From plugging in at
Newport, to his born-again conversion, to surviving against all odds to make
some of his finest music in the fifth decade of his career, Bob Dylan has
taken great pride in surprising -- and sometimes confounding -- his loyal
Leave it to the perverse old contrarian, who is about to turn 63, to
throw us another curveball with his current tour, which includes sold-out
shows at four progressively more intimate Chicago venues this weekend. (His
local stand starts with Friday's concert at the Aragon Ballroom, continues
with Saturday's at the Riviera Theatre, and concludes with Sunday's at the
Vic Theatre and Monday's at the Park West.)
Dylan has spent the last decade building one of the best guitar bands in
rock history, a group that is arguably as good as (if not better than) the
vaunted Band. But the twist on this leg of his never-ending tour is that
he's dropped his own ax and moved behind an electronic keyboard, which he
isn't particularly adept at playing and which was barely audible in the
usual muddy mix of the Aragon.
To be sure, Friday's show did not lack for six-string firepower. The core
of Dylan's current band remains longtime sidekicks Tony Garnier on bass and
Larry Campbell on guitar and pedal steel. It adds Freddy Koella on second
guitar, and some of the best moments of the evening -- an angry version of
"It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" and a rollicking "Highway 61
Revisited" among them -- featured some fiery and inspired interplay between
the two guitarists, who traded off on bluesy slide.
But Dylan has been much looser -- if not downright fun and groovy -- when
he's been playing a third electric guitar, goading the musicians to greater
heights as he weaved his parts in between those of Campbell and the now
missing-in-action Charlie Sexton.
When he occasionally ventured out from behind his keyboard at the Aragon
to play harmonica at center stage, Dylan seemed stiff and awkward, and the
band followed suit, much less in his control than it has been in recent
Ironically, at the same time that the legendary singer and songwriter has
ratcheted down the guitar pyrotechnics, he's upped the percussion assault.
About half of Dylan's 90-minute set proper featured two drummers, George
Recile and Richie Hayward, who did their best to bash away at whatever
finesse remained in songs such as "Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I'll Go
Mine)," "Cry A While" (which evoked two speeding trains colliding) and the
usually sublime (but not this time) "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue."
With all due respect to the Allman Brothers -- and much, much less to the
Grateful Dead -- I will state emphatically that there has never been a case
in rock history where two drummers have been better than one. Eight limbs
flailing are four more than are needed, and in any event, I thought Dylan
got over his brief flirtation with the Baby Dead/jam-band crowd quite some
The best moments of the evening were the most subtle: The band pared down
to one drummer for a beautiful rendition of "The Lonesome Death of Hattie
Carroll" and a transcendent and mostly acoustic "Girl of the North Country."
Unfortunately, high points such as these were in short supply.
As always, though, ol' Bob gave us something to think about, above and
beyond the motives behind his devilish bouts of musical perversity. As the
most significant issues affecting America's decision this coming November
are overshadowed by such monumentally trivial distractions as the
controversy over Janet Jackson's breast and the unabashed outpouring of
prejudice about gay marriage, the central couplets of "It's Alright, Ma (I'm
Only Bleeding)" seemed more poignant than ever:
"While preachers preach of evil fates / Teachers teach that knowledge
waits / Can lead to hundred-dollar plates / Goodness hides behind its gates
/ But even the president of the United States / Sometimes must have / To