Joe Boyd Goes Behind the Scenes at Newport Folk 1965

Monday, March 14th, 2011
Robyn Hitchcock at MASS MoCA

Robyn Hitchcock at MASS MoCA

CHINESE WHITE BICYCLES

with Robyn Hitchcock and Joe Boyd
Hunter Center
MASS MoCA
North Adams, Mass.
March 12, 2011

Review by Seth Rogovoy

(NORTH ADAMS, Mass., March 12, 2011) – Both Joe Boyd and Robyn Hitchcock have had remarkably storied careers in rock music – the former primarily as a producer (as well as a record label executive and A&R man; an engineer; and a tour manager) and the latter as a cult-icon performer and recording artist. As they made clear in their charming duet program, Chinese White Bicycles, at MASS MoCA’s Hunter Center on Saturday night, Hitchcock’s career in many ways picked up on much of Boyd’s early work (both continue today as active, vital forces in rock), and they served as complementary foils in a combination program of music and storytelling focusing largely on the nascent English psychedelic folk-rock scene in the mid- to late-1960s that Boyd helped engender and from which Hitchcock emerged.

Something of a Zelig-like figure in rock, Boyd assumed the role of storyteller, basing his real-life insider tales on his music industry memoir, White Bicycles. For the purposes of this program, Boyd limited himself largely to the few years leading up to the explosion of English psychedelic folk-rock, most prominently heard in the early work of Pink Floyd. But along the way Boyd worked with such seminal, influential figures as the Incredible String Band, the Move, Nick Drake, and Fairport Convention. With his front-row seat in the establishment of these artists’ careers, Boyd had a wealth of anecdotes into behavioral eccentricities as well as artistic processes, but also was able to offer a unique cultural context and perspective for these artists and those they influenced that occasionally resulted in mind-boggling surprises.

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Joe Boyd

For example, in discussing the seminal English folk-rock group Fairport Convention, Boyd argued for a surprising revisionist history: that rather than a collective of English-minded revivalists, the founding members of Fairport, including Simon Nicol, Ashley Hutchings, Martin Lamble, and Richard Thompson, looked to American roots music for inspiration in the same manner of their contemporaries in the American rock group the Byrds and the Band. But according to Boyd, the Band’s debut album, Music from Big Pink, had such a huge impact on the British music scene upon its release, that the members of Fairport recognized that there was no way that they could ever come close to achieving the sort of creative fusion of American roots music and rock ‘n’ roll that the Band pioneered, and so therefore they decided to look in their own backyards for music upon which to build a new sound – hence, the very English folk-rock of Fairport’s album, Liege and Lief.

Even more surprising, however, was Boyd’s passing along a tidbit gleaned from David Hidalgo, a cofounder and co-leader of the Mexican-American rock group Los Lobos. This group has always wore its debt to the Band on its sleeve – as sort of a south-of-the-border equivalent of the Band’s north-of-the-border approach (four-fifths of the Band’s personnel were Canadian).

But according to Boyd, Hidalgo asked him to pass along a message of thanks to Fairport, saying that if it hadn’t been for Liege and Lief – and, presumably, the lessons inherent in that album, that one could draw upon the traditional music of one’s heritage to make for a new and vital folk-fusion – Los Lobos, which initially gained renown precisely by mining its Mexican heritage and combining it with rock ‘n’ roll influences — would forever have been stuck in East Los Angeles playing heavy-metal rock.

It’s a whiplash of a concept – that in fact it took an English folk-rock band, one that arguably no one would have ever connected to Los Lobos – to wake up the group to an approach ostensibly suggested to it by an American ensemble, which would eventually see Los Lobos collaborating with the Band’s singer/drummer Levon Helm on occasion and inheriting the mantle of the Band’s soulful American roots-rock approach based upon tradition.

But before Boyd got anywhere close to Fairport, he spent a good half hour recounting his front-row view of key moments in the very birth of folk-rock in the hands of Bob Dylan himself, as Boyd was present at the Newport Folk Festival of 1965 when Dylan infamously “went electric.” Suffice it to say that Boyd’s version of the oft-told events of that weekend differ greatly in nuance from the conventional story – and his bear the stamp of believability as his story, as are all his anecdotes, are imbued with a true storyteller’s gift of imparting personality. And Boyd truly brought to life the personality of many of the key players at Newport, including Alan Lomax, Pete Seeger, Albert Grossman, Peter Yarrow, Bob Dylan – and, as it turns out, Joe Boyd, who was charged by Lomax with turning down the volume on Dylan’s electric set, but who deflected the order (with support by Grossman and Yarrow) with impish humor and cunning.

As Boyd’s musical foil for the evening, Hitchcock, who in addition to being known for his own work with the Soft Boys and the Egyptians as well as for his solo work and for his many collaborations with other artists, has a reputation for being a rock ‘n’ roll encyclopedist, provided brilliant musical illustrations to go along with Boyd’s anecdotes, delivering renditions of songs by Bob Dylan, Nick Drake, Syd Barrett, the Incredible String Band, and the Move that were at once dead-on and accurate yet also simultaneously revealed how these groups influenced his own sound and approach. If the evening was weighted timewise toward Boyd’s lengthy but never draggy stories, Hitchcock’s musical interpolations carried half the impact and half the weight.

The nearly two-hour program went by seamlessly and in a breeze, and a listener was left marveling at the charm and skill of both storyteller and performer, and wondering how many other stories and musical periods they might highlight in future such programs, Boyd’s career also including key roles with R.E.M., 10,000 Maniacs, Billy Bragg, Toots and the Maytals, as well as a surprising number of world music artists.

This review only touches on a few of the terrific tales that Boyd imparted about the artists. There were plenty of jokes, quirky anecdotes, fun give-and-take between Boyd and Hitchcock, and a mind-blowing story involving the Incredible String Band, Boyd’s greatest commercial success, which had as a punch line none other than Scientology – and this before the decade changed from 1969 to 1970. It was as apt a metaphor of several of the others Boyd and Hitchock proposed for the generational and cultural change that divided those decades, another being the difference between marijuana and cocaine, and the more poignant one being the lost spirit of the music itself as it became a commodity sold by corporations – and not something that grew organically out of the many London nightclubs that peppered Boyd’s tales and a scene and bands that were nurtured by unique, visionary figures like Brian Epstein (the Beatles), Andrew Loog Oldham (the Rolling Stones), Peter Rudge (the Who), Peter Grant (Led Zeppelin) …. and Joe Boyd.

Seth Rogovoy is Berkshire Living’s editor-in-chief and award-winning music critic.

Multimedia performance @ Stockbridge Library

Sunday, February 13th, 2011

Stockbridge Library
46 Main St.
Stockbridge, Mass.
413.298.5501

The Kabbalah of Bob Dylan
Multimedia performance with live music and booksigning

Through spoken word, digital imagery, recorded music, live music, and rare video footage, Seth Rogovoy — author of “Bob Dylan: Prophet Mystic Poet” –will explore the Jewish Prophetic roots of and influences upon Bob Dylan’s life and music. This event is FREE; there will be a Q&A and a booksigning immediately following the presentation. Stockbridge Library; Sun Feb 13; 5:30 p.m.

Multimedia Program and Music @ Moishe House, London, England, 1/1/11

Sunday, December 19th, 2010

POST NEW YEAR’S EVE/POST-LIMMUD CONCERT

A New Years Night concert and gathering to revive and inspire you forwards into 2011, featuring Roi Levi, founder-singer-songwriter of legendary Israeli band Shotei Hanevua!

When Shabbat goes out on New Years Day we’ll get going with an interactive multimedia talk and performance from Seth Rogovoy, revealing the prophetic roots of and influence on the music of Bob Dylan.

Then Roi will take to the stage with Danny Raphael, playing music from their collaborative project Eser, as well as hits from Shotei Hanevua.

Warning: this event will leave you feeling far too good for a New Years Day and is likely to end in a glorious, smile-inducing jam session!

Recommended donation, towards artists’ fees: £5+

Please also bring food and drink to share as we see out Shabbat
Moishe House
Willesden Green
London, UK

A New Years Night concert and gathering to revive and inspire you forwards into 2011, featuring Roi Levi, founder-singer-songwriter of legendary Israeli band Shotei Hanevua!
When Shabbat goes out on New Years Day we’ll get going with an interactive multimedia talk and performance from Seth Rogovoy, revealing the prophetic roots of and influence on the music of Bob Dylan.
Then Roi will take to the stage with Danny Raphael, playing music from their collaborative project Eser, as well as hits from Shotei Hanevua.
Warning: this event will leave you feeling far too good for a New Years Day and is likely to end in a glorious, smile-inducing jam session!
Recommended donation, towards artists’ fees: £5+
Please also bring food and drink to share as we see out ShabbatM

“Amos, Ezekiel, Jeremiah and Bob” by Seth Rogovoy – Jewish Quarterly (England)

Friday, November 26th, 2010

England’s Jewish Quarterly literary magazine has published my essay “Amos, Ezekiel, Jeremiah and Bob”  in advance of my trip to Britain at the end of the year, where I will be in residence teaching and performing at Limmud Conference 2010 at the University of Warwick (Dec 26-30); appearing at the Moishe House in London (Jan 1); and performing at the famed Cavern Club in Liverpool (Jan 2).

Bob Dylan Tribute Concert, Cavern Club, Liverpool, Jan 2, 2011

Tuesday, November 23rd, 2010

BOB DYLAN TRIBUTE CONCERT
Featuring Seth Rogovoy

The Cavern Club
10 Mathew Street
Liverpool
L2 6RE
Tel. (+44)151 236 1965
info@cavernclub.org
The Cavern Club
10 Mathew Street
Liverpool
L2 6RE
Tel. (+44)151 236 1965