Bob Dylan, Hammerstein Ballroom, NYC- 8/12
Bob Dylan will wander the concert circuit until the day he dies. Perhaps pop-cultures' most peculiar chameleon, Dylan reinvents himself more than any Madonnaesque diva, yet he rejects change as a method to meet contemporary styles or even his audiences' expectations. Instead, Dylan morphs his sound and style to reconnect himself with his humble coffeehouse history; a scene of story-tellers that led a traveling circus of folk-poets and passionate-rockers. In fact, his recent live shows are more akin to the Grateful Dead's early seventies arsenal than Dylan's own Band-era brilliance: a mix of country-rock, electric blues, and FM-stables rearranged if, for no other reason, to remind audiences that he has not sold his soul to classic-rock radio.
It's not often the Bard treats New York City to such an intimate performance and even less often that Dylan spreads his live-show out over a three-night run. In fact, since his mid-1990s media renaissance, Dylan has frequented arenas like Madison Square Garden or summer-sheds, sharing bills with everyone from Tom Petty to Paul Simon to Phil Lesh and Friends. In many ways, Hammerstein Ballroom's intimate club-like atmosphere is the ideal setting for a modern-day Dylan performance. It's small enough to forgo any false arena-rock pretensions, yet large enough to avoid any potentially awkward audience interaction.
Without saying much more than a simple "thank you," Dylan played sixteen selections from his vast catalogue; a wide spanning mixture of greatest hits, obscure oldies, and new tracks rearranged like lucid road-horses. Yet while Dylan's off-key voice once gave him character, this time around, it confused his investment banker anointed audience and even caught his most accepting fans off-guard. Playing only a small-electric piano, Dylan relied on his long time backing band to carry his songs. Like a conductor, Dylan allowed his band to show off their skills, while he orchestrated cover-like interpretations of his canon. Sure, they were Dylanesque and more innovative than the greatest hits package he presented a few decades ago, but there was something strangely unsettling about Dylan's socialist approach to his songs. Perhaps even Dylan acknowledges that his novelty out ways his actual musical output.
Not that Dylan's days are numbered. After two by all-accounts lackluster PNC Arts Center performances with Tom Petty, Dylan seemed happy to be playing to his own audience. As roadies carried new instruments onto the stage, Dylan seemed connected with his crew and stellar-backing band, aware that songs, not spectical, are the center of his show. While his voice and humble demeanor revealed his days on the road, Dylan seemed alert and intuitive, pacing the show to appease long-time Bob-heads and less-weathered audience members.
Fresh off an opening stint for the Dead, Dylan began with "Silvio," a song co-written by Robert Hunter, which on Down in the Groove featured Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, and Brent Mydland. With his four-person country-rock combo, Dylan slowed down the once up-tempo track to an almost ballad-like waltz, using annunciation and vocal emphasis to rearrange the track like a jamband might rework an instrumental passage. Next up Dylan dived into "I Don't Believe You," a 1960s battleaxe rearranged from its acoustic rendition for The Band's infamous 1966 electric tour. Thirty years later it still works better with a full band, yet suffered from Dylan's slow pacing and muddled voice. Yet each time Dylan reached the song's chorus even the most skeptical fans couldn't help feel apart of the maestro's magnificent career.
Another early highlight included, "Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum," one the of best track's from Dylan's recent Love and Theft. Deemed overplayed by many Bobheads, the complex number has only been played live for approximately four years. But in that time, Dylan has clocked in more concerts than most bands do in a decade and "Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum's" gruff time signatures sound it. With Dylan's road-wonderer references, the song sounds like Dylan's memoirs and sheds some light on his scatter-shot song selection:
"Well, they're going to the country, they're gonna retire
They're taking a streetcar named Desire
Looking in the window at the pecan pie
Lot of things they'd like they would never buy"
The meat of Dylan's show was a mixed-bag. With such a large collection of songs to draw on and so many nights on the road, Dylan seems to follow a strange-outline format to organize his shows. Certain songs are the nuts and bolts, while nightly variations allow him to break out his blues, gospel, and "new" material. Fixed right in the center of Dylan's set-list were Time out of Mind's "Love Sick" and The Wonder Boys Soundtrack's "Things Have Changed," Dylan's two best known songs of recent years. Ironically, even amongst classic-Dylan tunes, both tracks were greeted like old friends. In many ways both songs are more akin to their album versions than old favorites like "Highway 61" and "It's All Over Now Baby Blue." These days the chameleon has adopted the persona of the lost-soldier and these are his Dylan's "Blowing in the Winds."
Adding an extra bit of excitement to the show, Dylan invited Neil Young and Bruce Springstein associate Nils Lofgren to sit in for the majority of his set, adding an extra bit of electricity to Dylan's slightly, twangy country-blues rock. Lofgren fit smoothly into the strong musical collective, acting an equal member of Dylan's sympathetic band. Dylan and company jogged through "Watching The River Flow," a song perhaps more associated with Joe Cocker's cover, as well as "It Ain't Me Babe," Moonlight," and "Drifter's Escape," among a few scattered others. The group's sound is certainly crisp and Dylan's now baritone voice helped to express his thoughts through temp and beat, not his famed lyrics.
As the show moved on, Dylan's slightly extended country-blues workouts did seem to meander, with the Bard's choruses holding his loose songs together. "It's all Over Now Baby Blue" is an always a welcome late-set highlight, and the appropriate "Summer Days" closer included a short, and very strange, dance from Dylan as he wondered center-stage while his band played one of his most performed new songs. Perhaps this is Dylan's way of showing his fondness for the intimate venue or maybe it's some-subtle jab at Hollywood glitz but, either way, it confirmed that more than ever Dylan concerts resemble great pieces of literature: they are full of long, complex passages ripe for individual interpretation, but which only the author can truly understand.
Though Dylan's musical vocabulary changes vastly from night to night, his encores often do not. Thus, it was no surprise that Dylan closed with two of his biggest rock and roll anthems "Like a Rolling Stone" and "All Along the Watchtower." Both songs reflected Dylan's mid-tempo country-blues more than arena-rock, giving a fond sense of closure to a most peculiar show. It's nice to see that Dylan will adapt his biggest hits to fit into his current repertoire, instead of vice-versa. It's also nice to know that Dylan still has the show-biz smarts that have kept him current for over forty years: if you give audiences a nibble, they'll come back for more.