By Kathleen D. Tresemer
“Something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is. Do you, Mister Jones?”—“Ballad of a Thin Man”
Before his October appearance at the Rockford MetroCentre, the last time I saw Bob Dylan was in the 1970s, still baby-faced and dressed in all white, a newly-converted Christian by his own account. I had seen him one other time a couple of years prior, a quiet-voiced folk balladeer with a little bit of rock to give it the right edge. He has made appearances over the years in the media: flashes of his former beatnik persona in black and white simplicity; joining other artists on “We are the World”; and very recently, hawking Pepsi.
So, when people ask me, “Which one is the definitive Dylan?” my response has to be: “Whichever Dylan he is today.” From his stream-of-consciousness lyrics to his hard rock core, he is always his best self.
Tuesday’s concert opened with a rousing version of “Cat’s in the Well,” Dylan growling at us from the keyboard and showcasing guitarist Charlie Sexton throughout the concert.
Sexton has played with Dylan off and on over the past decade, recently rejoining the tour to replace his buddy from Texas, Denny Freeman. Sexton’s work was nothing but stellar, often down on one knee at center stage, his eyes always on Dylan—musician first, showman only through his gift.
Second number, “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.” Call me sentimental, but it brought a tear to my eye, watching Freewheelin’ BD pick up the strings for what turned out to be his only guitar number of the night.
Since the late 1980s, reports of Dylan’s hand injury stand out like the elephant in the living room, and I have yet to get a verifiable answer to, “What happened?” I’ve heard an accident or a serious cut, both that were to have left his hand severely damaged.
My “most musical” companion for the night noticed: “I believe he used a pick for that number, and, if you noticed, held both the mike and played the harmonica in his left hand.” Suggestive of a right hand problem, I’m told.
In addition, my “most experienced” Dylan fan/companion (attending nearly 10 BD concerts in the past 30 years) advised earlier: “He may not play the guitar at all; he sticks mostly to keyboards these days.”
Whatever his reason, I cherished “Don’t Think Twice” for his passionate and bluesy rendition. The clear, sad ballad of the ’60s it wasn’t—who cared? Not anyone in the crowd appeared disappointed. Here’s the thing about Dylan…he switches it up every time in a rhythmic improvisation, using his voice as the instrument and daring us to vacate our old ideas of each piece. That’s the art of it.
“Most experienced” shared more: “In the past 20 years, I’ve never heard him play the same song in the same way twice. He definitely forces us to listen!” Ditto.
Songs from his newest album—“If You Ever Go To Houston” and “Jolene”—rocked royally, and there was none of that comparison to his less raspy days to contend with. But the Dylan of my experience was changed in ways of maturity and sophistication. The jazzy version of “Summer Days” allowed us to jitterbug in the aisles if we wanted, and “Masters of War” was powerful and moving. The music was more complex than years ago, with more elegant interaction between the musicians. What I recall as music “about the message” has evolved into a true musical experience, ranging from hardcore blues to New Orleans-style Creole jazz, touching on Southern rock in between, just for grins.
How did he look? Rough—dressed in Western city garb of black with red trim—moving around slowly, but with purpose. There were no theatrics, just black and gray lighting graphics shone on the backdrop during a few numbers, his eye-with-a-crown logo projected up there at beginning and end. The only complaint was the muddied acoustics, making it hard to hear the words, gravelly or not.
Just like Satchmo’s version of “What a Wonderful World” freaked out the classic fans, Dylan’s new release, Christmas in the Heart, has started some whining in the white-bread holiday music crowd as too gritty and weird. Get over yourselves—the record was cut to advance the cause of Feeding America, and that’s the spirit of the season at its best. Or maybe Dylan’s lyrics could guide you: “Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend a hand, for the times they are a-changin’.”
Check out Bob Dylan’s Web site www.bobdylan.com for the complete scoop on his tour and for tunes from all of his albums.
From the November 4-10, 2009 issue