Bob Dylan, Beacon Theater, NYC- 4/29
Walking uptown after Bob Dylan's penultimate performance of a five-night run at the Beacon Theater in New York, I overheard two guys bemoaning how they could hardly hear Dylan's piano playing in the sound mix. I smiled. Ever since Dylan started to play piano on stage (rather than guitar) in fall 2002, I've heard that same particular comment echoed countless times. It seems to have become law in Dylanland.
Presumably, Dylan is in on the joke (he always is). And that it doesn't come as much of a shock to him either that you can't quite hear him play on piano. Even when you cup your ears to pump up the volume (like all good music lovers), you still can't hear him for shit. This is partly because half the time his hands are simply brushing the keys. But another, not unwelcome reason is that for last several installments of his so called Never-Ending Tour, Dylan has been playing a lot more harp in lieu of the electric piano; taking center stage, leading the musical arrangements with a slight nod of his head, blowing hard on the harmonica, his gait slightly askew, looking every second of his 63 years.
If you can distinguish Zimmy tinkling the ivories for just a handful of tunes, consider yourself ahead of the game. As for the constant complaining about his piano being so muddy I doubt he gives a rat's tail, and, of course, that's part of his charm. Ornery is as ornery does.
The current incarnation of Dylan's band is not as muscular as the Larry Campbell-led quintet that Dylan busted up late last year. Still, they are an immensely talented group of musicians who never push; a quintet that would be right at home performing at an Alabama roller skating rink circa 1952. Anchored by guitarists Stu Kimball and Denny Freeman, plus steady back-beats by drummer George Recile and bassist Tony Garnier, the band can switch seamlessly from playing a pitch-black ballad like "Love Sick" to the Bill Haley-fueled "Summer Days."
And so it was on this unseasonably chilly April evening, with Dylan's piano playing breaking through on just a few numbers: a sweet, plaintive rendition of "Shelter from The Storm," a rollicking "Watching the River Flow" and (the first encore) "Things Have Changed," from the Wonder Boys soundtrack (2000), featuring the all-too-timely lyrics, "People are crazy and times are strange/I'm locked in tight, I'm out of range/I used to care, but things have changed." Mostly, though, on piano Dylan played the pockets, preferring to leave the musical heavy lifting to his band mates in an inspiring, yet uneven 90-minute set.
Unlike the Nashville-soaked version of "To Be Alone With You" that opened the Beacon run a few nights earlier, the latest rendition was plodding, labored even. The band was reaching for that rockabilly sound that didn't quite pan out despite some fine string work on the violin by Donnie Heron, a quadruple threat who throughout the evening alternated among electric mandolin, violin, banjo and pedal steel guitar. By opening with "To Be Alone With You" Dylan could easily be accused of being repetitive. But that would be misguided. Indeed, in previous legs of the Never-Ending Tour, Dylan, in true vaudevillian fashion, would perform virtually the same exact set list night in and night out.
Sure, there are the inevitable repeats, but for the most part Dylan is mixing things up nicely these days. What's more, he's performing some of the real chestnuts, digging deep into his repertoire to play a stirring version of "Hazel," one of the many gems from Planet Waves (1974), the sole studio recording from Dylan and The Band (still arguably his best backup band even with the heavyweights he's playing alongside these days). Here was the Dylan that diehards like myself cherish; not the 1960s pied piper of folk music, furiously scribbling "finger-pointing" tunes; not the media-imposed leader of the freeloaders; not the confused Midwestern Jew wearing a skull cap one minute and embracing Christianity the next, but a mere mortal craving connection in an increasingly cold world, promising the "sky high above/Ooh, for a little touch of your love."
"Hazel" was followed by a rather aimless version of "Cry A While," in which the chord progressions never quite gelled, its notes lost in the ether. Dylan's constant longing also came through on a lilting rendition of "Shelter from the Storm." With the words, "Try imagining a place where it's always safe and warm/come in she said, I'll give you shelter from the storm," I recall what the late great Johnny Cash once said about Dylan after he sat in on the Nashville Skyline sessions. I'm paraphrasing but it was something in the vein of, Never mind that protest stuff, just listen to the way the guy writes loves songs.
Once again, oozing with contrasts, the mood picked up with a power-chord twist on "Cold Irons Bound," from the brilliant Time Out Of Mind album (1997). And for the rest of the set, on country-fried versions of "Highway 61" "Watching the River Flow" and "Mr. Tambourine Man," some of Dylan's favorite ghosts Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Jerry Lee Lewis and Buddy Holly swirled lovingly around the stage.
Before he started to play "Highway 61" Dylan put on a black hat, looking every bit the grizzled cowboy with a Dali-esque mustache. Around the same time, the back of the stage morphed from a plain backdrop into a glorious pool of blue stars bathed in space. Staring into infinity, the evening's themes of love, loss, hope and defeat came full circle with a crushing version of "Not Dark Yet." Beyond the stage (and a very strange interview with 60 Minutes following last year’s release of the first part of his Chronicles trilogy), Dylan has been a stickler for protecting his privacy.But in "Not Dark Yet," he left no doubt that he is painfully aware of the world we now live in, spitting out in virtual disgust, Well my sense of humanity has gone down the drain/Behind every beautiful thing there's been some kind of pain/She wrote me a letter and she wrote it so kind/She put down in writing what was in her mind. I just don't see why I should even care/It's not dark yet, but it's getting there.'
"Summer Days," while still possessing a reckless quality, might be ready for the shelf, what with Dylan performing the song practically every night for the past three years.
Dylan closed with a ballad-esque version of "Mr. Tambourine Man," deciding to take a stroll down memory lane, heavily dosing in the French Quarter and disappearin' through the smoke rings of my mind.' But after he left the stage, the foreboding message of "Not Dark Yet," still hung in the air. It was as if Dylan was telling us we're all headed for the proverbial cliff when he broke into a steely version of "Like A Rolling Stone," the final encore. The Dylan classic didn't assuage the apocalyptic concerns he peppered into the set up till that point. Of course, we're doomed. But when he snarled, When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose/You're invisible now/you got no secrets to conceal,' he was reminding us, as we inevitably head toward that final good night, that nothing really matters in this world — except being your own person.
Matthew Schwartz is editor of PR News, a New York City-based weekly that covers corporate communications and public relations. He can be reached at email@example.com.