|Tangled Up In Bob
|August 8th, 2004
|Lynn and I went to see Bob Dylan a few nights back.|
Neither of us had ever seen him perform in person before—this despite the fact that my wife grew up on Zena Road in Woodstock, the very same infamous thoroughfare on which the legendary troubador—and so-so driver--suffered his near life (and era) ending motorcycle accident.
|Well, he certainly seems to have healed up nicely in the subsequent decades,
and since the opportunity presented itself, hey, who were we to pass up
the chance to witness a little slice of history?
Actually, I thought we had no chance to see Bob at The Chance, one of Poughkeepsie's oldest and most renowned musical venues. The whole unplanned notion came up several weeks back with the announcement that the Zimster was teaming up with Willie Nelson to play our local “A” League ballpark, Dutchess Stadium, but once Lynn realized that we'd either have to arrive real, real early just for the dubious privilege of remaining consistently upright near the outer edges of the stage in the outfield grass, or sit far, far away in the stands, relying on a pair of high-powered binoculars to provide us with a decent glimpse of Dylan, well, we decided it best to pass on all the attendant hassle necessary to eke out a little entertainment. Maybe twenty years ago, sure, but not anymore—the times, they definitely have a-changed!..
But then word came that Bob and his band wanted to warm up in a smaller club setting for the next leg of their apparently never-ending tour, and so the Chance date was hastily announced, and the usual freewheelin' scramble for tickets was scheduled for 10AM just about a week before the show (and a fortnight before the August 10th stadium performance). There'd be no Willie, but that was okay—he wasn't the motivating attraction anyway. The main appeal would be seeing such a big act in such a small setting—The Chance has a capacity of 800, the stadium ten times that. And, Lynn happily pointed out, we'd be able to sit down! Okay, go for it, said I. Odds are we weren't gonna score seats during the small window of opportunity given anyway, so I didn't think much more of it...
Never underestimate the computer savvy of my lovely lady—we got the tickets! (But then, you already knew that, didn't you? Okay, a master of suspense I'm not...) Probably because they serve drinks at The Chance, they didn't allow anyone under 16 in (not that the drinking age in these parts is 16, but?...). No matter. After vainly attempting to coax our Julie into appreciating the melodic song stylings of Paul McCartney during his last tour, I knew there'd be absolutely NO chance in convincing her of Dylan's worthiness. The truth was, I admit that I wasn't all that convinced myself...
I had my Bob period, sure, but it was never anything near as intense as my (still ongoing) Beatles obsession—or even my seventies bouts of Elton Johnmania, or the even more extensive 10cc fixation that manifested itself during that very same time period. During his initial heyday, I was familiar with Dylan almost exclusively through the many Top 40 cover versions of his compositions, hits for the likes of the Turtles, Peter, Paul and Mary , Cher, and of course, the Byrds. The first Dylan disc I ever bought was a double-sided “Classic” Columbia 45rpm, with “Like A Rolling Stone” on one side, and “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” on the other. I think I liked the latter because it employed the same rolling drum intro as heard on another of my favorite then-current recordings, the infamous “They're Coming To Take Me Away (Ha Haa!)” by Napoleon VII, and as for the former, well, it STILL easily qualifies as one of the greatest rock tracks ever committed to vinyl.
But I hadn't really developed an interest in the man until years after he'd skidded past my future bride's driveway, and so only came to fully appreciate the sublime joys of his two pre-accident LPs, “Highway 61 Revisited” and “Blonde On Blonde” way after the fact. I became a contemporary follower of the man only with the advent of “John Wesley Harding”, a record I DIDN'T buy, mostly due to shortage of funds. No, MY first Dylan disc would be his NEXT one: “Nashville Skyline”...
|You know—the one where the formerly angry young man with a harmonica instead
sweetly croons country-influenced lovey dovey ditties over the strains
of a pedal steel guitar, duetting with the likes of Johnny Cash, and laying
a heretofore unexpected dollop of honey over his usually craggy singing
voice? The one where he's not scowling on the cover--for gosh sakes, he's
actually SMILING?!?! Yeah, that was MY Bob, and I played that record over
and over, going out not long after and buying two collections of Greatest
Hits as I awaited the next Dylan album eagerly.
THAT would be the infinitely curious “Self Portrait” double disc, an oddball assortment of cover versions (Paul Simon's “The Boxer”), live cuts (a muddy “Quinn the Eskimo”), minor riffs (“Woogie Boogie”), and even tracks sans the great man completely (“All The Tired Horses”). Well, I played that one over and over, too, and eventually I came to a very important realization—don't just go out and buy the latest Dylan album willy nilly! And until “Desire”, I never did again. (I DID, however, pick up that pair of aforementioned mid-sixties classics when I had the chance).
I've always been fascinated by the larger than life quality Bob Dylan exudes, and there are also quite a few of his recordings that continue to resonate deeply with me. However, I sometimes find his role in history more interesting than the actual music he's made. Admittedly, I've never been one to puzzle out the meanings of poetry, whether it's printed in a book or wafting out of my stereo speakers, so that was never a draw. Hey, as far as I'm concerned, most of the “Blonde On Blonde” lyrics are pure gobbledygook--but marvelously creative gobbledygook, set to a series of killer riffs and delivered with a voice that more than made up in attitude from what it clearly lacked in polish. Hey, I still cherish that recording, but please don't ask me to figure it out, because I don't care to even try. It just IS, and that's enough for me.
|With the dawning of the CD age—and a few more bucks to spend—I managed to get ahold of a passel of previously passed on Dylan discs, whether through judicious Columbia House Club choices or good luck whilst trolling through the used CD bins. I even got myself a copy of the NEWEST release, 2001's Grammy Award winning "Love and Theft".|
|(You might think I'd be pleased at the sixties legend's triumph, but you'd be wrong. I was pulling heavily for ANOTHER entry in that particular race, one produced by one of Bob's contemporaries: "Flaming Pie" by Paul "my lyrics don't always make sense, either" McCartney. Maybe I'm dismayed...)|
|Well, I never actually LISTENED to Dylan's so-called comeback disc all
that much, lavish critical acclaim or no. Maybe, um, three or four times
total, to be perfectly honest. (Macca's "Pie", on the other hand,
was dished out around here on a regular basis when it was fresh.) So, the
Grammy winner didn't exactly serve to motivate me when the prospect of
seeing Bob became a reality. Funny thing—aside from my pals Rocco Nigro
and Charlie Johnson, and a long lost buddy by the name of Mitch—I don't
really know anybody who likes Dylan, or who can even just tolerate him!!
For as supposedly pivotal and revered a figure as Bob is alleged to be,
I see very little evidence of it amongst my circle. Mostly, folks either,
at best, shrug, or, at worst openly mock and denigrate the man. And while
I'd never join the latter camp, there ARE those times when I wonder, gee,
maybe the guy IS a bit overrated, y'know? That voice sure isn't what it
once was—and what it once was, was merely distinctive at best. And melodies
were never his strong point, that's for sure. So, after scoring the pair
of tickets, I found myself more ambivalent than excited about the prospect
of seeing the living legend...
Wednesday, August 4th, 2004--the big day arrives. The doors were to open at 7PM, so, after dropping Julie off at a friend's house, Lynn and I embarked on the half-hour trip over to Poughkeepsie. A slight drizzle began to fall (no, friends, not a HARD rain—thankfully). Arriving only minutes before seven, we found two long, winding lines before us: one for folks picking up tickets, one for those already with tickets, like us. With no clear indication as to which was the proper line for us, we luckily chose the correct one, and after 15 minutes of ducking the intermittent raindrops, we were inside. (I was patted down at the door, but—more good luck—I'd somehow forgotten to bring my zip-gun along, so there wasn't any trouble. Well, not until we got past security...)
No seats. Uh huh. I'd warned Lynn of this disheartening possibility. Neither of us had ever been to The Chance before, y'see, but it had occurred to me that, even if there were places to sit, it'd be highly likely the crowd'd be on their feet the whole night anyway. Sometimes it's fun being right, and sometimes it's not. File this instance under "not". Well, nothing more to do but survey the layout and determine our best vantage point. The place, the sort of an older fire-trap you just hoped and prayed Great White wasn't playing anytime soon, was already filled with a majority of that evening's audience. After briefly scoping out the stage from the ground level area, I suggested we make our way upstairs for a better, more panoramic view. Lynn agreed, and up we went. There were three tiers, the first two little more than walkways, and after auditioning the lowest one, we settled on the middle one as the best available to us.
Two middle-aged long-haired gents, one sporting a ponytail and both looking like your stereotypical Deadheads, stood in front of us, with their lady friends over to the other side of their menfolk, drinking bottled beer and talking amongst themselves. At first, I thought for sure the blonde woman was a certain comics pro who has a penchant for blithely ignoring me at industry parties, but no—Lynn assured me that in this case, she was ignoring me merely because she was a total stranger. Okay, I can accept that...
Then the wait began in earnest. We eagerly watched the roadies as they frittered around on the modest stage, hoping for any sign that the actual show was about to begin. Well, we quickly became bored with their comings and goings as we stood there—I repeat, STOOD there—for over an hour, anxiously waiting for The Man. The large drapery, with it's vaguely Eastern symbology, eventually became emblazoned in my mind's eye. No bank of flashy video monitors here—and no corporate advertising, either. Usually, that's a good thing, but considering Dylan's recent flirtation with Victoria's Secret, well, you can just IMAGINE the possibilities!...
Then, at 8:30, roughly 90 minutes since either of us had last been seated, a voice came booming out of the loudspeaker, delivering a pompous introduction for the "voice of a generation" in the decidedly incongruous manner of a Top 40 jock desperately trying to sound hip, the main attraction—and his four piece band—suddenly dashed out on stage to a roaring ovation. Oh, and one other thing—even as the first note was struck, the unmistakable smell of the dreaded maryjane filled the air, easily—and illegally-- overwhelming the sweet odor of incense that had been emanating from the stage for the past hour. I admit, I had to admire the dexterity of the potheads amongst us, impressed by their enviable ability to light up their spliffs at just the very precise moment the band commenced their set! Wow—and they say it dulls your reflexes! Maybe it does, but not for SOME things, apparently...
Not surprisingly, the concert began with nary a word from the ever tight-lipped Dylan, launching instead immediately into what amounts to an ever changing set-list. I know that to be the case because of what I learned visiting this web-site the day after. While there are several constants in the band's set (more on that later), there's also obviously a generous pool of tunes to choose from, making nearly every concert unique
|I was completely unmoved. I didn't know the song, and honestly couldn't
understand a word he was singing. The volume of his fellow bandmates seemed
just right, while the vocals came out virtually unintelligablely—but I
soon decided this WASN'T the fault of the sound system. Bob didn't so much
sing as spit out his lines. Someone somewhere very adroitly described the
21st century Dylan's stage act not unlike what one might expect the Crypt Keeper
to sound like tackling the far-famed catalog. This wasn't gonna be anything
like seeing a Beatle, that much was becoming readily apparent...
The second number--"If You See Her, Say Hello" from "Blood On The Tracks"--sounded vaguely familiar, but wasn't nearly iconic enough for a casual fan like myself to puzzle out, given that I couldn't make out more than a stray word here and there anyway. What was I doing here, I wondered? By now, my legs and lower back were starting to ache, and I could only imagine the discomfort my darlin' Lynn was in. I'm in decent shape, but at 51, it sure seemed like I was getting too old for this sort of stuff. Suffering—and for THIS? Well, at least we were inside and didn't have to sit through Willie's act to get to this treat, but...
And then the group cranked up the first of 5 selections from the aforementioned "Love and Theft" collection—and the only one I recognized (I KNEW I should have spun it few more times!...), the opening track, "Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum". Lynn had to tell me the title on the way home, but at least the riff that accompanied the chorus was distinctive enough to, for the first time that evening, give me the feeling that I'd come to see an act I actually had more than a passing familiarity with.
That sensation continued when, with the aid of some tasty pedal steel guitar, the band attempted "Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You", one of Bob's countrified stabs at Tin Pan Alley crooning from my beloved "Nashville Skyline". Okay, so it wasn't "Lay Lady Lay"--at least it was something, something I actually knew enough of the words to so as to better appreciate his attempt to replicate this sweet if slight number from our shared back pages. It was hardly a revelatory experience, but given my less than enthusiastic reaction to the preceding numbers, it appeared to be a move in a better direction.
But then back we went to "Love and Theft" for "High Water (For Charley Patton)", and we were pretty much back to square one again. I began to despair for my nearly numb thighs, and seriously began to question all the sparkling press this guy had gotten over the years. Little did I realize that things were just about to turn the corner...
|I immediately perked up as I heard the unmistakable riff that opens "Most
Likely You Go Your Way (And I'll Go Mine)" from "Blonde On Blonde",
and for the first time all night, my body began to sway with the beat,
however tentatively. Dylan opened this tune, interestingly enough, with
a fairly lengthy harmonica solo before ever tackling the lyrics vocally.
In fact, knowing the perverse way he's been known to occasionally treat
some of his older compositions, I was a briefly convinced that he wasn't
even going to ATTEMPT to sing the words, and merely tease us with a harmonica
rendition! I was relieved when he did indeed croak out the words, especially
as he hit "miii-nnne!!" at the end of each chorus, followed by
that "Dun da, da da, dun da, dun da da .dun da" that gives the
tune it's undeniable muscle. Hey, I thought, maybe this wasn't so bad after
Then things just stopped dead and came to a complete halt for me as the boys got out their acoustic instruments—stand-up bass most noticably—for ANOTHER "Love And Theft" number, "Sugar Baby". To be fair, this ditty was warmly received by the rest of the audience, right from the first strums of the unamped guitars, but I didn't know this "Sugar Baby" from a "Mars Bar", so it's sweet charms were all but lost on me. It seemed to just go on and on—actually, I don't believe a single number clocked in under four minutes duration, and more than a few easily exceeded that—and so, I was STILL undecided as to whether I was having a good time or not...
"Seeing The Real You At Last" from the relatively obscure "Empire Burlesque" album was next, and though I, yes, taped that mid-eighties effort off the radio when it first appeared and played it with a fair amount of enthusiasm in its day, I nonetheless failed to recognize Bob's delivery of same. Still, I was beginning to really enjoy the accomplished musicianship of his crackerjack band—Larry Campbell on a variety of guitars, Stu Kimbell also on guitar, Tony Garnier on bass, and George Recile behind the drum kit—that their extended solos were reason enough to keep me interested. (Dylan, incidentally, never came out from behind the keyboards. Though he'd often gear up for a harmonica solo, the Bob who ambled out alone and strumming an acoustic guitar so famously at the Concert For Bangla Desh was nowhere to be seen this night.) The band definitely had a hot groove going—now, all they needed was some top quality material to expend it on...
|The crowd was in ecstasy at the first hint of the ominous keyboard intro
to the famed "Highway 61 Revisited" diatribe against all those
clueless Mr. Jones's that infest our consumer society. Heavy, dig? It was
here that I realized where Dylan's true genius lay: find a devastating
riff, marry it to some vaguely accusatory couplets, and deliver it with
the sort of snarl that, under ordinary circumstances, would discourage
eye contact in the listener. Yeah, that pretty much sums up "Ballad
Of A Thin Man" all right...
An uproarious take on the "Highway 61" title track continued the run of stone cold classics. By now, there I was, unabashedly bopping to the beat. And while there wasn't quite enough room to actually move my feet, even standing in place, I found that the swaying movement seemed to alleviate most of my aches and pains, proving beyond a reasonable doubt that, yes, music IS good for you!. Happily, the famed "Basement Tapes" number—co-written with Rick Danko--"This Wheel's On Fire", kept this high level of energy enveloping The Chance from dissipating. And when the group once again raided Bob's most recent album for the unfamiliar "Honest With Me", it didn't matter anymore—nope, I was finally, and totally, on board with the gig. I was, as the kids say, groovin'...
Dylan's been known to ofttimes reinvent some of his most venerable material, and that's just what he did with "Another Side Of Bob Dylan"s "It Ain't Me, Babe" (made famous to the masses by the Turtles big hit version). As you may no doubt have already noticed, I have only minimal expertise in describing things in purely musical terms, but let me give it my best shot, so here goes: in this latest rearrangement, Bob had his guitarists play, in unison, a slow vamp, "Bolero"-like, as he aggressively barked out his belovedly venomous lyrics. Lynn wasn't completely sold on this new arrangement—and maybe if it had come along a bit earlier in the evening, neither would I've—but by now, the guy could do no wrong! Man, I LOVED it!
And then--one of those constants I mentioned earlier—the band charged into a rollicking swing number entitled "Summer Days", the night's final selection from "Love And Theft", and, in every other instance as documented during his recent gigs, the very last number before the inevitable call for encores from the crowd. It's easy to see—and hear--why, as it proved to be the perfect choice. Turned into an extended showcase for the players to show off their estimable chops, the jam ran a blistering ten minutes—at least—and literally had the crowd dancing in the aisles! In fact, over to the left of me was a wizened old hippie, wildly bopping to the relentless throbbing, giddily shouting out an undoubtedly herb induced "Woo!" on each and every back beat! It was quite the performance—on stage AND off...
|The band then stepped forward for a group bow, and by this time, what had
initially been little more than polite applause on my part following the
early numbers had now turned into sincere exhortations for more, more,
MORE!! And yeah, after the standard backstage breather, the boys did come
back out to charm us with a gentle, acoustic version of "Don't Think
Twice, It's All Right" (from "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan",
for those of you taking notes). This was the one that truly gave me goosebumps,
a sensation I would've bet only an hour earlier wouldn't possibly be on
the docket this night. Wrong again, Mr. Jones, but it was a good wrong...
After finishing this time honored classic to great audience acclaim, the star took the opportunity to, for the first time all night, step up to the mic, mumble some thanks, and finally introduce his talented bandmates. Dylan tossed out a few gags with each intro, but to be perfectly honest with you, I still didn't understand 90% of what he said! Sorry Bob, I know you mean well and all, but when it comes to stage patter, Wayne Newton you're not. Which is okay, because Wayne Newton sure couldn't close one of HIS shows with such an amazingly intense version of "All Along The Watchtower"!! (And danke schoen for THAT, I say...)
While the composer's original version on "John Wesley Harding" was little more than a man manning his acoustic guitar, the song Jimi Hendrix rightly made famous was delivered here in 2004 in a manner that would've made the late, great axeman beam with pride. THIS, folks, is the show closer, night after night, performed with a red hot intensity that trumps just about all that's gone before—and that's sure saying something! Wow! We can debate the merits of Dylan's so-called poetry all night, but what isn't up for discussion is the undeniable heat his touring aggregation is clearly constantly capable of igniting! This SHOW'S on fire, lemme tell ya!
|And then, it was over. Done. No second encore. Turns out that's a rarity in any event, though I did learn after the fact that, more times than not, the band does perform the magnificently mean-spirited "Like A Rolling Stone" between their acoustic selection de jour and the wildly apocalyptic "Watchtower" finale.That would've been a nice addition for us Chance patrons, but ah well, don't think twice, Bob, it's all right...|
An hour and fifty minutes after it began (and nearly 3 and an half hours since we all last sat down), a happy group of aging hippies and thirtyish hipsters spilled out into the night, walking to our cars in a now refreshing drizzle. Never have I attended a concert wherein my emotions did such a complete 180 degree turnaround during the course of the show. I went in, nursing an attitude that practically dared the headliner to prove himself worthy of four decades of accolades, and by the end of the night, I at least had a much better handle on what all the fuss has been about.
Oh sure, I'll never be the devoted Dylan acolyte some folks are, but now—after coming home, and spinning disc after disc (even the maligned "Self Portrait") in the intervening days, I have a deeper visceral understanding and appreciation of his place in the historical pantheon of modern music.
That realization was probably the SECOND most satisfying moment of the evening. The first? What else--finally getting a chance to sit down again! As Dylan might query, how does it feel? Good! Real real good! Ahhhh...
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