Like a snowflake, each Bob Dylan concert is special. No two are alike, in part because he changes the set list at every show. At Wednesday's gig, the second of three consecutive nights in Hollywood this week, he and his band played a total of 17 songs (just as they did on Tuesday), repeating only eight tunes from the first evening.
Even when Dylan plays the same song, it rarely sounds the same way twice, since he's constantly cracking open its spine, spilling out its guts and rearranging the entrails. Over the years, he's taken a standard like “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” and experimented with it in varying musical contexts, giving different inflections to the lyrics, and transformed it from a reproachful folk anthem into a deceptively perky pop song.
Of course, Bob Dylan shows also have their familiar rituals. As much as he mixes up the set-list medicine, there are certain songs he tends to perform every night, such as “Highway 61 Revisited” and “Thunder on the Mountain,” along with the usual encores of “Like a Rolling Stone” and “All Along the Watchtower.”
Apart from introducing the band at the end of the show, Dylan rarely talks to the audience (which some newcomers find quite unsettling). It's nothing personal, but what he has to say is already contained in his songs, which come fully loaded with hidden meanings, portents, jokes, wordplay, divined wisdom, romantic propositions, literary allusions, Biblical references and historical shout-outs. Dig in.
As for iconic stage props, an Academy Award is always perched on top of the cabinet that houses the Leslie speaker for his keyboards. It's supposedly the actual Oscar he won for Best Original Song for writing “Things Have Changed,” from the 2000 film Wonder Boys, although it looks kind of small from out in the audience.
It's difficult (and probably pointless) to attempt to quantify the subjective emotional experiences of disparate Bob Dylan concerts. Even if he sometimes seems indifferent, and acts like he'd rather be in Memphis when he's actually stuck inside of Mobile, he still might stumble into a song that has deep emotional resonance for you. Forget about what the song might mean to him. You've been listening to the song since you were a kid, and filled its shell with your own lifetime of possessions and meanings. For you, every word of “Tangled Up in Blue” is specifically about your life, with a few of the names and places changed.
So you really don't need a weatherperson to tell you whether or not Bob Dylan blows, but, for what it's worth, I feel that his singing at Tuesday night's show was the best and most consistently melodic I've heard over the course of the half dozen of his shows I've seen in the past four years.
But that was then. What has he done lately? Believe it or not, his vocals were even stronger, warmer and suppler tonight. The band, who had a couple of bumpy patches and tentative moments on Tuesday, were more assured as well. It's not like you can call Dylan a late bloomer, since he's been certified as a legend practically since his debut album in 1962. But is it possible that he's only now starting to peak?
Tonight's concert commenced with a canned introduction by an unseen narrator who recited a list of obvious factoids about Dylan (he was a legend in the '60s, then he found Jesus, etc.) as the musicians walked on stage. Last night, the corny intro was left out. I'm not sure why it was brought back this evening, but it doesn't matter. Within moments, Dylan & His Band were rummaging through the opening song, “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat,” which had a souped-up and electric Chicago blues feel. It got a good response from the crowd, which was somewhat louder (and drunker?) than the audience at the first show.
This time, the band were dressed up in matching black suits and shirts, while Dylan wore a black suit, with a yellow shirt underneath. His black hat sported a small yellow feather in the brim. (His black-&-yellow ensemble looked exactly like the outfit he wore at his Lake Elsinore concert in August.)
The next number was the first of several unusual choices on the set list. “The Man in Me” is a relatively obscure song from 1970's New Morning, although it's probably better known for its use in The Big Lebowski. Dylan contrasted its easygoing pop vibe by resting his gruff voice against a bed of clean guitars and Donnie Herron's trumpet. The historically streaky singer was really on top of the beat tonight, and moved easily among his vocal alter egos (raspy bluesman, foggy-bottom smooth crooner, melodically yearning pop folkie) like a pitcher who has all three of his pitches working.
“Beyond Here Lies Nothin',” an undulating groove of late-night romantic blues voodoo from this year's Together Through Life, was the first repeat from Tuesday. It was just as sultry, but with more of a sour and bittersweet twist of Herron's trumpet. I don't understand why, but much of the crowd cheered again tonight when Dylan growled a relatively innocuous line, “Beyond here lies nothin'/Nothin' but the moon and stars.” Maybe it's something only lovers understand.
I was more fascinated by the lyrical bread crumbs, and where they led, in “Po' Boy,” a mellow soul-pop portrait from 2001's “Love and Theft,” which featured a gorgeous harmonica solo. “Time and love has branded me with its claws,” Dylan sang in a clear voice against Charlie Sexton's clean, sparkling guitar. “My father was a traveling salesman, I never met him.”
Jack-of-all-trades Jack Frost even essayed a Michael Jackson-like spin during the uptempo roots-rocker “Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum.” Dylan can dance? Then he cradled his harmonica and dueled with Sexton in short feints and parries until they built up enough steam for an Aerosmith-worthy rave-up.
Dylan's singing was at its softest and gentlest on the slowly unwinding “Sugar Baby” (another song from “Love and Theft”). “You went years without me/Might as well keep going now,” he advised between butterfly flutters of his harp, while Tony Garnier pumped his upright bass.
Despite telling a woeful tale of heartbreak and betrayal during the rocking “Cold Irons Bound,” Dylan allowed himself a few quick wicked grins of delight, surveying the crowd as the band smashed down the walls of the Palladium. Then it was time to calm down again, so he pushed the soothing ballad “When the Deal Goes Down” (from2006's Modern Times) along with playful swirls of ballpark organ.
The hard-cranking blues rocker “Honest With Me” (from “Love and Theft”) was already the ninth song of the set, with its urgent, evil riffs climbing the neck of Sexton's silver guitar like spiders. While they played, Dylan and Herron showed Sexton a subtle bending sound they make on certain accents, which gave the song kind of a woozy tilt.
Sexton has a long history with Dylan, but he only recently got involved again with this lineup, when the tour kicked off about a week ago in Seattle. He fits in great already, and gives Dylan a musical — and visual — foil to play against onstage, especially since the other His Band-ers tends to lurk in the background.
“Forgetful Heart” (from Together Through Life) was another bittersweet interlude, a romantic ballad layered with Herron's consoling violin. Maybe it was one of the chord changes or perhaps it was just the general mood, but it reminded me a little of B.B. King's “The Thrill Is Gone.”
Sexton and Dylan got into a tangled back-&-forth debate on guitar and keyboards during another epic version of “Highway 61 Revisited,” which was a little heavier on keyboards than on Tuesday night. Alternating between lion-hearted rockers and lamblike ballads, Dylan segued into another slow one, “Workingman's Blues #2,” a sad and simple love song that just happens to set against a backdrop of worldwide economic devastation (and quite prescient, considering that it came out in 2006 on Modern Times).
Another cut from Modern Times, “Thunder on the Mountain,” has quickly become a live staple and is something of an instant classic. Sexton pried out more piercing solos from his guitar, and Dylan issued organ blasts that were half-churchy and half-circusy. Just as the singer muttered the line “Gonna raise me an army, some tough sons of bitches,” Recile hammered down an appropriately aggressive and rattling drum fill.
For all of that, the set-closing “Ballad of a Thin Man” might have been the most intense song of the night. It certainly was a worthwhile rival to the wild version on Tuesday. Dylan coaxed heart-rending cries from his harmonica, while Sexton tapped on his guitar's neck to create a molten, bubbling effect during an improvised buildup.
While the crowd on Wednesday was livelier than the group on the first night, it still took them a long time to make enough noise to get an encore. Tonight there were increased cheers echoing down from the balconies, and eventually Dylan & His Band returned for the same three-song encore they played on Tuesday.
“Like a Rolling Stone” seemed perfunctory at first. The tempo was a tad slow and Dylan's singing was a little blasé, until the crowd started to sing along, and the energy picked up. Dylan introduced the band again (“Tony Garnier? Well, he's on bass guitar!”) but didn't otherwise speak to the crowd. (He also didn't take a stab at any of the holiday fare from Christmas in the Heart, even though the charity CD came out just two days ago.)
The merry new song “Jolene” followed, with Sexton whittling out several nicely spiky, economical solos. “All Along the Watchtower” closed the set like the inevitable windstorm that it is. Recile reprised his furious drum rolls, and at one point Sexton manipulated his guitar so that it sounded like a trumpet blast. There was a final bow from the band, and then they were gone.
On to part three. Dylan goes for the sweep tonight, with George Thorogood scheduled to open at 7:30 p.m.
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