Sunday, October 11, 2009

Song and dance man

We can now cross "see Bob Dylan once in your life" off our to-do lists, despite the best efforts of unknown malevolent forces out there.

Word to the wise: if you're taking your car from San Francisco to a show at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley, come early, find a safe parking space and make a day of it. We gave ourselves an hour and a half to get there only to be stuck in a huge traffic jam from South of Market to Treasure Island, then by the time we got to Berkeley, every parking lot was full. We finally found a paid UC campus parking lot with a broken ticket machine and took our chances. (The fate of our car loomed in the back of our minds through the whole concert; we hoped that we would just be ticketed rather than towed or booted.)

Shaking off our stress (we're here at last! Let's have fun!), we tromped down Bancroft and up the hill on Piedmont, hearing cheers and bits of harmonica, organ, and a familiar wheezy voice. Shit, he's started already. Hope he hasn't been playing long. We finally found the right set of stairs to reach the entrance while the guitar line from "I Don't Believe You" wafted over our heads. Once we got in, everything was cool. Two little bowls of Thai food and a couple beers later, we strolled into the enormous amphitheatre.

The entire band was dressed in black with black gaucho hats to match. Bob looked as old as the hills, but he was extremely animated, prancing and grinning from ear to ear. He only played guitar on a handful of songs, preferring to cup a harmonica and a big microphone together in his hands, bluesman-style, or stand behind a keyboard pumping out warm, vibrato-laden Al Kooper-like organ parts (which he did quite well...maybe he really did play piano for Bobby Vee all those years ago) and apply his strange, dessicated croak to songs from the 60s or from his most recent albums, leaving out pretty much everything in between.

New Bob Dylan songs tend to be bouncy Jimmy Reed-style shuffles with mischievously flirty lyrics. He brought down the house with the final verse of a song called "Spirit On The Water":
You think I'm over the hill
You think I'm past my prime
Let me see what you got
We can have a whoppin' good time!
The multi-generational crowd ate that one right up.

The biggest surprise was a soulful, organ-led take on "The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll", done as if it was a Percy Sledge ballad. Wow. When Bob came out from behind the organ to deliver a harp solo, it sounded nothing like the endearingly dissonant high-pitched squeals that have punctuated his songs for years. A lot of that familiar sound comes from using a harmonica holder while playing a guitar; close-miked and cupped, the tone was rich and expressive. News flash: Bob Dylan has actually been a really good harmonica player all these years after all! Who woulda thunk it?

What I had not expected was how much fun Bob was clearly having. It suddenly became clear why he has taken on such a rigorous touring schedule (popularly known as the "Never-Ending Tour"); he's got a band who know his every move and can play any style they choose, a massive catalog of material to draw from, and even more pertinently, a guy on rhythm guitar who's so solid that Bob can fart around on other instruments all he wants with no loss of groove. Bob Dylan (an artist who is infamous for never rehearsing and changing set lists at will) goes onstage knowing he has total musical freedom to follow any tangent he chooses, knowing those guys are right there. And he's having a whopping good time.

So yes, old man Dylan is still worth seeing. Caveat: you have to accept the state of his voice. Personally, I like how he sounds these days, even though lyrics sometimes get obliterated in the phlegmy grumble. In the 80s, I couldn't handle the way his voice had deteriorated into a high nasal whine, but by the late 90s, his throat had achieved such a completely wrecked state that by Time Out Of Mind, it had evolved into something bottomless, emotional and compelling. Now it sounds like the croak of a an old sage with a heart of a trickster. Nice to see an illustration of how an angry young man may run the risk of turning into a cranky middle-aged man, but if he can keep delving into the heart of his craft, he has the chance of becoming a wise old man in the end.

Oh, and the car was fine when we got back. No tickets, no nothing. Win!

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