Bob Dylan, Sunfest- 5/4
FROM THE TOURING DESK: Down In The Easy Chair in the New, Weird
Room 116, Motel Camelot
North Palm Beach, Florida
In the front row of the Bob Dylan concert tonight at Sunfest, in West Palm
Beach, Florida, there sat two radio contest winners, plum comfy in a
matching pair of white throne-like reclining easy chairs — theirs to keep,
presumably if they could get them home. "Oooooh, wheee, ride me high," Dylan
sang, looking down at them, grinning, and singing the chorus of "You Ain't
Goin' Nowhere." "Tomorrow is the day that my bride is gonna come. Ooooooh,
ho, we gonna fly, down in the easy chair." Like a lot of Dylan's lyrics,
they could well just be apocryphal nonsense, but – one way or the other – they were directed at the couple in the front. It cut an odd image, but
finely fitting of the event.
Before the show, a man walked to the front of the crowd, waving a miniature
American flag. "Whooooooo," he shouted, exulting the crowd to join him. He
stood on a chair and waved the flag again. He spent the show with his hands
over his ears. The whole event was emblematic of the New, Weird America —
which is to say, part of the same continuum that the country has been
following straight and true for centuries. Bob Dylan, that prophet of the
1960s and tokenly invoked cultural hero, was playing – as he often does – what was essentially a county fair.
"Shakespeare's in the alley," he sang in the evening's third song, 1966's
"Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again," and could have been
talking about himself. Stretched out in front of him were people far removed
from rock and roll, from the Edenic bohemia of Greenwich Village, from the
Movement, even from the arenas. There were Rock Fans, to be sure, but the
majority of the crowd was out because it was Sunfest and it was the thing to
do. Dylan played a half-dozen of his signature songs — including "Lay Lady
Lay," "It Ain't Me Babe," "Just Like A Woman," and a double-encore of "Like
A Rolling Stone," and "All Along The Watchtower."
As is typical, they sounded very little like the studio recordings, slanting
instead towards the sensibilities of his current band (country/lean rock),
topped with whatever phrasing Dylan is in the mood for. Despite the masking
of the songs, there were no cries of "Judas!" as there were when Dylan went
electric. The question then, is if people were happily accepting Dylan's
reinvention/distortion of his material, or if they just didn't care. Is
Dylan slumming it? Is there such a thing?
Musically, the show got off to a rocky start. Dylan, who has been playing
predominantly keyboards on recent tours, led the band through perfunctory
readings of a couple of numbers. Though he smiled and laughed more than
usual, the music still lacked something — namely Dylan. As a rhythm player,
he's got such an outright strange sense of dynamics that he can't help but
shape what goes on top. Behind the piano, that was all but lost, and the
music suffered. The music picked up as Dylan strapped on a Stratocaster,
still holding it on the same carelessly descending diagonal (as if it's too
heavy, or he just doesn't care) that can be seen in pictures of the first
electric performance at Newport in 1965. And in Jeb Bush country, Walt
Disney country, it crackled.
Last night, a few hundred miles to the north in Orlando, I was led through
EPCOT Center on the way to a post-wedding dessert and fireworks reception.
In addition to the wedding of my cousin and a couple of other dozen couples
(though not to each other), this week was the theme park's annual Flower
Power Festival — a combination garden show and nostalgiafest featuring
beloved '60s icons such as Davy Jones of the Monkees, Gary Lewis and the
Playboys, Herman's Hermits, and – oddly – Arlo Guthrie.
I saw the psychedelic designs on the back of the stage first – huge, hideous
flowers rendered in a mutant crossbreed of neon and pastel – and then the
light show. Like dozens of vintage Ed Sullivan clips, the drummer played
from a disproportionately high platform. I heard, maybe, three minutes of
Felix Cavaliere and the Rascals as I passed by. But those three minutes felt
positively fucking rebellious. Even the "Third
Stone From The Sun" tease they moved into as I drifted out of range.
After two full days in Walt Disney World, being fed on drum-machine
accompanied calypso renditions of once-political Bob Marley tunes and
(admittedly artful) sound designs, I decided that it was the closest I could
probably ever get to the pre-rock and roll world — which, as a fantasy
world, is precisely as wholesome as Walt wanted it. Me? I wanted to break
shit, though it was honestly rejuvenating in the sense that it restored my
belief in the power of music.
With its four theme parks, dozens of resorts and hotels, and countless
millions of visitors each year, there's a very good chance that – to a great
many people – Walt Disney World is more real than New York City — which is
a right unexpected thing to discover, being from New York City. Leaving
Disney World behind, my father and I headed for West Palm Beach and Sunfest,
with vague hopes of seeing the "real" Florida. We passed strip after endless
strip on the Space Coast south of Cape Canaveral, filled with Air Force
bases, chain restaurants, condos, and nuclear power plants. For a brief
time, following the Indian River, we discovered a lovely tree lined road by
the waterside, which soon fed back into U.S. 1 and the Motel Camelot.
"I know a place where there's still somethin' goin' on," Dylan sang,
smiling, during "Summer Days." Greil Marcus has long argued that Dylan is a
master of masks. If that's true, then one might look there for the facade to
crumble, for his sweat-plaster face to melt. In that context, with an
enigmatic smile, the line contained all the surprise I could hope for in a
dozen nights of improv, waiting for a Moment to arrive.
Dylan kept the guitar on for almost the rest of the show, taking solos, and
throwing the music into a cognitive time-warp — possibly the living
embodiment of Bruce Hampton's philosophy of Out. As weird as it was, the
crowd responded. As more people stood up, more people filled in, and a few
walked out. It was almost a picture-book definition of winning over a crowd
— be it in the ice-pick stabs of "Drifter's Escape" or the jagged
swampiness of "Love Sick." At the beginning of the show, a few people danced
tentatively. By the end, people had swarmed into the pit, overwhelming and
surrounding the couple in the easy chairs, and openly defying the security
guards who had seemed so intimidating before.
During the encore, after "Like A Rolling Stone," guitarist Larry Campbell
chopped out a rhythm that turned into "All Along The Watchtower." The song's
drive didn't quite belong to Dylan's 1968 original, nor to the Hendrix cover
that Dylan himself has often adhered to, but to its own, present self. It
was distinctly "All Along The Watchtower" – perhaps the most overplayed of
cover material – but unlike pretty much any other rearrangement. Leave it to
Bob Dylan to get it right. You'll be glad you did.
Jesse Jarnow is going back to New
York City, he does believe he's