“For years, they had me locked in a cage/Then they threw me onto the stage,” Bob Dylan once sang/confessed/bragged/warned. “Some things just last longer than you thought they would.”
It's impressive that Bob Dylan is still touring heavily at the age of 68, but what's really amazing is that the notoriously unpredictable singer has been on such a consistently creative roll over the past decade or so. He admitted in his 2004 autobiography, Chronicles, Volume One, that the muse often abandons him, seemingly for years at a time, as was the case for much of the 1980s. He's never been good at faking it when he's not motivated, unlike so many folks from classic rock's self-anointed greatest generation (i.e., the '60s) who've made a fine art of embalming their nostalgia and dutifully trotting out their ancient hits with a depressing slickness and regularity.
(note: Dylan isn't issuing photo passes for this run of shows, so we have to rely on dinky YouTube clips.)
But Dylan remains fascinating because he's motivated by his impulses and is constantly evolving. He may upset diehard fans by tinkering with the arrangements of his old classics, but that's precisely why he's still relevant. That musical open-mindedness seems to be a major reason why he's been so prolific since at least the 1997 release of Time Out of Mind. In fact, there have been so many disparately great tracks (like “Mississippi” and the above-quoted “Dreamin' of You”) that didn't make the cut on such excellent, so-called “comeback” albums as 2001's Love and Theft and 2006's Modern Times, Dylan had to issue a special three-disc version of his Bootleg Series of rarities, Tell Tale Signs, last year.
Given that he has such a wealth of recent material, as well as that awesome back catalog to dip into, we though it would be interesting to review and compare each of the shows at Dylan's three-night stand at the Palladium this week. That might seem a bit obsessive, but this consecutive set of gigs offers a rare chance to see him really dig into his repertoire, and see what surprises he might have in store for his adopted hometown. Many of his fans, who follow him on tour around the country like Deadheads, already know that he mixes up his set lists every night, with the ever-present possibility of an out-of-left-field cover song.
Of course, there are also risks with being so unpredictable. Dylan has a good voice — several of them, in fact — but he often flounders around wildly attempting to find it. His temptation to try spontaneous new melodies sometimes leaves him behind the beat and stuck out on a musical limb like a cat who can't find his way back down from a tree. His vocals can be so erratic, they sometimes make such famously inconsistent front men like Mick Jagger, Joey Ramone and Lou Reed seem like opera singers. At the Dylan concerts I've seen in the past decade, his vocals have frequently been phlegmatic and hoarse, especially at the beginning of his shows.
But Tuesday night at the Palladium, Dylan was in fine voice from the opening song, “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking,” an ominous “Jesus is coming” warning from 1979's Slow Train Coming, which stalked with a bluesy intensity. You didn't have to believe in God to get a chill from its foreboding atmosphere. The singer was dressed in a black hat and a black suit with red buttons and a red collar, while the band was decked out in matching grey suits. In something of a surprise, regular lead guitarist Denny Freeman was missing, replaced for this tour by former Dylan sideman Charlie Sexton.
The second song, “Shooting Star” (from 1989's Oh Mercy), was an early highlight, with jangling guitars creating a sublimely spacy, mellow backdrop. Dylan even swung down low to intone a few deep, bassy lines like a cabaret crooner. It's a voice he rarely uses, but it sounded warm and sensual.
“Beyond Here Lies Nothin'” was the first of four songs from Dylan's recent CD, Together Through Life, that would be played over the course of the evening. As the rolling swells of zyedeco/Tex-Mex-fueled rhythms rose and fell behind him, Dylan wailed on harmonica, blending it artfully with multi-instrumentalist whiz Donnie Herron's trumpet blasts to create an awesome sheet of sound that moved from swanky blues to No Wave dissonance.
Originally intended for big bands, the Palladium historically had a muddy, echoey sound whenever electrified rock bands performed there, but the newly renovated ballroom not only looked much cleaner, lighter and airier tonight, the sound system was a vast improvement from the old days. There was a sharpness and clarity to instruments like acoustic guitar, mandolin and banjo, which would have been buried in the murk in the past.
Dylan strapped on an electric guitar for an amiable ramble through “Don't Think Twice, It's All Right,” as the crowd sang along with him. It was a pleasant interlude, but nowhere near as heavy as the contrasting shock of a hard-and-heavy “Cold Irons Bound” (from Time Out of Mind). Dylan again spit out some soul-piercing, bluesy harp. His harmonica playing has really evolved in recent years, becoming deadlier and much more melodically exacting compared to the seemingly random flurry of notes he blew through in the early years.
“Most Likely You'll Go Your Way (And I'll Go Mine)” was the first weak performance of the night. The breaks were sloppy, and the rollicking drum fills that give the song its snappy hook were too tentative. That's probably not entirely drummer George Recile's fault. Even though the singer's underrated, sympathetically intuitive band have been playing with him for a long time and have done these songs hundreds of times, Dylan still has a tendency to change the length of verses and even individual phrases without warning, which means that Recile and the band have to be constantly vigilant and ready to reign him back in if the song goes off the track. That's probably why the musicians often look worried and uptight, focusing intently on every one of Dylan's twitches for a potential sign of an imminent chord change or an extended vamp.
There's a reason why they're called His Band as opposed to, say, The Band. They're there to follow him, not the other way around. (Of course, it's hard to imagine Dylan having ever followed anybody else's lead, except maybe when he's chasing a beautiful woman he has the hots for.)
These days, Dylan generally prefers to play keyboards onstage, slinging on his guitar just once or twice per show. Standing behind his keyboards seems to give him more control. When a jam gets going or a song changes direction, it's usually Dylan who launches it, sending out shifting chords or repeating a pattern he really likes. He's like a captain at the wheel of his ship when he's behind his keyboards, which are not set up to face directly at the audience. Instead, the keyboards are angled so that they're pointed at the rest of his band, who are largely on the opposite side of the stage, staring back at him like serious, attentive students.
Herron switched to mandolin and Tony Garnier leaned on his upright bass for the next song, a slinky and luridly rocking take on “My Wife's Hometown” (from Together Through Life). It's here where Dylan's craggier, rawer vocal style works best, sort of like Tom Waits or an old bluesman putting his rough burr against the sexy shake of a roots rhythm. Musically, “My Wife's Hometown” is like an especially seedy cross between “Heartbreak Hotel” and “I Just Want to Make Love to You.” It may disappoint folk-music purists who only want to hear Woody Guthrie songs, but Dylan has clearly thrown his allegiance over to the blues in recent years. Maybe that's where he's been all along, since brainy folk really isn't that far away from the more rhythmically compelling blues, meeting somewhere down that ol' Highway 61.
“Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again” was next, and it was a little disorganized at first, with the chords clashing chaotically in the early going, and the tempo speeding up by the end. But the band managed to hold it together, and at times it was suffused with some of the same glow as the original version.
Bob was back on guitar for the throbbing blues rock of “High Water (For Charley Patton).” He clutched the neck almost vertically, like former Stones bassist Bill Wyman, as if he wanted to keep a tight connection and eye on his own scrappy lead-guitar licks, which he traded nimbly with Sexton's. There was a really lovely moment when Dylan's electric guitar, Sexton's lead guitar, Stu Kimball's rhythm guitar and Herron's banjo all met at the junction for an intricately knotty and lacy twining of string sounds.
Change seems to be word that best defines Bob Dylan, and it cropped up again in the title of another recent song from Together Through Life, “I Feel a Change Comin' On.” It was a jaunty, nicely mellow change of pace, especially when juxtaposed with an ensuing throttling of “Highway 61 Revisited.” That mid-1960s classic snaked to an inexorably compulsive John Lee Hooker makeover, culminating in an increasingly loud and stormy jam that drew the biggest audience response of the night. The song is usually a centerpiece at Dylan concerts, and tonight his keyboards really rocked, pulsating firmly, almost like a Deep Purple rave-up.
Dylan settled the audience back down with another ballad, “Nettie Moore” (from Modern Times), which had a sweetly lilting feel, thanks to Herron's expectant, staccato viola strokes. On the day of L.A.'s first rainstorm of the season, Dylan raised another cheer from the punters when he sang, “I think the rain has stopped.”
Speaking of rain, “Thunder on the Mountain,” another tune from Modern Times, has become a regular selection on recent tours, and tonight it really swung, with Sexton pulling off a great solo, which was rooted at first in countrified twang, before it shifted into supersonic overdrive, with double-note rockabilly-blues licks he wrung out from his ax's neck and flung across the ballroom floor like heat-seeking laser beams.
“Ballad of a Thin Man” was even more dramatic, with the stage lights casting giant shadows of the band against the black curtain backdrop. This arrangement was especially stark. At times, there was little more than Recile's drums and Dylan's vocals, with an occasional stray splang of guitar. Then Dylan huffed a bitterly melancholic harp solo, leaving big, lonely spaces between each aching blast of his harmonica. Here was an oldie that didn't sound like an oldie, since it was felt fresh and cold and stinging like a new snowfall.
That was the end of the main set, although much of the crowd didn't appear to notice that the lights had gone down and that the band had left the stage. Eventually, a few folks mustered a timid round of applause for an encore. Maybe fans were still shell-shocked by the harrowing version of “Ballad of a Thin Man.” It's not that people didn't like the show. Everyone stayed, waiting expectantly for an encore that most were too lazy to call out for. Eventually, Dylan & His Band returned, whipping out what I call their usual Jimi Hendrix-themed encores, “Like a Rolling Stone” and “All Along the Watchtower,” which were bookend around a lustily rocking version of the new song “Jolene” (which shouldn't be confused with the Dolly Parton song of the same title).
As usual, Dylan didn't say much to the crowd except when he introduced the band. “Like a Rolling Stone” was livelier than some recent versions, which have a little creaky at times. “All Along the Watchtower” felt urgent, as Dylan's insistent keyboards pushed the song along to a clipped beat. To Sexton's credit, his solos didn't fall into a predictable Hendrix trap, as he found his own bluesy way to make the song sound different. Recile released some saved-up tension with a couple of powerfully explosive, fast drum rolls that came out of nowhere, and which really sent “Watchtower” tumbling down the hill. Great stuff. The crowd didn't get (or deserve) a second encore, but Dylan & His Band came back for one last bow, before they slipped away into the shadows by the side of the stage.
What did Mr. Zimmerman have planned for last night? For tonight? Stay tuned.