Nick DeRiso’s Best of 2014 (Reissues and Live): Bob Dylan + the Band, Toto, Nils Lofgren

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Nils Lofgren is one of those performers that you know, but you don’t know. Toto is one of those bands that you’ve heard, but perhaps not thought of lately. Bob Dylan’s ageless collaboration with the Band might have become better regarded than actually experienced.

As this Best of 2014 list shows, the past year did yeoman’s work in correcting all of that.

Basement Tapes Complete was just that, every salvageable item from a particularly fertile period that changed both Dylan and the Band forever. Toto, meanwhile, gathered for a remarkable retrospective concert that dug deep to find illuminative gems away from the expected hits. Lofgren would personally oversee his own sprawling retrospective, and that personal touch gave Face the Music both its emotional power and offbeat grace.

Unfortunately, Nils Lofgren is not alone in being unjustly overlooked by the masses. A new generation may have heard that Paul Butterfield made the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame only to respond, in unison, with a collective: Who? Luckily, there’s a sparkling new remaster of perhaps his best album, and certainly his most influential, to help guide the uninitiated.

Roger Taylor is probably only known to a precious few as anything other than Queen’s drummer. In fact, he was the songwriter behind some of the group’s biggest hits. A first-ever best-of compilation takes us into a tandem solo career that’s been similarly underrated.

Then there’s Mike Bloomfield, who’s long labored in quite undeserved obscurity — no doubt the result of his early end. Long-time bandmate Al Kooper, of Blood Sweat and Tears fame, repaired things with a stirring box set that framed the full scope of Bloomfield’s genius.

We thrilled as Tony Levin, the highly regarded bassist for King Crimson and Peter Gabriel, led his Stick Men group through a muscular, first-ever live date. Marillion also expanded upon an already great album in Sounds That Can’t Be Made, offering us new insights into the project — and into the way the group has matured over the years.

Deep Purple returned last year with a rebound effort in Now What?! that seemed to come out of nowhere. A Best of 2014 live document, recorded with an orchestra in Verona, offered important insights into how they arrived at that long-hoped-for place of renewal. The Who, meanwhile, entered into a concert recording of one of their best-known rock operas but, rather than playing down to shop-worn expectations, turned Quadrophenia into a roaring rebirth …

No. 10 — MARILLION – SOUNDS THAT CAN’T BE MADE: SPECIAL EDITION (PROG/ROCK): This already superlative album is given new dimension. A second disc of demos and live material finds Steve Hogarth discarding the keening Bono-esque attitude of some of his recent outings with Marillion, sounding instead like a more engaged Mark Hollis from late-period Talk Talk on an early version of “Lucky Man.” It’s as striking as it is involving. And Hogarth keeps exploring this new range throughout the bonus material on this Best of 2014 release. “Invisible Ink” (with its devastating cry of “it’s not a game”) is from a live date in Holland. Meanwhile, the original album’s “Power” and “Pour My Love” are included, along with 2008’s “Wrapped Up in Time,” from a perhaps even more powerful performance on French radio. We also get a searing March 2013 version on the title track, from a concert that has since been released in its entirety.

No. 9 — PAUL BUTTERFIELD BLUES BAND – EAST-WEST (BLUES): That arguably the first psychedelic might have come from a blues band was one thing. That arguably one of the most influential blues albums of all time might have come from a white guy, well, that was another. That both things were wrapped up inside this Best of 2014 reissue, however, is undeniable. East-West — given a stunning remaster, courtesy of Audio Fidelity — opened doors not just for the blues, but all of rock. Newly tabbed Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Paul Butterfield stirred in raga and jazz, he led the others on searing flights of fancy, he played the harmonica with a fire and wit that drew favorable comparisons to Sonny Boy Williamson II and Little Walter Jacobs. He changed both blues and rock, forever.

No. 8 — DEEP PURPLE – LIVE IN VERONA (PROG/ROCK): There’s plenty to be said about the way Deep Purple meshes with the billowing emotions of an orchestra, and the setting in this ancient place. Live in Verona is, at least on the surface, a gorgeously captured moment, testament to an ageless format. But there’s more to it, much more. The film spotlights a band on its way back to relevancy. Working with Stephen Bentley-Klein’s Frankfurt-based Neue Philharmonie helped focus this long-running group like nothing in recent memory. Fast forward to a subsequent stop in Canada, where in the audience sat producer Bob Ezrin. He saw the same thing, and 2013’s Now What?!, a complete return to form, followed.

No. 7 — THE WHO – QUADROPHENIA: LIVE IN LONDON (POP/ROCK): Surprisingly vital, this Best of 2014 live take on the Who’s second rock opera ends up smashing expectations like Pete Townshend used to smash guitars. That is to say, completely. The addition of a few smart updates to their theme of youthful upheaval in 1960s London gives Live in London a swift kick in the pants. Meanwhile, the concert setting plays to this album’s innate strengths as a true song cycle, rather than a series of tunes. Even more so than the Who’s frankly overhyped Tommy, the dense and utterly interconnected Quadrophenia was meant to be digested in one sitting. Along the way, Live in London casts an engrossing spell, without any need to dash to the turn table for a quick flip of the vinyl.

No. 6 — ROGER TAYLOR — BEST (POP/ROCK): In case you missed it, Roger Taylor — when he wasn’t penning Queen’s “Radio Ga Ga” or “A Kind of Magic,” both of them charttoppers — constructed a series of his own well-received, if sadly sporadic, solo musings. Best gave listeners (in particular those in the U.S., where Taylor for some reason has never quite caught on apart from Queen) the chance to put all of that into context. Far from just serving as the guy bashing away behind the late Freddie Mercury, Taylor is revealed as a stand-alone personification of Queen’s essential dichotomy between straight-ahead rock crunch and outsized pomp-pop.

No. 5 — STICK MEN – POWER PLAY (PROG/ROCK): Stick Men’s first-ever concert album found King Crimson bassist Tony Levin and Co. in their element. No matter the praise heaped upon their latest, and arguably best, studio effort, this is band (like Crimson) best heard live. There’s a sense of unbound freedom, of musical camaraderie, of brilliant timing and gutsy chance taking that can only be truly highlighted, and best enjoyed, when this talented trio begins deconstructing and then reconstructing their work before real people, in real time. What you find on this Best of 2014 entry is a tougher band, with a grittier sound — playing music that is hard hitting but also perfectly calibrated.

No. 4 — MIKE BLOOMFIELD – FROM HIS HEAD TO HIS HEART TO HIS HANDS (BLUES): For all of his brilliant experimentation, Bloomfield’s most revelatory moments here may well be the unfettered explorations through his roots. He was a musician who — as improbable as it may seem, considering he was the scion of a Jewish-American family that built a small fortune in the catering equipment business on Chicago’s North Side — was simply born to the blues. Bloomfield’s subsequent career mirrored his restless soul, so he was never confined to a single genre, no matter how resonant. But From His Head to His Heart to His Hands finds its fullest flowering, for me, when Bloomfield lets it all hang down, when its title is made real through the his hometown music’s baptismal powers. And this set is stuffed with moments like those.

No. 3 — NILS LOFGREN – FACE THE MUSIC (ROOTS/ROCK): This spacious 10-disc Best of 2014 set worked to frame a career that’s simultaneously been such a consistently intriguing part of rock’s landscape since the late 1960s while also being one of its most consistently overlooked. Featuring personally curated tracks from Grin’s four-album run, long-out of print Lofgren solo albums, 10 more recent offerings and a boxload of previously unheard items, Face the Music reminds of us Lofgren’s notable successes (a widely respected self-titled debut; a pair of Top 40 albums in the late-1970s) even as it shines a light on previously unheard corners of his career: Lofgren re-discovered both a treasured item featuring his early mentor Neal Young, and one of his own very earliest personal compositions.

No. 2 — TOTO – 35TH ANNIVERSARY TOUR: LIVE IN POLAND (POP/ROCK): Toto’s impressive resiliency is underscored here not just in the way the band reanimates its most familiar tunes but also in the way they focus on lesser-known songs that complete a larger narrative. And it’s there, as Toto takes listeners off the beaten path of their discography that this concert film finds a larger resonance. They’re sharing new things about their music — and about themselves. It all adds up to something far more memorable that another concert retelling of the hits, huge though they may be. Live in Poland fills the blanks in between, giving new shading and depth to everything that came before. There may not be a better argument for reevaluation ever made when it comes to the oft-dismissed Toto.

No. 1 — BOB DYLAN AND THE BAND – THE BASEMENT TAPES COMPLETE (ROOTS/ROCK): This Best of 2014 set sometimes feels like a woodshedding moment for both Bob Dylan and the Band, as we hear half-finished thoughts, throw-away originals, weird cover songs — things that justifiably didn’t make the cut on the Robbie Robertson-curated 1975 single-disc edition. As such, those who don’t consider themselves completists might be tempted to pass on Basement Tapes Complete, or simply settle for that long-ago original release. In many ways, though, the charm (and the relevancy) of this larger compendium can be found in their winding, open-ended quest. There were no rules, no dogma. Song by thrilling song, we’re hearing — we’re viscerally experiencing — the birth of Bob Dylan’s next persona, and the establishing of an entire aesthetic world around the Band. It’s as close as we’ll ever get to a critical moment of shared inspiration, and that proximity sheds new light on all of the whimsy, brotherhood, epiphany and myth-making that, even today, give The Basement Tapes its endless cachet.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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