Saturday, October 23, 2010

Bob Dylan in Champaign, Illinois

How to assess a Bob Dylan show in 2010?

If one has a certain baseline level of information about where Bob Dylan is at these days, there are some expectations in place. Dylan's voice is going to be rough in patches. He's mostly (or entirely) going to play from the keyboard. He'll play a mix of classic and newer material, but the classic material might be reworked to the point of not being immediately recognizable. There will not be stage banter or a stage show.

To a certain extent, going to see him live is going to pay tribute. He is, after all, the man who penned some -- many? -- of the greatest songs of the 20th century. And I bring with me some curiosity about what the songs will sound like -- how will things be rearranged? And of course, Dylan has good musicians in his traveling band. (If Larry Campbell is playing with Dylan, that is -- without a doubt -- all the more reason to go.)

But the tradeoff is knowing that you are going to see an artist who cannot sing the way that he used to, cannot play the way that he used to and does not have new songs that can stand up to the old ones in a fair fight.

And so despite the foreknowledge about what the show was likely to be like, I left Assembly Hall a little disappointed last night in what the show had been. The expected shortcomings were there, and that's fine, but what disappointed me was that I didn't find any transcendent moments to make up for those shortcomings.

Dylan opened -- as he has frequently on this tour -- with "Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat," and the song was perhaps a high point of the set: Dylan was behind the keyboard, but he was playing with energy, and the rest of the band was playing with energy. It looked like the show was off to a good start.

Dylan stepped from behind the keyboard, picked up his guitar and went to center stage. It looked like things would be getting even better. As my brain processed the melody for "It Ain't Me Babe," I got even more excited. But Dylan just could not hit the notes on this one -- the vocals were painfully restricted, a very far cry from the "No, no no!" of 1964. And on the one hand, that's fine: Dylan's vocal chords are 45 years older, and his whole frame is 69. But on the other hand, Mick Jagger can still get "Satisfaction," you know?

I don't recall another moment in the set where Dylan's voice came up so short on him -- once he moved into the more recent blues material like "Rollin' and Tumblin'" and "High Water (for Charley Patton)" and "Ain't Talking," there was no problem -- but having the second song of the set fall so short dimmed the lights somewhat early on.

Dylan's guitar playing actually seemed quite good, and I was disappointed that he didn't return to the instrument again. He picked up the harmonica on the strange near-ska version of "Shelter from the Storm" that they played. (Even after hearing the chorus clearly, I turned to my friend Nate and said, "What song is this?") The crowd kind of ridiculously cheered every time that Dylan successfully blew three notes on the harmonica, although his playing on "Forgetful Heart" helped make that one of the most memorable songs of the night.

The other major shortcoming of the show was Charlie Sexton's lead guitar work. I think that perhaps there was a sound issue here because the guy certainly looked like he was working hard. But there was space for four solos during "Desolation Row," and I didn't hear anything worthy of mention played during those spaces. And during the encore of "Jolene," the hook that makes that song so convincing on Together Through Life -- the "doo-dee-doo-dee-doo-do-do" that comes after each line of the chorus -- was somewhere in the background, not really audible. It's perhaps too much to ask for Robbie Robertson or G.E. Smith, but I was hoping for just a little more juice on the lead guitar.

Donnie Herron's multi-instrumental work, on the other hand, deserves the commendation that it normally receives. On "High Water (for Charley Patton)," he played this great bouncing banjo in the background. And then he followed that with some solid droney fiddle riffs on "Forgetful Heart" that paired up quite nicely with Tony Garnier's bowed bass. The performance was a lot less dark than that found on Together Through Life.

The juice also was lacking on the second song of the encore, "Like a Rolling Stone." (Dylan has ended shows on the 2010 tour with "Thunder on the Mountain" going into "Ballad of a Thin Man" and then an encore of "Jolene" and "Like a Rolling Stone" (and sometimes "All Along the Watchtower" -- we were not so lucky).) Throughout the crowd, raised arms asked, "How does it feeeeel?" but the energy on stage wasn't quite as strong. It was great to hear the song live, but I honestly kept flashing back to singing it around the coffeetable in a cottage in Maine with Sarah and her family, where we were belting out the lyrics and hacking away on a couple of guitars with the gusto that the tune deserves.

I'll see Dylan again in New York in November. I hope that both the band and I will be feeling the energy a bit more at that point.

The complete setlist can be found here at the comprehensive Bob Links site.

For some similarly negative comments on Charlie Sexton's mojo, see the thoughts here about Thursday night's St. Louis show and here about the Nashville show from earlier in the week.


Nick Toloudis said...

Very interesting, Matt. I am toying with the idea of going to see Dylan here in the Valley in November. Actually, I think I'd already decided not to go by the time I'd read this, but now I'm feeling better and more firm about this decision. The thing is, there's one other standard comment I hear about Dylan's shows, which is that, some nights, he's *really* on! Who knows--maybe you caught him on an off night...?

Noel M. said...

Nice review... also might be worth mentioning that Dylan played "Desolation Row" in this show, which could be seen as a nod to this recent rewrite of that song by The Old 97s in a song called, ahem, "Champaign, Illinois":

Also, I totally agree that Charlie Sexton's guitar is way too low in the mix, but I'm certain it's not his call -- it's Bob's. See my review of the Birmingham show here:


Noel M. said...

Oh, but I did want to add -- as far as possibly not opting to go at all, as 3shells says, I'd definitely go. The current shows are not trancendent, I agree; they are workmanlike. But it's a very high level of work. Go see him, even with the downsides!