As a little summer's end treat to ourselves, Donna and I drove up to Columbus, Ohio yesterday (October 13) to see Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, and opening act Aaron Lee, at the Schottenstein Center's Value City Arena.
I love collecting live concert recordings, but I've never been much of a concert-goer. I've seen a number of acts who have mattered to me -- I had a seventh row seat to see Iggy Pop on his IDIOT tour with David Bowie on keyboards, I was once one of maybe 75 people who saw Pere Ubu one rainy night in the 1980s, I saw the original lineup of the Ramones three times -- but I've generally refused to travel very far to see any performer, and it hasn't helped my frequency of attendance that I don't drive, and my wife and I have conflicting musical tastes much of the time.
This year I've spent a lot of time undertaking a thorough self-education in Dylan -- I carry all of his albums, as well as some key bootlegs, on my Creative Zen (think iPod); I've read more than a dozen books about him this year, and seen most of his movies and the Scorsese documentary; and reading Paul Williams' trilogy of books about Dylan as a performance artist has turned me into a compulsive downloader/collector of his live shows from the past four decades. (My present goal is to collect at least one representative show from each live period... but I'm basically grabbing whatever I can find.) So I've been immersed in Dylan for awhile, as Donna well knows, and it seemed the culmination of all this process to actually attend one of his concerts, to see him in the now and hear what he happened to be playing now.
Value City Arena is a big basketball or hockey arena that is converted into a concert hall with temporary flooring and pre-arranged rows of folding (but surprisingly comfortable) chairs, whose only problem is not allowing for much in the way of shoulder room. The sound quality was a bit boomy, given the huge hollows of the arena, but was relatively clear and not overly loud. Amos Lee played for about 40 minutes with his band and was warmly received. He was not the sort of opening act you tune out. Their sound might be filed somewhere between classic period The Band and Dave Matthews, but that's just to give you a point of compass, not a remark on their originality. The songwriting was both heartfelt and capable, and the band itself seemed rehearsed while the music itself remained open to interpretation; they seemed quite flexible in performance, allowing themselves to seize upon moments of inspiration to veer from the charts into undiscovered country. I liked them -- not least of all because they were serious, eager to please, and comported themselves as though still uncorrupted by the record business.
After a ten-minute break, Elvis Costello took the stage, his microphone surrounded by a brace of four acoustic guitars and a table with bottled water and a cup of some other beverage. I was a big fan of Costello in his early years with The Attractions but drifted away after BLOOD AND CHOCOLATE for no particular reason, as I still regard it as one of his finest albums. But as Elvis took the stage, I felt an unexpected flush of happy emotions that he proceeded to earn with a consistently and impressively energetic and passionate performance of songs ranging from the very early ("Radio Sweetheart", "Allison") to more recent songs with a pronounced anti-war theme ("Whip It Up", "The Scarlet Tide"). These songs -- with a few humorous, personable, but pointedly political asides tucked betweeen them -- were torch-bearers for the troubadour spirit of the 1960s Bob Dylan and proved Elvis an inspired choice to share the bill with the original. If only he had launched into "Tokyo Storm Warning," I thought to myself, the Dylanesque resonance would have been complete. On second thought, nothing he was lacking. Elvis Costello was great and fully worth the price of admission.
Bob Dylan and his band took the stage after a somewhat longer break. Donna and I had scored fairly good seats for the show -- the first row of the second group of center seats on the floor -- but, from the moment Dylan took the stage, any benefits of our positioning were queered by everyone rising to their feet -- and they remained that way for 90% of the show. Not because the music was rousing and demanded a steady surge of enthusiasm, because these people in the priciest seats remained standing even during all but one of the ballads, though they could just as well have effectively gawked at the living legend from a sitting position. This caused some inconvenience to me, because I don't enjoy standing in a stationary position for an hour at a time, but even moreso for Donna, who's short and couldn't see much of the show even when standing. So, after driving all the way to Columbus, and paying over a couple of hundred dollars for the tickets and our overnight accomodations, she spent most of the show sitting and listening.
Dylan was wearing a very sharp, dark grey suit with sequins and a broad-brimmed gray hat with a blue feather in the band. He looked like Doctor Phibes, as he would've looked if he had turned up in a later sequel as a riverboat gambler with a Spanish alias. As is his habit these days, Dylan played the first three songs on guitar, then moved over to an electric keyboard for the rest of the show. I didn't mind him playing keyboard, but I minded that he moved away from the forefront of the band to sing and play in the manner of one of his own sidemen. He was seen, from that point on, mostly in profile and it seemed a deliberate cutting-back on the powerful opening impact that he had on the audience. For my money, the concert was at its most effective during the first four numbers -- "Rainy Day Women 12 & 35", "It Ain't Me Babe" (beautifully reinvented and given, in my opinion, the evening's one transcendent performance), "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" (one of the irregular numbers from the current tour) and, after the move to keyboards, "Love Sick" (the potent opener from TIME OUT OF MIND that was only recently added to the current tour's playlist).
The rest of the show alternated between flat-out roadhouse rock 'n' roll ("Rollin' and Tumblin'", "Summer Days", "Highway 61 Revisited"), sweet whimsy ("Spirit on the Water"), and dark ballads, including "The Ballad of a Thin Man," which I was especially happy to see performed. That classic song from the HIGHWAY 61 REVISITED album closed the main performance, and an extended stomping/clapping/cheering from the crowd lured Dylan and Company back out for a perfunctory encore of "Thunder on the Mountain" and "All Along the Watchtower." I've heard many different renditions of this song as it has been explored in Dylan's live repertoire, and this performance was not particularly inspired. The lead guitar was Hendrix-like to the point of being overtly imitative and the vocals were so phonetically rendered that Dylan might have been trying to teach the song to a kindergarten class rather than tell a powerful tale of revelation. Despite an extended milking of audience applause, the lights came up -- there was no second encore.
It was strange: the audience seemed to be giving Dylan everything that an audience can give an artist, at least in terms of standing at rapt attention and applauding and whooping like crazy. This was the first concert Donna and I had attended since roughly 1999, and we were surprised by some of the changes made in audience comportment over the years. First of all, no wafting aroma of cannabis. Secondly, we were amused (and a bit horrified) to discover that the cigarette lighters once used to coax encores out of artists have now given way to cell phone screens being held on high. (Talk about scenes that should have been in THE INVASION!) There were hundreds of them -- any one of which could transmit photos or a live recording to a receiving line -- yet people all around me were getting caught with cameras or recorders and being told to turn them off and put them away. Nobody cried "Judas!" either, but Dylan hadn't really done anything to earn such rude treatment -- unless you compare his show to the one he was doing the last time that word was hurled at him. He actually played a very good and entertaining, if a bit by-the-numbers, show, and his band (most of them dressed to the nines as well) was hot, but I believe they left the auditorium a song or two short of satisfied. It was, however, needless to say, a thrill simply to be sharing the same very large space with him, to cheer him, to sing along with him, and to know that he was playing for the two of us and everyone else assembled there.
So there you have it, my first Dylan show. It was neither one of his legendary uninspired shows nor was it one of his legendary great ones, but parts of it could serve as an illustration of both extremes -- so, all in all, a good place to start. I had the sense that he was definitely enjoying it for awhile and giving the audience close to everything he had; his fire is not yet extinguished by any means. But I did sense from the second half of the show that he was deliberately sparing himself from investing his performances with too much pain and acuity or anger -- the very forces that Elvis Costello is still drawing upon to fuel his performances. But they were there in his reading of "Love Sick," which would be a damned hard song for even him to fake.
Reading Paul Williams on the subject has taught me that the show you see is not necessarily the one you hear -- so I'm eager to find a recording of the show and re-experience it more specifically through my ears, away from the smell of the hoagy being eaten by the stranger sitting next to me, removed from all the people standing or milling back and forth in front of us, apart from the raised cell phones -- just the pure, undistracted sound of the music and the receptivity of one for whom it was intended.
Am I coming to Bob Dylan's concerts too late in the game to see a sustained show of greatness? I don't think so, and I hope not. I've got tickets for Monday night's show in Cincinnati -- which I understand to be Show #1999 of the Never-Ending Tour.