Playing the Electric Violin

2005-03-07, Paramount Theatre, Seattle, WA

With the conclusion of our five-part series on Dylan at the Grammys (links at the bottom if you missed it), we dive back into the Never-Ending Tour with what is, on paper at least, one of most of the notable shows of the 21st century: March 7, 2005. 

At the end of 2004, Larry Campbell, who would be in the running for most-revered Never Ending Tour band member ever, had departed after an eight-year run. It took three people to replace him: Denny Freeman on lead guitar, Elana Fremerman on violin, and Donnie Heron on a bunch of stuff (but mostly pedal steel). It was the single biggest Never-Ending Tour band shakeup to date. This March 7 show in Seattle was the first with the new lineup.

Though Denny and Donnie would end up with longer tenures - 15 years later, Donnie's still in the band - at the time, Elana Fremerman was center stage. Literally. For reasons known only to Bob, the violinist was placed front and center, ringed by Bob and the rest of the band. This slightly blurry photo gives you the idea. Bob's on the far left, Elana's in the middle.

This was the first tour where I was enough of a fan to even notice who was in the band, and at the time I didn't realize how unusual this stage setup was. Bob himself had not been front and center since swapping the guitar for keyboard a few years prior, but plopping someone else there - making her the literal frontperson - seems strange.

"Strange" being the more charitable option. Less charitable would be that they put the pretty young woman right up front as audience eye candy. That’s certainly how some saw it; reading contemporary fan reviews, you come across some leering “not complaining about having her up there, heh heh heh…” type comments.

The position did her no favors. Violin is, strictly speaking, the least "necessary" instrument up there (as proven by the fact that, when she left midway through the tour, she was not replaced). Not doing all that much for half the songs while being the center-stage showpiece was no doubt a thankless role. The downsides aren't as apparent on an audio recording, but, for every song you hear without a prominent violin part, picture someone standing front and center without a whole lot to do. She seemed set up to fail.

But she didn’t fail. At least, not musically. When the arrangements were tailored to use the violin for more than just background color, she shined. Country-flavored ballads like "Moonlight" and "Sugar Baby" were perfect. She even did a dueling-violin thing with Herron on "Watching the River Flow" and "It's Alright Ma." Even non-obvious songs could work; check out her killer solo on "All Along the Watchtower." Who knew that song needed a violin to shine again?

(For the uncut-Elana experience, check out the compilation Fiddle & Bow at the Thousand Highways blog, which features my favorite dueling-violin number, not performed at today’s Seattle show: "Absolutely Sweet Marie.")

Unfortunately, Fremerman didn't last long. She missed a few shows partway through the tour, came back for a couple more, then was gone for good. Rumor at the time was she was canned because she had some prior commitment - I've heard family wedding, I've heard Willie Nelson studio session - that she wouldn't move. I always wished she’d stuck around longer, and that they’d rearranged more songs to really emphasize the violin. A year or two of violin-heavy Bob could have been something different.

As an example of how that might have worked, look to the E Street Band. In the early 2000s, they added a violinist who’s still there today, Soozie Tyrell. Some Springsteen songs already feature violin, like the nightly staple “Waiting on a Sunny Day.” Others have been adapted to use it - the famous synth riff in “Dancing in the Dark” is basically a violin riff now. And, on songs that simply don’t need a violin, Tyrell strums an acoustic guitar and sings backing vocals. That seems like how Fremerman could have fit into the band longer-term. Wouldn’t have minded hearing some backing vocals thrown in too (Elana does sing).

Despite the abrupt departure, Bob and Elana must be on decent terms. Her band Hot Club of Cowtown was slated to open Bob's 2020 summer tour. She goes by Elana James now. Maybe she would have sat in for a couple songs. I’m sure Bob could make room at the center of the stage.

2005-03-07, Paramount Theatre, Seattle, WA [includes Merle Haggard’s opening set!]