Wednesday, November 27, 2019


Bob Dylan Sings From the Bob Dylan Songbook

Bob Dylan Sings From the Bob Dylan Songbook
by Wayne Robins

“I was always a singer and nothing more than that,” Bob Dylan’s character Jack Fate says at the end of “Masked and Anonymous,” the 2003 film curiosity. Some saw that as a typical Dylan misdirection, a purposeful distraction aimed at those obsessed with finding the meaning of his songs.
But after watching Dylan, age 78, concentrate on singing his way through many levels of his catalog on Sunday, 24 November, the second night of a 10 show run at New York’s Beacon Theater, the takeaway is that singing was never more important to him, and that he never sang better.
The recent five CD excursion (“Triplicate” and two others) into Sinatra World suddenly made sense. The folk roots revisited albums “Good As I Been to You” (1992) and “World Gone Wrong” (1993) helped Dylan reboot his writing with “Time Out of Mind” (1997), his best new material since the 1970s; the five discs of Tin Pan Alley tunes retaught him how to properly control his voice. As Tim Riley wrote in the L.A. Review of Books, Dylan steps back and “allows the mood to gather around him, and gently massages these songs into a purr.” Dylan does that with his own material now. Those who struggled with Dylan’s singing in some of the more forgettable concerts from the early-2010s can relax, because Dylan has relaxed. I suspect he turned to those songs from the not-weird-at-all old America to learn how the great performers of those tunes— Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Peggy Lee—survived, even thrived, when time threw harsh resonances challenging their once easy mastery.
There were no Tin Pan Alley songs at the Beacon. Neither was it a “best-of” or “greatest hits.”
Up close, from the fifth row of the theater (now I know how much it costs to avoid going through seeing a concert from the back row twice: $195 a ticket), you got to watch Dylan’s little twists of faith, his small grins, but mostly, you noticed his concentration on delivering every familiar phrase, no matter how unfamiliar melody the melody. That’s the way he’s been doing it since the early 1980s, when at a concert at the Stony Brook University gymnasium people well-familiar with his catalog would gather in circles, confer and try to reach out through the unsteady acoustics and unfamiliar sounds to share slices of guessed-at lyrics, and patch together the names of songs that bore little resemblance to the Dylan tunes they had known for decades. It’s been that way almost ever since, with the exception of the occasional stadium tour (with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Dylan & Grateful Dead), when Bob sounded bored anyway.
At the Beacon, Dylan neither addressed the audience, nor introduced the songs, though he did introduce the band. New drummer Matt Chamberlain has adapted seamlessly, Charlie Sexton remains the front man among the multiple guitar heavy group, and Donnie Herron (violin, fiddle, steel guitar) was a kind of one man orchestra. Herron’s sensitivity elevated the elegiac “Lenny Bruce,” the little heard requiem for a martyr whose mind out of time in the late 1950s and early 1960s seeded Dylan’s own personal Manhattan Project. And those strings drove home the Doug Sahm-style waltz of “When I Paint My Masterpiece.”
Stitching the selection of tunes from mostly the middle of his deck, the songs each began after a short burst of tuning and feedback. Then, maybe 10, 20, 30 seconds later, the audience would applaud, recognizing the song being performed.
The encores, to be sure, were familiar: “Ballad of a Thin Man,” which for a fraction of a second made me self-conscious holding my my notebook and ink-based pencil in my hand, but I saw no one naked, and did not need to ask “who is that man.” Dylan appeared to especially enjoy the moment, appearing to take over on lead guitar against Sexton’s rhythm. After a weird and wonderful “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry,” the houselights took over.
Earlier, there was an “It Ain’t Me Babe” that the Turtles might not recognize, and “Girl of the North Country” that might make Johnny Cash think twice before realizing it was alright.
The much loved reference to Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, somehow rendered as comedy, whizzed right by my ears at the beginning of “Highway 61 Revisited,” with Dylan at Jerry Lee Lewis warp speed at the piano. Dylan sometimes sat at the piano (showing only the crown of his hair over the top, from our angle), and sometimes stood. “Thunder On the Mountain” was also full-on rock-rootsy, with the narrator “thinkin’ about Alicia Keys” and Bob banging the piano like Little Richard spotting Uncle John with bald headed Sally.
If there was a defining moment, it was “Pay in Blood,” with Dylan clutching the microphone and delivering each syllable with the conviction of Frank Sinatra singing “My Way.” I’d never thought of “Pay in Blood” as definitive, or even illustrious: It was more middle of the deck stuff, like the Chicago blues appropriation of “Early Roman Kings,” which was, by the way, blistering Sunday night. (Those songs were two of three from 2013’s “Tempest”; only “Time Out of Mind” had more, four.) But “Pay in Blood” was sung with more alertness, enthusiasm and sincerity than almost anything else in the set. Dylan’s body language was rarely this aggressive: Not quite Elvis karate moves, but similarly emphatic hand gestures.  
The song begins: “Well I’m grinding my life away steady and sure/Nothing more wretched than what I must endure,” before getting really dark. (By the way, “Not Dark Yet”? Magnificent.) But the refrain is: “I pay in blood, but not my own.” What does it mean? It means there will never be a 78-year-old man who will ever rock harder than Bob Dylan did whenever he wanted, or croon the slower tunes with more finesse. How does it feel? Couldn’t tell you. There were three songs from “Highway 61 Revisited,” which was generous for the curious. “Like a Rolling Stone” was not one of them, and I’m glad for that. You want nostalgia, you’ve got the record. At this show, you got to watch Bob Dylan think about singing as he sang. All his wrinkles seem new. 
(c) Wayne Robins 2019

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