2006 / Halloween / Live Reviews / Music

Concert Review: Dylan, Foo Fighters Are Surprising Treats On Halloween

Openers Foo Fighters Trade Hard Rock For Acoustic Guitars

MADISON, Wis. — It’s Halloween in Madison, and Bob Dylan is onstage dressed like Lee Van Cleef from “The Good, The Bad And The Ugly.”

Photo: Bob Dylan.com

Photo: Bob Dylan.com

Of course, this isn’t a costume nor anything out of the ordinary. The black bolero-hatted Bob typically dresses like a squinty, sinister, singing cowhand on most of the 100-some shows that he has played around the world for the past 18 years.

Besides the holiday, there were several aspects of Tuesday night’s concert at the Kohl Center that were unique compared to most of Bob’s other one-night stands. First, Dylan is shilling for a brand-new album. Second, his heavyweight opening act, the Foo Fighters, performed unplugged. But best of all, although it appeared the pairing of these odd bedfellows was a Halloween trick, both Dylan and the Foo Fighters were surprising Halloween treats.

The mighty Dylan set himself up for a fall. As he promoted his new disc, “Modern Times,” Dylan went on record saying that his current backing band is his greatest ever — a bold statement from a man with such a storied musical past and a forgivable hyperbole considering this is also the guy who starred in the incomprehensible “Masked And Anonymous” a couple of years back. This boast seemed even more ludicrous given that when he toured with Willie Nelson last year, Dylan’s three new guitar players were underwhelming, perhaps daunted by the challenge of playing rock’s greatest songbook in front one of its most erratic taskmasters.

As for faithfully recreating his famous tunes in concert, Dylan has no use for it. Ever hunched over his keyboard — Bob abandoned guitar playing onstage years ago — Dylan growled and intoned every line with shifting cadences, which is part of his relentless search for new meaning and melody in his songs. The uncertainty can make for dramatic performances but also can be befuddling to non-Dylanologists. When Dylan croaked, “I was trying to make out what it was” during the stately, urban “Lonesome Day Blues,” he was unconsciously voicing the thought of every Dylan newbie in the crowd while thrilling all those already indoctrinated into the Dylan cult. On this night, however, the old master’s shaky wisdom was partially redeemed. Not the greatest ever, but these musicians are as elastic and volatile as their boss, especially lead guitarist Denny Freeman. Their start was slow — it wasn’t until their fourth song before drummer George Receli’s scowl became a smile — but once they settled in, they became confident enough to add new textures to the canon.

For the faithful, four songs from Dylan’s latest album, “Modern Times,” made their Wisconsin debut. On vinyl, these quasi-jazz ballads and city-blues numbers ache to be in another time. Live, there was an edginess and explosiveness to the performances that made it clear these musicians — nearly all wearing black, Western suits and black hats — could cut you if they got the nod from the old man. Freeman is clearly his star pupil. Dylan has had more than his share of blues-rock showboats over the years, but he’s never had a guitarist with such exquisite taste as Freeman. While the Texan could appear a bit restrained when called on to deliver a thunderous blur of notes, the phrasing of his solos was always spare and thoroughly original. During “When The Deal Goes Down,” Freeman gave an especially serene solo — his tone-rich sound rung and reverberated like an organ — and he actually got some cheers.

He also got several opportunities to shine on the muscular blues of “Watching The River Flow” and “Highway 61 Revisited,” kicking his leg after unleashing each brawny guitar lick. Better still was how Freeman traded and meshed ghostly lines with pedal steel guitarist Donnie Herron. The two players’ delicate give-and-take expanded on darker, folk cuts like “John Brown” and “Blind Willie McTell” when Herron switched to banjo. One set up the other with a complimentary phrase and politely got out of the away. During ’50s swinger, “Summer Days,” Dylan and his keyboard waded between the two men’s friendly contest, but gave them plenty of space.

There was another welcome addition: Dylan dusted off “Tangled Up In Blue,” an old concert warhorse that Dylan hasn’t played in years. Once, it was the centerpiece of Dylan’s late ’90s jam-band phase. Now, the song has a propulsive acoustic-electric arrangement with some modified lyrics that swiftly sweep listeners through a bittersweet love song without digressions.

Most shocking was the inconsistent treatment of older standards “Like A Rolling Stone” and “All Along The Watchtower,” which were not impressive. “Like A Rolling Stone” was lusterless and seemed perfunctory, even contrived. Lights illuminated the audience for the chorus, cueing them to roar. “Watchtower” was meant to defiantly conclude the evening and came on strong with energy and volume, but nearly collapsed when the group meekly pulled too far back as they made room for Dylan to sing the first verse. They were never able to recapture that electricity, and it didn’t help matters when Dylan’ insisted on changing the emphasis of certain words and then botched the lyrics completely. It was disservice for a show that had worked so hard to prove a point.


Photo: Foo Fighters.com

Even more shocking was the hard-rocking Foo Fighters’ set. While Grohl has consistently proven that he has the leaden bass-drum foot to fill John Bonham’s stool should the Led Zeppelin guys decide to do one last tour, his brainwave for this tour to recreate the acoustic jamboree of “Led Zeppelin III” with the Foos back catalog seemed egotistical. Songwriter Grohl and the group have a few solid pop-punk hits, maybe one or two truly exceptional songs, but didn’t appear to have the vocabulary or the dexterity to make this worthwhile.

This was all wrong. The band was powerful and irresistible. For just short of an hour, the band refashioned most of their biggest hits and a few secret gems with lumbering swells of acoustic instruments and shaggy-haired Taylor Hawkins’ titanic drumming. To achieve this end, the four-piece band doubled in size to include violinist Petra Haden, Wallflowers keyboard player Rami Jaffee and percussionist Drew Hester as well as erstwhile Foo guitar player Pat Smear. They made use of the extra hands to fill the musical gaps, whether by adding nuance or piling on layers of heaving sound.

The dichotomy of Dylan and the Fighters’ performances underscored their distinctive appeal and relative strengths and weaknesses. As Dylan is an expert on exploring shades of gray and can be wildly impulsive, the Foos were direct and had only two settings: quiet and loud.

And from the start of the concert, Grohl was worried about shades of gray, specifically those in the audience. Perhaps sensing the band — most of them dressed in suit jackets — was out of its element and had to win over an older demographic, he resorted to an endearing joke.

“We talked about wearing costumes, but we’re those slacker generation kids, and we never could get it together,” he said.

What the group did get together were some startling new arrangements of crowd favorites. These weren’t drastic rewrites, but instead made room for new vocal or instrumental coloring. Former stadium-rock anthems like “Hero,” “Big Me” and “Times Like These” had spiraling piano outros, harmony vocals sung by Haden and a breakdown that featured a percussive triangle.

“Marigold” received the opposite treatment. A pretty, low-key ditty that Grohl cut and also sang lead on when he was in Nirvana, the song was now reshaped as a riff rocker. Banging their heads, Grohl and Smear strummed their guitars with such aplomb that Jack Black could have shown it as an instructional video to his students in “School Of Rock.” Meanwhile, Hawkins’ drums were an inescapable wallop that shoved the melody forward.
The performance also demonstrated that the band has greater musical appreciation that belies their recorded output. “See You” was recast as a honky-tonk serenade with boogie-woogie piano, soft mandolin notes and rockabilly guitar licks sliding off of each other. New song, “Skin And Bones,” began with just a simple, plucked guitar pattern, but with the addition of the massive thud of Hawkins’ bass drum and accordion, it evolved into something like Yiddish music.
It might be easy to underestimate the Foo Fighters, but there was never any question that Grohl is a phenomenal singer. Besides that, he’s also an incredible wit and contributed much-needed humor to the show. In one memorable one-two punch, Grohl took special care to lovingly ridicule Hester, the secondary percussionist, when introducing his bandmates.
“It’s that time that I have to introduce the guy who plays the f***ing triangle,” he confided into the microphone.
While laughs were still echoing in the arena, Grohl let Hester play a brief triangle solo before claiming that “triangle is the new cowbell,” alluding to the infamous “Saturday Night Live” sketch. Even without the comedy act, this new purview showcased his many talents as musician, singer, songwriter and frontman.
Grohl’s greatest song, “Everlong,” was mostly delivered solo. Taking a break from the song’s insistent guitar lick during the choruses, Grohl let his voice soar through the lyrics, slide up and over each note gracefully. As the song reached its crescendo, Grohl rose from his seat, continued to hammer on his guitar and wandered the stage as the band thundered. It was a bit of rock star posturing that was a fitting conclusion.
The audience — gray hairs included — responded with a standing ovation.
When it was Dylan’s turn, he too, got the crowd on its feet. Like the gunfighter that he imagines himself to be, he made his hands into pistols and fired them at the audience. He seemed to be noting some of the costumed revelers and was shooting to let them and any doubters know something: “I got ya, I got ya.”
Remaining Tour Dates:
Note: The Raconteurs will take over opening act duties in Portland, Maine.
  • Thursday, Nov. 2, Detroit
  • Friday, Nov. 3, London, Ontario, Canada
  • Sunday, Nov. 5, Ottawa
  • Tuesday, Nov. 7, Toronto
  • Wednesday, Nov. 8, Montreal
  • Thursday, Nov. 9, Portland, Maine
  • Saturday and Sunday, Nov. 11-12, Boston
  • Monday, Nov. 13, Uniondale, N.Y.
  • Wednesday, Nov. 15, Amherst, Mass.,
  • Thursday, Nov. 16, East Rutherford, N.J.
  • Friday, Nov. 17, Fairfax, Va.
  • Saturday, Nov. 18, Philadelphia

For More Info:

Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2006 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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