and Reefer. In the cinema I was surrounded by people my parents age, my age and kids in their early teens and younger. Their parents coughed nervously at "bring me champagne when I'm thirsty, bring me reefer when I want to get high" as I chuckled. I noticed the super filthy lyrics of Some Girls got a snip, which was to be expected I suppose.

Sheer energy carries the film along with considerable ease as band and filmmaker rise to the occasion and beat the venue. Mick in particular is on fantastic form, barely able to contain himself as he shows the trademark energy levels that put men a third of his age to shame. The camera spares no-one and rightly so - these men look in their 60s and they couldn't care less. There is no attempt to soften the lens, no careful shooting of the ravages of time. Every canyon-like wrinkle was proudly displayed on the 40 foot IMAX screen I was watching it on as the battle scars of decades of hard living came into view. Odd as it sounds, it's Keith's childlike joy that comes across clearest of all. On that famous face is a permanent grin, the sheer happiness and contentment coming from a man doing exactly what he wants with his life. A sensitive, passionate, warrior gypsy, Keith is the heart of both film and band. Against all odds, he is going to make a fine old man. His playing has hardly been better, as he says in an interview segment - "Both me and Ronnie as guitarists are pretty lousy but together we're better than ten others". Even the supporting cast have put in the years - sax legend Bobby Keys has been with the band since 69, keyboardist Chuck Leavell since 82, Darryl since 93, vocalists Bernard Fowler and Lisa Fischer since 89, keyboardist/guitarist Blondie Chaplin is the novice of the band having put in a mere decade of service.

In the 46 years since their first single, a Chuck Berry cover, they have seen off hundreds of bands and they are still standing. It's quite something when the definitive concert film of a band can be made when they're not at what is supposed to be their peak, the 1960s, but in fact when they should be collecting their bus passes. Mick once said that he never believed having a good time was something only for the young. But as they say, what else do they know how to do? Every few years the call that everyone expects will come and it's time to go on tour. Their back catalogue is unsurpassed and, as the sparks fly off in all directions, they can still deliver the best rock and roll show on earth.

I’m Not There

When I was 11 years old a VHS tape was released called Rolling Stone Presents Twenty Years of Rock and Roll. It was a 90-minute documentary, presented by Dennis Hopper, touching on most of the major musical figures that had ruled the world since Rolling Stone's inception in 1967. It was a visual lesson in popular culture handed down to me from parents who had already exposed me to music since birth - in fact, in utero, since my first gig was Little Feat in 1976 three months before birth. My parents have been curators of my musical education ever since. They are not the only people I listen to regarding music of course but they are my first port of call, even now.

In 1966 my dad attended the famed 'Judas' concert. He was 15 years old and saw the truth in front of him as Bob Dylan snarled 'Play it fucking loud' to his Band; years later this iconic footage was discovered and shown in Scorsese's definitive Dylan documentary No Direction Home. Now the definitive movie about Dylan has been made. As an 11 year old, I watched and re-watched that Rolling Stone video until it was worn out. It was responsible for my first visual sightings of artists I have since become devoted to - Beatles, Stones, Doors, Zeppelin, Bowie, Joni, Hendrix, Prince, Neil Young, U2 and more. Without fail, I have grown to love almost every artist featured in that tape.
Half way through it came the moment my musical life changed forever. In the middle of a section about increasing commercialism in music, the new power of record companies and the bloated self-indulgence of supergroups like the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac comes a cheeky piece of Hopper narration - "In the mid 70s, Dylan went his own way as usual". The screen flickered into a live clip I later found out was from 76's sprawling Renaldo and Clara (partially filmed during the '75 Rolling Thunder Revue tour). His face filled the screen, his sloping Jewish nose, the white paint (clearly a reference to shallow Kiss-style rock) covering his face, his sparkling green eyes, a wide brimmed hat and the voice -

Early one mornin' the sun was shinin',
I was layin' in bed
Wond'rin' if she'd changed at all
If her hair was still red.
Her folks they said our lives together
Sure was gonna be rough
They never did like Mama's homemade dress
Papa's bankbook wasn't big enough.
And I was standin' on the side of the road
Rain fallin' on my shoes
Heading out for the East Coast
Lord knows I've paid some dues gettin' through,
Tangled up in blue.

She was married when we first met
Soon to be divorced
I helped her out of a jam, I guess,
But I used a little too much force.
We drove that car as far as we could
Abandoned it out West
Split up on a dark sad night
Both agreeing it was best.
She turned around to look at me
As I was walkin' away
I heard her say over my shoulder,
"We'll meet again someday on the avenue,"
Tangled up in blue.

Two verses only, that's all it took to mesmerise that 11 year old. I couldn't hope to understand all he was but I hoped to learn, to try and delve further. Now 20 years later I see that not understanding completely, not being able to pin down exactly what or who he is is central to everything. That's the tack taken by I'm Not There, the new Todd Haynes film. By accepting that you cannot understand Dylan, you gain a great paradoxical understanding of the whole. Dylan once said that he has always been 'in the process of becoming'. Haynes takes that and creates a fantastical, but sometimes accurate, approach and weaves a tale unlike I've ever seen in a film.

I saw I'm Not There at Xmas, with my dad and his best friend, a rabid Santana fan. Without realising, we were booked into a subtitled screening. It was distracting yet helpful in many ways, especially when it came to the lyrics. Seeing them written on the screen enhanced their power even more. I saw the film again yesterday, sans subtitles this time. The power of the film had increased yet again and I expect that to continue upon subsequent viewings. The film is 'inspired by the music and many lives of Bob Dylan' and sure enough, not one of the actors present plays a character called Bob Dylan. The characters are composites of aspects of Dylan, his personality, his persona, his songs, his heroes and the strain felt by the expectations placed on him hovers over all proceedings.

Marcus Carl Franklin, a young black boy, plays Woody Guthrie. He represents the faker - the Dylan who told interviewers he ran away to join the circus when in fact he was having his bar mitzvah. In the film, Woody visits the real Woody Guthrie in hospital, something young Dylan did too. He's seen as a cute runaway, shilling the rubes with charm when he can get away with it. Christian Bale plays Jack Rollins, the Greenwich Village folk troubadour version of Dylan from 62-65 and then the Jesus loving Bob of the late 70s. Heath Ledger plays Robbie Clark, an actor who played Jack Rollins in a biopic but was taken over by the attention it brought - this character comes close to being 'family' Dylan, with his wife, the Sara (Dylan's ex-wife and the inspiration for Blood on the Tracks) of the piece, played by a delicate but resolute Charlotte Gainsbourg. He struggles with the balance of fame and family as his marriage crumbles and is portrayed as callous and self-absorbed.

Richard Gere, looking a touch too much like The Dude, plays Billy the Kid, as Dylan did in 70s western Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid. Ben Whishaw, a superb young English actor, appears talking to screen, facing possibly the draft board, and spouts the innocent, idealistic rhetoric of the 20 year old Bob in the name of Arthur Rimbaud.

Finally, in the flashiest portrayal, comes Cate Blanchett's twitchy, amphetamine-fueled Jude Quinn. The most recognisable of all the pieces of Zimmerman - corkscrew hair, shades, striped drainpipes, ever-present cigarette; in essence the Don't Look Back Dylan. The Newport Festival Dylan. The Judas concert Dylan. The Dylan under the most pressure, about to crack. Through the film, you realise that the weight on his shoulders would have been more than most could bear. While Dylan was not, by any means, the first musician to speak of social issues in songs, he was certainly the first pop star to do it. In a world of crooners and holding hands, his songs seared through the consciousness of young people on the cusp of a civil rights revolution and, as you might expect, that terrified the authority figures of the time. All the young men being drafted and the women watching them leave, who had been going to their deaths as part of the previously unarguable fate that befell generations before them, listened to this so-called protest singer with reverence. Dylan terrified the establishment, who had realised that a pop singer would and could have more influence on their children than any teacher, policeman, politician or parent.

As such, they set out to expose Dylan as a middle class mid-west faker who never believed in what he was saying - his abandonment of folk and embrace of electric instruments merely proved their point about the insincerity they were certain they saw in him. These detractors are created as a composite character - he's a journalist (Mr Jones, a manifestation of both the snooty English journalists in Don't Look Back and the eponymously named character in Ballad of a Thin Man) in the Quinn scenes and a sheriff in the Billy chapter (Pat Garrett, his famed nemesis) each time played by the same actor, the impeccable Bruce Greenwood.

Everyone wants something from these Dylan composites, more than they are owed. Those who dislike and fear him disrespect him. The fans expect too much; from the downcast folkies roaring their horror at electric Dylan (with a comic portrayal of the apocryphal Peter Yarrow story of chopping the power cables at Newport with an axe) to the wide-eyed teenagers seeing their Vietnam-scarred future as they glance desperately at him, hoping he'll show their path out. It's too much for one human being to cope with and the film splits him into the six distinct characters to recognise this. There is no Bob Dylan - he is a construct, a persona with many different aspects. In order to understand what is in front of you must accept that you can't understand him. You can absorb more from him if you deconstruct less. You must accept that, like the title, he isn't there.

It's one of the most audacious and ambitious films I've seen in a very long time. It was never going to be a Ray or Walk The Line. A piece like this allows each actor space to create their own version and vision of someone indefinable. In particular, Blanchett's Quinn is extraordinary. I expect her to be standing triumphantly on the Oscar podium soon because anything else would be a travesty. I am convinced that no other actor, male or female, could have inhabited this version of the man with such passion and knowledge. The music propels the film, as it should. The originals sit alongside covers by Tom Verlaine, My Morning Jacket's Jim James, Yo La Tengo, Stephen Malkmus, Calexico, Eddie Vedder and Antony and the Johnsons. Malkmus's wild mercury renditions of Ballad of a Thin Man and Maggie's Farm are worthy of particular praise.

I'm Not There is an overwhelming piece of work from first minute to last. For the first time you get a sense of the strength required to be Bob Dylan. A popular singer has never been more important, has never changed things so much and has never been required to be so saintly by the baying media hordes in order to be believed. It's impossible for one man to give as much as he is exhorted to give but no-one else was standing there on his level in the glare of the changing decade who had the ability, intelligence or vision to deliver. The establishment sensed cultural and political revolution and made Dylan their poster boy for it. And in a sense he was that figurehead since he fulfilled what both the journalists and his admirers wanted. They tried to tear him down but he is the one still left standing. He comes across as stubborn, dismissive, sometimes mean and sexist but above all he is unarguably a visionary, a great American icon but an imperfect person - with this film you feel Haynes has an understanding of Dylan I didn't think any filmmaker was capable of.


Ridin’ that train, high on cocaine

I like rock movies. Love em in fact; A Hard Days Night, Don't Look Back, The Band's Last Waltz, Woodstock, Monterey Pop, Message to Love (IOW 1970), Ziggy Stardust and on and on.

I'm always looking for the next great one to add to my collection, a great DVD package to add to my list. But what I never get to do (aside from Ziggy Stardust, twice) is watch them at the cinema. So, yesterday, I did both. I added a new movie to my favourites and got to see it on the big screen!

The movie in question is Festival Express. Directed by Bob Smeaton (the Beatles Anthology) this documentary is a combination of old footage and new interviews from the participants. The synopsis is thus: In 1970 a group of musicians played 3 festivals in Canada, travelling to each on a train. In short, they got on the train in eastern Canada and partied, sang, played, drank and smoked their way across the provinces to Ontario, Saskatoon and the final gig in Calgary.

As ever with these rock movies of the late 60s/early 70s it's part historical timepiece and part thundering concert film. This one differs from Woodstock et al because it contains new interviews with the participants, some recalling events with more fondness than others. In particular I'm talking about the misery of promoter Ken Walker, not the most likeable of guys in any event. The recollections of the musicians involved were wholly more happy and the image you get is of one long party, musicians trapped on a train for a day or two at a time amusing themselves by jamming. Oh to be a fly on the wall on that journey.

There were some acts I was looking forward to seeing more than others. I haven't seen much live of the Grateful Dead and was expecting a turgid set of endless soloing but I'm happy to report that was not the case, I really enjoyed their performance and the spectre of Jerry hangs over the film, he seems to be in almost every frame; big smile on his face, an intimate portrait of a much loved man. He didn't have a bad word for anyone and brightened every frame he was in. Janis Joplin is, well, Janis. There’s no-one like her and I was almost literally blown across the room watching her; there really are no singers like her left. Her style, a slight screeching vocal, can be challenging to listen to (especially in Dolby Surround sound) but her songs and delivery are what it's all about. She held the crowd in the palm of her hand, the Canadian audiences sat enraptured.

I was looking forward the most to The Band. I'm a huge fan of theirs and have seen precious little footage of them aside from Scorsese's rock masterpiece The Last Waltz. They played at Woodstock but were left out of the original film and the directors’ cut. They were never a glamorous band, they looked old even when they were young and hid the pretty-boy looks of leaders Robbie Robertson and Rick Danko as best they could. In fact Danko has a hilarious scene on the train with Garcia and Janis, later in the movie when, totally wasted, he tries to lead everyone in song.

Anyway, they got 3 songs in the film and I was in heaven. Aside from Levon Helm, The Band were in fact Canadian so these gigs were their homecoming. I could sit and watch this band for hours, but this film left me satisfied and rushing out to call my parents who see it in Manchester in 2 weeks. They're going to love it...

What a rare experience, getting to see a rock movie on the big screen, learning something new about each band and discovering a transcendent performance by another artist, Buddy Guy, perhaps the movie's highlight. The slightly bizarre presence of gold lamé clad doo-wop dancing troupe Sha Na Na (they were at Woodstock too for some reason) doesn't detract a bit from the film, in fact it adds a bit of levity.

That train must have been a cool place to be on - no sleep, just good company and good music. If you can see this movie, take the chance. Most of the great past musical events to be committed to celluloid have been discovered; this one could be the last great festival movie to be found.