Dylan: not freewheelin’m but still kickin’

By Brad Heffern

It’s the same thing every time I leave a Dylan concert. The looks of dazed incomprehension. Disappointment. Some people even look pretty pissed as they mutter, “I couldn’t understand a goddamn word he said!” The reason is simple—for most people seeing Bob Dylan these days, the definition of a Dylan album is The Essential Bob Dylan. That’s a shame for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that Bobby just doesn’t play the hits anymore. Sure, he’ll throw in a little “All Along the Watchtower” in the encore to keep the laser lights away, but if you haven’t heard at least 80 percent of Dylan’s albums, you just won’t enjoy the show. This means you will certainly miss the fact that, after all these years, Bob Dylan is still in top form.

For this set of four Chicago dates—and indeed, the entire tour—Dylan has chosen to forgo the arenas he has frequented since his “Never-ending Tour” more than a decade ago in favor of smaller and decidedly more intimate venues. Of course the Aragon holds 5,000 or so, but compared to the All-State Arena show I saw last year, this was like a barbeque with my best buddies. And Dylan was looking as cool as ever, wearing a black suit with strategically placed silver stripes and a cowboy hat (but no fake beard, unfortunately).

I’m sure most people are aware that somewhere between 1993’s World Gone Wrong and 1997’s Time Out of Mind, Bob Dylan’s voice packed its bags and left town. Since then, he has contented himself with his patented growl and scowl for just about everything. So you can imagine my surprise when, during his performance of “Girl of the North Country,” he actually made a fairly successful effort at singing. In fact, Dylan was doing a lot of things he hasn’t done recently. Like play harmonica well, for instance. The last two times I’ve Dylan, he played the old harp like he had just sucked down a Novocaine smoothie backstage. But at these performances, he was bending notes like that arrogant kid who used to play the wrong key of harmonica just for the challenge of the thing. But, disappointingly, Dylan has completely left behind playing guitar in favor of a position at the keyboard, which is not his best instrument.

Dylan opened the first Chicago show with a fairly mediocre version of “Drifter’s Escape,” followed by an even more mediocre arrangement of “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue,” which somehow managed to remove all the sadness from the original version. But several great rearrangements were presented, including the highlight “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.” Despite being almost unrecognizable compared to the original version, all the emotional content remained. Dylan dusted off his old voice for the chorus, singing “But you who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears / Take the rag away from your face / Now ain’t the time for your tears” with the same nasal pinch from the ’60s. Another highlight was the Blonde on Blonde classic “Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine),” which featured another dramatic reinterpretation. In the middle of the song, Dylan stepped away from his keyboard at stage right and danced extremely awkwardly at center stage. Then—after messing up the lyrics to the best of his ability—he wisely chose to leave well enough alone and return to the piano. Doesn’t sound that cool, but it was.

However, the encore of the Aragon show was just terrible. The first song, “Cat’s In the Well,” used to be an obscure track from 1990’s Under the Red Sky, until Dylan started playing it in the encore every damn night. I’ve always been curious about it, but it’s just not that great of a song, and it wasn’t better live either. The always-singable “Like a Rolling Stone” followed this and was just about the straightest version of any song performed, with only some minor adjustments to the chorus. But the last song performed, “All Along the Watchtower,” was just a travesty. All night, Dylan’s two guitar players, Larry Campbell and Freddy Koella (who recently replaced the great Charlie Sexton) traded over the top guitar solos, but their dual effort simply brimmed over on the last song. It seemed like Dylan is still torn between his version and Hendrix’s, but the final result ended up sounding more like Phish (with a little Eddie Van Halen thrown in) than anything else.

But stick with me. For all the disappointment of the Aragon show, the Vic contained greatness. Throughout the show, the band was on, smiling at each other as Dylan did some lanky dancing behind the keys. The crowd was also more into it, as the limited number of tickets largely barred the 70-and-over crowd. Dylan opened with a rousing version of “Tombstone Blues,” and it was immediately obvious that the two guitarists were showing more restraint. Even the arrangement of “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue,” which was bad at the Aragon, sounded great at the Vic. Dylan played an almost completely unrecognizable version of “Boots of Spanish Leather.” In fact, I didn’t even realize that’s what the song was until the title verse, despite the fact that it’s one of my favorite Dylan songs. A rare performance of “Blind Willie McTell” was included and left fairly stock. Dylan also played several tracks from 1997’s Time Out of Mind, including an absolutely stellar version of “Cold Irons Bound,” which brought the crowd to its feet a mere seven songs in. This was absolutely the best performance of a Bob Dylan song I’ve ever seen.

Bob Dylan shows aren’t life-changing these days—I’m not sure they ever were. But if you get a chance to see him, you should. Not only because he’ll probably be dead soon (as my neighbor at the Vic show pointed out), but because every now and again, the stars align and Bobby puts on a show that will knock your socks off. When he does, you don’t want to miss it.