Rodney Crowell in Dylan's shadow
by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., August 1, 2004) – When in the early 1960s, Bob Dylan first picked up his guitar and sang -- first traditional country, folk and blues songs, later penning original lyrics and song-poems to music based on those styles, and eventually adopting the trappings of electric rock music to his singular style of modern American roots music – he made it look so easy. We’ve been living with the consequences ever since, and for the most part, down in the trenches of the coffeehouses and nightclubs where a thousand would-be Dylans ply their trade, it’s pretty ugly.

They come in all shapes, colors, and sizes, these would-be Dylans, male and female alike. Different ones tend to emphasize different aspects of Dylan’s omnivorous Americana – this one more bluesy, that one more country. Entire genres have sprung up basically fully borne out of some of his stylistic experiments – folk-rock spawned out of side one of “Bringing It All Back Home;” the entire acoustic, new-folk, singer-songwriter scene basically an outgrowth of “Blood on the Tracks;” the outlaw-country movement a byproduct of “Nashville Skyline.”

Others have said it before, but it bears repeating, that Dylan’s influence on American popular music of the last 45 years is at least as far-reaching and deep as Pablo Picasso’s on 20th-century painting and Miles Davis’s on postwar jazz.

Dylan’s is a hefty legacy to live up to, and pity those who try to confront it day in, day out, by having chosen in one way or another to perform in what is now an entire musical tradition of its own. Such a performer is Rodney Crowell, who overtly acknowledged his debt to Dylan early in his show on Saturday night, the second of two, sold-out shows this past weekend at Club Helsinki, when he offered a quiet, intimate version of Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.”

Actually, Crowell may have acknowledged it even earlier, when he kicked off his set with an original song off his most recent album, “Fate’s Right Hand,” called “The Man in Me.” It’s not the Dylan song of the same title, but Crowell certainly is familiar with the Dylan tune. But it wasn’t necessarily a good idea for him to draw the comparison, subtle or otherwise. Dylan’s song, for example, has a lovely melody with hints of mid-century American pop to it suiting its pastoral imagery. Crowell’s song, on the other hand, doesn’t have any melody; rather, it’s a one-note harangue about a very unpleasant guy. Maybe that’s appropriate, but that doesn’t make it a thing of beauty, either.

Another song in which the singer offered a litany of “may you” this and “may you” that to an unnamed listener came across as Crowell’s answer to Dylan’s similarly structured “Forever Young,” but without the mystical imagery powering Dylan’s blessing. The title track to Crowell’s new album is the 437th rewrite of Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” minus the wit of an Elvis Costello (who succeeded mightily with the similar “Pump It Up”) or the poetry of Dylan.

All this isn’t to say that Crowell is a Dylan wannabe or not up to the task. He’s a terrific musician, and probably a better guitarist than Dylan, and he and his sideman Will Kimbrough, also playing acoustic guitar, made beautifully chiming, ringing music. He’s a competent songwriter, and the crowd seemingly hung on every word he sang and said. And it’s only worth noting precisely because it rarely happens at Helsinki that Crowell was given a standing ovation.

So Crowell undoubtedly has his hardcore devotees. As for the unconverted, he remains something of an unfocused cipher, a writer with a few good turns of phrase but with a penchant for clunky literalism (“My self importance is a god-forsaken bore/I aim for heaven but I wake up on the floor”). Mostly he lacks an overarching voice in the literary sense. His indistinctive vocals are really a metaphor for an undistinguished artistic personality. He is all craft and desire but no genius. And over the course of a two-hour-plus concert, he was a huge bore.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on August 3, 2004. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2004. All rights reserved.]

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