November 14, 2002

What Generation Gap?

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Bob Dylan and his band lit up an enthusiastic crowd at the Coach USA Center in Elmira Saturday night. Dylan played in Ann Arbor on Thursday and Pittsburgh on Friday, but in his fifth decade on the road he showed little sign of slowing down, powering his way through a tight, uninterrupted two-hour set, followed by a brief encore. Opening with two melodic numbers, “Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum,” from his most recent album Love and Theft, and following that with Van Morrison’s “Carrying a Torch,” Dylan was in good vocal form from the start, showing off a range usually reserved for mid-set acoustic tunes. Orchestrating from behind the keyboards a tour-de-force of bluesy shuffles, from 1965’s “Tombstone Blues” through 2000’s “Things Have Changed,” when Bob stepped out to join a three guitar attack for a rousing cover of the Rolling Stone’s “Brown Sugar,” the shift into overdrive was both effortless and impressive, and served as a reminder that, no matter how may times you see the man, he will still surprise you.

Dylan does not talk directly to the crowd (not counting the friendly “shut up, shut up, shut up” lullaby employed to quiet request-shouters) but communicates to his faithful by the nature of the performance. And reading the musical tea-leaves suggests that Bob is in a pretty good place right now. Songs from the playful Love and Theft were peppered throughout the set-list, and traditionally darker material such as “Positively Fourth Street,” “Shelter from the Storm,” and “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” were leavened by warmer (and, as always, novel) arrangements, and occasionally hitched to the irresistibly optimistic John Lee Hooker-esque boogie rhythm.

For those who prefer the darker side of Bob — the timeless English ballads and forgotten blues treasures, or, for the younger crowd, the haunted tones of Time Out of Mind — two moments linger. The lengthy harmonica solo at the end of “Just Like a Woman” brought tears to the eyes of some (at least to the eyes of the person next to me), and the high point of the evening, Dylan’s beautiful acoustic rendition of Warren Zevon’s “Mutineer,” was easily worth the price of admission. Dylan has been playing both “Mutineer” and (though not in Elmira) “Accidentally Like a Martyr” on this leg of his tour, offering his highest tribute to the gravely ill Zevon.

But the overall tone was one of good cheer, with a Dylan who lingered — twice — to acknowledge the applause of the audience. Usually during “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” you’re glad you saw the show, suddenly aware that Bob can’t go on forever. This was a night that belonged to the cocky cover of Neil Young’s “Old Man,” sung by someone who plans to keep on keepin’ on for a while.

– Jonathan Kirshner teaches in the Government Department at Cornell

Bob Dylan has encapsulated so many eras and careened through so many traumatizing events (motorcycle accidents, heart problems, Soy Bombs, Christianity) that, at this juncture, all he can do is coast as a musician. This is not to say he’s never less than a stellar musician and lyricist, simply that after forty years it’s obvious that playing the whole “enigmatic bard of classic rock” schtick is as difficult as breathing (and yes, he can still breathe, you punks). By 1997’s Time Out of Mind, Dylan had hit the end of rock and roll with his sparse, melancholy instrumentation lying against macabre intonations of death and heartbreak. The last lines of that album, “The party’s over/And there’s less and less to say,” ominously prophesied the end of Dylan’s career. Unexpectedly, Dylan has surpassed this bout of depression and abstinence from “partying,” apparently under the assumption that once you’ve exhausted rock’s possibilities, there’s nowhere to go but the beginning. Now, following the critical and popular success of this year’s stunning Love and Theft, Dylan is giving a sort of survey of American music, in the process compressing more than sixty years of rock into a year of recorded and live music.

On Saturday, at Elmira’s Coach USA Center, Dylan discarded any doubts anyone could have about his relevance to popular music in the twenty-first century, absolutely massacring any nostalgic trappings he suffered on his 1997 tour with Paul Simon. Love and Theft deftly and maniacally rumbles through everything from bluegrass to cabaret to Memphis blues and, on this tour, Dylan is apparently demonstrating how these divergent strands copulated and birthed rock n’ roll. From the self-parodic opening PA introduction (“the poet laureate of rock”) and his costume (resembling a mime in a saloon), it was obvious that the old Dylan of serious protest, the “voice of a generation,” had given way to a wry, self-conscious raconteur prone to strutting and grimacing. Immediately plunging into the malicious Nashville via Armageddon oscillation of “Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum,” Dylan’s new band is (from my admittedly limited experience) one of the best bands currently on tour, as tight and playful as vintage Stones and as accomplished and versatile as (Dylan’s) The Band. The primary objective of the night seemed to be to further develop the early twentieth-century music of Love and Theft into blues-based rock and, alternately, to demystify his classics by subjecting them to the genres of his new songs. In effect, then, he went both forwards and backwards in musical history without ever sounding antiquated or repetitious. “Tombstone Blues” exchanged its infamous riff for an atmospheric, lingering drawl. Dylan, mashing away at a piano for the first five songs (difficult to hear in the mix, although it nevertheless provided an opportunity to add jazz flourishes to his old folk songs), reveled in the sinisterly preachifying growl of his own decayed voice, while his band actually started channeling Fleetwood Mac on a cover of Van Morrison’s “Carrying a Torch.”

Next, in a moment of supreme sublimity, Dylan grabbed a guitar and led his band through “Things Have Changed,” the Stones’ “Brown Sugar,” and “Positively 4th Street,” the best songs of the 1990s, 1970s, and 1960s respectively, manipulating them in a cacophonic heaviness usually more associated with Led Zeppelin than the author of “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Although the hippies in the stands (one chanting, “Play ‘Masters of War'”) seemed slightly overwhelmed by the blistering intertwining of guitarists Dylan, Charlie Sexton, and Larry Campbell, “Brown Sugar” was probably better than anything the Stones ever played and made a good case for Dylanized renovations of everything from “God Save the Queen” to “Welcome to the Jungle.” The set was basically a quarter new songs (notably excluding anything off Time Out of Mind), a quarter covers (besides Van and the Stones, Neil Young’s “Old Man” and Warren Zevon’s “Mutineer” were rather faithfully played), and the remainder comprised primarily of the formidable Hits. Never really breaching Saturday’s manifesto of piling guitars upon the lighter songs and diminishing the din of his rockers, the Band applied a mandolin to “Drifter’s Escape” and turned the light swing of “Summer Days” into a gloriously clangorous jam seemingly influenced by Norwegian metal as the band members hilariously adopted the guitar posturing of Van Halen. It was as if the concert had chronologically reintroduced rock (from blues to ’60s garage and hard rock) with all the vitality it once had.

Dylan, after telling the crowd to “shut up, shut up” (his only words besides an introduction of his band) and glaring malevolently into the crowd as the audience gave what seemed like a twenty minute round of applause, finally came back on stage for an acoustic “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” and an “All Along the Watchtower.” “Watchtower” seemed like Dylan’s version of Hendrix’s version of his song, suitably appealing to the past and the future at once on one of the louder and more varied sets of Dylan’s recent tours.

– Alex Linhardt
pretends to study in the college of Arts and Sciences

Archived article by Jonathan Kirshner