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Published: 2005/05/05
by Jesse Jarnow

Bob Dylan, Beacon Theater, NYC- 4/25

NYC ROLL-TOP: Defiling at the Beacon

Bob Dylan has long been fond of playing the beaten-up underdog. "My daddy once said to me, 'Son it is possible for you to become so defiled in this world that your own Mother and Father will abandon you,'" Dylan recounted mysteriously in a 1988 Grammy's speech. "'If that happens, God will believe in your own ability to mend your own ways.'"

That despair was the subject of 1997's brilliant Time Out of Mind, and a weirdly constant theme in last year’s Chronicles, the first volume of a proposed three-volume autobiography. But now — on the wings of the latter project’s overwhelming popular and critical success — Dylan’s got no excuses: he’s on top. As such, the Bob Dylan Show — the newest moniker for Dylan’s Never-Ending Tour — rolled into his adopted hometown for five performances at the Beacon Theater, with Nashville legend Merle Haggard and bland male-Norah-Jones-counterpart Amos Lee in tow. Since the branding (and tour pairings with the likes of Haggard and Willie Nelson), Dylan’s old-style package tours have veritably made him wholly into the country gentleman he’s portrayed in songs on his recent albums.

And just as Dylan has no more excuses for playing the underdog, listeners — or at least those who claimed to have read Chronicles — have no more excuses for not understanding Dylan’s historically boggling live act. "Things had changed," he wrote, "and not in an abstract way." Then he got abstract: "By combining certain elements of technique which ignite each other I could shift the levels of perception, time-frame structures and systems of rhythm which would give my songs a bright countenance…" Or, in the words of an audience member within earshot at just about every Dylan show I’ve ever seen: "I couldn’t figure out what any of the songs were!" There’s no reason everybody needs to like it, but — inscrutable as he often is — Dylan’s clearly committed to it.

The opening blast of a Dylan show is, I suspect, roughly the same for a casual listener and a hardcore fan: an initial wall of guitars, and a frantic hunt through the squall for Dylan's guttural voice, never sounding exactly as one remembered or imagined it. The voice located, it's then a matter of figuring out what he's singing. (Perhaps the process is the same for Dylan himself.) On opening night at the Beacon, it was "To Be Alone With You," from 1969's Nashville Skyline. It’s easy to imagine Dylan as a jazz saxophonist (certainly his voice comes closest to that timbre), whose solos happen to have words, and whose words happen to be those of Bob Dylan songs.

Stationed behind a cheap-sounding keyboard (aww, mama, how hard can it be to get Dylan an actual, upright piano?), and hunched over a microphone positioned for a singer who oughta be sitting, Dylan led the newest incarnation of his band through quasi-familiar renditions of '60s favorites and numbers from his past two albums. Still anchored by longtime bassist Tony Garnier, this tour saw the departure of the incredible Larry Campbell (easily the most sensitive guitarist to work with Dylan since The Band's Robbie Robertson), and the addition of a trio of new guitarists to Dylan's band: Stuart Kimball, Denny Freeman, and Don Herron (who doubled on banjo, pedal steel, and mandolin). Herron was the star, filling the Campbell slot with perfect banjo during an apocalyptic "High Water (For Charley Patton)."

Though there was an acoustic guitar positioned next to Dylan, he never touched it. His barrelhouse piano was far more audible than it has been previously. Every so often, he'd even kinda take a solo (in the exactly same lead-rhythm way that he kinda-soloed when he played guitar). Occasionally, such as during "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight," he'd wander to the centerstage to deliver a harmonica solo — more assertively melodic than his usually sharp chord-heavy playing. As in recent years, Dylan's best singing came on the ballads, including the show highlight, "Visions of Johanna," and newer songs written with the modified vocal style in mind As always, his delivery was a monotonic gallop of expanding and contracting phrases, though far more articulated than most give him (or it) credit for.

Throughout the show, Dylan found small bits of beautiful, unexpected melody that he milked for a line or two, but never repeated. They make for an oddly obsessive highlight reel. "Yeah, man, I really like the way he sang 'jewels and binoculars hang from the head of the mule,' in 'Visions of Johanna.'" "Word, cool, my favorite was when he did that upswing thing in on 'there's no words that need to be said' in 'Standing in the Doorway.'" "Duuuuuuuuude."

As with many of his bands since, well, The Band, Dylan's outfit occasionally slipped into generic Americana, such as on the formerly fierce arrangement of "Cold Irons Bound" (see the soundtrack to 2003's Masked and Anonymous), which felt strained under the weight of Freeman’s descending guitar slides. Being a country gentleman who knows how to please ‘em, he encored with "Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues," sang "I’m going back to New York City, I do believe I’ve had enough," absorbed their happy screams, and closed out with a fairly righteous "All Along the Watchtower" — Dylan being the only person still allowed to play it.

"Yeah, I'm leaving now," a woman chirped on a cellphone as she exited one of the orchestra's side doors. "He didn't even encore with one of his own songs," she complained. "Yeah, he covered some Jimi Hendrix song." Well I guess not everybody's read Chronicles yet, huh?

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