Driving home today, I was struck, as I so often am, by that moment in a particularly beloved song when something happens. You could say, as my title suggests, that it kicks in, or it kicks off, or there’s just some magical intersection of musical timbre and tone. I’ve written about the first of these before, but then I gave myself the project of thinking of a few more, and trying hard not to make them all about guitar. I’m going to call these moments the musical sublime.
I don’t have the vocabulary to really explain what’s happening—and anyway, as someone said, writing about music is like dancing about architecture—but here goes.
The saxophone comes in on It Makes No Difference (4:35)
A lot of these moments bring tears to my eyes. The late period Band song “It Makes No Difference” is heartbreaking, and Rick Danko’s vocal is perfect. Robbie’s guitar solo brings some spikiness to the song, cutting against Rick’s emotional delivery. But then: Garth steps out from the shadows and plays a sax solo so smooth and easy on the ears that it feels like a balm for the soul. The broken heart, the spiteful guitar, the soothing saxophone. When it kicks in, it’s sublime.
The 12-string in Band on the Run
What is it that we love about this one? Of course, it was a massive hit for Macca, and it remains a show stopper nearly 50 years later, but when you watch him perform it live, the bit the crowd really responds to is the strummed 12-string rhythm guitar just before the sing-along bit. Are they happy because it’s the sing-along? Or is it just brilliant, something to do with the huge, warm sound of the guitar cutting through the electric guitar of the previous (If we ever get out of here) section? There was a time when Wings would try to do this live with an electric 12-string, a double-necker. But with his current (excellent) band, you can see Brian Ray running off in the middle of the song to change his electric for the acoustic. Quite right too. When it kicks in…
Clarence Clemons in Jungleland (from about 4 minutes)
The song that launched a thousand pale imitations, “Jungleland” is peak early Bruce, operatic in its scope, and one of the reasons he needs Steve Van Zandt in the band. There are so many gear changes in this song, as it lifts up and up, and almost every instrument is doing incredible work, from Roy Bittan’s piano and Danny Federici’s organ to Steve’s slightly boxy-sounding guitar solo. But then: Clemons steps forward and plays a note-perfect saxophone solo that builds to a cathartic emotional release. This video is from Tempe, Arizona on the 1980 The River tour. It features a pre-pumped Bruce, wired and gangly, and still in possession of a voice that could do justice to the ending of this song.
The Finger Snap in Nice ’n’ Easy (1:44)
There are plenty of wondrous Sinatra moments of course, but this one is sublime in its simplicity. On his second run through the orchestra performs a rest (they stop playing for a beat, in other words) and Sinatra clicks his fingers from there until the end, including one audacious snap right at the end. That’s at 1:44 in the original recording (https://youtu.be/HuANCcsODq0), but I’ll treat you here with this slightly uncomfortable late 60s, midlife crisis live TV special version, with Sinatra half-sitting on a stool wearing a white Nehru jacket and BEADS, and replacing that finger snap with a handclap. Even though you can tell he hates himself, it’s still sublime. Were those beads a gift Mia Farrow brought back from Rishikesh, Frank?
The backing vocals in Pressing On (4 minutes in)
In a crowded field, Saved is a contender for the very worst album cover Bob Dylan ever inflicted on the world, and rarely has there been such a mismatch between shitty cover art and musical quality. Rolling Stone, frequently wrong, have awarded this album one star in their Album Guide, but this gospel record was recorded at Muscle Shoals and features some incredible backing vocals. It also has several excellent gospel numbers, including “Covenant Woman”, “What Can I Do for You?”, “In the Garden”, and “Pressing On”, a song so good that almost every gospel choir seems to want to sing it. The harmonica playing on “What Can I Do for You” is Dylan’s best on any of his records, and is another contender for this list. But I’ve chosen “Pressing On”, simply for the incredible contribution made by the backing singers, who include Carolyn Dennis and Clydie King. We have to make do with this slightly shonky video from Toronto in 1980, which features Bob in an awkward transition from sitting at the piano to standing up, jerking like a marionette, and then walking offstage looking weirdly pissed off. But those ladies (and gentleman) are on it. Sublime.