October 15, 2009
Review by Roderick Smith
The Ballad of Thin Man as Handy Dandy
He played with this song three nights in a row and tonight put the
finishing touches on it with a perfectly timed, finely nuanced, daring
rendition of the impossible question posed on poor Mr Jones and all
the while, unbuttoning his jacket and opening his outstretch arms
revealing slight of figure red shirted gypsy chest and then buttoning
up again, note by note , line by line, until the last button snapped
as the song ended. This is Bob Dylan as character outside himself.
It is the Handy Dandy man in full view. An actor playing a part. It
is pure charm ,old vaudeville ,Tommy Twimble, Charlie Chaplin go
around. Charlie Sexton is possessed as knight arrant to the king
with gun metal guitar and "down on the knees"approach to chivalry.
Dashing in on the tiny guy in the black hat. Bowing and persuading,
muse to muse. The old man grimaces into a grin and back again. He
saunters to the center, that chrome joy stick trailing off in his
right hand. He cups the mike, cocks his head and sings something like
"You hand in your ticket and go watch the geek who immediately walks
up to you when he hears you speak and says How does it feel to be
such a freak? And you say impossible as he throws you a bone"
Cantinflas wakes up from bad dream rubs his eyes and sees his maker.
The band masterful in creating a stage of sound around this magic
theater one act stage play. The Ballad of a Thin Man as trunk show
routine. It was here tonight!
Review by Falling James
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.
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
"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
"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
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
"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,
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).
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.
Submitted to Bob Links by Falling James
LA Weekly Blog
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