This is part of our series of posts on T-Bone Burnett’s new Ionic Originals. Here in Part I we discuss the recording and performance, Part II covers the session and the technology, and Part III the business issues including price and scarcity.
Getting on the Guest List for Christie’s Exceptional Sale preview was the first hurdle. Showing proof of vaccination was the second. After that we took a freight sized elevator to the second floor of The Power Station and were asked to wait in a little side room and told we’d be ushered in to the listening room in small groups, in 10 or 15 minutes.
There were hosts and a small bar serving champaign. Slowly about 20-30 people filtered in. The studio is interesting but it is not luxurious — but the tone of the staff made it clear this was a Christie’s Event. Everything was casual, respectful, and there was a definite air of excitement and anticipation in the air as we stood waiting in the small room adorned only in a large painting of past Power Station clients including Paul McCartney, Diana Ross, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and maybe 20 others in a somewhat strange and not entirely attractive collage that would have been appropriate at some In Memoriam service for all of them.
The 12′ square wall art was framed by old electronic circuit boards and wires, seemingly the guts of the dead equipment these artists had once used while working in the rooms we were about to enter.
After 20 minutes or so, one of the staff came up and asked some of us to come in for the first listening. They weren’t asking me, but I standing next to the right people so I decided to follow and pretend they were.
The main studio room is impressive. A large room with wood covered everything – the ceiling quite like a geodesic dome that may make Bob Dylan feel at home – filled for this day with large overstuffed couches and chairs in three or four rows facing a massive glass window that revealed the engineering control room. Two speakers on large stands stood next to the small stage, probably 4′ wide and 2′ tall (as they were hung sideways).
Peter Klarnet, VP Senior Specialist at Christie’s New York and T-Bone Burnett came out of the control room. After a brief historical review Dylan’s early career and the importance of Blowin’ In The Wind, the Ionic Original was introduced, the men left the stage, and the music began.
The overall sound character is similar to that of Shadow Kingdom. Bob’s voice is smooth as silk with the character of Bob in the 2020’s. The music is sparse but lovely, with T-Bone later explaining that they took Dylan’s original guitar part and broke it up – with T-Bone Burnett playing electric guitar and Greg Liesz on Mandolin. Dennis Crouch plays a beautiful resonant string bass, and Don Was plays (what I assume is bass guitar), and Stuart Duncan plays violin (which to be honest I didn’t notice until it was listed after the performance).
Dylan treats each verse with great care, delivering the lyric at a moderate pace with a tiny bit of his characteristic stretching of many words. T-Bone commented later that he thought perhaps Dylan took what he learned from approaching the American Standards so respectfully, and decided to treat his own lyric with the same delicate care. The recording is 3:45 seconds long.
The sound was spectacular – perfectly conveyed with an extremely wide soundstage, Bob’s voice was as detailed and nuanced and revealing as I’ve ever heard it (and I’ve been able to hear many recordings on some of the best systems in the world and stood with my face next to outward facing vocal monitors a dozen feet from him quite a few times). Every aspect of the play of the stringed instruments was presented with precision and warmth. The bass is prominent (but not overly so) putting a perfect low end underneath everything else while the guitar and mandolin float along on top. Bob sits right in the middle with his voice entirely de-rasped even as compared to say, the Triplicate recordings. It’s in the realm of his Shadow Kingdom performance of ‘Forever Young’ but smoother, with less tiny strains and idiosyncratic elements in the sound (but not necessarily the delivery). The care T-Bone mentioned is evident, this is a perfect take. I wonder how many they did and regret not asking.
It should be said, we were in one of the great sounding rooms in the country, listening to huge high-end monitors with oodles of power behind them. Anything would have sounded great here. (Although the turntable or cartridge were not particularly high end, more on that later.) There were a few ‘pops and cracks’ that were clearly attributable to surface noice in the recording – perhaps 4 or 5 in total – but the sound floor was essentially silent. There was no baseline noise in the run in or run out, for example. None.
As noted above the musical and vocal presentation was absolutely as good or better than anything I’ve ever heard, and I am someone who spends time trying to hear the differences between vinyl and SACD or high-res versions of things, and A/B’ing DACs, just to say that while many people don’t seem to care about fidelity and for one or another reason don’t have a lot of experience discerning it, I at least do care and try and have some experience in critical listening.
There are many elements of what T-Bone and Ionic are doing beyond fidelity, and undoubtedly every other aspect of the system and room will impact the sound just as it does with any other audio source. But from this listening I’m willing to accept that the goal of delivering a fundamentally better consumer audio source, one that delivers the sonic quality and characteristics of acetates in a form that can be delivered and played like vinyl, has been achieved.
It Looks Like We’re Moving, But We’re Standing Still
There are Dylan scholars and writers far better than me to talk about the significance of this song, and it’s choice for this treatment. But beyond the technical issues, the commercial issues, and even in some ways the performance itself I t think what Dylan has done is noteworthy and important.
An 80 year old Dylan (at the time of recording) is looking back to make the song selection, and then delivering a completely in-the-moment / of-the-times reading of this great song. Although I would say this is by no means ‘another Shadow Kingdom recording’, as in that event Dylan uses his super-power of making a performance of a song released long ago and played a zillion or so times since then, entirely fresh. In no way does it feel that he’s singing an ‘old song’ or paying tribute or even remembering. It sounds like he’s bringing everything Bob Dylan knows and can do and has learned to putting across a phenomenal song, which sadly has lost exactly none of its relevance. None of the social problems covered in the song have been resolved.
What’s amazing in this recording is that if you can push away the history in the way I think Dylan did to perform it, Bob Dylan just delivered the best new recording of the year.
It’s a shame you can’t hear it. 😉
More Next Time
In Part II I’ll write about the issue of creating scarcity and value, the Ionic technology, and other things we learned in the 20 minute talk T-Bone gave after the performance.
Craig is the founder of Freak Music Club. He is a technology entrepreneur, a one-time concert photographer, and avid audiophile. Currently residing in New York City.