Bob Dylan & His Band at the Hollywood Palladium, Thursday, October 15
After the unexpectedly smooth vocal performances and the many sublime moments at the first two shows of Bob Dylan's three-night stand at the Hollywood Palladium, it's understandable and perhaps inevitable that there would be a slight letdown at the final concert. Thursday night, Dylan's vocals were raspier, and the mix wasn't quite as good, which by itself was a significant distraction, especially in comparison to the fuller, louder, slightly watery sound on Tuesday and especially Wednesday, when it seemed like everything was swimming in a sea of love.
(Editor's note: apparently security was being more vigilant during Thursday's show regarding video. Most of the clips are ... clipped. No photographs, either.)
But these mixed feelings also point to the subjective nature of musical experiences, which can be affected by everything from where you stand in the room to what you ate that day. If I hadn't happened to catch the first two nights of Dylan & His Band's shows in Hollywood, I would've thought that the Thursday-night concert was simply wonderful, with the usual ups and downs, perhaps, but also with the usual unusual surprises and irreplaceable, ephemerally transcendent, you-had-to-be-there gems. If anything, the set list on Thursday had more of my recent favorites, and the crowd was considerably more into it than the passive folks at the first two gigs. Perhaps it's unforgivably silly to attempt to play umpire here and rank the varying emotional responses to sonic vibrations bouncing off 4,000 pairs of ears over the course of three uncontrolled experiments in a pleasantly refurbished landmark ballroom. Didn't some guy once say, "Don't think twice, it's all right"?
Following the standard piped-in introduction/gratuitous Bob Dylan history lesson, the band ambled onstage, dressed tonight in matching grey suits with black shirts and black hats (apart from guitarist Charlie Sexton and multi-instrumentalist Donnie Herron, who weren't wearing hats). Dylan was attired in a black hat and one of his usual black suit-like outfits. He looked good for his age, a thin mustache framing his quick smile with a hint of wickedness as he hunched slightly over his electric keyboard.
The band kicked off with "Gonna Change My Way of Thinking," which also started Tuesday's show. It was a good version, but it didn't have the same fire & brimstone as it did the first night. The guitars sounded muted and toned down, which would be a problem the entire evening, and while you could generally hear the vocals, they didn't have the same clarity and bite, and you couldn't always pick up Dylan's subtler, quieter phrasings. The new sound system is still a million times better than the way it used to sound in the old Palladium, but the overall volume was quieter than it was the first two nights, until near the end.
Dylan switched gears on the very next song, "This Dream of You," a weepy Tex-Mex slow waltz from his most recent non-Santa Claus-related album, Together Through Life, which came out earlier this year. Sent aloft by Tony Garnier's gentle push of upright bass, Stu Kimball's salting of acoustic guitar and Donnie Herron's weave of electric mandolin, the song is tethered to Earth by Dylan's low, gruff vocals, making for an oddly beautiful contrast and a bittersweetly moving idyll so early in the set. "There's a moment when all old things/Become new again/But that moment might have come and gone," he lamented movingly. "Everything I touch seems to disappear."
Then it was time for another change, in this case "Things Have Changed," the tune from the Wonder Boys soundtrack (2000) that nabbed him an Academy Award for Best Original Song. It's one of my favorites from the past decade, with great lyrics like "I'm looking up into the sapphire tinted skies/I'm well dressed, waiting on the last train" and "All the truth in the world adds up to one big lie" and "I'm in love with a woman who don't even appeal to me." But Dylan garbled one line that would've gotten a big crowd response if people had heard it: "I'm in the wrong town, I should be in Hollywood."
Previous versions of "Things Have Changed" on other tours have been low-down and rocking, but tonight's rendition had more of Dire Straits feel, with clean, sting-like-a-butterfly guitars and a generally soft, cottony sound. You want it sound to tougher when he snarls things like "People are crazy and times are strange . . . I used to care, but things have changed."
The more I stared at the Academy Award statuette perched on Dylan's Leslie speaker, the more I became confused. If it's true that's really the actual Oscar he won, then it's completely rad that he brings it with him on tour, where it can easily be lost, damaged or stolen. It means that he truly doesn't give a fuck about artistic competitions, awards and meaningless baubles. (Either that or he has a roadie who constantly keeps an eye on it, at the risk of getting axed if anything happens).
However. And a big however, the more I thought about it. If, by chance, the Oscar statuette was merely a replica -- you know, the kind tourists buy on Hollywood Boulevard -- then there was something really wrong about it, that a legendary songwriter like Dylan needed to remind everyone that he won an Academy Award once. That would be pretty pathetic. That damn statuette better be fucking real, I thought sternly as I stared at it shining in the stage lights.
"I know these streets, I've been here before," Dylan sang in a fairly clear voice on "If You Ever Go to Houston" (also from Together Through Life). There was a nice jangling guitar sound, but Sexton's and Kimball's guitars were still too low in the mix.
Next up was his surreal makeover of the old blues standard "Rollin' and Tumblin'," where he added his own cranky-brilliant lyrics to Muddy Waters' arrangement. It's from 2006's Modern Times and another one of my recent favorites, so I was happy he pulled it out of his bag of tricks tonight. The guitars were still back in the mix, but they sounded hot anyway, with Sexton on slide and Kimball pinging a strange blue lick rejoinder.
"Chimes of Freedom" was the sixth song of the set, and the first '60s oldie of the night, but here I thought that the blend of Captain Beefheart vocals with the sprightly pop music was unsettling rather than stirring. The arrangement was bland and happy. As I looked around me at the crowd, I wondered what the song even meant. Freedom? What kind of freedom? And for whom?
"Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum" (from 2001's "Love and Theft") was back tonight. It's an uptempo roots-rocker with a stomping harmonica and guitar break, which moves into an exciting rave-up that stops just as it's really getting started. Last night, the mini rave-up reminded me of Aerosmith. Tonight, it was the Yardbirds, which is more or less the same thing.
As soon as Dylan sang the opening line ("Shadows are falling, and I've been here all day") of "Not Dark Yet" (from 1997's Time Out of Mind), the crowd roared a big cheer of recognition. It's a swaying, acoustic-based ballad that has sort of a "Moonlight Mile" dreaminess, with Herron embellishing it with parts that were exotically febrile.
"Most Likely You'll Go Your Way (And I'll Go Mine)" was another repeat from Tuesday night, but it still didn't work for me. It was soggy and emotionally unremarkable, and at times it sounded like the musicians were going in different directions at once, like they really were going their own way while Dylan went his. More importantly, it was too darn cheery.
The blues wallow "My Wife's Hometown" had a harder edge and a more deliberate pace than the version on Together Through Life. Three electric guitars (including Dylan's) and Herron's electric mandolin exchanged fat, honey-drippin', sinuous licks. Nothing overtly flashy, mind you, but it was some awfully lovely pickin' and pluckin'. (In case you're wondering, his wife's hometown is hell.)
"Highway 61 Revisited" is a set mainstay, and it's usually one of the highlights. And why not? God's ordering Abraham to kill him a son, and Abe's not really happy about it, so he asks Robert Johnson for advice (more or less). Tonight's version was pretty good but not as fully astonishing as the performances earlier in the week. During the first instrumental break, Dylan (back on keyboards) and Sexton had a cooking little jam going, but they fumbled it, dropping a routine pop fly.
In the song's second break, however, Dylan put the team on his back and went for the win. He pumped up his soap-operatic organ blasts, Sexton responded with his black-&-white Telecaster, and the overall mix suddenly felt a lot fuller and louder.
"Ain't Talkin'" was another good recent song he didn't play the other two nights. Tonight it had more of a hard-edge blues drive than either of the versions on Modern Times or The Bootleg Series Vol. 8: Tell Tale Signs. There was a low, blues-funky sense of menace, with Dylan's keyboards and Herron's violin swooping in and off each other. Sexton's guitar (this time it was his silver one) sounded sinister, not because of volume or distortion, but because of the low-key, crafty chords he was laying underneath.
Sexton has only been back in the group for a few weeks, but he was fine tonight, although he didn't really get to rip it up as much as he did the first two nights. I wonder what happened to Denny Freeman, the previous lead guitarist, who'd been with Dylan for much of the decade and was touring with the band as recently as August. Freeman was good too, in his own way, not flashy at all but seemingly attuned to the endless shifts and eddies of Dylan's live melodies with empathetic guitar parts.
"Thunder on the Mountain," from Modern Times, is more than just an elaborate excuse for Dylan to say he has a crush on Alicia Keys. It's an instantly catchy blues burner on par with "Rollin' and Tumblin'" that rocks with such apocalyptic momentum, it's often found near the end of his shows. Tonight's version was good, but this was another case where the guitars really needed to be higher in the mix.
"They have good shadows," somebody in the crowd said, as the somber stage lighting cast the giant hatted silhouettes of Dylan and His Band against the wall behind them during the set closer, "Ballad of a Thin Man." This is one of the old songs that always retain their power to chill, and not just because he changes its arrangement from time to time, like a snake shedding its skin. It's such a compelling, head-jerking, intense song that it can survive any arrangement, and tonight's version was properly doom-ridden and serious. As Dylan cut through the fog with a rectangular harp solo, Kimball cranked up his tremolo bar to release wavy clouds of ghost feedback and harmonics. Great, great, great.
Tonight's crowd made a much bigger commotion for an encore than people did the first two nights, although they wound end up getting the same three songs. But "Like a Rolling Stone" had more of a gleam to it this time. Sexton carved several quick flurries that were as sharp and silvery as his guitar, and then Dylan took off with a cool-jerking keyboard solo that changed the tempo and the overall feel, taking the old warhorse into a totally different place for about a minute.
Dylan didn't talk much to the faithful, but during the introductions he reminded us that Kimball had given up a pro baseball career for the band. Then it was on to the recent blues rocker "Jolene," which was punchy and swaggering. "There must be some way out of here," Dylan foretold on the last song of the evening, "All Along the Watchtower," perhaps already planning his escape route from the Palladium.
After three consecutive nights of hearing the song, I feel like all of the versions have meshed into one giant version in my mind. The guitar solos were shorter this time, but it was an otherwise strong, exhilarating ending, even if there are so many other Dylan songs I'd rather hear.
The spectacle outside the Palladium after the concert was almost as fascinating as the show inside, as a diverse audience of all ages (Dylan still attracts a lot of young fans) spilled out onto the sidewalk. Street vendors hustled at least three different designs of bootleg T-shirts. The son of one of his old family friends was hawking a book of rarely seen black-&-white photos of Dylan in the early 1960s (Bob Dylan: Through the Eyes of Joe Alper).
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Around the corner on El Centro, two dolled-up women in their late 40s tottered as fast as they could in their high heels and cocktail dresses up the sidewalk toward a long tour bus.
"Is he inside? Is he inside?" one of them cried out desperately to anyone who might be listening through the open door of the dark bus. Tiring of that, they crossed the street as a black SUV limo was pulling out from behind the Palladium. Dylan was probably long gone, but they stood in front of the limo (which was empty) and blocked its path, waving and calling out to him until they were gently shooed away by a security guard.
Then wannabe actor Dennis Woodruff inched by in his garishly over-painted car/mobile billboard, stuck in the post-concert traffic on El Centro. He used the opportunity to hand DVDs out the window to people who ran up to his car, before he finally drove slowly, as if he were in an ice-cream truck.
Watching this burst of fannish frenzy over the departure of the apparently forever young and sexy Bob Dylan was like being in a real-life five-minute 3-D color outtake from Don't Look Back. Or a deleted scene from I'm Not There, at the very least.