Rock Legend Plays Two Sets Monday Night
MADISON, Wis. — Every time Bob Dylan steps up to the microphone, expectation is the consistent obstacle that rock’s greatest living legend is determined to overcome.
Since he first emerged as a cherubic Woody Guthrie impersonator in the early ’60s through to the crud-voiced Hank Williams showman of today, Dylan has closely aligned his quest to thwart the status quo with the creative star that he follows. And while Dylan once earned iconic status as an upsetter of the established order — whether it was musical, social or cultural — ol’ Bob primarily derives pleasure these days in perfecting the art of small surprises.
Dylan underscored his troublemaking philosophy countless times during two back-to-back sets at Overture Hall in downtown Madison on Monday night. Throughout both concerts, he demonstrated many times how his unpredictability can reveal the breadth of his genius. Occasionally, however, it also showed his mischievousness, tricking his audience or his backing musicians and intimidating them by confronting them with his hallowed legacy.
Dylan forged that nearly 50-year history in part by following few constants beyond his own artistic whim. Even after more than 20 years of year-round touring and as his 70th birthday creeps closer and closer, there are few signals that he delights any less in upturning all we hold as sacred. Even as the canonization process of his works continue to grow thanks to a new book by Princeton University historian Sean Wilentz and the ninth edition of his archival release “The Bootleg Series.” Although both are newly arrived and ready to be added to Christmas lists (are you reading this, Mom?), Dylan leaves what’s in his rearview mirror to his minders and keeps his focus on the moment ahead. It’s in that moment in which he can do anything.
The fact that Dylan would agree to put on a rock ‘n’ roll doubleheader on Monday night was just the last example of his fickle temperament. The last time Dylan played two sets in one night might have been in the early ’90s when he did a residency at New York’s Supper Club. Or perhaps, it was a stop during his legendary reunion tour with the Band in 1974? Regardless, the Madison shows were just the latest dates in the current swing of his Never Ending Tour, which includes stops at various colleges and universities in the Midwest and the Northeast before concluding around Thanksgiving holiday with a couple of casino gigs.
As such, there was definitely a steady, business-like quality to the shows (slated to start at 7 p.m. and 10 p.m.). Those of us expecting the second performance would be a kind of midnight ramble where Dylan and his black-suited, black-hatted five-piece group would undo their Western ties and break out the deep cuts from the Dylan catalog were in for a surprise.
The first show offered many left turns. Dylan kept the set mellow initially, choosing midtempo songs like “Things Have Changed” and “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” to pace the group for the night ahead. Dylan was a figure of fidgety energy onstage, which restated his mercurialness. Donning a white Southern planter’s hat and black suit with a sparkled stripe on the pants, Dylan alternated between instruments and places on the stage depending on the song. He sometimes played a cooper-colored Fender Stratocaster. Other times, he was wiggling while playing keyboards. He even went without accompanying himself a few times. He stood at the mic, gesturing as he sang like Al Jolson, with only his harmonica as backup for the instrumental interludes. His search was bent on discovering new countermelodies and delivery styles to redraft the song.
This mood played to the band’s strengths. The aforementioned “Baby Blue” had a swing to it that had more in common with a Kinks-like clipper than a dated folk-rock artifact. The cut featured a spectacular, slow-paced solo by guitarist Charlie Sexton that sounded like it could have come from a baritone guitar. In a rare turn, mid-’60s gem “Just Like A Woman” was exquisitely reinterpreted to recall the blissed-out lullaby that was recorded for “Blonde On Blonde.” Dylan croaked the gorgeous melody like Tom Waits was tucking you in. At the same time, his right hand pecked at the keyboard to sound like Augie Meyers let loose on a church organ. During a bright, uplifting “Tangled Up In Blue,” Dylan sneakily toyed with his lyrical cadences, ducking like a boxer, to fit in all the words before the drummer’s downbeat.
Despite this, his current band is an enigma. By design, this group has none of the country/bluegrass charm and widespread sideman dexterity of previous lineups. They also seem the most cowed by Dylan’s solo taking and musical treacherousness. This is a darker, more nuanced unit whose delicate touches sound excellent in clubs and orchestra chambers — as does Dylan’s singing — but struggle in the concrete and metal sheds of America and Europe. The longtime standing rhythm section of bassist Tony Garnier and George Recile are a stalwart force in propelling the group. Unfortunately, poor rhythm guitarist Stu Kimball and multi-instrumentalist Donnie Herron are usually inaudible in the mix. Most welcome is the return of lead guitarist Sexton, who rejoined Dylan’s road band last year. Sexton, a Texas native who earned fame in the late ’80s with retro-rockers the Arc Angels, helped anchor Bob’s group during most of the tour’s best years from 1997 to 2002. Sexton’s unexpected rejoining is welcome in that he is the lone instrumentalist willing (or permitted) to challenge Dylan. On Monday, he rarely did so.
When Dylan turned the dial up, the band sizzled during high-energy blues or rockabilly ruckus of “Highway 61 Revisited” and “Thunder On The Mountain.” But when it came time for someone to take a solo, Dylan always took the honors on keyboard or harp. Bobbing over the keys like a king cobra ready to strike, Dylan repeated and then adjusted an organ refrain as he stared down at his musicians. Like a boy king, Dylan successfully squared away with anyone who might upstage him. He wanted their focus on him and ultimately, all eyes and ears on the song. If the players seemed frustrated by their limited time in the spotlight, they never let it show.
Dylan relished his time at center stage. He even did a little performance art when cast in silhouette as he sang “The Ballad Of Thin Man,” the lemon-yellow light underlined how much he looks like Vincent Price these days. Dylan sang a scary tale for Halloween about the horrors of being unhip. With his arms spread wide open, Dylan brayed at the end of each verse like a vampire.
An encore that featured “Jolene,” a highlight from last year’s “Together Through Life,” as well as old standbys “Like A Rolling Stone” and “All Along The Watchtower” were regal but largely perfunctory. Dylan hasn’t changed his encore in months and the band seemed swallowed up by the songs’ latent power. Sexton and Kimball were given brief chances to solo, but couldn’t stretch out. In one instance, Recile consistently overplayed during “Watchtower,” trying and failing to kick the band into high gear.
No matter what, the late-night audience seemed more insistent in expressing its appreciation. They greeted each new song with a standing ovation. With the supportive atmosphere, the band members began to relax a little more. Wearing the same suits as before, the musicians expertly impersonated Nashville pros on a lovely “Lay Lady Lay,” on which Herron’s heavenly steel guitar finally emerged from the mix. For the smokey, Bayou blues of “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’,” Herron was switched to trumpet and had the unenviable task of playing accents over the rumble of guitars while trying to watch the master for cues. The sexy rhythm brought Sexton to a crouching position — a stage move that he resorted to throughout the night — but here it finally seemed appropriate. During the brooding stumble of “Man In The Long Black Coat,” it was Garnier and Recile’s chance. Their playing was every bit as threatening as their boss’s singing.
The true highlight of the night was a rolling “Visions Of Johanna,” another masterwork imagined more energetic than it was when born during the “Blonde On Blonde” era. Dylan played a descending organ line with his right hand while he continued to fuss with the song’s lyrical structure. Such is the strength of the cut that no tweaking could rob it of its melodic grandeur, emotional power and Beat poet beauty. Dylan added a lurching organ solo, which Sexton prettied up with a gentle stream of guitar runs.
As the set’s tone became more aggressive, the band members got bolder still. Sexton took an understated solo on the strolling “I Feel A Change Comin’ On.” For the rootsy rampaging of “Summer Days,”Sexton and Kimball grabbed big, hollow-body guitars and Garnier switching to standup bass to match up against Dylan’s bleating organ. As the music churns, Recile shoves the band forward. Sexton drops down again, like he’s just about to attempt a Chuck Berry duck walk as he’s bowing notes and eventually, trading lines with Bob’s keyboard licks
In the same spirit, the repeated songs were nearly identical to those played a couple hours earlier although “Highway 61” and “Like A Rolling Stone” were slightly rougher than before. Both had extended solos, which offered Sexton and Kimball the first real steps to step out with their employer’s consent. It was a belated show of generosity and Dylan’s last attempt to keep his audience guessing.
Even when you’re anticipating the surprises, Dylan’s tricks never get old.
Remaining Tour Dates:
- Tuesday, Oct. 26, East Lansing, Mich.
- Thursday, Oct. 28, Ann Arbor, Mich.
- Friday, Oct. 29, Kalamazoo, Mich.
- Saturday, Oct. 30, Chicago
- Sunday, Oct. 31, Indianapolis
- Tuesday, Nov. 2, Akron, Ohio
- Wednesday, Nov. 3, Highland Heights, Ken.
- Thursday, Nov. 4, Columbus, Ohio
- Saturday, Nov. 6, Rochester, N.Y.
- Sunday, Nov. 7, Pittsburgh
- Tuesday, Nov. 9, University Park, Pa.
- Wednesday, Nov. 10, Charlottesville, Va.
- Friday, Nov. 12, Bethlehem, Pa.
- Saturday, Nov. 13, Washington, D.C.
- Sunday, Nov. 14, West Long Branch, N.J.
- Tuesday, Nov. 16, Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
- Wednesday, Nov. 17, Binghamton, N.Y..
- Friday, Nov. 19, Amherst, Mass.
- Saturday, Nov. 20, Lowell, Mass.
- Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, Nov. 22-24, New York
- Thursday, Nov. 26, Atlantic City, N.J.
- Friday, Nov. 27, Mashantucket, Conn.
For More Info:
- Soundbytes: Review: Bob Dylan’s New ‘Life’ Excited With Blues Spirit
- Soundbytes: Concert Review: Dylan, Foo Fighters Surprising Treats On Halloween
- Soundbytes: Dylan Documentary Tells Legend’s Story
- Soundbytes: Review: Dylan Bios Seek To Understand ‘How Does It Feel?’
- Soundbytes: Top Ten Albums Of 2001
- 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 2010 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.