By BRAD BUCHHOLZ
Bob Dylan is about to hit the stage — and I’m really excited about this show. Not so much ’cause it’s Dylan; I’ve seen him several times over the years. I’m more excited about seeing Denny Freeman play lead guitar.
(Dylan’s band will be performing at the Ryan Center at the University of Rhode Island with Elvis Costello and Amos Lee on Saturday.)
You say you don’t know about Freeman? Well, you’re in for a treat. The man’s an exquisite p_layer_ — more about _style_ and tone and taste than sheer speed. Freeman loves chords, and space. He has a broad range of tastes: jazz, silky ballads, surf music, ’60s wah-wah pedal. And he has a great ear for the blues.
Freeman is a charter member of the Austin blues scene. The Vaughan brothers have known him as a friend, a bandmate, a roommate and mentor.
Freeman lived a blues life for a long time, playing music at night, doing construction work during the day. When he first got to Austin in 1970, Freeman and his blues buddies from Dallas — Jimmie Vaughan, Doyle Bramhall, Paul Ray — played in a dive for a payday of beans and chicken wings.
He has been playing with the Dylan band since March 2005.Freeman is all over Dylan’s latest record, Modern Times, which definitely tips its hat to the blues of Muddy Waters and Memphis Minnie on several cuts. He’s never overbearing, though. Freeman knows how to do sly and spare and subtle.
“Denny is a great accompanist,” his friend Paul Ray was saying not long ago. And he should know, having fronted a band called the Cobras that featured both Freeman and a very young Stevie Ray Vaughan. “Most guitarists can’t resist that urge to play all over you. But not Freeman. He knows where the spaces are.
“Denny was never the kind of p_layer_ who is into trading licks with other guitarists, either. He never tries to outdo someone. Because in his own (quiet) way, he outdoes them anyway. A lot of times, with the Cobras, we’d really be cooking, and I’d try to make him play one more round on the solo. He’d kind of wink, say no, that’s all I’ve got.”
Dylan’s live sets are very polished and professional, you know, but there’s a lot of room in them for Freeman to shine. Fans old and new are going to enjoy “Rollin’ and Tumblin,’” often played as an encore, on which Freeman and fellow guitarist Stu Kimball let loose on a wild, slidy blues ride.
Bitten by the music, Freeman caught the blues at age 12, around the birth of rock ’n’ roll, while living in East Dallas. It started innocently enough: He’d go to parties, play spin the bottle with friends, listen to 45s on the record p_layer_. Older kids began to expose him to do wop, the Clovers, the Drifters.
“And at about that time, Little Richard and Chuck Berry and Fats Domino started coming on the radio,” Freeman said to me years ago. “I thought to myself, ‘Wow. What’s happening here is a whole new world.’ All of a sudden, instead of playing _base_ball and shooting baskets, all this wild (black) music was going on in my life.”
“Me and my friends would ride the bus to downtown Dallas on Saturday afternoon, go to the pawn shops and the record stores. We’d buy three 45s for a dollar and stuff.”
As Freeman got older, he got into jazz — “the only guy I know who bought jazz singles,” says Paul Ray. “Blue Note jazz singles” — fell in love with Cream, marveled at Hendrix, got into surf guitar. Freeman’s sensors, then and now, were wide open to all guitar sounds.
If you want to know Freeman’s heart, check out any one of his five solo albums, the first released in Austin, the more recent ones after he moved to Los Angeles for a while in the mid-1990s.
The guy loves to play, in the most childlike sense. No final bow in sight. Freeman has recorded with Taj Mahal and Jennifer Warnes and Jimmie Vaughan, played with the cream of the Austin blues divas, written country music that no one has ever heard. He turned 63 this year — and in so many ways, his career has never looked brighter
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