Monday, 12 March 2007

Must-see Bob Dylan

Must-see Bob Dylan

Five reasons why only foolish fans would skip Dylan's shows .
By BEN WENER

The Orange County Register

So the ghost of Vincent Price is back once again, his so-called Never Ending Tour making stops from Inglewood to San Diego this weekend. What to say this time?

Look, I know Dylan's current late-career high, besting all phases since "Blood on the Tracks" some three decades ago, merits much detailed discussion. But how 'bout we skip the amateur Dylanology (go get a book; there are dozens) and answer instead a more pressing question:

Why should you and your Dylan-admiring fence-sitter friends stop worrying that you won't understand a word he sings, plunk down a chunk of change and go see him live?

•Because he's still vital – and suddenly more human than ever.Of the handful of giants from his generation still recording and performing, only Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen (arguably more a devotee than a peer) come close to measuring up to his artistic determination and touring stamina, and not even Bowie has maintained as much mystique.

Paul McCartney, Elton John, Lou Reed, Stevie Wonder, CS&N, Clapton, Fleetwood Mac, the remnants of the Who and Pink Floyd, that hack Rod Stewart – they're pros at best, overpaid nostalgia peddlers at worst. Sirs Paul and Elton encounter a sudden creative spike, as they have lately, and we rejoice because their careers have lagged for so long; Dylan takes his time to craft another multilayered masterpiece and we can only marvel at how he routinely operates at such an elevated level.

And he's never seemed less than the epitome of cool, even in the least cool situations. Pete Townshend-penned staples introduce every "CSI" spinoff while Slash and John Mayer solo around automobiles in commercials – and they get slammed as sellouts and shills. Dylan turns up in shadowy cowboy mode singing "Thunder on the Mountain" for iTunes and he couldn't seem more unusual, more hip – and beholden to no one.

Yet he's also gone to great lengths to humanize himself lately. It may have been esoteric, but the launch of his "Chronicles" autobiography was more than he's said about himself in years. He still grants few interviews, but when he submits lately he's been remarkably candid – note the straight talk that filled Martin Scorsese's must-see documentary "No Direction Home."

Then there's his new job – Bob Dylan, satellite radio DJ. His eccentric "Theme Time Radio Hour" for XM has been one of the year's most acclaimed new programs. An opportunity for him to spin unexpected variations on an array of topics, it's also been a means for this famously private character to get even more intimate, excavating roots alongside personal memories that his selections revive.

All this plus he's writing some of the most moving, perceptive, flat-out funny songs of his career. It's as if the guy somehow stole the heart (but not the soul) of a 25-year-old.

•Because he really can sing – but for how much longer?I'm as guilty as the next guy of accusing Dylan of phoning in performances and either garbling or rushing lyrics so that they become indecipherable and, worse, meaningless. A Newport Beach reader took me to task when I reiterated this potential for pitiful elocution after I raved about the new album "Modern Times."

"Since August 1997, shortly before 'Time Out of Mind' (came out), I have never had a problem understanding Bob's lyrics (live)," he wrote. "I think those who do either have bad seats, have had too much to drink, are unfamiliar with the songs or are distracted."

Possibly, though it could be that they're just sticklers for a sound-alike; they want what they know, which is never what you get from Dylan, even when you know the song inside and out. I'll also add that the venue matters: The rumbling gymnasium that is Bren Events Center is a terrible place to see anyone, but for Dylan last year it was ruinous. Long Beach Arena and even the Forum (site of several great Dylan shows in the '70s) could prove problematic as well.

But the truth is that if you give extra attention to Dylan's words – and why wouldn't you? – he tends to repay you handsomely, surprising with an unexpected snarl or startling phrasing that can alter the tenor of well-worn lines. I go into gigs giving him the benefit of the doubt: If I can't understand him, there must be a reason why he's making it so difficult.

Besides, he's never been a candidate for any pantheon of powerful singers, though his wholly unique, influential style surely merits such induction. What I wonder, though, is how much longer his gruff instrument will last. He sounds froggier and more nasal than ever on "Modern Times," yet Dylan says he has no intention of retiring anytime soon. I suspect he'll die performing, actually.

But there's always the possibility that soon he simply won't be able to sing. As with every rock legend over 50 or so, every show could be the last.

•Because he's affordable. Top price for the Stones at Dodger Stadium: $450. Top price for the Who at the Hollywood Bowl: $507.50. Best seats in the house for Dylan: $75.

In fact, it costs less ($49.50) to see Dylan on Saturday night at Long Beach Arena in any seat than it costs to wave your lighter in the last row of the top tier at either the The Mick & Keith Show or the half-Who's gigs next month.

No one would likely flinch if his price tag crossed the triple-digit mark, yet Dylan remains one of the least expensive old-guard attractions around. And that's good news for more than just ardent devotees: Families and parent-child pairings should really take advantage of boomer bashes like his.

If you wanted to introduce your son or daughter to one of the all-time greats – well, OK, maybe you'd better start with a best-of. But to place them in the presence of the real thing so they can say they once heard "Like a Rolling Stone" and "All Along the Watchtower" performed by the author himself? You can't beat Zimmy's cover charge.

•Because he's rarely had better backing."I'm the oldest son of a crazy man," he sings on the new album. "I'm in a cowboy band." Well, kinda – the hats and Western wear certainly suggest as much. But what he's really assembled is a world-class roots band, one skilled enough to keep pace with his whims – slip into weeping country mode for one song, tumble into a breezy blues figure the next.

Bassist Tony Garnier still anchors the proceedings, and though the guitarists have rotated recently – Larry Campbell and Charlie Sexton have been traded for Stu Kimball and Denny Freeman – the playing remains solid, sympathetic, as worldly-wise (and -weary) as the man himself. It ain't Robbie Robertson and Levon Helm, OK, but Dylan hasn't enjoyed such consistently great support since the Band was called the Hawks.

•Because he gets decent openers.I was going to add "because you never know what he'll play," but that's only half-true. He changes sets nightly, yes, but you can always count on a sprinkling of recent gems atop a classics-heavy assortment. And his encore hasn't changed in years.

What holds surprise for attendees, then, is who Bob enlists to open. He's not alone in spotlighting new talent – the Stones have done likewise for years – and Dylan is just as likely to team with Merle Haggard, say, than to give stage time to a bunch of young'uns.

But when he does select something fresh, it's usually worth noticing. This tour's treat: Kings of Leon, a jumped-up, edgy band of Southern-rock brothers (and a cousin) whose lyricism owes much to Dylan's recent manner and whose rock 'n' roll is as American as it comes these days. Do yourself a favor: Arrive early.

Contact the writer: 714-796-2248 or bwener@ocregister.com

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