Sunday, September 30, 2007

Bob Dylan & Elvis Costello, the Ryan Center, Kingston, RI (9/29/07)

After I booked this too-short trip back east to visit family, it was announced that Bob Dylan and Elvis Costello would be performing at my alma mater the night after my arrival. Talk about perfect timing! In attendance were Doug and both of my parents - this being the first time all four of us attended a show together. My mother had taken me and Doug to see Keith Richards back in '93, but my father has rarely been to concerts with me. I can count on one hand, probably, all the concerts he has seen with me and my mother. Let's see... Chicago, the Moody Blues, Engelbert Humperdinck, Paul McCartney, and this one. Yup, just checked, I still have five fingers on each hand.

In short, it was a mixed bag. First, the positives:

Parking for this venue was just a very short walk across the street, and it was very easy getting in and almost as easy getting out. It's only an 8,000 seater, so that helped. It also wasn't completely sold out, so that helped too.

Amos Lee opened. He has been Dylan's default opening act for the past several years. He's not remarkable, but he's not annoying either. Just a good, solid musician with a hard working rootsy band, sounding a shade like Levon Helm at times. It's easy to hear why Dylan likes him so much, and both times I've seen him open for Dylan, the audience was warm and accepting.

Costello was the absolute highlight of the night. It was just the man alone, switching between three different guitars throughout the course of his 11-song set. He walked out dressed in black, smiling and in great spirits. His full, well-toned voice was in perfect shape for most of the night, and he occasionally stepped away from the mic to create an echo effect in "The River In Reverse." Towards the end of this tune, he started singing John Lennon's "I Don't Wanna Be A Soldier, Mama, I Don't Wanna Die" and, as is his style, got the audience to sing along (although they didn't all get the cadence and it sounded jumbled). He did this again when he turned "Radio Sweetheart" into a full medley with Van Morrison's classic "Jackie Wilson Said (I'm In Heaven When You Smile)" - it was a perfect sing-along and it went off without a hitch.

The only real flaws of Costello's set were "Less Than Zero," which didn't really work all that well as a solo piece, and a new song co-written with Roseanne Cash that he debuted. Calling it simply "Song with Rose" since he hadn't titled it yet, the song wasn't all that memorable, didn't have much of a hook to speak of. Maybe it'll be another classic with some fine tuning, but thumbs up for trotting out something new.

The biggest surprise for me was hearing "Veronica." Even though this was his biggest hit (and his only number one single), he rarely plays it these days. What's more, it was played in a completely different key and sounded completely fresh. Probably for both of these reasons it earned him the first of about four standing ovations (he also got them for "The River In Reverse," "Radio Sweetheart," and of course after the last song). Ending with "The Scarlet Tide," he received his guaranteed mid-song applause when he sang the Bush-directed lyric, "admit you lied / and bring the boys back home." It's a genuine folk song, one of the most affecting songs he has written (actually co-written, with fellow "Coward brother" T-Bone Burnett) and has turned up frequently in his sets since its release on 2004's The Delivery Man.

With a voice like Costello's, having Dylan close the night was a bit anticlimactic. Not that Dylan's songs were any less remarkable, or his band overpowering or tasteless. Quite the contrary - Dylan played a well-chosen set of old and new classics, and his band is as tight as ever.

It's no secret that Dylan isn't a great singer, and anyone who buys a ticket to his concerts knows and expects that he is going to sound ragged. But this time, he sounded downright bored and sick of some of his old tunes. It was as if he could care less about even trying to emit discernible human tones on most of his old songs, especially on the first three - "Leopard-Skin Pillbox Hat," "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright" and "Watching The River Flow." He rushed through the lyrics, jumbling syllables together like a chain-smoking bullfrog with Tourette's syndrome. He'd then take a long pause to make up the time before finishing each line, in what sounded like a willful insult to musical cadence and (of course) melody. And yet... Doug and I found ourselves not pissed, but laughing. Quite frequently. "I think he's taking the piss out of people," Doug observed. Perhaps.

He may have just been bored too. For, by the time Dylan got around to singing some of the tunes off his latest album, last year's Modern Times (he played five of the album's ten songs), he was finally starting to reach for some notes, the mid-line pauses weren't so long, and one could actually make out some melodies.

One song where the spooky tone of his nearly destroyed voice worked especially well was "Ain't Talkin'" - he wrote this one with a melody very suitable for his limited range, and the many dark verses are exactly the kind of material that fit the world-weary personality responsible for early, winding epics like "Desolation Row." Every lyric was brought into sharp relief by his delivery, especially lines like "I'm tryin' to love my neighbor and do good unto others / But oh mother, things ain't going so well" and the closing couplet: "Heart burnin', still yearnin' / In the last outback at the world's end." You'd think he was resigned to the imminent end of time being just around the corner, and who knows, maybe it is.

But even a miserable Bob Dylan won't leave his audience feeling depressed, and "Summer Days" is exactly the antidote for the effects of his downer material. This tune, from 2001's Love and Theft, has become a latter-day classic thanks to its frequent appearances in Dylan's set lists since its release. It's the only song from the album that he performed on Saturday, and its jubilant rockabilly swing is nothing short of an instant party.

After a haunting, always relevant "Masters of War," Dylan encored with the "Summer Days" follow-up "Thunder on the Mountain" (from Modern Times) and the crowd-pleasing "All Along The Watchtower," modeled after the more-famous Jimi Hendrix cover, showing that Dylan clearly isn't above adopting another legend's improvement of one of his own songs.

But truly, we had to laugh. After all, the context in which we were hearing these performances was so cynically designed, I'm sure Dylan himself must be laughing too. It was the taped brass fanfare that signaled the start of the show, and the voice announcing Dylan as the "voice of the '60s counterculture, who disappeared in the '80s, subsequently found Jesus, and has returned with his strongest work starting in the late '90s" or something to that effect... I mean, these kinds of labels and hero-worship were exactly the kind of thing Dylan rejected and rebelled against for so many years. And in that context, coupled with hearing how ungodly he sounds today, how could one not laugh?

Clearly, Dylan has a (somewhat warped) sense of humor. And he's laughing all the way to the bank. Who else can "sing" like he does and get away with it? And it's not like he can't still sing clear melodies - his a capella rendition of "Take Me Out To The Ballgame" offered on one of his recent XM "Theme Time Radio Hour" broadcasts proved it. He just chooses to croak. And we choose to show up. It's quite the arrangement, and it makes for some interesting theater. That's why we dig Dylan, not just because he wrote some amazing songs and captured the mood of a grand, historic moment in time.

Elvis Costello's set-list:
The Angels Want to Wear My Red Shoes
Either Side of the Same Town
Veronica
The River In Reverse
"Song with Rose"
Less Than Zero
Alison
(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding
From Sulfur to Sugar Cane
Radio Sweetheart/Jackie Wilson Said
The Scarlet Tide


Bob Dylan's set-list:
Leopard-Skin Pillbox Hat
Don't Think Twice, It's Alright
Watching The River Flow
The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll
Rollin' And Tumblin'
The Ballad of Hollis Brown
Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again
Spirit On The Water
Things Have Changed
Workingman's Blues #2
Highway 61 Revisited
Ain't Talkin'
Summer Days
Masters of War

Encore:
Thunder On The Mountain
All Along The Watchtower

2 comments:

Doug M. said...

Fantastic write-up. I couldn't have said it better myself. I wish I had taken the (multiple) opportunities I've had to see Elvis Costello in the past. What a great performer. And I still laugh when I think of Dylan's intro or his cadence on "Don't Think Twice It's Alright."

harmolodic said...

Yes, makes me think of Cannibal Corpse turning into folkies.

Actually, you probably could say quite a bit about Dylan's performance. You've got a strong funny bone, and that performance was ripe for funny. Give it a go!