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.”
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.
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.
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.
- 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:
- Soundbytes: Dylan Documentary Tells Legend’s Story
- Soundbytes: Top Ten Albums Of 2001
- Soundbytes: Review: Dylan Bios Seek To Understand ‘How Does It Feel?’
- The Score: Concert Review: Bob Dylan, Phil Lesh: Bard And The Bore
- Bob Dylan’s Official Web Site
- Expecting Rain (Unofficial Web Site)
- Bringing It All Back Homepage (Unofficial)
- Bob Links (Unofficial)
- Foo Fighters’ Official Web Site
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.