Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Positively Bob Dylan

Last time I saw Bob Dylan was back in the 1992 at the Van Wezel. He was too cool for school, ignoring the audience and playing half-heartedly in sloppy, idiosyncratic arrangements that were all over the place. (Think The Imagination Song from South Park's Imaginationland.)

By comparison, Dylan's concert at the USF Sun Dome was a shot of love. Surprise, surprise.

I didn't expect that much. The Sun Dome is a uniquely ugly example of brutalist concrete architecture. Brutal crowd control, too. Security was ridiculously tight; your freaking ticket was basically an internal passport you had to show every time you used the stairs. May I see your papers please? There will be no flashing of the chimes of freedom here!

Before the concert, I noticed that Dylan had branded his current tour with a weird lightning bolt eye under a crown logo. The Zimmermania booth was selling Bob Dylan t-shirts and Bob Dylan Harmonicas. The dude should branch out into Bob Dylan Leopard Skin Pillbox Hats and Bob Dylan Big Brass Beds. But I digress.

After diverting the audience with a clip from D.W. Griffith's Intolerance, Dylan opened with, well, Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat, and right away I knew I was in for a treat.

His latest band ain't The Band, but it's a damn good band. Lead guitarist Charlie Sexton cooked on steel guitar. The drummer was a machine. Loved the band. (Though, as noted, they're not The Band.) Now that Dylan sounds like Tom Waits after gargling with rock salt, it's wise to wrap that voice in a powerhouse band with a distinct identity.

The new band's identity is strictly R&B. They'd be right at home in the Blues Fest.

Dylan didn't spend the whole concert noodling the keyboard. At times, he actually sang to the audience. Damned if I understood a word. Dylan of 2010 today makes the Dylan of the 1960s sound like Frank Sinatra. He could be singing in Esperanto for all I know. But he sang from his heart and that's what counts.

The Folk-Rock Poet of the Youth Generation also seemed to click with the band -- as opposed to pissing on their heads, cracking the whip, dominating or ignoring them. Hell, at times, I think they're were jamming, improvising and fooling around like a real cohesive group.

Dylan didn't serve up the half-hearted meanderings I remember from 1992. Or the weird, sprung rhythms of his early electric period, either. The arrangements were stripped-down: roadhouse rhythm and blues with a dash of rockabilly. No frills, no kazoos, just driving rhythm like a runaway train. It's what the people wanted. (And what hardcore Dylanites probably didn't want.) Call it: The Give The People What They Want Tour.

The set list offered a grab-bag of audience faves, Lay Lady Lay, Highway 61 Revisited, A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall, Tangled Up in Blue, etc. He put in a few relatively new pieces -- Tweedleedum and Tweedleedee, It's All Good, etc. But they fit in seamlessly with the hard-charging arrangements of Dylan's mainstream classics.

The Unwashed Phenomenon closed with Just Like a Woman and did All Along the Watchtower as an encore. I jumped to my feet, pumped my fist and shouted "Yes!" like a true fan boy.

The audience loved it, too. Whole lotta shaking going on down in the crowd. College kids getting into it.

It occurred to me both songs are statements of judgment and doom. All the Talmudic scholars who picked Dylan's lyrics apart back in the day figured the spoiled brat of Just Like a Woman stood for narcissistic, power-tripping America and the dues we're going to pay; All Along the Watchtower is clearly pre-Apocalyptic. Two dudes strolling the fortress perimeter and waiting for Sauron's forces to ride in.

These words of warning are lost on anyone who doesn't already know 'em.

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