Bob Dylan's neverending comeback

Bob Dylan


Bob Dylan’s neverending comeback

by Seth Rogovoy

(BOSTON, Mass., November 27, 2001) – They’re calling it comeback season for Bob Dylan. And on the surface, it certainly seems like the venerable folk-rock singer-songwriter is enjoying a late-career bounce, beginning with his sweep of the Grammy Awards in 1998 in the wake of his critically-acclaimed Time Out of Mind album, and continuing this season with the triumphant follow-up, Love and Theft (both Columbia), gone gold in just a few weeks and also a good bet to sweep the Grammys come next February.

A few weeks ago Dylan was perched on the cover of Rolling Stone once again, where in the 1970s and early ‘80s he could be found with startling regularity. And just last Saturday, he was the star attraction at Boston’s enormous Fleet Center, performing for an audience of approximately 15,000 fans, both old and young, on the final leg of the first tour of the U.S. that has seen him filling arenas without a co-headliner or marquee backing band since 1980 – a feat, incidentally, that few individual performers without a current chart-topping single or album have attempted for several years.

So call it a comeback if you must, but those who have been following Dylan through thick and thin know well that while his shows have indeed been gaining in polish and professionalism and benefiting from the infusion of energy that comes with larger crowds, this so-called comeback is no overnight sensation but the result of steady, turtle-like plodding on the part of the idiosyncratic Bob Dylan.

In fact, those in the know call it “the NeverEnding Tour.” Dylan’s current stage show dates back to 1988, when he left behind stadium and arena stages shared with the likes of the Grateful Dead and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers in favor of auditoriums, colleges, theaters, state fairs and the occasional summer shed, with small three- and four-piece backup bands consisting mostly of anonymous players, often in out-of-the-way, secondary and tertiary markets.

But for the most part, things, contrary to the song, haven’t changed that much. Dylan has continually sought out a more rootsy sound, emphasizing elements of country, bluegrass and old-time string-band music in the instruments, arrangements and the vocal harmonies. He has dug out old gospel tunes as well as songs by Hank Williams, the Stanley Brothers and others, as if to set his own work in some greater, historical context. He constantly unearths old chestnuts from his own prodigious back catalog – nearly forgotten tunes like “If Dogs Run Free,” “The Wicked Messenger” and “John Brown,” the last two of which he played at the Fleet Center – while at every show offering a smattering of casual-fan favorites like “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” and “Tangled Up in Blue,” all of which he played last Saturday.

Equally important, however, Dylan finds ways to re-explore the blues and rock foundation of his material. He’s been aided in this effort since 1997 with the new blues-based material from Time Out of Mind and this fall with songs from “Love and Theft” – he played a half-dozen of them last week, including a “Mystery Train”-powered “Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum” and a rock-juiced “High Water.” But he also reinvents songs entirely, like “Wicked Messenger” as hard-driving boogie-rock, and “All Along the Watchtower” in a Jimi Hendrix-inspired arrangement.

Dylan has been consistently businesslike in his onstage approach, rarely offering little or any hint of connecting with his audience or even his fellow musicians. Diehard fans catalog the rare appearance of a smile or a smirk or a raised eyebrow on his face. Most times nary a “thank you” is forthcoming. Other than for quick, mumbled introductions of the band members, and an occasional silly joke – he introduced David Kemper as “one of the only drummers better than no drummer at all” at the Fleet Center – not a word is spoken.

Instead, Dylan speaks the way he always has, through his songs, and particularly through intense versions of his songs which at their best, such as with chilling renditions of “John Brown” and “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” last week, sound like he is making them up as he sings them. Dylan constantly reinvents ways to sing songs that are 20, 30 or 40 years old, finding new meanings in well-trodden lines.

“What did you think, my blue-eyed son?” he asked rhetorically during “Hard Rain” last Saturday, with a new note of cynicism attached to the phrase, as if to say, what did you THINK would happen after doing whatever it was he did that left him out in front of a dozen dead oceans, ten-thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard, touring a post-apocalyptic landscape of emotional and political turmoil.

There is no one of Dylan’s generation doing anything like what he does in concert today. Unfortunately, there is almost no one of any generation doing what he does at his level. A few years ago it seemed like Ani DiFranco might be headed in that direction, and she even toured as an opening act with Dylan for a brief time. But lately she seems to have looked toward Prince as more of a role model than Dylan, and opted more for the role of folk-entertainer than folk-prophet. Beck, too, was once touted as a possible heir to Dylan’s prophetic style, but like DiFranco he got shipwrecked trying to be Prince.

It’s not too late for either of them to change course – Dylan’s career full of zigzags is proof of that. But what was perhaps most awe-inspiring about seeing Dylan being Dylan on the same boards trod by Springsteen and Madonna in the last few years is that Dylan gave no reason or evidence to believe that it will ever end – that he will ever end. He played for nearly two-and-a-half hours that night, including two encores, and seemingly could have played twice as long. And as sure as there will continue to be fans wanting to hear his voice testifying from on high, he’ll be back before too long, ready to get up and do it all over again.

[This column originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on November 30, 2001. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2001. All rights reserved.]

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