Bob Dylan, Jones Beach, Wantagh, NY- 6/29
NYC ROLL-TOP: Accidentally Like Bob DylanAt this point, one can only conclude that people just have a genuine affection for this joker who continues to perform under the name Bob Dylan. After all, next year will mark the 20th anniversary of his so-called Never-Ending Tour — that's two decades of Dylan transmogrifying his popular classics into unrecognizable slush with occasionally brilliant new melodies, two decades for the word to get out that under no circumstances will it ever be possible to sing along. Yet, season after season, with no more expectations to confound, Dylan packs them in. Or at least draws them out, as he did at his June 29th stop at Jones Beach Amphitheater, nestled on a pastoral barrier peninsula southeast of Manhattan.
With his band in uniform around him, Dylan began the show on guitar, an instrument he has forgone for the past few years in favor of an inaudible keyboard. The surprise, though, came four songs in. Following a somewhat perfunctory "It's Alright Ma, I'm Only Bleeding," Dylan switched to his keyboard for "Moonlight," where it revealed itself to be shockingly present in the mix. At first the tone was as comical as Dylan's patented gargle-croon: a thin, synthetic organ, like a scorched xerox of Garth Hudson's sound with The Band. Though Dylan could do garagey wonders with a real Acetone, his keyboard sounded more and more natural as the show progressed.
His legs planted and spread, Dylan delivered "Moonlight" with a new verse, its shape beginning to morph as it reaches the recognition horizon six years following its release on "Love & Theft". Dylan’s band, virtually leaderless since the departure of guitarist Larry Campbell, was brought into focus by the keyboards. Guitarists Stu Kimball, Denny Freeman, and multi-instrumentalist Donnie Herron tossed phrases and hypercondensed solos back and forth, rarely lingering long enough to sound bland or wank too much, and always paying mind to Dylan’s bizarre microrhythms.
As he has been for some years, Dylan was best when reinventing his slowest ballads, if only because they give him room enough to expand and contract his phrases without being hemmed in by a fast tempo. On "Visions of Johanna," he descended gamely into the title refrain as if he'd just thought of it. He gave "Shelter From the Storm" a deep lilt absent from Blood on the Tracks, the expanding map of the narrative ballooning to accommodate the life experiences of a 66 year old. Like the keyboards, Dylan’s voice — really, the evening’s main attraction — was cranked and adjusted sympathetically, his Coltrane-like range of croaks piped out in exquisite detail.
In some ways, it is hard to see how Bob Dylan 2007 could ever appeal to anybody more than core obsessives who already know the songs' original lyrics by heart, but that doesn't explain the crowd at Jones Beach, who resolutely wanted to listen. Even if the audience did sit down a song or two into the set, Dylan’s charisma, a signal in the noise, engaged them at some level. "You think I’m over the hill, you think I’m past my prime," Dylan sang on the recent "Spirit on the Water" to a round of applause. "No knife could ever cut our love apart," he sang on Modern Times’ "Nettie Moore," a few songs later. "Awwww," cooed a girl behind us.
Dylan played "Summer Days," and people danced. He intoned "Blowin' In the Wind," and people listened solemnly. And — during the encore — he played "All Along the Watchtower" and, finally, people screamed, just like it was a regular rock show. But Bob Dylan knew better. And so did the audience.
Jesse Jarnow blogs at wunderkammern27.com