Dylan subverts expectations

Bob Dylan

by Seth Rogovoy

(NORTHAMPTON, Mass., August 20, 2003) – It must be both exciting and terrifying to be a member of Bob Dylan’s band – exciting in that every night you are performing with one of the greatest legends of rock music and helping to perpetuate his legacy by keeping his music vital, fresh and alive, terrifying in that Dylan himself seems to thrive on subverting expectations, including what song you’re going to play next and how you are going to play it.

There were several of these tense moments in Dylan’s erratic but ultimately electrifying show at the Pines Theatre in Look Park on Tuesday night, a show in which Dylan threw several curveballs to his musicians and to ardent fans. Always one to mix up his set lists, Dylan introduced several numbers that had rarely if ever been played on his recent tour, including the opening number, “To Be Alone with You,” rendered as a rollicking, Little Richard-style bit of rock ‘n’ roll.

To the uninitiated, even more surprising must have been the sight of Dylan playing the entire concert standing off to the side of the stage in front of an electric keyboard, subverting the iconic image of Dylan with an acoustic guitar around his shoulders and a harmonica on a wire rack around his neck. But for the past year, Dylan has forsaken his longtime axe in favor of his original instrument, one he played in teen-age bands and then only rarely, and mostly on recordings, over the last 40 years or so.

Dylan’s gospel-style piano chording were apparently the main reason for a version of “Shelter from the Storm,” in an arrangement that bore a family resemblance to the Band’s “The Weight” but otherwise did not serve the song well. Better was a hard-rocking rendition of “Highway 61 Revisited,” in a John Lee Hooker-style blues-rock vein with Dylan’s slam-chords punctuating the stop-start arrangement. The song also served to shake Dylan out of an unfortunate pattern he falls into on occasion -- and which plagued him early in the show -- where his vocals get stuck in a sing-song pattern that ends every line going up – the musical version of Valley Girl-itis.

Having ridden himself of that pest, Dylan continued in apocalyptic mode with a searing version of “Blind Willie McTell” followed by a modal-blues style “It’s All Right Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” in which some of his lines were sung in a gentle, almost sweetly conversational tone instead of the rough, froggy croak he mostly favors.

The curveballs came mid-show, first when Dylan sprung “Boots of Spanish Leather” on his band, which apparently had no arrangement for the tune. Dylan started off playing solo accompanying himself on piano, as the band slowly figured out the key and the chord progression, eventually even finding a groove to propel the number.

After a pretty faithful version of “Honest with Me,” from Dylan’s most recent album of new songs, “Love and Theft,” he reintroduced an old concert favorite, “Tangled Up in Blue,” but not first without a seeming tug-of-war between him and longtime guitarist Larry Campbell, with Dylan wanting to play the song in a radically new arrangement and Campbell apparently insisting that Dylan adhere to the beloved song’s basic structure. Campbell won out, and George Recile’s thundering drums and Tony Garnier’s solid bass lines drove the number home.

Dylan sang numbers like “The Times They Are a-Changin’” and “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” with seductive intimacy and a bit of a smirking leer. Dressed in a white cowboy suit with his bandmates variously bedecked in black and gray suits, he looked the ringleader of a gang from the Wild West. He seemed to be having a pretty good time, as did the crowd, even if, as my much wiser 10-year-old son observed at the end, “He played a lot of good songs the wrong way.”

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on August 21, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]

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