Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Musings on Dylan - 10/28/06

The faithful gathered this weekend to see Dylan on his Never Ending Tour, at the Sears Centre, a new venue northwest of Chicago. Built for hockey, the sound was surprisingly good, and with the smaller size (11,000), this could be a nice alternative for a number of performing artists. God knows nobody needs to endure another show at the Allstate Arena.

To see Bob Dylan in 2006 is to see a living legend settled into a comfortable position in a very good band. Perhaps too comfortable. Most fans long for the days when we could expect an acoustical interlude in the middle of the set, with Bob at center stage armed with guitar and harmonica. These days, Bob has his back to one-third of the audience as he directs the proceedings from behind an electric piano. Theories abound. Bob has arthritis and guitar playing is questionable. Or he’s simply lost his chops. Others think Bob has begun to struggle with his own lyrics and is able to use a crib sheet more covertly at the piano. Is he tiring at 65? Or is he simply determined to march to his own drummer, and to hell with what the audience wants? Whatever the reason, for the time being we are in the age of Piano Bob.

Not that this is altogether bad. Perhaps the comfort of the piano and the lack of the center spotlight allow him to focus on his vocals, which have become a thing of great beauty and wonder. On Saturday night Bob took us on a journey through 40+ years of his songwriting, and to my ears he has never sounded better. With a voice ranging from pleasant crooning to a mellifluous growl, he continues to breathe new life into both his oldest and newest songs. Here’s the concise but amazing set list, with the vintages for you newbies:

Maggie's Farm (1965) – A rollicking, if somewhat predictable opener, with Bob flubbing the words a bit. I swear he sang the line ‘Everybody says she’s the brains behind Pa’ at least three times. So much for the crib sheet theory. Still, the words were as clear as a bell and I instantly liked the venue. The song is a little too repetitive for an opener though, and it had me itching for the next song.

She Belongs To Me (1965) – A great song with a nice harmonica solo by Bob. Bob’s vocal phrasing and delivery were beautiful. He sounded warmed up already, which doesn’t always happen this early in a show.

Lonesome Day Blues (2001) – The band kicked it in gear for this blues tune from Love and Theft, and Bob became quite animated behind the piano, pouncing on the keys and growling some great lines: "He's not a gentleman at all - he's rotten to the core, he's a coward and he steals” in his inimitable way. Loved it.

Positively 4th Street (1966) – Many people’s favorite Dylan song. He’s stayed pretty true to the melody but slowed the tempo and sang without the contempt of the original recording. Another nice harp solo at the end.

It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding) (1965) – I’ve seen this song performed live several times. Some of Bob’s most vitriolic lyrics, but it didn’t knock me out on this night. The arrangement with the violin accompanyment is interesting, though.

The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll (1964) – This gorgeous song from The Times They Are A-Changin' is about the death of a barmaid at the hands of the privileged William Zanzinger. A social protest song from a year that probably seems like another lifetime for Bob, it was majestically delivered on this night.

Rollin' And Tumblin' (2006) - From the early 60’s to 2006, via Muddy Waters. Again the band rocked and Bob was really into it. The first song played tonight from the new album, I was really hoping for Bob to pick up the guitar.

Ballad of Hollis Brown (1964) – The band expertly backed up Bob as he told the grim tale of a South Dakota farmer who killed his family and himself in desperation. The banjo and surging arrangement were chilling, matching the growing dread as Bob recounted the tale.

Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I'll Go Mine) (1966) – The highlight for me, as Bob and the band barreled into one of my favorite tracks from Blonde on Blonde.

Joey (1976) – This one is an overlooked song from the Desire album, but a favorite of the die-hard fans. The song, about New York gangster Joey Gallo is not often played, and it was a solid performance.

Highway 61 Revisited (1965) – Another barn burner, this song seems to be more of showcase for the band than for Bob, but it’s enjoyable.

Workingman's Blues #2 (2006) – Many of the songs on the new album are derivative, 12-bar blues or Dylanized versions of Muddy and Chuck Berry. A few songs are a little too similar to the material on Love and Theft, too. What makes the album another masterpiece are the purely original songs that are interspersed. Workingman’s Blues #2 is one of them and I was thrilled to hear it on this night.

Summer Days (2001) – This is another song that can raise the roof, and has been heavily played the last few years. It’s a blast and I’m not tired of it yet, and apparently neither is Bob, as he danced and pounded on the keys once again.

Encores
Thunder on the Mountain (2006)
Like A Rolling Stone (1965)
All Along the Watchtower (1967) – After a brief break (1 minute, maybe) the band kicked into Thunder, which is basically Dylan’s spin on Chuck Berry’s Let It Rock. It’s a good song that really sounded great live. The obligatory Rolling Stone and Watchtower closers were adequately performed but too ‘by the book’ for me. Crowd pleasers for sure, but I’d rather hear some more rarities that Bob doesn’t feel obligated to play.

All in all, I enjoyed this show even more than the shows in 2004 and 2005. Go see him now. If you’re on the east coast, you’ll also get the Raconteurs as the opening act.

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