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Tough Guy Angels: The Larry & Charlie Harmonies I
New Flagging Down the Double E's compilation
When you think “Bob Dylan” and “backing singers,” the first image that probably comes to mind is Dylan’s gospel-era tours, where he played with three or four powerful gospel singers every night (I interviewed one of the the best of ‘em, Regina McCrary, here). Dylan toured with backing vocalists a couple other times during the ‘80s, most notably the so-called “Queens of Rhythm” alongside Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, but, by the time the Never Ending Tour debuted, backing vocals were largely a thing of the past.
With one major exception.
Between 1999 and 2002, Dylan’s guitarists Larry Campbell and Charlie Sexton joined in on quite a few songs. Their vocals were raw and rootsy (rough and rowdy?), but powerful. They sang on a ton of covers — the bluegrass-gospel numbers that opened the show always a high point — but quite a few Dylan originals too. On the Never Ending Stories podcast recently, journalist Steven Hyden said their voices sounded like “tough guy angels.” It was a sound not heard before on the Never Ending Tour, and not heard since.*
* Well, more or less: Bucky Baxter did a few backing vocals right before Sexton joined, and Billy Burnette a few right after he left. But the three-party harmonies are mostly associated with the Campbell-Sexton duo.
I set out to find every single song that featured Campbell and Sexton’s vocals. I found 43 in total: 30 covers, 13 originals. Some they played hundreds of times; others just once or twice. What unites them is that the entire arrangement generally sounds built around the gang vocals. They’re not subtle shades you have to listen close to pick out in the distance. Their voices come in loud, usually on the chorus, and bring the energy to another level. They also give Dylan other singers to play off of, allowing him to phrase around them, switching up rhythms and melodies, knowing they will hold down the basic tune.
So today, borrowing on Hyden’s phrase, I present the first in a two-part compilation: Tough Guy Angels: The Larry & Charlie Harmonies.
The first volume today covers the 13 original songs (plus a bonus track featuring Baxter that didn’t appear in this arrangement during Sexton’s tenure). This one is free for all.
The second volume, coming in a few days, covers the 30 — yes, 30 — cover songs. From “I Am the Man, Thomas” to “Old Man” to “Man of Constant Sorrow” to some songs that don’t have “man” in the title. That one will only be available to paid subscribers (there’s a free trial option too). [Update: Part 2 is here]
Become one of them here! In addition to Vol II, you get many more newsletters, access to a private Discord chat, request a show & more
On this first volume, one sweet spot for these vocal arrangements is Dylan’s Basement Tapes-era tunes. You’ve got “This Wheel’s on Fire,” “Tears of Rage,” “I Shall Be Released”—heck, even “Quinn the Eskimo” and “Yea! Heavy and a Bottle of Bread.” But he also finds ways to incorporate Larry and Charlie into a pretty wide array of other songs, like reviving the gospel-era deep cut “In the Summertime,” giving new life to the perennial jam vehicle “Silvio,” and arranging what I think are the best versions of “Blowin’ in the Wind” ever.
Without further preamble, find the download and tracklist for volume one below.
Tough Guy Angels: The Larry & Charlie Harmonies Vol. 1 Track List
Silvio (Santa Cruz, CA 3-15-2000)
You Ain't Goin' Nowhere (Ames, IA 10-29-2002)
In the Summertime (Dayton, OH 11-2-2002)
This Wheel's on Fire (Cagliari, Italy 6-2-2000)
Tomorrow Is a Long Time (Dublin, Ireland 9-13-2000)
Quinn the Eskimo (Baltimore, MD 8-18-2002)
Forever Young (Borgholm, Sweden 7-3-2001)
Yea! Heavy and a Bottle of Bread (New York City, NY 11-11-2002)
A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall (Eugene, OR 6-14-1999)
Tears of Rage (Hartford, CT 7-21-2000)
I Shall Be Released (London, England 10-5-2000)
Knockin' on Heaven's Door (Berkeley, CA 10-11-2002)
Blowin' in the Wind (Anaheim, CA 3-10-2000 Early Show)
Bonus: Gotta Serve Somebody (Torino, Italy 7-9-1998)
Volume two (with thirty entirely different tunes) coming soon — to paid subscribers only! Sign up to get it sent right to your inbox in a couple days [update: it’s here]: