Tuesday, October 16, 2007

In the Presence of Don Quixote

Last night's Bob Dylan show at Cincinnati's Taft Theatre (where I saw electric Hot Tuna in 1972, Iggy Pop and David Bowie in 1977, and King Crimson's double trio in 1995) might be the finest concert I've seen in my admittedly spotty life as a concert-goer.

The Taft is a smaller auditorium with the look of a moderately scaled movie palace of old. The aisles flow down to the stage, so the likelihood of people standing wouldn't be so much of a problem as it was on the floor of Columbus' Value City Arena, and the seats were more comfortable without being plush. The ticket taker guided us to a pair of seats on the right center aisle, with a more or less dead-on view of the stage; they were slightly pricier tickets than the ones we'd had for the previous show, and they were better seats. We were happy. The crowd was all-ages, from children to geriatrics, but the prevailing mood was one of excitement -- a lot of people were smiling -- long before the lights went down.

Amos Lee's warm-up set was pitched at a more introspective, intimate level than the arena show, which gave me a fuller idea of what he and his band are capable of achieving musically. It was interesting to me, because I was seated and paying attention, but the group took the stage promptly and had to contend with a lot of late arrivals, flashlights in the dark leading people to their seats, incoming folks blocking the view of the stage -- so I had the sense that Amos and company were doing their best to win over a crowd that was often paying only half attention, even if they wanted to pay fuller attention. He left "Careless" -- Donna's favorite song from the previous show -- out of the set, but he added "Arms of a Woman" and saved "Black River," their ace in the deck, for a point when the room seemed most settled and receptive. He closed with an inspired choice, Sam Cooke's "A Change is Gonna Come," which Amos sang in a manner that revealed the extent of Cooke's influence on his own vocal mannerisms. Once again, I thought they were a talented, solid act.

As the lights went up between sets, one of the ushers asked to see my ticket and informed us that we were in the wrong seats. We were shown to our new seats, which were in a short aisle against the right wall of the auditorium, but it turned out that these were also excellent seats. It's a local legend that there is no such thing as a bad seat at the Taft, and it would seem to be true.

Donna brought binoculars, so our already good seats could be additionally enhanced with close views of Dylan and company. The band -- Tony Garnier (bass), George Recile (drums), Stu Kimball (rhythm guitar), the remarkable Denny Freeman (lead guitar), and multi-instrumentalist Donnie Herron -- were wearing different suits this night, all of them light gray jackets and slacks and dark gray shirts, inverting the color scheme worn by Bob, which was the same silver-studded shades-of-gray outfit he'd worn in Columbus. The blue feather I thought I'd seen in his hat was apparently a lighting trompe l'oeil; the hat was actually a light gray with a slightly darker band with a few feathers in the band, one of them orange. He was no Doctor Phibes: the pencil-thin mustache worn since "LOVE AND THEFT" was gone and he looked like no one other than Bob Dylan. He attacked the set list with a taking-care-of-business poker face that smiled only briefly and occasionally to lend weight or inflection to his lyrics. Occupying a place of honor to Dylan's right was a gleaming golden object: his Oscar for "Things Have Changed," the song he wrote for the movie WONDER BOYS. (The Grammy he won for "Gotta Serve Somebody" was nowhere to be seen.)

As I suspected, the set list featured a number of songs not performed in Columbus, beginning with a rousing "Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat" and followed by an exquisite "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" accompanied by lap steel guitar and stand-up bass. Dylan once again retired his center-stage stance and electric guitar after "Watching The River Flow" and moved over to electric keyboard for "Love Sick," accompanied by Donnie Herron's electric mandolin. As the music slowed to a bluesy, reggae-spiked mood for this number, the standing crowd took their seats to drink the performance in. Dylan gave a gripping reading of it, and got everyone back onto their feet by the end of it. And they stayed there, for the most part, as they steamrolled into an exciting cover of Hambone Willie Newbern's "Rollin' And Tumblin'." This raucous blues standard (Canned Heat did a great version) has been standard for the current tour, but to witness the two performances I saw was an object lesson in the difference between playing it and meaning it. I could feel the sweatslipping off the notes, and it made me want to work with it, and I found myself clapping my hands through the whole number. "When The Deal Goes Down" allowed the band to catch their collective breath, and the audience response throughout the song showed many attendees were knowledgeable and appreciative of the song's lyrics.

Then came the evening's first "oh my God" moment with a sublime and heartfelt performance of "Blind Willie McTell," with Herron on banjo. After the show, I compared my memory of this performance to an earlier one from Melbourne last August, and -- again -- the difference I heard was the distinction between playing it (possibly even learning how to play it as a unit) and meaning it. Before the song was even over, I knew that this was the finest live musical performance I'd ever seen, of one of the most moving songs ever written. It was rewarded with one of the most enthusiastic ovations of the evening. And what better way to lift an audience from the depths of the heart than to follow through with something as wonderfully wise and whimsical as "Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again"? This selection clearly hit a few people in the front rows the way "Blind Willie McTell" hit me, because they stood and danced and waved their arms through the whole number -- and it only added to the show, not impeding anyone's view of the stage.

A righteously crunching "Workingman's Blues #2", followed by another great bluesman tribute "High Water (For Charlie Patton)", and a typically playful "Spirit On The Water" (a song in which I feel the musical spirit of St├ęphane Grapelli looms large) followed, with Dylan using the lyric "You think I'm over the hill?" to milk loud audience denial. Then the pace of the show pressed the pedal to the metal with a thrilling "Highway 61 Revisited" that had a number of people thrusting their index fingers into the air and twirling them whenever Dylan got back to "Highway Sixty-One!"

Though a more deliberately paced number, "Ain't Talkin'" -- a song with an alternately poignant and lacerating lyric -- was developed by the band as an absorbing groove that was at once a Sisyphusian parallel to the lyric and also, as with all the best groove songs, seemed to cut deeper and sweeter with each repetition. I remember looking through the binoculars at Dylan during this performance, seeing one of the most famous profiles in contemporary history looming over his keyboard while half-singing/half-speaking the lines "All my loyal and much trusted companions / They approve of me and share my code / I practice a faith that's been long abandoned / Ain't no altars on this long and lonesome road." At that moment, I felt that I was looking at the Don Quixote of Rock & Roll, and then I got the even stronger feeling that he just might be the real Don Quixote, too -- or at least the living man Cervantes knew, the inspiration for his immortal creation -- determined to walk that road to the end of his days, telling the capital T truth to every cockeyed windmill town on the map. And when he sang the chorus "Ain't talkin', just walkin' / Eatin' hog eyed grease in a hog eyed town / Heart burnin', still yearnin' / Someday you'll be glad to have me around," I felt every heart in the theater pour open. I know mine did.

The Fifties-style sock-hopper "Summer Days" brought back the spirit of carefree fun before the lights intensified to a pregnant blue for a menacing yet magisterial performance of "Ballad Of A Thin Man," which ended the concert proper. A huge, stomping, howling ovation brought Dylan and his band back for "Thunder On The Mountain" and the evening's second "oh my God" performance, an unexpected band arrangement of "Blowin' In The Wind." No one in the audience seemed to know what was coming, as the band wended its way through the introductory passages, until Dylan leaned forward to sing the song's opening question -- and, at that moment, you could hear and feel the awe coming from the crowd, travelling from one person to the next in gooseflesh. Though Dylan has written countless songs, even countless masterpieces since this early anthem, it somehow remains the quintessence of his being in ways one can't fully appreciate until one sees it performed live by the author. This song carries so much baggage -- and the association of so many other voices from Peter, Paul and Mary to Pete Seeger to Dylan himself -- that it can be impossible to isolate and get at its core importance, but it stands there naked when Dylan is singing it to you, no matter what arrangement it's given.

It can't be topped. Show over. Onward, my Sancho Panzas, to the next town. Which happens to be Dayton, Ohio -- for Show #2000 on the Never Ending Tour.

It was either more than a concert, or my ideal of a concert, in that Dylan treated us to a evening full of energy and joy and sacred emotions, and one that left us standing in the presence of living history. We rose to the occasion, and so did he. The set was a song longer than the Columbus performance, but it was the power and sincerity of the performance -- not the number of songs -- that made the absence of Elvis Costello from the bill a complete and rather amazing irrelevance. Afterwards, I felt terribly guilty about some of the things I'd said in my previous blog, questioning whether Dylan might still have the ability or even the wish to channel greatness in concert. Why should this man have to channel what he already is? Whether he's performing at half power or full power, he's absolutely not to be missed.

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