Thursday, November 19, 2009

Two Nights of Bob Dylan in New York City

In the spring of 2005 Bob Dylan hired some new guys for his band. Nothing unusual there; Dylan tends to switch around his band every year or so. Except then, for the next four and a half years he didn’t change a thing. Since that spring fans grew a little more tired of those same five people with each passing leg of the so-called Never-Ending Tour. Were these guys the second coming of The Band or something, fans might have been more forgiving, but soon this lowercase-“b” band turned every song into a mid-tempo jazz shuffle, Bing Crosby without the voice. Throughout his career fans have followed Dylan around the globe like the second coming of Jerry Garcia, but as each show began sounding just like a previous show (or previous year) the phrase “jumped the shark” began coming up.

This fall, after four-
and-a-half years of slow decline, Dylan finally switched things up. He made just one substitution, but replacing old one-note-solo Denny Freeman with guitar-prodigy Charlie Sexton is a hell of a substitution. Sexton previously played with Dylan from ’99-‘02 (making him the first musician to leave the band and later return) during what many fans think of as latter-day Dylan’s best years and in the seven-year interim he hasn’t missed a trick. During the first two nights of Dylan’s United Palace Theater stand Sexton stole the show more than once with hotrod solos that never held back for fear of stepping on The Legend’s toes.

In fact, The Legend raised his own game to keep up with Sexton’s confident swagger. Though in recent years he has spent each show sulking behind a keyboard, this fall he has taken to performing 4-5 songs each night center stage with only a microphone and harmonica, bringing out a showman unseen since 1975’s all-star Rolling Thunder Revue. On “Ballad of a Thin Man” both nights he stood astride center stage, a larger-than-life vigilante striking a series of Zorro poses silhouetted on the curtain behind him. For night two’s “Workingman’s Blues #2” he wailed out more self-assured harmonica solos than fans have heard in years, swaying back and forth as the harp voodoo took hold.

Too obstinate to veer anywhere near a greatest-hits act, about half of both night’s tunes came from Dylan’s twenty-first century output (though nothing from his recent Christmas disc). Though casual attendees often come away irritated with the lack of solo-guitar “Blowin’ in the Wind”-style nostalgia and hardcore fans may grumble that in the course of two nights he played only one song from the ‘70s or ‘80s (1989’s “Man in the Long Black Coat), the post-Y2K material suits his latter-day croak. The warbly rasp complement the fading-light regret of “Forgetful Heart” and one-last-change hope of “I Feel a Change Comin’ On” (both from his 2009 album
Together Through Life) and a deranged organ-grinder arrangement of 1997’s “Cold Irons Bound” turned Bob into a sinister carnival barker.

His forays into his early material (what few there were) were less successful. You could practically see the band’s energy evaporate away during lackluster encores “Like a Rolling Stone” and “All Along the Watchtower,” playing the crowd-pleasing choices in a half-assed way that pleased nobody. On night one Bob didn’t even bother enunciating half the words of “Rolling Stone,” perhaps expecting the audience sing-along to drown him out anyway. Only problem was the half-hearted delivery meant that many there didn’t even know he was playing his biggest hit, and those that did didn’t care. He only gave a sixties classic the care it deserved on the aforementioned “Ballad of a Thin Man,” turning the signature organ riff into a wailing Charlie Sexton guitar line that practically singed the hair off your eyebrows.

The folk material fared even worse in the transition to Oscar-the-Growler Bob. “It Ain’t Me, Babe” attempted a wholly inappropriate bass-heavy crunch to match his barren holler and the swirling imagery of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” proved overpower for a voice not as nimble as it once was. “Some people, they tell me I’ve got the blood of the land in my voice,” Dylan sang in “I Feel a Change,” but the bloody-land approach turns a song like “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” from mournful to grating.

If Bob Dylan is no longer a sixties rocker or folk strummer though, at least he is once again something other than an apathetic songwriter rasping his way to the next hotel. Sexton’s guitar work injects a dose of adrenaline in the music and Dylan’s newfound Frank-Sinatra-meets-Tom-Waits frontman persona does the same to the performance. In almost fifty years of performing Dylan has never been much good at mailing it in, so thank goodness that after four years of steady decline one prodigal-son guitar badass has returned the fold to reignite the spark.


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SET LISTS

November 17, 2009
1. Cat's In The Well (Bob on keyboard, Donnie Herron on violin)
2. It's All Over Now, Baby Blue (Bob on guitar)
3. Beyond Here Lies Nothin' (Bob on keyboard, Donnie on trumpet)
4. A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall (Bob on keyboard, Donnie on electric mandolin)
5. Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum (Bob center stage on harp)
6. John Brown (Bob center stage on harp, Donnie on banjo)
7. Summer Days (Bob on keyboard)
8. Po' Boy (Bob on keyboard and harp)
9. Cold Irons Bound (Bob center stage on harp)
10. If You Ever Go To Houston (Bob on keyboard)
11. Highway 61 Revisited (Bob on keyboard)
12. Ain't Talkin' (Bob on keyboard, Donnie on viola)
13. Thunder On The Mountain (Bob on keyboard)
14. Ballad Of A Thin Man (Bob center stage on harp)
(encore)
15. Like A Rolling Stone (Bob on keyboard)
16. Jolene (Bob on keyboard)
17. All Along The Watchtower (Bob on keyboard)

November 18, 2009


1. Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again (Bob on keyboard)

2. It Ain't Me, Babe (Bob on guitar)

3. Man In The Long Black Coat (Bob on guitar)

4. It's All Good (Bob on keyboard)

5. Spirit On The Water (Bob on keyboard and harp)

6. High Water (For Charley Patton) (Bob center stage on harp, Donnie on banjo)

7. Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I'll Go Mine) (Bob on keyboard)

8. Forgetful Heart (Bob center stage on harp, Donnie on violin)

9. Cold Irons Bound (Bob center stage on harp)

10. I Feel A Change Comin' On (Bob on keyboard)

11. Highway 61 Revisited (Bob on keyboard)

12. Workingman's Blues #2 (Bob center stage on harp)

13. Thunder On The Mountain (Bob on keyboard)

14. Ballad Of A Thin Man (Bob center stage on harp)

(encore)

15. Like A Rolling Stone (Bob on keyboard)

16. Jolene (Bob on keyboard)

17. All Along The Watchtower (Bob on keyboard)

(pictures via Frank Beacham)

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

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