Bob Dylan's never-ending comeback

Bob Dylan

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., May 8, 2003) -- Everyone knows Bob Dylan as America’s greatest songwriter and the voice of a generation. But since when has he been a rough ‘n’ ready, omnipresent, rock ‘n’ roll road warrior and a one-man archive of Americana past and present?

Well, since about 1988, to be precise.

They’re calling it yet another comeback for Bob Dylan. And on the surface, it certainly seems like the venerable folk-rock singer-songwriter has been enjoying a late-career bounce over the last five years, beginning with his sweep of the Grammy Awards in 1998 in the wake of the critically-acclaimed album, “Time Out of Mind,” followed by his first Academy Award (for “Things Have Changed” in the Best Original Song for a Film category), on through the terrific follow-up to “Time Out of Mind” in 2001, “Love and Theft,” gone gold in just a few weeks and also a Grammy-winner.

In addition, Dylan’s longtime record label, Columbia, has been priming the pump with a steady supply of vintage material previously available only through unofficial channels, aka bootleggers. “The Bootleg Series Vol. 1-3,” 1991’s collection of rare tracks, outtakes and alternate takes, provided the first glimpse of what lay hidden in the archives, and in the last few years Columbia has doled out legendary recordings of Dylan’s electrified and electrifying tour with the Hawks – later known as The Band – on “Live 1966,” and, with “Live 1975,” a much better representation of “Rolling Thunder Revue”-era Dylan shows than was previously available.

If Dylan’s reputation as a performing artist needed any burnishing – which it may well have, given the otherwise middling-to-awful documentation of his live shows on “Hard Rain” (1976), “At Budokan” (1979), “Real Live” (1984), “MTV Unplugged” (1995) and 1988’s “Dylan and the Dead” (this last one so atrocious that even Dylan completists have been known to overlook it, preferring to count it as part of the Grateful Dead’s catalog rather than Dylan’s) – “Live 1966” and “Live 1975” went a long way toward restoring its luster. (Dylan’s first live album, “Before the Flood” -- documenting his “comeback” tour with The Band in 1974 -- has its naysayers, but I rate it up with his best.)

And if truth be told, there were a lot of mediocre years better off passed over – a good decade or more from the late-1970s to the early-‘90s – when Dylan seemed to have lost his way, with occasional exception, as an album artist, songwriter, and live performer. But those who have been following him through thick and thin know that somewhere in the mid-1990s, Dylan turned a corner, rediscovering his creative muse and, apparently, the sheer joy of performing.

The basic format of Dylan’s current stage show dates back to 1988, when he left behind stadium and arena stages shared with the likes of Carlos Santana, 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.

While it was shaky and hit-or-miss at first, the “NeverEnding Tour” -- as it is commonly known – has evolved into a reliable roadshow of Americana for which Dylan has carved out a more rootsy sound, emphasizing elements of country, bluegrass and old-time string-band music in the instrumentation, arrangements and 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” – 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.”

But as Dylan once sang, “He not busy being born is busy dying,” and this rolling stone gathers no moss. Every season – indeed, nearly every concert – has its surprises: a new band member, new song arrangements, and of course, an ever-changing set list.

Last fall, for example, Dylan added a few new twists to his concerts, introducing cover versions of popular and obscure numbers by his contemporaries – tunes like “Brown Sugar” by the Rolling Stones, “Old Man” by Neil Young, and others by Van Morrison and Don Henley. In an uncharacteristic bit of sentiment, Dylan paid homage to two friends, noting the passing of George Harrison with a stirring, one-off version of “Something,” and sending out good vibrations to rock singer-songwriter Warren Zevon, who has terminal cancer, by adding several Zevon songs to his nightly playlist. (No, “Werewolves of London” was not one of them, unfortunately.)

Songs from his gospel period have also begun reappearing on Dylan’s setlists recently, perhaps in acknowledgment of the recent tribute album, “Gotta Serve Somebody: The Gospel Songs of Bob Dylan” (Columbia), featuring new versions of songs from “Slow Train Coming” and “Saved” as interpreted by an all-star gospel cast including Shirley Caesar, Aaron Neville, Mighty Clouds of Joy, Sounds of Blackness, and the Fairfield Four, among others (including Dylan himself in a scorching remake with Mavis Staples of “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking”).

On his current tour, Dylan continually finds ways to re-explore the blues and rock foundation of his material. He is aided in this effort with the newer, predominantly blues-based material from “Time Out of Mind” and “Love and Theft,” adding a “Mystery Train”-like vibe to “Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum” and propelling “Honest With Me” along to a chugging funk beat lifted from Talking Heads’ “Life During Wartime.” He also reinvents songs entirely, rendering “Wicked Messenger” as hard-driving boogie-rock and “All Along the Watchtower” in a Jimi Hendrix-inspired flameout.

But the biggest surprise over the past month has been Dylan’s near-total abandonment of the guitar as his instrument of choice. As with all such changes in his career, this one happened with no explanation. Dylan began splitting his instrumental duties between guitar and electric piano last fall. This time out, he has almost fully turned over the guitar chores to longtime sideman Larry Campbell and new guitarist Freddy Koella, ex- of Willy DeVille.

The Dylan chat sites on the Internet are filled with all kinds of conjecture about why the change in axe: that Dylan suffers from a bad back, dating to his infamous 1966 motorcycle accident, that has gotten so bad he can’t support the weight of the guitar around his shoulders; that he has arthritis; or that he has carpal tunnel syndrome from too much guitar-playing (in that case, playing piano would likely be even worse).

Never mind that piano was actually Dylan’s first instrument, that he has played it sporadically in concert over the years and frequently in the recording studio, and that he has claimed he writes his songs on it. Perhaps the man just enjoys playing piano after all these years. He seemed utterly revitalized when he played it last fall, throwing himself into his singing in ways he hadn’t since 1975, moving and twisting around – practically dancing – like a newly-freed prisoner.

Could the guitar reappear next month, next week, or tomorrow night? Certainly. But in the meantime, the man who took the music and stylings of Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams, Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry, mixing them up and adding his own psychedelic-poet perspective, has finally come full circle to what all the biographies say was his teen-age ambition: to be the next Little Richard.

[This column originally appeared in similar form in the Black and White City Paper in Birmingham, Ala., on May 9, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]

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