At first glance, the touring package of Bob Dylan and Merle Haggard boggles the imagination. Is it some musical version of a national unity ticket for the 2008 presidential race pairing Hillary Clinton and John McCain the rabid leftist with the old-school conservative? Or is it a bout between competing song sluggers? In this corner, from the Iron Range of Hibbing, Minnesota, Mr. "Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall!" And in the other corner, the Bakersfield Bruiser, Mr. "Fightin' Side of Me!"
This matchup from opposing sides of the 1960s cultural divide could be a bandleader battle royale: The Hag fronting the ever-reliable Strangers, chugging like a well-oiled locomotive through a canon that dips into everything from blues to Dixieland to Western swing to the mightiest honky-tonk shuffle on the planet; and Dylan, challenging the latest lineup of his combo (on his seemingly never-ending tour of the past decade-plus) to follow his lead through the constantly changing set list and "strike another match and start anew" in the nightly reinvention of his songs. But look closer at both artists and you'll find that something strange has emerged in America's greatest living poets since the '60s: a surprising commonality.
Let's not forget that Haggard wrote "Okie From Muskogee" as a wry joke on his fans and proverbial country kinfolk for the amusement of the boys on the bus as they rolled through his spiritual native land of Oklahoma. Today, check out "Where's All the Freedom" on his latest CD, Chicago Wind, and it sure sounds like the onetime fervent flag-waver is wondering what the ultimate price of the Patriot Act and Homeland Security will be in these post-September 11 times.
Then there's Dylan's time proselytizing for Jesus in such numbers as "Neighborhood Bully" and "Union Sundown" on his 1983 album Infidels that don't exactly follow leftist cant. But he is, after all, the guy who warned us early on "Don't follow leaders" and since then has zigzagged so wildly, it'd drive a fan nuts to follow "Mr. Tambourine Man" in any fashion other than musically.
Instead of left versus right, this bill matches two highly iconoclastic and fervent individualists (as well as notorious loners) for whom folk, in Dylan's case, and country, when it comes to Haggard, were just starting points, not permanent labels.
Really, this pairing's friction comes only from that of two kindred souls and fellow travelers on parallel musical paths hopefully a friendly and mutually respectful cutting contest that should invoke the best from both, who are, after all, the finest American musical artists performing today. Whether it's Haggard's "Workin' Man Blues" or Dylan's "Tom Thumb's Blues," it's all from the same root, has ridden similar roads, and is believe it or not, for all their seeming differences sung by much the same guy. Decades ago, few would have ever believed even the notion of this show. Today, it makes perfect sense. Rob Patterson
Bob Dylan and His Band and Merle Haggard and the Strangers play at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, May 11, at the Seminole Hard Rock, 1 Seminole Way, Hollywood. Tickets cost $60 to $200. Call 954-523-3309.
Quick-tongued MC Jean Grae carries a scorching, relentless wit, but she doesn't have to be on the mic to wreak havoc. Fed up with fighting for recognition and paychecks, she wrote an op-ed piece for Allhiphop.com in late 2004 that created a buzz throughout the hip-hop world. Grae took the industry to task in a firestorm of rage, regret, and revulsion.
"I hate the music business because it has shit to do with music," she wrote. "I don't even know why I fucking put my heart into doing this when it's obvious that so many people who don't, get what they want out of it... Why do I have to keep turning out entire albums or releases full of music when some cat can spit on a mixtape once, or give someone a pound and then get on immediately? Why try to do something that's apparently so fucking different and impossible, that I have to defend it to myself everyday?
"What am I supposed to do? I'm tired of writing because everything is coming out angry and I don't want to be that person... Fuck the rap game. It's not about the music or the heart or how hard you play. Fuck you for not letting me in, cowards." (Read the whole thing at www.allhiphop.com/features/?ID=736.)
Today, Grae sighs at the mention of the editorial. "It was a frustrating day. Like anyone else, you get frustrated about your job, and you gotta vent somewhere," she says. "So I think there was a point where I definitely regretted writing it, and then the regret kind of led to 'Whatever happens, happens.'
"And there has to be a reason it got around so much. There was definitely something in it that struck a nerve," adds the surprisingly soft-spoken MC, who proudly describes being recognized one day by a father and his young son. "He pointed to his son and said, 'Remember that thing I had you read about the music industry? This is the lady that wrote it. '"
That kind of street-level awareness is just what Grae has been looking for since entering the game in the late '90s. The daughter of South African jazz musicians who immigrated to New York shortly after her birth, Grae grew up an outsider "The rest of my family is [in South Africa], which made it pretty difficult" but naturally gravitated to the arts and later hip-hop. Her last album, This Week, delivered in the form of a weeklong diary, won her rabid appreciation from critics. Still, her astounding lyricism and insight hasn't moved her as far up the rap food chain as she deserves.
"What we had hoped to happen didn't necessarily happen, but the love has been really, really good," she says. "It's nice to see a lot more females in the audience. It's nice to see a lot more black females in the audience. It seems like [the album is] getting out."
Just don't confuse her newly positive outlook with a reluctance to speak up if she is done wrong.
"I'm an opinionated person," she says emphatically. "My job is to speak my opinion. If I don't do that, then I'm not doing my job." Dan LeRoy
Jean Grae plays with Common and the Roots at 8 p.m. Tuesday, May 16, at Revolution, 200 W. Broward Blvd., Fort Lauderdale. Tickets cost $22 in advance, $25 the day of the show. Call 954-727-0950.
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"Any sins that I committed, I have to answer to God," raps Anthony Alvin Hodge, the 22-year-old Marine corporal who rhymes as Amp. Out of context, Hodge's sentiment is a near cliche of tough-guy military speak, but 19 tracks into Voices From the Frontline, a compilation of hip-hop and R&B by American soldiers serving in Iraq, Hodge's scratchy field recording can give you the chills.
We're all but numb to the Hollywood wedding of war and pop music put on "Paint It Black" or "Flight of the Valkyries" and try not to picture flocks of olive-green helicopters and Voices' greatest accomplishment is its ability to distinguish itself from another hackneyed Jarhead soundtrack, as a real statement about life in the shit. It's different from the canon of war music for an important reason: Technology has enabled this collection to be written and released by personnel who are actually on the frontlines. Recorded on jerry-rigged X-boxes and handheld devices, this is a real-time war album.
The perspectives on document are just as distinctive. The beats backing tunes like "Girl at War" and "Ain't the Same" might not be breaking musical ground both have a heavily produced club aesthetic that could've been plucked from Hot 105 circa 2002 but the subjects of the rhymes (dealing with sexism as a female in the service and the psychological empowerment of enlistment, respectively) can be legitimately addressed only by these artists. This idea is underscored when a skilled MC like Prophet (Sgt. Chris Tomlinson, 300th Military Police Company) takes on improvised explosive devices, Kuwaiti pop culture, or fallen comrades. When production does get innovative like the lofting beat and vocal hook that drive "Condolence" Voices stands not only as a fascinating historical document but a vivid musical one too. Nate Cavalieri