May 7, 2006
Review by Peter Radiator
The venue limited tickets to a little over 5,300 even though it seated a
few thousand more (no one on the far sides up front or behind the stage).
I'd say it was close to 70% capacity.
Merle's set was too short, but pretty damn transcendant. He only played a
few well-known hits, forgoing his biggest ones for a few deep cuts and fan
favorites. He was in spectacular voice, and in good spirits. He remarked
how much he enjoyed Savannah as a city, and said he always feels a special
when he comes here. I don't know if this was canned or not, but it seemed
to come from the heart.
He played a fiddle on one tune (in a duet of sorts with his regular fiddle
player), and it was terrific.
Dylan's show was slightly above average, but nothing special. As with the
other dates on this tour, his vocals were shockingly loud in relation to
the overall band volume. This must be at his direction, and I'd imagine it
has something to do with a newly rediscovered sense of self-worth
regarding his singing, which he's obviously putting a lot of thought and
No lyrical cheat sheets in evidence. Plenty of expressive choices in
regards to phrasing. Some great unexpected moments of idiosyncratic
inflection. He was definitley not phoning it in.
His keyboard playing is hysterical. In many ways, it was the highlight of
the show for me. The vintage combo organ sound is much more cutting and
prominent than the old piano patch he was using which tended to get buried
in the mix. He's teasing out the notes, letting many of them sustain
longer than one would think they should, but this seems to be on purpose
and part of the style he's going for.
Another thing - he seems to be hitting less clunkers with this sound than
when he used the piano tone. Could this be because it's more noticeable
even to him and he simply feels he can't get away with being as sloppy as
he sometimes was? The organ is used more like a weird, swirling, carnival
vibe generator than a traditional keyboard might be employed in a lineup
of this sort. It fits with the creepy, apocalyptic preacher bit, which
frankly, is where this lineup excels.
The setlist could have been more challenging, but then again he seems to
save those nights for Europe where I guess he long ago decided the crowds
are more tolerant of his eccentricities and desire to spring oddballs on
The crowd at this show was loud and rowdy, as Savannah crowds
unfortunately often are. Many obviously came out of the sticks solely to
see Merle, and stayed to see Dylan merely to "get their money's worth" and
to hear LARS, which many screamed for ad nauseum from the moment the
band's intro was read!
No words to the crowd save for the names and respective instruments of the
Now for my view of what's good and bad about this tour:
While it's true the band is gelling more than they did on their first few
legs together, I think that in some respects that may actually be a bad
thing. It's becoming extremely obvious where the strengths of this unit
lie and where their weaknesses clearly are. Unfortunately, either Bob is
willfully ignoring this, or he is rather perversely trying to rectify the
situation by forcing some of the members to play against their own best
abilities in the hopes it will whip them into shape. The only thing it's
doing is whipping them into petrified submission.
Donnie Herron is OBVIOUSLY the most versatile and nuanced lead player on
stage. So why has he now been given elevated status on a riser next to Bob
(they shot glances at each other all night long, and got into a couple of
memorable, syncopated pedal steel and organ jams/battles), but essentially
silenced? He played next to no solos all night long, and when he did, they
were nothing of the sort he played on last year's ballpark tour. No fiery,
distorted, psychedelic slash-and-burners - and no twittery Nashville
show-off stuff either. Just mundane slides and pads.
Stu Kimball is the most reliable and solid (if ultimately pedestrian)
electric guitarist on stage. he can always be counted on to tear off
quirky, in-the-pocket blues leads and to prod the songs along with
by-the-book Rock Fills 101. So, why is he forced to metronomically strum
acoustic guitar for 80% of the night?
Now, to Denny Freeman. Okay, I know there's some folks that like his
playing and some folks that hate it. That went for Freddy and Billy before
him. I'll say this: I know for a fact that he's a very good musician. He's
got amazing chops, and a long reputation of being a respected badass in
both Austin and L.A.. There's only one problem. They way he's conducting
himself, he's simply the wrong guy for this band.
After clamming and clunking his way through last year's shows, Bob has now
seemingly decided that the way to reward him for being all thumbs is to
turn over 90% of the solos to him. Denny looked like someone was holding a
gun to his head all night long, and that someone is named Bob Dylan.
He's OBVIOUSLY scared shitless that the hammer's gonna fall any day now
and he's going to be summarily dismissed like David Kemper or Kenny
Aaronson. Ironically, it seems to be this paralyzing fear of losing his
job or just getting the "silent-er" treatment that is preventing him from
busting out like you know he'd like to.
That's a big mistake on his part. If he does wind up being banished from
the club, it'll likely be because Bob kept waiting for him to take the
bull by the horns and show everybody what he's got instead of choking,
fretting out, and generally "chuckle-fucking" (as Mike Bloomfield once put
it so nicely), but never had the inclination or the gumption to actually
tell him to his face what he expects of him.
In all fairness, Denny's not known for being a crazy, G.E. Smith-style
lead guy, or even a John Jackson (whom I still say is WOEFULLY underrated
by most fans). He's a tasteful jazz cat, and it shows. It's just that this
band (no matter how scatty Dylan may get with his vocals) simply isn't
playing tasteful jazz. They're playing BALLS-OUT, SCIENCE-FICTION
BLUES-ROCK, and everytime the rest of the group quiets down and tosses him
the ball, it's some of the most go-nowhere, anticlimactic guitarwork I've
heard at Dylan shows in a decade.
We all know that Charlie, Larry and Bucky are gone likely never to return,
and Denny could make a good gunslinger in this group, but only if he's in
a supporting role adding color and texture, not carrying the weight of the
world on his shoulders. Let's be honest here: he can't even play the
opening lick to "Tweedle Dee" for more than two measures without screwing
up. It's silly.
And so, the band is playing more like a team now, but in a few major
respects, it's a weaker team.
As soon as Bob decides to let Donnie be the standout guy he already was
(and deserves to be again), and either makes Denny the acoustic guy and
lets Stu take the reins (or drops Denny and hires another cat who plays
nothing but acoustic), this band will soar to new heights.
Or, Denny could always just say "Fuck it," and quit worrying so much about
second-guessing a master manipulator...
Regardless, Dylan's throat is in great shape these days, and he even
started to throw in a bit of upsinging last night (but stopped each time
it seemed he was falling into a rut, as though he was teasing us).
Go see this tour if you can, and if you run into Denny on the way in or
out, tell him to fight for his job. It'll make all the difference in the
Review by James Lundy
I decided on the spur of the moment to hop in my car and drive south
2 hours to Savannah to check out His Bob-ness (my 6th in 15 years) on
Sunday. There was no problem getting same-day tickets as the venue was
about half full and my seat was not bad, but got worse when a group of
drunk rednecks showed up about halfway through Merle Haggard’s set and sat
directly behind me. They argued for about 5 minutes who was on stage.
One guy said it was Willie Nelson, another said it was Merle Haggard. Bets
were placed, threats and shoves were made, finally one of them asked me
and I said it was Haggard, who was, by the way, printed on the ticket as
the opening act and had a wide guitar strap that said “MERLE.” Anyway,
they then proceeded to deafen me with rebel yells and
two-fingers-in-the-mouth whistles through the remainder of Merle’s set.
So I found another seat much, much closer to the stage and as it turned
out directly in front of the direction Dylan was facing (try to get
tickets on audience right / stage left if you want to see anything but the
back or side of Bob’s head).
One of my high school teachers, an old Jesuit priest, in one of his
diatribes about Rap music (this was 1982) said that a song is not a song
if you can’t whistle the tune. I thought of that last night when Dylan
opened with Maggie’s Farm, a song which had no tune up until now. I was
amazed! Not only was Bob singing – with a voice like he had 15 years ago,
but he had invented a tune for the song – a tune you could whistle! Leave
it to Dylan to find a way to breathe new life into a song that I’ve always
thought of as monotonous and tedious to endure. We were off to a great
start. And a little more detail on the voice: after last year’s concert
in Charleston with Willie Nelson I had completely given up on Dylan’s
voice: it was hoarse and alarmingly damaged. Not just hoarse but HOARSE.
Sometimes he went to sing and nothing but air came out. It gave me a sore
throat just to listen to him. But last night he was singing with the same
voice I remember from the first time I saw him in 1990. How does a voice
that was by all indications completely blown-out rebound so well? Are
there any rumors out there about surgery this past winter? But I digress.
No need to go song by song. For me, the standout performance of
the night was Cold Irons Bound. The song is totally revamped and Dylan’s
vocal was better than on TOOM. At some point during the song I thought to
myself, “this is the best live performance I have ever seen in my life”
and I don’t think that is an exaggeration. That one song was worth the
admission price by far. But as the concert progressed, the infamous
“up-singing” started making its appearance. This was especially evident
on Don’t Think Twice it’s Alright, which was a hellish showcase for
up-singing. He also rushed the vocal on this song:
ain’tnosenseinturningonyourlightbabe (up-sing on the “babe” – you get the
idea). But at least he was singing and not croaking out the words.
A word about the band: a lot of reviewers pick on the new guitarists
for less than stellar solos or whatever. I thought the band was
incredibly tight all night and fantastic. Bob seems to be leading them
with tight reins less than the last two times I saw him with this
configuration. And the sound was very different. Read “Chronicles I” for
his strategy on changing his sound every tour. The term “Never Ending
Tour” is such a misnomer. Even the lighting and curtains were different
this time. Every once in a while I noticed a nod from Bob to start a solo
or wrap up a song, but overall he seemed a bit more hands-off. He was
also dancing his ass off behind that keyboard. You can’t tell he’s having
a good time by his facial expressions (you would think he’s miserable) but
we’re talking “Elvis the Pelvis” everywhere else.
One last thing: from where I was with my binoculars on extreme zoom I
was able to really study the Oscar statue he has behind him. First of
all, it’s a fake – which I'd previously guessed because he’s always at
risk for getting his gear stolen – and it’s on a wide base with a switch
next to the figure. There is a piece of tape on the front of the base on
which is written “on / off.” I couldn’t tell what exactly that switch
controls. So, if you were wondering as I was why he has that Oscar statue
with him, it has some sort of function. I would be interested to know
what it controls if anybody knows.
Summary on the concert: Bob is singing again, his voice is in great
shape, the band is tight and talented, the songs are new again, life is
too short to sit in front of rednecks, last minute road trips are a great
idea, and be prepared to whistle the tune of Maggie’s Farm.
Review by Ross Blair
Two of the most rebellious and yet revolutionary musicians ever, held a joint
concert on May 7. Rock and country fans alike from all parts of coastal Georgia
flocked to the Savannah Civic Center to witness the culmination of an icon in
each category perform live in concert. It is no secret what both men mean to
their respective musical genres.
I met with many Bryan County residents who were in attendance. I even
bumped into Richmond Hill Mayor Richard Davis, who undoubtedly was there
to see Merle Haggard as Davis has recorded many of Haggard’s songs on his
country CDs that have received good reviews.
Davis said: “Merle sounded as good or better tonight as he did when he was
Haggard has received some criticism of late from country music fans as he has
gone on record to put down the current state of the genre. In watching him
play, you could certainly see how the industry, that Haggard was a pioneer in,
has changed through the years. His traditional blues-based style contrasts
greatly with the modernized country you hear on the radio today.
Haggard was in prime form, playing with his back-up band of 40 years – The
Strangers. The crowd was highly receptive to Haggard by singing along and
giving boisterous standing ovations at several points in his set.
In perhaps a tip of the hat from one country legend to another, Haggard
played the late Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues”. Cash was a huge
influence on him as, while serving a 15-year prison term for robbery in the
1950s, Haggard was in the audience for three of Cash’s concerts that he
gave in San Quentin.
The 69 year-old Haggard clearly has not given up his rebellious ways as he
had the lights turned up and stopped the music midway through “Are the
Good Times Really Over?” to emphasize the line, “I wish coke was still cola
and a joint was a bad place to be”. He carried that vibe over into the next
song “Heaven Was a Drink of Wine”.
After a brief intermission, Bob Dylan came out to the booming sounds of
“Maggie’s Farm”, one of his early hits. He stood behind the keyboards where
he stayed for the entire set, breaking only twice to play harp for “Watching
the River Flow” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”.
Unlike Haggard, Dylan’s sounded a bit different in concert than on his original
recordings. His voice is much more weathered than in his heyday, and he
changed the musical arrangements to his old songs. The lyrics were clearly
sung, however, and with all the resonance and impact necessary to purvey
the words of the most influential singer-writer in music.
Dylan has a reputation for playing a completely different show on each night
of his tour. He accomplishes this, by not only changing the arrangement to
the songs, but also by digging deep into his musical catalog of approximately
40 studio albums and playing different songs each night. This night was no
exception as he rolled through older classics like “Just Like a Woman” and
“Highway 61 Revisited” while not neglecting his later hits such as “Cold Irons
Bound” and the spooky “Love Sick” from his 1997 Grammy award winning
album of the year Time Out of Mind.
The crowd was very responsive to Dylan and his five-piece band, and they
rose to their feet and exploded with applause for the encore of “Like A
Rolling Stone” and “All Along the Watchtower” which ended the evening
in a bang.
In surveying the crowd, most people in attendance were there to see one
artist or the other and, for the most part, I could pretty much guess which
one they were there for by the looks of them. One common consensus,
though, is that both performers played their hearts out and turned in a
Bryan County News
(Ross has kindly given me permission to reprint his review from the
Brian County News. Click here to see the original article.)
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