Dylan breathes fire in Boston
by Seth Rogovoy

(BOSTON, Mass., March 26, 2004) – It’s a typical indication of Bob Dylan’s influence that at his sold-out show Thursday night at Avalon, the 2,200-seat concert club across the street from Fenway Park’s “Green Monster,” a fan – or was he a follower? – sported a T-shirt that read, “What Would Dylan Do?”

A wry allusion to another messianic figure in Jewish history, the slogan turned out to be an apt motto for the concert, which featured a Dylan seemingly invigorated by the contemporary relevance of his pearls while at the same time disgusted that 40 years down the line, nothing has been revealed.

In the second of three shows in Boston, part of Dylan’s current U.S. tour of downtown theaters and nightclubs, Dylan and his band tore through a selection of his mid-‘60s electric anthems and a healthy offering of numbers from his most recent album of new songs, 2001’s “Love and Theft.”

The band’s guitarists cut through the stop-start, honky-tonk version of the paranoia-inflected “Drifter’s Escape” that set the urgent tone for a show that only occasionally let up to highlight’s Dylan more lyrical side. Those guitars, played by Larry Campbell and Freddy Koella, snaked through Dylan’s dark portrayal of contemporary politics on “Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum,” ringing clarion calls of alarm in between Dylan’s phrases of scorn. Campbell switched to bouzouki for a majestic version of “Blind Willie McTell,” a spiritual song of loss and regret that was given a prayerful, swinging lilt.

Four songs drawn from Dylan’s creative peak in 1965 and 1966 served as the fulcrum of the show. Standing at an electric keyboard that he played intermittently throughout the evening, Dylan spat out the lyrics to “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” like a prophet sick of being ignored. “You follow, find yourself at WAR!” he blasted, drawing out the last word in his long, trademark sneer, before concluding with weariness and disgust, “It’s all right ma, I’m only sighing.”

Dylan maintained the momentum through an anthemic version of “Positively Fourth Street,” a rawhide-tinged rendition of “Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine)” featuring country-funk riffs and Dylan at his most vocally playful, and a twisted, surreal reading of “Ballad of a Thin Man,” which he couldn’t possibly have invested with more significance when he first played it nearly 40 years ago. “Something’s happening here, but you don’t know what it is,” he sang, and then improvised in jest, “You’ll have to ASK somebody.”

As noted, Dylan touched his more lyrical side on “Girl of the North Country,” a dusty old jewel in a polished, new chamber-folk setting replete with extra harmonic voicings that found new resonance in the ancient folk melody. Several tunes from “Love and Theft” also explored Dylan’s fondness for 1940s-era country-swing and jump blues.

But this was a night for Dylan to rock as hard as ever, and his band, sporting two drummers and long-time bassist and musical director Tony Garnier, was fully up to the task, lendingBeatles-like touches to “Cat’s in the Well” before concluding with blistering versions of “Like a Rolling Stone” and “All Along the Watchtower.”

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on March 27, 2004. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2004. All rights reserved.]

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