Letter to the Vatican

by
Steve Rostkoski

An Online Collection of Writings & Musings

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BOB
DYLAN
ONE OF US MUST KNOW
WASHINGTON STATE TOUR 1995

PUYALLUP STATE FAIR 1998
SEATTLE 2001
SEATTLE 2002
MANCHESTER, TN 2004
SEATTLE 2006
BOOTLEG SERIES VOLUME 5
NO DIRECTION HOME
A SIMPLE TWIST OF FATE
DYLAN HEARS A WHO!
TOUR DIARIES
MIXIN' UP THE MEDICINE
TOGETHER THROUGH LIFE
 
THE NEVER ENDING STAR
SEATTLE 2009 DOUBLEHEADER
CHRISTMAS IN THE HEART
Life-long music fan STEVE ROSTKOSKI studied recording engineering and library technology, and has worked as a library technician, archival cataloger,  freelance journalist and publisher. His essays and reviews have appeared in Crawdaddy!, No Depression ,  The Rocket and other periodicals. Letter to the Vatican  began in 1991 as a self-published zine created for the writers' group APA Centauri. This online edition archives both past and present work.
This site would not exist without Paul Williams.  He started  the first rock music magazine, Crawdaddy!, in 1966, which I discovered in its  later 1990s  incarnation. I found Crawdaddy! so inspirational, I wrote Paul and sent him my zine about the book Glimpses.  He liked my essay so much that he invited me to be the first outside writer published in the new edition of his magazine.  I was honored. Paul's encouragement and support of my writing literally changed my life and I am forever grateful.  Thank you, Paul!

In 1995, Paul Williams suffered a traumatic brain injury in a bicycle accident, leading to early onset of dementia, and a steady decline to the point where he now requires full-time care. His friends and family have set up a website for donations to assist with Paul's care and medical expenses.  The site also provides examples of his work and information about his many accomplishments.

http://paulwilliams.com/index.html

Also read Cindy Lee Berryhill's blog:

http://cindyleeberryhill.blogspot.com/


LETTER FROM A FAN, LETTER TO A FRIEND

I can't help it if I'm lucky....
Early last year I read a book called Glimpses by Lewis Shiner, a wonderful book about a guy who changes rock 'n' roll history just by thinking about what might have been.  I was so enthused by the book that I could hardly wait to write about it.  The words came quickly and easily and I mailed the zine off at least a month before deadline.  I don't think that I've written anything so fast before or since and I consider Letter from the Heart and Soul to be some of my very best writing.  As I was putting the finishing touches on the piece, I happened to receive the first issue of my subscription to Crawdaddy! magazine.  The feature article was an amazing essay on the Beach Boys by Paul Williams and the very first words of the article were "In Lew Shiner's book Glimpses...."  I knew I had found something special in Crawdaddy! and wrote to Paul and told him so.  He asked to see my Glimpses piece and before I knew it, I found myself writing for his zine.  Imagine, all this started just from reading a book and wanting to tell people about it.


It was Paul Williams' Performing Artist books about Bob Dylan that inspired me to write about music in the first place.  His writing is unpretentious, full of passion and honesty and changed the way I listened to Dylan's  music.  One of the main points of the two Performing Artist books is that Dylan's career should not be evaluated solely on his officially recorded work.  Since Bob Dylan is a "performing artist," his concerts are opportunities for him to constantly reinvent his music, so his live shows should be considered, alongside his albums, in order to fully appreciate Dylan's artistry.  Needless to say, Paul Williams has gone to quite a few Dylan concerts over the years.   Just this year, he traveled to Europe and followed Dylan around on tour there for a number of shows.  So when a whole slew of west coast dates for Dylan's U.S. tour were recently announced, I was looking forward to the possibility of meeting up with Paul at a few of the shows.  Not only was I lucky enough to get tickets for two out of the three Seattle shows scheduled in June,  Dylan was playing Spokane for the first time in almost fifteen years.  I'd only seen Bob Dylan once before in Portland, Oregon in 1993 and now I'd be seeing him three times in less than a week and one of these times was virtually in my backyard.  I couldn't believe that I would be following Dylan around myself, even if it was only for the Washington State leg of the tour.

It was unusual that I hadn't heard from Paul as all of this U.S. tour news was happening.   I figured he might have stayed in Europe longer than he had planned to catch some more shows or that he was busy finishing up the next issue of  Crawdaddy!   But when I finally called to tell him about my good fortune, Paul's girlfriend Cindy Lee Berryhill told me some bad news.  Shortly after he returned from Europe in April, Paul was seriously injured in a biking accident and had to undergo brain surgery.  She said that he had been hospitalized for the past month but was due home the at the end of the week and encouraged me to give him a call later.  After days of worrying and not knowing what to expect, I made the call.  Paul sounded good.  He said he was still going to rehabilitation every day, that he had to be on anti-seizure medication, and had trouble sleeping and concentrating sometimes but said he thought he would be fine.  It may be a long recovery but Paul said that he considered himself very lucky.  He only sounded a bit frustrated over the fact that the doctors wouldn't let him drive a car yet.  It was encouraging that he talked about getting the next Crawdaddy! out and to hear that he was able to see  Dylan play in Santa Barbara.  (He would have liked to have seen a few more shows, of course!).         

My excitement over going to my shows was diminished more than a little by the news of Paul's  accident.  I was going to hear and see the very artist that Paul had written about so wonderfully.  How could I not think of Paul and feel a bit sad while at the concerts?   And it didn't help that the my friend Jon, with whom I had planned on going to the shows, bailed out on me, claiming that he'd seen Dylan before and didn't need to see him again.  So it looked like this time I would be on my own, like a rolling stone (heh).  I don't think I'd ever taken a trip completely by myself before.  On other trips when Kathy didn't accompany me, I usually had someone to meet me or stay with once I got to my destination.  This time I would be staying at a downtown Seattle hotel that was within walking distance of both the bus station and the Paramount Theater where Dylan was playing.  So I managed to conjure up some of the adventurous spirit that I felt when I read Jack Kerouac's books fifteen years earlier, hopped a bus and hit the road to follow the performing artist.  I wouldn't be able to see my friend and mentor in person on this journey but since I'd be following in Paul's footsteps for a short while, I felt he would be there in spirit.

Seattle, June 2.  Speaking like silence...
Bob Dylan's recent appearance on MTV's Unplugged has now been officially released in both audio and video formats.  The video includes all of the eleven songs that are on the CD plus an additional bonus song.  It is this extra tune, "Love Minus Zero/No Limit", that is the highlight of the video for me.  The song is a favorite of mine but the Unplugged performance especially exceptional.  "My love she speaks like silence," Dylan sings in a voice that matches the mood of the line.  His vocal is subtle and restrained and the band plays with an equal sympathetic tenderness.  After experiencing the first Seattle concert, I think tenderness may be the key to his current performances.  A couple years ago, fans named Dylan's seemingly non stop string of live dates the "Never Ending Tour."  Well, I'm going to dub these recent shows the "Try a Little Tenderness Tour."   What made the June 2nd show so special were the quiet moments, the tender moments.  I'm not just talking about the way Dylan played the songs either.  He also presented himself in a more tender way than ever before.

While he was in Europe, Paul was nice enough to send me a postcard from Prague with a brief report on the first shows that he went to see there.  He indicated that Dylan had performed much of the time  without a guitar and sang instead holding just a microphone.  This was unusual.  I couldn't even imagine Bob Dylan on stage guitarless.  He had done this occasionally on the much maligned 1978 tour, where fans and critics alike accused Dylan of "going Las Vegas", but Bob as a crooner certainly hadn't been a common sight at his live shows.  Until now, that is.  Two songs were performed sans guitar at the first Seattle concert but I wouldn't mistake this new direction as a Wayne Newton impression at all.  Once again, as with his singing and guitar playing, Bob Dylan has found his own particular style of doing things. Holding the microphone in his right hand, he rather stiffly grips the cord in his left while taking a step or two from side to side every once in a while.  He doesn't look entirely comfortable.  In fact he looks pretty vulnerable and I think this only makes the performances more endearing.  By putting down the guitar for these few moments, Dylan appears to be trying to share more of himself with the audience, making them focus their attention on the words he is singing and the way he is singing them.   A new way of presenting himself.  A new way of seeing him.
   
The first two songs of the mid-show acoustic set were sublime examples of  this new on-stage method in action.  Backed only by two of the band members, one on acoustic guitar and the other on stand up bass, "Mr. Tambourine Man" became almost prayer-like in it's quietness, with his words and harmonica ringing throughout the theater.  (If only the audience had been as quiet and respectful.  Everyone around me talked throughout the whole song.)  In contrast, the same spare instrumentation made "Masters of War" an even more scathing indictment of the powers that send their pawns off to battle.  The first song, a meditation on songmaking.  The second, a cry of burning outrage.  Amazing.  I continued to be awestruck as Bob put his guitar back on for the final acoustic number, a version of "Love Minus Zero" that was even better than the one on Unplugged!  It's beauty gave me shivers and almost some tears.

When I last saw Dylan in Portland he and his band rocked pretty hard.  Most of the songs featured powerful instrumentals led  by Winston Watson's explosive drumming and Dylan's rough but intense guitar solos.  The overall impression of the first Seattle show was that it was more restrained and subtle than the 1993 performance.  Not that Seattle night one didn't have it's moments of white heat though.  A few concert standards made return appearances:  "All Along the Watchtower" done a la Jimi Hendrix, and "Silvio" and "God Knows," both rather minor album tracks that have become live highlights where the band really cuts loose.  Even better was a blistering version of a song unearthed from the Blonde On Blonde album called  "Obviously Five Believers," which was an unusual but masterful choice to close the show.  The final encore was a dark, stomping rendition of "Knocking on Heaven's Door" with Dylan taking one guitar solo after another while gazing up into the rafters, looking the audience right in the eye.  And when the song ended he continued making contact by slapping and shaking hands with those in the first few rows.  He really did seem to be letting his guard down for the first time in who knows how long.  He seemed more giving.  More tender.  The evening passed by much too quickly but, wow, I have two more chances to see the artist at work ahead of me!


Seattle, June 3.  Seeing the real you at last...
What makes following Bob Dylan around on tour so rewarding is that you never know what he's going to do from one night to the next.  Only four songs were repeated from the night before during the second Seattle show.   I knew as soon as the concert started that this night was going to be different.  The first song was the same one that has started every show this year so far, "Down in the Flood", a somewhat obscure down and dirty blues from the Basement Tapes sessions.  It was a great opening shot, like it was the previous evening, but this time with one difference:  Bob had already abandoned his guitar.  There he was, center stage, holding the microphone and stepping back and forth, as he did for the acoustic set the night before.  Only this time the entire band was with him and was playing full tilt.  It took me a while to get used to this odd juxtaposition of contrasting styles.  Dylan's on-stage demeanor certainly wasn't made up of the usual rock 'n' roll moves but I ended up liking this new way of seeing him.  It started the show with a real feeling of openness, an openness that was carried through the whole evening.  What I'll remember most about this concert is the feeling I got from it.  It had a real friendly and relaxed atmosphere.

The second night's crowd seemed to respond to Dylan's more laid back and generous approach.  Unlike the last evening's audience, who were quite noisy and stood up throughout the whole show, the June 3rd crowd politely stayed in their seats for most of the concert.  The song selection reflected the warm mood.  "If Not For You," a gentle and wistful love song, made an uncommon live appearance as the show's second song, and the benevolence continued with the melodic "Simple Twist of Fate" from the Blood On the Tracks album, along with the lazy blues of "It Takes a Lot to Laugh."   The more attentive audience and the intimate feeling made me think the acoustic set, so transcendent the night before, would be something really special on a night like this but it wasn't.  The acoustic songs were very nice but the performances didn't seem to be exceptional this time.  Dylan got lost during the harmonica solo on "Mr. Tambourine Man", breaking its fragile spell; "Gates of Eden," a song that I've always found ponderous, was next up and didn't help regain any of the lost magic; then "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue", which may have been overshadowed by the memory of far greater versions that Dylan has played recently, ended the set.    A less intense group of songs than the first time around but maybe a quieter mood was what Dylan was going for this time.

But the mood changed instantly near the end of the concert.  With the first notes of the rousing rocker, "Seeing the Real You at Last," the audience appropriately showed it's true colors and rushed the stage, and remained wildly enthusiastic for the rest of the show.  Dylan picked up on the change in attitude by offering a menacing, apocalyptic sounding "Ballad of a Thin Man" and even dusted off "Like a Rolling Stone" for one of the encores.  I was a bit wary when I heard he'd been pulling out "Rolling Stone" again for some of these recent shows.  He has done the old chestnut so many times before that I wondered if he could possibly even add anything new to it.  I expected a rather tired version but that isn't what I got.  Instead, I got perhaps the most impassioned vocals out of all three shows I went to.  Bob put his heart into the song and it was honestly very moving.  It fit right into the generosity of most of the rest of the evening's performances.  This wasn't some has-been slogging through his greatest hit one more time.  This was a seasoned but vital artist still in love with was he does best:  Creating a one of a kind musical experience in front of an audience.

I was very tempted to stay another day for the June 4th show.  Very tempted.  I probably could have gotten a ticket from a scalper for not too much money.  But it had been a challenging trip and I was tired and a little lonely so I decided to go home and wait for Bob to come to my town.  I'll catch the final night of the Seattle stand through the magic of bootleg tapes anyway.  Already, I can hardly wait to hear it.

Spokane, June 7.  Jeeze, I can't find my knees...
The Spokane show was announced after I had bought my tickets to the Seattle concerts and at first I wasn't going to bother to go because it was going to be a general admission outdoor show.  I figured that I would not be able to see the stage, and besides,  Jon said he wasn't going to this one either (though he did decide to go at the last minute) and I couldn't imagine tackling this adventure all alone.  So I asked my sister's boyfriend Jim, who plays in a band himself, to go with me.  He seemed genuinely excited about my offer so I got us both tickets.  Even though I now had a bodyguard to protect me, I still prepared myself for the worst possible concert-going experience and looked at the Spokane date as little more than a bonus after seeing Dylan in Seattle.   It turned out I needn't have worried.  In Spokane I probably had a better view of the stage than at either one of the Seattle shows.  Amazingly,  people were standing all through the show but no one stood up in front of me.  (The Bob gods must have been looking out for me.  Or at least the traveling spirit of Paul.)  And since it was outdoors and the sun didn't set until the last third of the show, a whole new dimension was added by the natural light.  Dylan rarely uses elaborate stage lighting, but seeing him in the daylight added to the sense that he was really right there in the park with us.  He looked great too!   It was very uncomfortable sitting on the grass (my knees may never be the same) but I'm sure glad I ended up going.  The Spokane gig came in second place after the June 2nd  Seattle concert in my opinion.

It wasn't too surprising that this night's performance was like a combination of the two previous performances I saw with a few added bonuses thrown in.  A gentle full-band version of "If You See Her, Say Hello", another broken-hearted Blood On the Tracks song, was a pleasant surprise that filled the second slot of the set, and "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" was played with a slight country lilt to it, rather than the hot metallic 1965-66 arrangement of the song.  Jim expressed his admiration for the way guitarist J.J. Jackson complimented Dylan's own guitar playing and was astonished at the three guitar attack on "Watchtower."   My favorite part of the show was also back in top form.  The non-electric contemplation and rage returned with "Tambourine Man" and "Masters of War" respectively.  Then came "To Ramona," a beautiful, sensuous bittersweet love song as only Bob Dylan can create.

Hearing "Tambourine Man" for a third time made me realize that Dylan is using the song's harmonica solo in much the same way he used his vocals on the Unplugged performance of "Knockin' On Heaven's Door."  One gets the feeling that Dylan is aware of what a trademarked "Bob Dylan" performance is and when he exaggerates and plays around with these qualities, it's fun to hear.  It certainly was a lot of fun to hear on the Unplugged "Heaven's Door" where Dylan hit a vocal groove that made it the best version of the tune in years.  The "Tambourine Man" harmonica solo begins with one note rhythmically repeated over and over again.  A string of delicate and kind notes until Dylan lets go for a climactic ending.  It doesn't sound like much on paper, I know, but it is very effective.  And perhaps only Bob Dylan can make it work.  It is a joyous moment.  You may not be able to see him smile during the solo but you can feel him smile, as if he's saying "I know this is a bit silly.  But it's GREAT, isn't it?"

 After seeing just three concerts, I understand why Paul goes to so many Dylan shows.  It is a very addicting practice indeed.  By the end of my little tour, the excitement of just getting to see Bob Dylan was replaced by the excitement of wondering what he was going to play and how he and the band were going to play it.  At the Spokane performance I was settled in quite comfortably (well, mentally if not physically) and ready to take in all the evening's subtleties.  What an experience!  The word is that he's coming back around in the fall and if he hits my part of the world again, I'll be there as many times as I can.  Although right now Dylan looks like he's in good shape, who knows how much longer he can continue touring?  I don't know how much longer I'll be able tour along with him either.  It's exhilarating but exhausting at the same time.  I figure I'd better grab it while I can and savor the moments.  You never know.  One day you could be riding your bike and......

How did I do on my first extended Bob Dylan experience, Paul?  I missed you.  See you next time around.

JUNE 1995

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PUYALLUP STATE FAIR 1998

Bob Dylan's Grammy Award winning album Time Out of Mind is a dark, soul searching rumination on the passing of time and growing older.  As he sings, "It's not dark yet but it's getting there" on one of the album's tracks, one can't help wondering if the 57 year old musician  is close to meeting his maker.  The thought of his hospitalization for a heart infection last year certainly fuels such speculation.

If his September 22 concert at the Puyallup State Fair Grandstand was any indication, Bob has no intention of leaving us anytime soon.  Known to be occasionally stiff and stonefaced onstage, Dylan was remarkably animated in front of the more than 10,000 who gathered to hear the performing artist on this pleasant last evening of summer.  As he sang, he smiled and mugged down to the first few rows and also shuffled about the stage, bending his knees as he took each guitar solo.  It was clear that Bob was alive and well and having a wonderful time as he and his four piece band stormed through songs from throughout Dylan's more than three decades of music making. 

Even though the set list included familiar favorites such as "Blowin' in the Wind" and "Highway 61 Revisited," some of the other song selections were often surprising for old and new fans alike.  After opening with the popular anti-conformist anthem "Maggie's Farm," Dylan and company took an unexpected turn with a sterling rendition of the ominous "Man in a Long Black Coat" from the critically acclaimed 1989 album Oh Mercy.  A short while later, they pulled out the semi-obscure "You Ain't Going Nowhere," done up in a wonderful folky arrangement that had the crowd clapping and singing along.

The down-home feeling continued as the musicians put down their electric instruments and became an acoustic string band for a few numbers in the middle of the show.  The bittersweet love song "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right," featuring some pretty guitar picking from Larry Campbell, brought screams of delight from the audience, while a menacing "Masters of War" was an awe-inspiring reminder of how powerful Dylan's early Sixties protest songs still are today.  "One Too Many Mornings" sounded as beautiful and world-weary as ever and "Tangled Up in Blue" concluded the unplugged session with an all out hootenanny jam that brought people to their feet.

But the highlights of the evening came from the Time Out of Mind album.  It is obvious that Dylan and his band enjoy stretching out on this newer material.  David Kemper's thunderous drumming and bassist Tony Garnier's nimble fretwork nailed down the swampy mysterious beat on "Cold Irons Bound."  The deep funky groove of "Can't Wait" supported what was perhaps the best Dylan vocal of the night.  His singing here was an inspired sly growl.  "Make You Feel My Love," a ballad recorded by both Garth Brooks and Billy Joel, and also perhaps the slightest track on Time Out of Mind, seemed to come to life in concert.  The live rendition had a subtle tenderness lacking in all the other recorded versions.  "Love Sick," with its lonely footstep rhythm, outclassed its album counterpart too, sounding all the more spooky and desolate in its onstage incarnation.

After touring virtually nonstop for the last decade, Bob Dylan shows no sign of slowing down or burning out.  Playing in front of his fans night after night seems to revitalize both the man and his music.   The Puyallup concert proved that Dylan is still capable of creating what may be the some of the best performances of his career.  Perhaps the secret to his longevity lies in the chorus of the final song of the night which went, "May you stay forever young."  The benediction could be intended as much for Bob Dylan himself as for his audience.

SEPTEMBER 1998

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LONESOME DAY BLUES

September 11, 2001 was supposed to be a good day.  It was the release date of Bob Dylan's new album "Love and Theft."  Instead, it was a "sad and lonesome day," as I was awakened by a telephone call from my supervisor telling me not to come into work, since the Seattle Center was closed due to terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, DC.  I turned on the television just in time to see the World Trade Center towers crumble to the ground.  The rest of the day was spent in numb shock watching the television news reports come in.  My wife Kathy and I were planning on flying to Spokane, Washington the next day to attend a memorial service for my brother-in-law, who passed away earlier in the month, but we didn't even attempt to go to the airport to catch our flight.  When Kathy turned in the airline tickets, "National Emergency" was listed under the reason for refund on the credit slip, which was rather chilling.  I asked for two days bereavement leave for our Spokane trip and ended up taking them just to stay home.  After hearing about disabled people trapped on the stairways of the WTC, I didn't feel much like being in a multi-storied office building anyway.    When I returned to work on Friday, people were walking around stunned.  It's just as well I had stayed home since no one really got any work done all week.  Nearly two months later, life has returned to something close to normal, I guess, though there is this pervading sense of dread that seems to be in the background of every activity.  Go to a concert or movie, or anywhere people gather, and there's this feeling, a kind of identification with each other, that says we're all doing our best to get through this world gone wrong.

I frequently find solace in music, so receiving my copies of "Love and Theft" (both on vinyl and "special edition" CD with the bonus disc) in the mail after the disaster helped in my return to life as usual.  The release of "LAT" was unusual for me, however, because I actually heard all the songs from the album weeks before its official issue, thanks to the magic of the Internet.  Since the downloaded songs were spread out on my work and home computers, I had no sense of "LAT" as an album, so I looked forward to hearing the work as a whole.  It's interesting to note that the two disc vinyl version divides the songs three to a side, putting "High Water" in the opening position of the second LP, making a terrific kick off for "LAT"'s "second side."  Immediate favorites were "Mississippi," "High Water" and "Sugar Baby," but "LAT" is definitely a work that grew on me, with different songs becoming favorites every time I listened to it.   One day the seductive croon of "Moonlight" would stick in my head, the next it would be the revved-up rockabilly of "Summer Days." 

After living with "LAT" for almost two months, the song that I nearly wrote off as a "Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat" rewrite has surprisingly settled in as a firm favorite.  I have absolutely fallen for the menacing lyrics, Dylan's ominous vocal growl and the stone-solid dirty blues riff that is titled "Lonesome Day Blues."  I think it's the closest thing that Dylan has done to the blistering sound of the rockers of the 1965-1966 era.  The way he and the band grab on to the groove and never let it go is a sheer joy.  Maybe it's the times or my frame of mind, but I can't remember when I've had so much fun listening to a new Dylan song.  I just have to turn up the stereo every time the song comes on.

When Dylan's fall 2001 tour dates were announced, right away I thought how great it would be if he opened the shows with "Lonesome Day Blues" as a bold statement of purpose.  A "no pussyfooting" declaration to say he's still making music and the audience is still listening, despite terrorists and war.  Now, I know the likelihood of this happening was slim to none, since the recent set lists have been somewhat predictable.  So predictable, in fact, that I hadn't bothered trading for any bootleg recordings of shows since my last Bob concert in Madison, Wisconsin on October 29, 2000, which was a good solid performance with few real surprises.  There were undoubtedly fine moments among subsequent shows, as the sly version of "Mr. Tambourine Man" on the Pathway to the Stars bootleg compilation proves, but looking over the song lists, I really couldn't be bothered.  Something had to change to get me interested again.  I hoped the new "LAT" material would give the shows a much-needed boost.  At first, I planned on revisiting my friend Larry and going to Madison again for the fall dates, then thought of Oregon and finally settled on seeing Bob in my backyard when he decided to open the tour in Washington State.  I bought a ticket for Seattle and almost got one for Spokane, but an arthritic hip made me decide against any long distance traveling.  I bought my ticket the first day of the bobdylan.com pre-sale, but didn't receive it until over a month later, just three days before the show, and found it very difficult to get excited about the concert while being suspended in ticket limbo for so long. 

The latest leg of Dylan's "Never-Ending Tour" finally arrived and the reports from Spokane were encouraging, with the premiere of four new songs, plus the appearance of two favorites, "Blind Willie McTell" and "Tomorrow Is a Long Time." A friend of mine also e-mailed saying that the show made him feel as if he'd gone to heaven, so my expectations were high as I entered Seattle's Key Arena on October 6.  Bob and the band didn't fulfill my wish of kicking things off with a roaring "Lonesome Day Blues," sticking instead to the more standard but still rousing opener "Waiting for the Light to Shine."  The rest of the opening acoustic set was similar to Madison 2000, but fine enough, as Dylan ended each line of "To Ramona" with a descending growl, whisked through an energetic "It's Alright, Ma, " and wrapped up with the mournful "Searching for a Soldier's Grave."  The first new selection of the evening heralded the start of the electric set and was something of a disappointment.  "Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum" is probably one of my least favorite "LAT" song and the live rendition didn't change my opinion of it.  The arrangement was very much like the album version, which didn't manage to elevate the song at all in concert.  "Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You," the first of three (!) Nashville Skyline songs in the set, was a case of a decent performance in the wrong spot.  It was fun to hear, yet not strong enough to raise the excitement level after "Tweedle Dee."  Even though "Memphis Blues Again" is one of my favorite songs, in recent years it seems to have lost its subtlety and merely become a nondescript excuse to rock out.   As Bob and the band began playing it's nearly unrecognizable introduction, I started to think that I was in for a rather predictable evening.  Where was "Lonesome Day Blues" when I needed it?

But I should have known better than to think of Dylan as predictable.  Next up was the live premiere of "Moonlight" and it turned the show around for me.  Bob's croon was a little rough on the high notes, yet somehow this made the performance all the more endearing.  It was amazing that the not-quite-capacity Arena crowd remained almost reverentially quiet until Dylan grabbed a harmonica at the song's end.  His hand gestures and knee bends accompanying each note of the harp coda brought cheers of delight.  It also reminded me that, as wonderful as "LAT" is, it might have been nice to hear the harmonica on a song or two.  In light of recent events, "Masters of War" and "Hard Rain" took on a greater significance and received their share of enthusiastic responses as well.  Larry Campbell especially impressed me during these numbers.  He seems to have taken on a more varied and active role in the band since my last Bob show, playing guitar, steel guitar and mandolin, not to mention his fiddle playing, which made "To Be Alone With You" a highlight.  Charlie Sexton too has gone from being barely audible to finally showing off his talents taking many fiery solos and adding subtle shadings to "Moonlight" and "Sugar Baby."  A hush fell over the crowd as Dylan and Sexton eyed each other in concentration as they performed latter brooding ballad.

So, Seattle wasn't a perfect show, but there were parts of it that were better than any Dylan show I've ever witnessed.  It seems to have gotten me back into trading too.  I was able to secure a copy of the show less than a month after it took place and am actively pursuing dates from the rest of the tour.  Each new "LAT" song performed on the tour brings a little more excitement to getting back into the trading game.

My Dylan book library has also been expanding lately with all the recent biographies.  My favorite is David Hajdu's Positively Fourth Street, a vivid account of the Greenwich Village folk scene that concentrates on the relationship between Bob Dylan, Richard Farina, Joan Baez and her sister Mimi..  I'm not sure I quite buy the assertion that Richard Farina invented folk-rock, but Hajdu certainly puts the reader amid these four volatile characters.  I met Hajdu when his book tour came to Seattle and he related how he sent Dylan an advance copy of the book to obtain permission for lyric quotations.  Dylan reportedly read the manuscript while on tour and didn't get back to Hajdu until just before the publication deadline.  Hajdu takes the fact that Dylan granted permission to use his lyrics for a mere $100 as a tacit approval of his book.  I also thoroughly enjoyed tagging along with Andrew Muir throughout Razor's Edge, his diary of following Dylan on tour.  It was a joy reliving concerts and meeting fellow fans and Bob himself.  I have to say, Andrew handled himself in Bob's presence better than I probably would.  I've met my fair share of artists I admire and usually am able to be myself, but the thought of meeting Dylan makes me speechless, for some reason.

OCTOBER 2001

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LONESOME DAY BLUES REVISITED

Before his previous show in Seattle on October 6, 2001, I hoped that Bob Dylan and his band would blast out of the starting gate with "Lonesome Day Blues," a bluesy rocker off his latest album "Love And Theft."  Well, that night Bob and the boys kicked things off with an acoustic traditional number, which had been the standard concert opener for the past few years.  Still, it was a very good show, as Dylan rewarded the post-9-11 Seattle audience with stellar renditions of songs such as "Hard Rain" and "Masters of War," along with tunes from the new album.  The not-quite-capacity crowd responded with a mixture of enthusiasm and reverence; pin-drop silence during the quieter songs, loud cheers greeting "Like a Rolling Stone" and other old favorites.

Dylan returned to Seattle almost exactly a year later on October 4, 2002, and since this was the opening date of his fall tour, my hopes were even higher for a few setlist surprises.  Little did I suspect. . .

I arrived at the Key Arena with my friend Bob shortly before the house lights went down.  An announcer read a rambling introduction, calling Dylan a "counterculture icon" who "forced folk in bed with rock in the 1950s, disappeared into a haze of drugs in the 1970s, was written off in the 1980s, only to produce some of his strongest work in the late 1990s."  Apparently, this is a quote from a review written by a Buffalo, New York, newspaper critic that amused Dylan so much that he started using it to preface his shows this summer.  Hearing this was already quite a change from last year, but then Dylan hit the stage and launched into "Solid Rock," a song he hasn't played much since his 1979-80 gospel shows.  Even more surprising, Dylan was standing center stage and pounding away on an electric keyboard.  I hadn't even noticed the piano set up on stage before the show!  (Interestingly, there was also a lap steel guitar on a stand next to the piano, though it remained untouched.)

Dylan has occasionally played piano during concerts before, but in Seattle he stood at the keyboard for more than half of the 21 songs.  His style is very percussive, somewhat like a junior version of Jerry Lee Lewis or Little Richard.  It's easy to imagine this is how Dylan sounded as a teenager playing piano in his high school rock 'n' roll bands.  There were a few rough spots, as when he and the band played tug-of-war with the rhythm of "It's All Right, Ma," but Dylan seemed to be comfortable in his new instrumental role.  He seemed relaxed, often turning around to direct band members with finger-points and head nods.

Just as I was recovering from the wonderment of hearing "Solid Rock" and seeing Dylan as keyboardist, he threw another curve.  Dylan is known for radically rearranging his songs in live performance, which often confuses listeners wanting to hear their favorites rendered exactly like the recorded versions.  It always bothers me when I hear people commenting how they didn't recognize a song, but as the band started the fifth or so number, I couldn't place it.  When Dylan started singing the slow, stately ballad, the lyrics were familiar and then I realized it wasn't a Dylan composition at all.  It was Warren Zevon's "Accidentally Like a Martyr," performed note-perfect and with passion.  Zevon had recently announced that he'd been diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer, so this was obviously Dylan's tribute to a fellow songwriter, a wholly unexpected and touching gesture.

Dylan then strapped on his electric guitar as Larry Campbell and Charlie Sexton launched into some slashing guitar riffs, introducing not a Dylan classic, but a hit from those other 1960s survivors the Rolling Stones.  It was "Brown Sugar!"  My friend Bob, a big Stones fan, was stunned.  I'd already been impressed with the interplay between Campbell and Sexton at previous shows, but they seemed especially spot-on for this tune.  For that matter, the unusual song selection seemed to bring out the best in the whole band.  The concert almost felt like a rehearsal at times, with the band having fun jamming on favorites that just happened to strike their fancy.

Throughout the evening, Dylan continued to pull out new tricks, including two more by Zevon.  "Boom Boom Mancini" is not one of my favorites, but there's no question it fit the loose, rocking spirit of the show.  "Mutineer," Zevon's poignant salute to his fans, was somehow even more beautiful in Dylan's hands.  In contrast to Zevon's solo rendition, the full band arrangement only added to the song's power and richness, transforming it into a fan's statement back to the songwriter.

The concert ended with the scorching rockabilly of "Summer Days" and an encore consisting of three crowd favorites, "Like a Rolling Stone," "Knockin' On Heaven's Door" and "All Along the Watchtower."  Even though the arena was barely half full (probably due to Seattle's high unemployment rate), those in attendance got caught up in the no-holds-barred attitude that Bob and the band presented at the show.  Most, like me, were simply awestruck.  It's amazing that after over 40 years as a performing artist, Dylan still refuses to be pegged and is determined to deliver the unexpected.

Oh yeah, he did play "Lonesome Day Blues". . . the next night in Eugene, Oregon.

NOVEMBER 2002

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SOCKS & UNDERWEAR IN MODERN TIMES

One thing you can usually count on with Bob Dylan is his unpredictability.  The last time I saw him in concert in 2002, he played keyboards for most of the show (something he'd never done previously), opened with one of his gospel numbers, "Solid Rock," performed a few Warren Zevon songs and trotted out his own rendition of the Rolling Stones' "Brown Sugar."  It was the most surprising and fun Dylan show I'd ever seen.  In the last few years, however, Dylan's concerts have seemed to shy away from unexpected.  He still regularly makes changes to his setlists, but his core repertoire these days relies on the tried and true.  On previous tours, familiar songs often at least appeared with new and interesting arrangements, such as the radical, but breathtaking reworkings of "It Ain't Me, Babe" and "Mr. Tambourine Man" from a few years ago.  Now pedestrian versions of "Highway 61 Revisited," "Like a Rolling Stone, "All Along the Watchtower" are the norm night after night.

My friend Larry, a long-time Dylan concert attendee, now refuses to go see him because the last three shows he witnessed were so lackluster.  He explained to me, "It used to be a Bob-show was like opening a gift package, not knowing what to expect. Sometimes there'd be socks and underwear, but occasionally, every once in a while, there'd be this great book or fantastic toy, or leather jacket. These days you know pretty much what's coming - - - - - socks and underwear. Same number of songs, same encores, same keyboard (or is it key bored?)."  Dylan's shows this summer only proved Larry's point, since Bob steadfastly refused to significantly shake up his song selection, despite the release of a new album titled Modern Times.  Not only was Modern Times his latest release, it reached #1 on the charts, Dylan's first album to do so since the mid-1970s.  And he didn't perform one song from it all summer.

Modern Times does not sound like a chart-topping album, especially in 2006.  Like its predecessor Love And Theft, Modern Times is an eclectic collection of folk, blues, country, rockabilly and old-time crooner ballads.  While Love And Theft boldly hopped styles, the new album goes for a more consistent sound and tone.  I described Love And Theft as reminiscent of a box of old dusty 78s.  Modern Times is actually recorded and mixed to almost sound like a 78 disc.  Dylan's vocals are way up front, while the musical backing is blended together well into the background with no single instrument taking center stage.  This time around, the lyrics are more serious and contemplative than the wry, pun-filled wordplay of the last album.  Love And Theft is the better work, but Modern Times still shows a master songwriter in good, if not great form.

As I entered Seattle's Key Arena on Friday, October 13, for the second show on the fall leg of Dylan's Never-Ending Tour, I wondered if he would finally present any of the new material from Modern Times.  It turned out that Dylan did have a surprise or two up his sleeve, but not all of them were exactly ones I'd hoped for.

When Dylan and the band launched into the first song, for a moment I thought it was "Series of Dreams," the great, seldom-performed outtake from the 1989 Oh Mercy album.  The sound was smooth and ethereal, quite unlike the hard-rocking ensemble I'd heard behind him last time.  Onstage was his usual rhythm section, Tony Garnier and George Recile, on bass and drums, along with three relative newcomers, multi-instrumentalist Donnie Herron, and guitarists Stu Kimball and Denny Freeman.  Dylan was on keyboards, as he has been for the last four years or so.  But what was that unusual sound?  It reminded me of a cheesy organ used at an ice or roller rink.  Uh oh, then I realized what it was.  A month ago, I endured Leon Russell slaughtering his catalog in concert with an arsenal of cheap-sounding electronic keyboards.  Now it appeared that Bob was following the lead of his old pal Leon and had switched his keyboard setting from "piano" to "rinky-dink organ."  The opening song was actually the perennial "Maggie's Farm" in a rather bland, non-rocking incarnation.  This was an interesting and unpredictable development.  Not a good one, though.

Next was the tender "She Belongs to Me" featuring some nice acoustic guitar by Denny Freeman, followed by "Lonesome Day Blues," my favorite song from Love And Theft and one I always wanted to hear performed live.  Dylan's previous guitarists, Charlie Sexton and Larry Campbell, really tore up this gritty blues number.  The current lineup didn't even come close to creasing it.  Rather, they distanced themselves from the song and let it die.

"Lonesome Day Blues" confirmed a suspicion I had about Dylan's current band after hearing Modern Times.  Simply, the guitar playing is weak.  Perhaps Dylan wanted to keep the arrangements simple, but simple doesn't have to mean playing without personality or spark of any kind.  Many of the guitar solos on the album diddle about and trail off nowhere.  Sometimes it sounds as if the player is struggling to find the right notes.  These traits have now followed Dylan into the live arena, often with disastrous results.  It doesn't help matters that neither Kimball nor Freeman has much stage presence.  (Maybe I should nickname them "Socks" and "Underwear"?)

Fortunately, Dylan and the band were able to muster up enough inspiration to recover and turn in a solid set of performances for the next three songs at least.  "Positively 4th Street" wasn't as biting as the recorded version, but still came off well in a slightly more relaxed, melancholy setting.  A brooding, powerful "It's Alright, Ma" challenged the musicians' dynamic range, as they quieted for the verses and slammed back in after each chorus.  Dylan turned in some fine vocals on a nearly perfect "Just Like a Woman" and was obviously enjoying himself as he punctuated his performance with finger pointing and knee bends.  This mid-concert trilogy was the high point of the show.

The rest of the evening was a mixture of the new and predictable.  Three tunes from Modern Times were unveiled.  The charming waltz of "When the Deal Goes Down" was first up and brought cheers from the audience.  "Workingman's Blues #2," a weary piano ballad that is my favorite track on the album, was good, despite Dylan's occasionally awkward phrasing and that godawful organ.  The Chuck Berry-like rocker "Thunder on the Mountain" felt right at home in its first encore slot and made a great surprise departure from the usual standard encores.  The band clearly was having fun running through the new material onstage.  Even Kimball and Freeman began showing signs of life.  Included in rest of the set were "Highway 61 Revisited," "Tangled Up in Blue," "Watching the River Flow," "Like a Rolling Stone" and "All Along the Watchtower."  All were decent, if unexceptional renditions, most of them marred by mediocre guitar solos.  A mournful "Hard Rain" managed to rise above the uninspired and "Summer Days" was rescued by the country swing of Donnie Herron's steel guitar.  (I reckon that Herron is currently Dylan's most accomplished musician.)

Dylan has said in recent interviews that his band is the best he's ever had and that they can play anything.  If this is truly the case, the most fans can expect from this gang are "socks and underwear" shows, sprinkled with a few gems like the ones I heard in Seattle.  I'd like to see Dylan play with musicians that challenged and pushed him a little more.  But perhaps he doesn't want his band members to stand out?  Maybe this is his way of finally settling down and making his later touring years comfortable.  It's not like Dylan to coast.  But then with a career so full of unexpected turns, such behavior is unpredictable at this point, isn't it?

P.S.  Can someone please, please change the setting on Dylan's keyboard back to piano?  Do you think he'd notice?

BOB BOOK ROUNDUP


European fans seem to like to analyze and discuss Bob Dylan's work more than their US counterparts.  Is this the same type of appreciation that causes American jazz and blues to be revered overseas, while Americans themselves usually ignore their musical heritage?  This dichotomy between European and US fans is apparent looking at the Dylan fanzines from both sides of the pond.  The longest surviving American zine has been On the Tracks, though a new issue hasn't been published in quite some time.  On the Tracks is a slick glossy magazine that relies on informative interviews and articles, but lacks much critical analysis, making it rather characterless.  In contrast, several Dylan publications out of the UK have long legacies and feature commentary by scholars and fans not afraid to unleash their opinions on all-things Dylan.

One such publication is Isis, founded by Derek Barker in 1985 and still going strong.  Barker has now compiled a second collection of writings from the magazine as Bob Dylan Anthology Volume 2: 20 Years of Isis.  Like the zine, it is comprised of interviews, album and concert reviews, lyric analysis, examinations of Dylan's influences and singing style, accounts of fan encounters with the man and even some gossip.  The entries are arranged so the book reads as a kind of Dylan history from different points of view, beginning with a visit to the Minnesota towns where a young Robert Zimmerman spent his childhood, and ending with an analysis of the 2003 film Masked and Anonymous.  It's a lively, thought-provoking, fun read.

Isis contributor Michael Gray is the author of Song and Dance Man, a highly detailed look at Dylan's literary and musical influences.  Now Gray has produced another weighty (in the literal and figurative sense) tome titled The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia.  This isn't a dry presentation of facts, though there is plenty of hard information provided here.  Gray does not hesitate to include his criticisms and opinions in his entries, which makes the book very entertaining.  Key albums and songs are given essays (some quite lengthy.  The song "Angelina" alone gets over seven pages), biographical sketches of the people who have influenced or taken part in Dylan's life are included, as well as overviews of the different genres of music that have influenced Dylan (e.g. "folk music, American Cowboy").  Fellow Dylanogists receive space (and are skewered, when necessary).  All in all, Gray's new book is the most enjoyable and informative Dylan reference I've read yet.  Every time I dip into it, I find a previously unknown author, musician, fact or opinion connected to Dylan.  Sure, it has its biases and is sometimes slightly irreverent, but The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia is an invaluable resource for the fan and scholar alike.  (By the way, here's what Gray says about guitarist Stu Kimball:  "As of early 2006, he remains in the band, a competent team player who has never contributed the slightest musical personality of his own to the rest."  Yep, it sounds as if he has ol' Socks pegged pretty well.)

NOVEMBER 2006

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THE ALBUM OF THE YEAR THAT DR. SUESS DOESN'T WANT YOU TO HEAR

A website called dylanhearsawho.com caused quite a stir within the Dylan fan community a couple months ago.  The site featured a photo of Bob Dylan circa 1965, expertly doctored to make it look as if he were reading a Dr. Suess book while wearing a Cat in the Hat-style hat.  Even better, next to the graphic of a spinning record on a turntable, there were links to streaming audio for seven songs.  Seven songs that constitute one of the most brilliant musical parodies ever produced.

If I had heard these songs without knowing the source, I'd have sworn they were previously unknown Dylan outtakes from 1965-66.  The vocal style is perfect, capturing Dylan's druggy drawl from his Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde albums.  The musical backing is equally adept at mimicking the blues influenced electric guitars and Al Kooper's piping organ riffs.  Only a close listen to the lyrics reveals the joke.  They are word-for-word readings of stories from the Dr. Suess children's books.

"The Zax" and "Too Many Daves" get somber acoustic arrangements, making them startlingly poignant.  "Green Eggs and Ham" and "The Cat in the Hat" unfold like Dylan's grand epics in the style of "Like a Rolling Stone" and "Visions of Johanna."  More than one fan pointed out how profound the Suess tales seem when given the Dylan treatment, which may prove the axiom that Dylan's genius lies not in what he says, but how he says it.

Dylan Hears a Who seemed to gather momentum the more attention it received.  A week or so after the site launched, it offered mp3s of the songs and clever album cover and label mockups for download.  Then the media took notice.  Entertainment Weekly published a glowing review and revealed the album's creator, one Kevin Ryan from Houston, Texas, a music producer and author of a highly regarded reference book about the Beatles' recording methods.  Shortly thereafter, the site disappeared.

Not surprisingly, Ryan got slapped with a cease and desist order from the Suess legal Grinches, who are known to aggressively protect their copyrights.  In a message posted on an online music forum, Ryan revealed he was flattered by all the attention his project garnered, but was "creeped out" at how easily his identity was uncovered and understandably shaken by the legal threats.  He said the site leaked out earlier than expected, before he had the chance to finish all the songs he intended to post.  Yes, there were actually more songs in the works!  It's a shame that such a masterful parody can't receive an official release, since it easily rivals The Rutles in its attention to detail and obvious love of the subject.  But as Ryan said, the songs are now out there "in the ether" for those willing to hunt for them.  No comment from Dylan himself thus far on the matter.  But I'm waiting for him to add "Oh, the Thinks You Can Think!" to his concert setlist any day now. 

APRIL 2007

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A RIDE OF A LIFETIME

There are countless unauthorized video releases that attempt to peek behind the curtain of mystery surrounding Bob Dylan.  Fellow musicians, former band members, music critics, photographers, recording engineers and anyone else an aspiring filmmaker can manage to point a video camera at get screen time to tell about their brush with Bob.  Sometimes a crumb of new information is revealed, but most of the time these productions are too much of nothing.

Not so with a new DVD titled Bob Dylan: Never Ending Tour Diaries, featuring drummer Winston Watson, who played in Dylan’s touring band from 1992 to 1996.  Most musicians who have toured with Dylan are usually tight-lipped about their time with him.  This DVD breaks the mold.  Watson kept extensive diaries during his tenure and provides one of the most detailed accounts yet of being on the road with the often mercurial musician.  Any Dylan fan will find it a fascinating journey.  The drummer relates his “trial by fire” on stage audition, personal encounters with his boss and other celebrities, impressions of his band mates and tour crew, and describes attending events such as Woodstock 2, Dylan’s 30th Anniversary Concert, MTV’s Unplugged and Frank Sinatra’s birthday bash.  Don’t look for any dirt (well, maybe a little on Van Morrison) or stories about hanging out at Bob’s house.  The relationship between Dylan and his band is strictly professional.  But if you’re curious about how a long-running tour operation works or what a Dylan band rehearsal is like, Winston delivers the goods. 

The DVD also includes Watson’s tour videos and a surprising amount of fairly good quality concert footage, although most of it is silent, presumably because of copyright issues.  Especially striking is a segment showing a woman jumping on stage and singing with Dylan at his microphone during a European show.  For some reason, neither Bob nor his security found her threatening.  She even gives Dylan a kiss at song’s end.

I enjoyed seeing Watson in the drummer’s seat at the Dylan shows I went to in the 1990s.  Unlike the mostly anonymous bunch Dylan currently tours with, Watson added spark and personality to the proceedings.  This same presence is found in the engaging stories he tells on the Never Ending Tour Diaries DVD.  Thank you, Winnie, for sharing your ride of a lifetime with us.

MARCH 2009

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BREAKING THE MIRROR

Even the president of the United States must have to stand naked.

Bob Dylan wrote the song “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” in 1964 and it appeared on the album Bringing it All Back Home the following year.  The line quoted above elicited no particular reaction when Dylan performed the song throughout 1964 and 1965.  When he resumed touring in 1974, the lyric took on an added resonance in the face of Richard Nixon and the Watergate scandal.  Whenever Dylan has played “It’s Alright Ma” in concert since then, wild cheers greet the presidential indictment.  Over the ensuing decades, the response has remained the same but for different reasons.  In the 1990s, the lyric brought to mind Bill Clinton’s sexual escapades, while later on it reflected the attitude toward George W. Bush’s administration.  (I wonder if the meaning will shift again with Obama’s election?)  Despite Dylan’s original intent, the audience’s perception of his words changed over the years.

Lee Marshall examines how the understanding and meaning of Dylan’s work continues to evolve in his book Bob Dylan: The Never Ending Star.  Marshall defines a star as “someone who produces a body of work that has some existence outside of the individual celebrity’s person.”  As the example above shows, the star’s work takes on a meaning of its own through shifts in society’s perception, in spite of the artist’s primary intent.  Sometimes myth or the distortion of facts alters the view of a work.  Dylan’s motorcycle accident at the height of his 1960s fame and his subsequent disappearance from the limelight generated rumors of near-fatal injuries.  (There is still speculation over how serious the accident was, but there is no question Dylan used it to escape the pressures he was under.)  When the album John Wesley Harding appeared at the end of 1967, its stripped down sound and parable-like lyrics were received as if they were the first words from the risen dead.  More recently, Dylan suffered a serious heart infection in 1997, a few months before the release of the Time Out of Mind album.  Many of its songs addressed aging and mortality, causing most fans and critics to assume they were inspired by Dylan’s illness.  The album was completed long before he got sick, but shadow of the incident still looms over Time Out of Mind, despite the facts.

Marshall argues that Dylan’s relentless tour schedule since 1988, named the Never Ending Tour by fans, is a way to encourage reinterpretation of his songs.  By performing over 100 concerts a year, fans are constantly exposed to his music in different contexts.  Hearing the songs over the years, in a variety of settings, using different arrangements forces listeners to continually reevaluate them.  Dylan once described listening to his own records as “looking into a lifeless mirror.”  Touring is an attempt to keep his work alive and to shatter his image as a legend frozen in time.

But some fans want Dylan frozen in time, as I’ve learned from some of the reactions toward Dylan's latest album Together Through Life.  A few weeks before its release, I received an email from a fellow fan stating that he was not looking forward the new album at all.  He didn’t like the title.  He didn’t like the cover design.  He didn’t like the reported impromptu recording methods.  He didn’t like the news that the accordion was featured on many of the songs.  He didn’t like the fact that Dylan apparently collaborated on the lyrics.  All these worries before he even heard the album! 

Later he directed me to a PopMatters blog entry titled “Just Say No to Dylan” by Joseph Kugelmass, saying that it reflected many of his feelings.  The blogger “reviews” the new record by complaining that he’s heard its made up of love songs, then concludes, ”We don’t need Bob Dylan to guide us through a museum of American music and the tropes of redemptive love. We need him in the here and now, in the bleak present.”  Well, Dylan has addressed “the tropes of redemptive love” throughout his career and many of the new songs are pretty bleak.  I’d respect Kugelmass’s views more if he cited a single song or lyric, or criticized the music on Together Through Life to back up his position.  Oh yes, it might help if he mentioned the album title, too!  I honestly think (along with most other readers judging from the comments left on the blog) that he never listened to the album.  This shows just how powerful star image can be.  Kugelmass got all worked up over his preconceptions without touching on the actual music.

Of course I have my own preconceived ideas about what Dylan should do.  I wish he would cast his song selection net even wider in concert and I’m not a big fan of his current touring band.  But something like the Never Ending Tour is part of what makes Bob Dylan so unique.  He’s making a conscious effort to change the way people approach his music.  Lee Marshall’s book is one of the first to study how Dylan does this and how society places its own meanings on his musical canon.  In the process Marshall himself creates yet another prism through which to view Dylan.

MAY 10, 2009

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SEATTLE DOUBLEHEADER:
LONESOME DAY BLUES REVIVED


When I last saw Bob Dylan in concert in 2006, he played “Lonesome Day Blues,” a song I’d waited years to hear him play live.  Unfortunately, the guitarists he employed at the time were much too timid and the song died on the vine that night.  The whole show was my least favorite of all the Bob shows I’ve been to, with Dylan firmly ensconced behind a keyboard that sounded worthy of an ice rink and the rest of the band virtually lifeless.  It was about as exciting as getting socks and underwear for Christmas.

When Dylan and company pulled out “Lonesome Day Blues” during the October 4th, 2009,  warm up show at the 1,300-seat Moore Theatre, it was loud, it was wild.  They nailed it, along with almost everything else.  No more sleepy band.  No more socks and underwear.

The keyboard is no longer king.  Instead, Dylan spent much of the evening center stage singing and/or playing guitar.  I haven’t seen him this animated since the 1995 dates.  Part of the reason for this revitalization is the return of guitarist Charlie Sexton.  He and Bob stared each other down throughout the show, pushing, goading, playing off each other like two stalking panthers.  Sexton is a showman and Dylan is not about to let some younger whippersnapper upstage him, so Bob HAD to up his game.  And he delivered, too.

The pounding gospel number, “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking,” served as a statement of purpose that things have changed.  I’ve always loved the version of this song that Dylan sang with Mavis Staples and the rendition this night came close to its raucous splendor.  Bob then cooled things off with a haunting “Shooting Star,” bathed in low amber lighting and delivering some tender harmonica lines.  Donnie Herron’s trumpet bleats signaled the start of “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’,” sounding much heavier than on the Together Through Life album.  Dylan and Charlie exchanged guitar licks on “High Water” (with Bob holding his guitar almost upright, Bill Wyman-style), somehow enhancing both its bluegrass and rock ‘n’ roll qualities at the same time.  “Not Dark Yet” was another center stage sublime moment.  When Dylan did play keyboards, he seemed more inventive and the organ’s timbre was closer to a Hammond than Farfisa.  His waltz riffs gave “When the Deal Goes Down” a charming glint.  A menacing and satisfying “Ballad of a Thin Man” ended the main set and we were all sent off into the night with a rousing, if rather predictable, encore of “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Jolene.”  I expected another song or two, but Bob decided to leave it at that.  About the only disappointment was “Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum,” never one of my favorites, but even it was saved by Sexton’s blazing guitar work.

There were times during the concert that I couldn’t believe what I was seeing and hearing, feeling lucky to be in the same room with the man and these musicians. That’s a good feeling.  After seeing him in 2006, I didn’t know if I’d be really excited about a tour again, but here I am in 2009 wondering what Dylan will do next.  And excited about it.

On to the next show…

My enjoyment of Seattle Night Two was marred somewhat by not being able to see the stage as well with a crowd of 7,000 standing in front of me.  Also, people behind me spent half the show talking about their Texas vacation instead of listening to what Bob had to say.  I finally asked them to please shut up.  Fortunately, they did.

Even though the WaMu Theatre performance featured essentially the same opening and closing numbers as the night before, it was an entirely different animal.  Almost right away, the song selection felt a bit  more ‘standard,” as a crowd-friendly “Lay Lady Lay” replaced the trainspotter “Shooting Star.”  Over half of Together Through Life made up the core of the set, giving it a more unified feeling than the Moore concert.  These new country blues songs are perfect for a live setting with lots of nuances for the band to explore.  They’re up for the challenge, too. Dylan and his ensemble effortlessly shifted from the slow blues of “My Wife’s Hometown” and “If You Ever Go to Houston’s” breezy swing,  to a soulful “I Feel a Change Comin’ On.”  A moody “Forgetful Heart,” perhaps my favorite from the LP, was especially fine.  Herron added an eerie violin that enhanced its desolate atmosphere. 

Another highlight was “Honest With Me,” anchored by a mysterious Peter Gunn-like riff from Charlie, perking up the song considerably from its slightly worn out welcome of the past few years.  On previous tours, “Memphis Blues Again” became a lumbering excuse to simply rock out with Dylan often rushing the lyrics.  Tonight the song was closer to how I always wished it were played.  Stu Kimball’s loud acoustic guitar strumming (yes, I could actually hear him for once!) made it a fun light-footed romp with Dylan spitting out the words staccato-style, mimicking his rhythmic keyboard playing.  This time we did get a third encore in the form of a majestic “All Along the Watchtower,” providing a more satisfying wrap up to the evening.

I preferred the rough-and-tumble, anything goes, intimate vibe of the Moore, but the WaMu concert was no slouch either.  Both shows prove Dylan is on yet another roll.  With Charlie Sexton back in the fold, Bob and the band seem ready for anything.  Things could get interesting on this latest leg of the Never Ending Tour.  All bets are off.  Bob Dylan is keeping us on our toes again!

OCTOBER 5-8, 2009

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MUST BE SANTA: DYLAN DOES CHRISTMAS

Bob Dylan’s new holiday album Christmas in the Heart has shocked some fans.  I’ve read everything from “It’s the worst thing ever recorded!,” to comments crying, “He should have stuck with his acoustic guitar and harmonica!”  Both sound remarkably similar to what die-hard folkies said when Dylan switched from folk to rock in the 1960s.  I guess the times don’t always change much.

Followers familiar with Dylan’s DJing gig as the host of Theme Time Radio Hour really shouldn’t be all that surprised by Christmas in the Heart.  The program was an engaging historical trawl through pop music and this Christmas album is a similar trip through the type of music Dylan probably heard while growing up.  All of its 15 holiday chestnuts sport pre-1960-style arrangements, many complete with a sprightly chorus of background vocalists.  Light pop and country swing are the order of the day.  The manic accordion polka of “Must Be Santa” and the sultry “The Christmas Blues,” featuring a short but gritty harmonica solo, are the only numbers that get anywhere near the vicinity of rock music.

This isn’t a quickly tossed-off collection to cash in on the holiday season, either.  Believe it or not, Dylan delivers some of his most committed and impassioned vocals in recent history.  Sure, his voice is an aged rocky growl, but it’s clear that he’s giving it his all.  The band is a delight as well.  Listen to the chiming piano and smooth guitar runs in “Do You Hear What I Hear?,” the moody strings of “The First Noel” and “Winter Wonderland’s” singing steel guitar.  The one song that doesn’t quite work is “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.”  Its wide-ranging melody is too difficult for Dylan’s limited-range voice, although his whole-hearted attempt is morbidly fascinating to hear.

Perhaps Dylan enjoys tweaking his fans’ expectations, but Christmas in the Heart is an honest and sincere homage to Christmas collections by the likes of Sinatra, Crosby and Bennett.  Bob Dylan sees himself as just another entertainer carrying on a long popular music tradition.  Fans unable to at least smile at this notion take the man and his work way too seriously.  For those wanting a message from the Voice of a Generation, this album does have one, straight from Bob to you:

Merry Christmas!

NOVEMBER 29, 2009

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