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Published: 2001/11/15
by Michael Lello

Bob Dylan, Bryce Jordan Center, Penn State University, State College, PA- 11/11

Who knew the apocalypse could sound so good?

On Sunday night, Bob Dylan — a living, breathing, ever-changing national
monument if
there ever was one — offered his visions of America like only Bob Dylan
could. As the nation’s
unofficial Poet Laureate for nearly 40 years, Dylan has always held a mirror
up to society and
reflected it back to us, although sometimes it seems like he’s using a
funhouse mirror, distorting
reality just enough to make it a bit more compelling. His lyrics are
sometimes brutal and
straightforward, sometimes surreal, and sometimes silly, but in the end
they’re always poignant
and force us to examine things in ourselves and our world that we may not
otherwise address.

Of course, it’s natural to read into his lyrics, especially the ones that
seem to have any
wartime or apocalyptic references. Admittedly, it’s doubtful that even Dylan
knew how much our
world would change on Sept. 11, 2001 (ironically, the same day he released
“Love and Theft,”
possibly his best album yet) when he wrote songs like “It’s Alright Ma (I’m
Only Bleeding),”
“Blowin’ In The Wind” and “All Along the Watchtower.” It’s even more
doubtful that he knew
we’d have another national incident the day after he sang these songs at the
Bryce Jordan Center
at Penn State Sunday night. But maybe some of us overanalytical types
secretly want these songs
to take on greater meaning during these trying times. Is that so wrong? Dylan
was there for us
during Vietnam. He told us about the Hurricane. He spoke of racial inequality
and even preached
the Bible. So why should that change now?

“It’s Alright” and “Watchtower” may or may not have been included in
the setlist because
of our current problems. But two other songs rang even more relevant on this
current tour.

Only four songs into the show-opening acoustic segment of Sunday’s show,
launched into “This World Can’t Stand Long.” Here’s a sample: “This world
been destroyed
before because it’s full of sin. For that reason, it’s gonna be destroyed
again.” Ouch.

A few tunes later, Dylan and his band, which had played to varying
degrees of cheers and
quiet reverence up to that point, delivered one of the most emotional,
poignant pieces in the
history of live music. During the acoustic “John Brown,” Dylan told the tale
of a mother bursting
with pride as her son went off to war, only for the boy to return maimed and
unrecognizable. The story ends with the boy, now a shell of his former self,
giving his mom the
medals she dreamed and boasted of when he first left for the skirmish. You
literally could not hear
a pin drop in the cavernous basketball arena, and more than a few eyes were
teary. It’s not often
Dylan spells it out so clearly. It wasn’t a political song or even an
anti-war song. It was simply,
and more importantly, a human song.

Besides the social ramifications and relevance of Dylan’s work that
night, enough cannot
be said about the sheer brilliance of the performance from beginning to the
end, from the
pre-show music to the understated, classy staging to the crystal clear sound
in the Jordan Center,
often an acoustic nightmare. The pre-show music was “Appalachian Spring” by
Aaron Copland —
one brilliant American composer setting the stage for another. As the music
grew louder and the
house lights went down, Dylan and his mates took the stage, jumping right
into an acoustic
“Roving Gambler.” The three guitarists — Dylan, dressed neatly in a
stylish, grey country western
suit with arrows on the pockets and embroidered designs on the back, Charlie
Sexton and Larry
Campbell — played beautifully, and their vocal harmonies on the choruses
were simply

The acoustic segment continued with “Girl Of The North Country” and
wrapped up with
“This World” before the group plugged in for a raucous, bluesy, irreverent
“Cry A While,” one of
six songs from “Love and Theft” played Sunday. A dramatically re-worked “I
Want You” — only
the lyrics were recognizable — followed, and gave way to “Floater” and
“High Water (For Charley
Patton),” two more “Love and Theft” tracks. Campbell, who played a countless
number of guitars
as well as a laundry list of other stringed instruments, added a beautifully
plucked out banjo line to
“High Water.”

Besides “John Brown,” other highlights of the set were an acoustic
“Visions Of Johanna”
and the finale, “Rainy Day Women #12 and #35,” which predictably was a
sing-along favorite
with the mostly college-age crowd.

After a rare display of playfulness — Dylan tossed a guitar pick to a
lucky fan — he led his
bandmates off stage before returning for a rousing five-song encore, which
started with one of his
best straight-out rock songs, “Country Pie.” Also included were “Like A
Rolling Stone,” which
featured some harmonica work from Dylan, which was disappointingly infrequent
“Honest With Me” and “Blowin’ In The Wind.” He again led his troops to the
front of the stage,
where they soaked in the applause without any bows — although Dylan did let
himself go and
politely nodded his head a few times — before disappearing again. They
reemerged for “All Along
The Watchtower,” which at the risk of sounding clichnearly blew the roof
of the joint. The
house lights stayed off for a while, offering hope for a third encore, but it
wasn’t to be. The lights
went back on, and more Copland blared over the P.A. system.

Rightfully, Dylan is known as one of the best recording artists to ever
commit song to tape.
But because of the enormous respect he’s earned from his recorded work, his
brilliant stage work
is often overlooked. That shouldn’t last long. This tour has garnered rave
reviews even among the
most fickle rock journalists, and while Dylan’s shows used to be considered
propositions, he's now playing like a man with something to prove. Some of
the credit goes
to his band — Campbell, Sexton, bassist Tony Garnier and drummer David
Kemper — which he’s
settled in with, hopefully for the long haul.

If anyone could rest on his laurels and get away with playing the same
calculated catalog
of greatest hits every night, it’s Dylan. Lucky for us, he’s too good for
that. And while much of
Sunday’s message was dire, we also had Dylan, near the lip of the stage with
his eyebrows arched,
bellow deeply, “Everybody must get stoned,” and utter the words “booty
call” in an earlier tune.
Maybe “This World Can’t Stand Long,” but if Dylan has his way, we’re going
to go down
laughing, crying, reflecting and relishing every minute of it.

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