BALLAD OF AN OLD, THIN MAN
Bob Dylan in Denver, October 22nd, 2009
by Adam Perry for Boulder Weekly
Last Thursday night at Magness Arena on the campus of Denver University, my daughter experienced her first Bob Dylan concert…from the womb. It took 19 years on Earth for me to see a Dylan show – at the Civic Arena in Pittsburgh, PA back in 1999 – and the old man’s Denver show last week was my fifth. I’ve now seen Dylan play in four states, but the current version of his touring band, and the 68-year old’s contributions to their eclectic performances, was something totally unexpected.
Launching into an explosive version of “Stuck Inside of Mobile” (from 1967’s Blonde On Blonde), it was clear Dylan and his band have their fire back. Lead guitarist Charlie Sexton, a highlight of Dylan’s touring outfit in the late 90’s and early 00’s who recently re-joined Dylan after a couple years away, lent the kind of dynamic improvisation and stage-presence that Dylan’s shows had been missing since Sexton and Larry Campbell both left for other projects. At times, Dylan chose to do an instrumental verse and just let Sexton fly, which was almost always exciting and entertaining, especially with brilliant young New Orleans-bred drummer George Recile supporting and responding to Sexton’s solos.
However, what really struck me at Magness Arena was Dylan’s unprecedented foray into Vegas-style lead-singer mode. For most of this decade, Dylan has played the bulk of his shows from behind an electric piano, but on about half of the songs he sang in Denver, Dylan chose to play neither guitar nor piano, opting instead to stand front and center, singing and erratically dancing while his band played. When you combine how Dylan squats, sways, gestures wildly with one arm and generally utilizes weird and hilarious mannerisms with his completely unpredictable (and sometimes awful) enunciations of incredible lyrics, the result is something you have to see and hear in person to believe. Amidst this spectacular quasi-karaoke incarnation of Bob Dylan, or perhaps because of it, my partner’s giddy exclamation of “look at his little knees moving!” was perhaps the highlight of the evening, along with our daughter literally kicking in time along to several songs inside her mother’s belly.
Dylan only played two songs (“Beyond Here Lies Nothin’” and “Jolene”) from his latest original album, April’s Together Through Life, and thankfully declined to perform anything from his strange new Christmas collection, which is as captivating as it is horrifying. As usual, Dylan played completely re-worked versions of some of the best songs in his massive catalog, including versions of “Cold Irons Bound” and “Honest With Me” that featured arrangements and attitudes reminiscent of the Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer.” “Highway 61 Revisited,” “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’,” “High Water” and other songs smartly featured the kind of thick, penetrating swing only a drummer like Recile can pull off, and “It Ain’t Me Babe” (which was virtually undistinguishable until the chorus) featured Dylan on guitar, filling in the instrumental gaps with his charmingly oddball idea of improvised melodies.
It’s thrilling how Dylan chooses to be challenged and inspired by Sexton and Recile every night as part of what he does for a living; looking at Dylan in his big black feathered fedora in those deep moments, singing lines like “my bewildering brain toils in vain through the darkness on the pathways of life,” it was hard not to be amazed that in two years we’ll be celebrating the 50th anniversary of his eponymous Columbia Records debut.
Personal Bias: I’m writing my final thesis at Naropa University this semester on Bob Dylan’s lyrics 1997-2009
Random Detail: Dylan has closed almost every show for the past 20-some years with “Like a Rolling Stone” and/or “All Along the Watchtower,” and his attempts to sing the latter in a hollow, staccato kind of devious voice just make it sound terrible
By The Way: “Workingman’s Blues #2” is turning into a classic, and the plight of the American economy is helping it along
Also: I need a real camera. Donations are welcome.
10/22/09 – Magness Arena
Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again
It Ain’t Me, Babe
Beyond Here Lies Nothin’
Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine)
Cold Irons Bound
Workingman’s Blues #2
High Water (for Charlie Patton)
Spirit On The Water
Honest With Me
Man In The Long Black Coat
Highway 61 Revisited
When The Deal Goes Down
Thunder On The Mountain
Ballad Of A Thin Man
Like A Rolling Stone
All Along The Watchtower