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High on the Hog - Preliminary Impression

by James Tappenden

Article originally appeared in the Usenet newsgroup, February 1996.

I got High on the Hog today, and indeed I am listening to it as I type. My preliminary reaction after a half-dozen listenings or so is surprise - it is much better than - and much different from what - I had expected. I think the new group has found the post-Robbie and Richard sound.

I had expected something along the lines of Moondog Matinee. (MM is my favorite studio album after the first two, mind you, so that is not meant as a slight. But I was expecting something of that sort.) There really is a distinct feel to all but the last two cuts of the album (and even they are great listening, though out of place). This really is significantly different from anything the group has done before, and I think it really works.

I am a fan of Jericho - the best of its songs seem to me as well performed as anything that came earlier, and I am at a loss to understand why some people here feel a powerfully performed song is any less powerful if the writer is not in the group. But there were some humdrum songs among the standouts, and the collection seemed to lack something in the way of unity.

This album is different - so far nothing in the songs has riveted me back into my chair the way Rick's barked harmony in "Atlantic City" did and does, but the whole album has me charmed instead of riveted. The closest analogy I can come up with is the better of the basement tapes in the subtle musicianship and overall playfulness of the stuff. It is tighter, with more focus, as befits a studio recording, and the lads are older and wiser, with different guys to play with, but they are really showing off musically to each other and inviting us to join their good time. There is all sorts of stuff going on in the nooks and crannys - a little horn toot catches you off guard, Bell hits a note or two, Garth swirls in response, Bell and Weider battle, the vocals start again, with a Garth touch sending them off - its all swirling around in a wonderful blend. (Best Example: "Crazy Momma"; not only is it a boring song, but Richard sang it much better than Rick, I think. But just listen to what goes on among the guys in this version. Who would have thought a dull song could sound so interesting.) Levon and Randy seem to have spent some time fooling around with unusual rhythms too - they are starting to figure out how to exploit two drummers to best advantage. Garth has even found some new tricks with the accordian.

Weider seems to be making several statements with his playing. Everybody agrees that he has some large shoes to fill. Rather than just try to blend in, or affect an ostentatiously novel style, he seems to be trying to emerge from Robbie's shadow by affecting Robbie's style up to a point and then playing with the expectations - doing something just noticeably off from what Robbie would do. Listen to this on "Forever Young". Here Weider has a really tough row to hoe. The core arrangement on the album is not that much different from the ones we are used to. With two versions on Planet Waves, and one on The Last Waltz (two actually - the real live one and the guitar-overdubbed "official" release) we can have a pretty good sense of how Robbie would approach the song. Certainly I think I know just what Robbie would do, and I know nothing about playing the guitar. So I can only imagine what a clear sense of Robbie's manner a professional in Weider's situation would have. And just listen to how he plays with that in Forever Young - at one point he starts of with a little trill of the sort we recognise....but he doesn't continue trilling the way Robbie always did, but he breaks into something else. At another point Weider seems to "quote" the beginning of a sequence of notes from Robbie's solo in "It makes no difference", then he breaks off and hits us with something that jars the expectation just a bit. All in all, I thought it was a remarkably intelligent, good humoured and subtle piece of virtuoso playing.
-- James Tappenden

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