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Published: 2003/08/21
by Jesse Jarnow

Bob Dylan, Hammerstein Ballroom, NYC- 8/13

NYC ROLL-TOP: I Am Sitting In A Room

In 1970, Alvin Lucier created a piece of music titled "I Am Sitting In A Room." He spoke into a tape recorder, then
played the result back into the room, recording the result on a second
machine. He repeated the process, until the recording deteriorated into
gentle ambience, content melting into indistinguishable drone. Over the past
10 years, a similar abstraction has blurred Bob Dylan's voice beyond most
reasonable bounds of coherence.

For a singer's whose voice was always (put politely) unique, this isn't a
bad thing at all. In fact, with the disintegration of Dylan's vocal cords,
it becomes increasingly easy to understand critic Paul Williams' assessment
of Dylan's live performances as the man's true work. Indeed, on the middle
night of a scheduled three night run at Manhattan's Hammerstein Ballroom,
Dylan's voice sounded positively horn-like, and he delivered with the power
of a master jazzman.

Melodies grew rubbery in his mouth as he expanded and contracted phrases.
"I… can't… read… too… good…" he sang on "Desolation Row," breaking
down the lyric in a manner similar to John Coltrane's melodic deconstruction
near the beginning of "Acknowledgement" from A Love Supreme.
"You'dbehonestwithmeifonlyyou… knew," he sang on "Honest With Me," a long
tumble of breath jamming words one on top of another.

For the most part, Dylan is capable of (or, at least, impressively good at
creating the illusion of) an exacting control of his microtonal drop-outs,
which he delivers over the plinth-like arrangements of his current band.
After a few years of wonderfully rickety Buddy Holly-esque skiffle, his band
has begun to move towards slightly blander rock, demonstrated on the opening
"Tombstone Blues," "Highway 61 Revisited," and "Tweedle Dee and Tweedle
Dum." This is mostly due to Dylan's full-time move to a sadly inaudible
keyboard, and the addition of guitarist Freddie Koella (not to mention Tommy
Morongiello's uncredited second rhythm guitar).

When playing quieter acoustic songs, the band was far more rewarding —
partially 'cause one could hear Dylan's keyboard (and, subsequently, his
utterly weird sense of rhythm) a little bit better, partially 'cause one
could clearly hear the rest of the instruments (including Larry Campbell's
rich cittern), and partially because it gave Dylan's frayed voice that much
room to play. For this, Dylan brought out a number of his longer songs,
including "Desolation Row," the always-relevant "It's Alright Ma (I'm Only
Bleeding)", and the rarely aired late-Christian period "Every Grain of
Sand," perhaps one of the most mature tunes he's has ever penned.

The show was reassuring, though not entirely comforting, at this bizarre
crossroads in his career. At the height of his two previous creative peaks – Blonde on Blonde in 1966, and the Rolling Thunder Revue in 1975 – Dylan's confidence sent him hurtling into celluloid, as he created the
firmly boggling docu-art flicks Eat the Document and Renaldo and
Clara. Each was followed by a major artistic reformulation — Eat the
Document coincided with Dylan's semi-mythical motorcycle accident,
Renaldo and Clara's commercial failure preceding his conversion to

After Renaldo and Clara, listeners had to wait almost 20 years for
Dylan to return to form, with the release of 1997's Time Out Of Mind,
which acts as one beginning point to Dylan's current peak. Now, in the
summer of 2003, with Dylan's film Masked and Anonymous languishing at
the box office, we might well be witnessing the end of Dylan's last creative
peak. The film's failure to find a broader audience (despite its many
merits), could send Dylan again spiraling into seclusion. Or, more
depressingly romantic, perhaps Dylan finally did paint his
masterpiece and nobody noticed.

All of these things weigh on songs like "Every Grain of Sand" if one wants
them to. "I hear the ancient footsteps like the motion of the sea," the
narrator sings. "Sometimes I turn, there's someone there, other times it's
only me." Dylan plays the decaying character to the hilt, accidentally or
intentionally (and, after seeing Masked and Anonymous, I'd argue the
latter), with charming aplomb: the rock star retired behind the
inconsequential keyboard, the failed auteur, a sly grin perpetually
permeating his gradually drooping facade.

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