By Chris Moore:
How many times do you suppose Bob Dylan has performed “Like A Rolling Stone” in his career?
I’d be willing to bet it stretches well into the four digit range.
Fortunately, there’s this great site that — thanks to internet records — has broken down his tour stats for the past decade, 2000-2009. Thus, I can say with some certainty that he has performed “Like A Rolling Stone” live in concert 781 times in the first decade of the new millennium alone.
This is what it’s all come to: there is an abundance — some would say an over-abundance, and I would agree — of text available on Bob Dylan’s life and music. These sources include everything from so-called “official” music sources such as Rolling Stone magazine to independent blogs (I am, of course, inclined to argue that the latter does include some excellent sites…). The writers range from fans who write for the sake of fandom to that ever-broadening cast of self-proclaimed Dylanologists brandishing claims to varying degrees of expertise.
All this shuffle over a man who continues to write, perform, and (recently) record music at an extraordinary pace begs one essential question:
Where do my experiences, thoughts, and opinions fit into the ever-growing, ever-changing mix?
The honest answer will find you nearer to “they don’t” and “leave it to the professionals, kid” than any of us modern-day bloggers, Twitterers, and Facebookers really want to consider, so I trudge forward with my words.
I have been a Dylan fan since 2000, my sophomore year in high school and the first time in my life when I discovered the cathartic power of putting pen to paper. Through studying Dylan and others, I soon found that there is a distinct separation between those who write purely for therapeutic release and/or self-aggrandizement and those who are willing to explore the roots and work to not only improve their writing but also to imbue it with significant thought and emotion.
Every year that I’ve seen Dylan (and I’ve seen him once a year for ten years), I’ve had this conviction reaffirmed.
Some shows are better than others, and frankly, I enjoyed last year’s July concert at New Britain Stadium more than last night’s (11/27/2010) MGM Grand Theatre performance in Mashantucket, CT. Last summer, his songs were more rock-tinged than I’d heard them in several years, marked by George Recile’s thunderous drums.
For my money, there’s no better Dylan.
Last night, I rediscovered a Dylan embracing his country and blues roots, fronted once again by Charlie Sexton, a lead guitarist who should be considered by Dylan fans and critics with similar, if not the same, respect as earlier notables like Bloomfield and Robertson, if only for the revival of energy that he helped to foster in the band during his brief tenure (think: “Things Have Changed,” Love & Theft, and the Masked and Anonymous project).
The guitar work was arguably the highlight of the evening, Sexton and Dylan’s body language hinting at revisiting the onstage soloing duels they acted out during their concerts in 2002. Dylan himself seemed less restrained than usual during the set, moving not only from keyboard to guitar but also confining himself to vocal and harmonica duties on several songs. When he picked up the guitar, his hands strayed up and down the fretboard as per usual, but he also took on a couple of standout solos.
On the whole, the band produced strong six-string work with the acoustic guitar featured prominently at times, as well as the banjo and, more typically, lap steel.
The pinnacle of their prowess came with the best version of “Love Sick” I’ve heard, dancing with dissonance along the taut wire characteristic of this Time Out of Mind alum.
The set list itself was predictable to a degree if you’ve been paying any attention to recent sets — “Thunder on the Mountain” and “Jolene” being two of the sure bets — and yet Dylan continues to infuse an air of improvisation, choosing two Nashville Skyline tracks, the ever-enigmatic and enticing “Visions of Johanna,” and taking down the tempo for a heartrending take on “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.” The visual aspect of this show was the most ambitious of any I’ve seen, combining a fantastic array of background images, video projected on the screen, and all around a shifting shadow motif; it was understated and not likely to win any awards for stage design, but added excellent visual accompaniment to the music.
While the fan in me desires purely to express the unadulterated joy of the evening, an emotion I truly and predominantly felt, it should be noted that several performances suffered from the same staccato near-drone that has characterized periods of Dylan’s live career since the seventies (see: “Shelter from the Storm” from 1979’s Live at Budokan). Vocally, he shifted in and out of his comfort zone, crooning at one moment and crackling apart at the next.
And yet, for me, these aspects were overshadowed by the strength of the instrumental work, as much as by the indescribable respect and joy I found in the realization that this energetic, multi-layered concert comes at the tail end of Dylan’s fifth decade of live performances.
There’s no other word for a man who can strut onstage and sing “Like A Rolling Stone” for the 102nd time this year with as much passion and grit as he did forty-something years ago when he sang to unsettled audiences.
It’s a different sort of passion and grit, some of which can be heard quite literally in the gravel of his voice, but it’s the same rush of adrenaline that noticeably passes over the crowd when the lights come up on the “How does it feeeeel?” of the chorus.