20lbs of Headlines


After the two-month "Chronicles" blitz, we can finally catch up on Dylan's 2004 late autumn/early winter tour, and see whether it was as universally favourably received as the summer jaunt with Willie Nelson. Or, indeed, as his book was.
At the time of writing this (early February 2005), that tour is still the last time Dylan hit the boards. By the time you get to read it, that almost certainly won't be the case. It'd be nice, too, to think that, even as I sit here and type this out, Dylan is putting the finishing touches to a new studio album. Who knows, maybe I'll be examining the reviews in these very pages by the end of the year. I'd like to think so, but with Bob you can never be sure, and eleven months is a long, long while. Whatever, I'm content to wait.
"Spirit of the future, I fear you more than the others............." 

Okay, so we kick off with an appraisal of the intimate Grand show in San Francisco by The San Francisco Chronicle's old favourite Joel Selvin. In front of 1,200 people, Dylan delivered a show that seems to have soon been voted as one of the best (if not the best) of the year-end tour. With a nod towards his excellent band, Selvin notes that "with Bob Dylan, it's always real life - not show business - onstage. In his first nightclub appearance in San Francisco - and probably the smallest room he's worked around these parts since he played the College of San Mateo 40 years ago - he gave his most fevered fans a rare treat." 

At Santa Clara University's Leavey Center, Santa Cruz Style's Don Miller afforded high praise for Dylan's keyboard playing ("strong and prominent"), as well as the band ("....Campbell, in particular, is invaluable to the Bob Band. Not only is he a wonderful guitarist, but his pedal-steel is so distinctive to the Sound of Bob that has become such a focused and flexible musical force"). Dylan himself, "appeared to be having fun, at one point leaving the keyboard to prance about in front of Recile, using that funny Bob-and weave he adopted throughout last year's film, "Masked And Anonymous". The bulk of the 4,500 audience are described as "polite", which, I assume, means that they were pretty inanimate. Indeed, at one point Miller claims that they "were somewhat puzzled by the intensity of the music, though at least students got a lesson in rock history and relevance from Dylan, while the obligatory aging boomers got a few moments to wallow in "remember whens" when he resurrected some '60s chestnuts." 

Angie Baecker of The Daily Californian went along to the Haas Pavilion show and wished she hadn't. "Do I have the guts," she wonders, "To say that Bob Dylan's concert wasn't incredible? The acoustics were mediocre, the set was only an hour and a half long, and not only were Dylan's mutterings incomprehensible, his melodies were barely recognisable."
Sounds like one of his better gigs to me. 

Mark Brown of the Rocky Mountain News was also less than impressed with the opening section of the University of Colorado show, feeling that Dylan's presence behind mostly inaudible keyboards created a barrier between him and the band. "......It made for a very slow, midtempo opening set," he says, "With plodding songs such as "Lay Lady Lay" being nearly indistinguishable from "God Knows". Dylan is best with his up-tempo material and when he's performing material better suited to his current vocal style." Still, it wasn't all bad; Brown enjoyed the band and thought that the second half of the show was a marked improvement once "he tore into "Highway 61 Revisited"."
As the show wore on, it wasn't just the rockers that got Brown's vote; ".....A slow, seething version of "Positively Fourth Street" was venomous and wicked. And Dylan has finally found an arrangement of "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright" that works for him, one of the few songs that he emphatically pumped up in the mix." 

Charles Donelan was especially impressed with the newer numbers at the UCSB Event Centre show, and, in his Santa Barbara Independent review, he writes that "The music from his 1997 release "Time Out Of Mind" has done something wonderful for his live shows, lending a much-needed unity to the band's sound and approach. The current bands rocks like a more focused version of the early Dylan rock ensembles, and the groove on the more recently composed numbers tends to spill over and animate the classics."
For all that, it was a 40-something year-old folk song that provided Donelan with his personal highlight and connected most strongly with a post-9/11 America. "For this listener," he writes, "The emotional climax of the evening came on "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall". In this crucial election year, and after a particularly heavy Santa Barabara storm, the final long verse, with its 16 emphatic lines, struck with enormous force. It's 2004, and the executioner's face still remains well hidden. Black is still the colour, none is still the number, and Bob Dylan is still out there, to "tell it and speak it and think it and breathe it"." 

Kyle Munson of the Des Moines Register  thought that the show at Iowa's Carver Hawkeye Arena showed Dylan to be stuck in something of a rut. He notes that almost half of the set was comprised of "Time Out Of Mind" and "Love And Theft" material, and, while "that's sterling source material, it's curious that Dylan would be so stingy with his rich and vast back catalogue after a few years of flogging the same "new" songs." While he admits that "Dylan, fiddling around with his songs in new and dynamic ways, can still make them sound timeless and malleable", Munson also notes that "getting stuck in the recent past is not necessarily any better than getting stuck in the 1960s".
And what was Munson's favourite song of the show? Why, none other than "Cold Irons Bound"; one of Dylan's "recent past" songs, which was "the stunner of the night".
Critics, hey, what can you do with them?
Well, burning them in a giant Wicker Man like poor old Edward Woodward in that movie springs to mind as one possible solution. Or am I just being too harsh? 

The DaKalb Daily Chronicle's Chris Rickert went along to DeKalb's Northern Illinois University Convocation Centre to see Dylan's show, admitting that he doesn't own one of the man's albums and has no real idea of what he's about, save that one of his songs has a chorus that goes "everybody must get stoned". He enjoyed what he saw, especially when his Dylan-veteran companion reassured him that no song is played exactly the same way from one show to the next.
For Rickert, the transcendent [(c) Jack Nicholson] moment came during "All Along The Watchtower" - a song he only knows from the "overplayed" Hendrix version. "To experience the hard-driving, inspired, emotional crescendos of Dylan's latest version of the song on Halloween night in the cosy and acoustically awesome Convo Centre - well, it's enough to renew one's faith in rock legends."

The Davis Spectrum's Daniel Dullum similarly enjoyed the show at the UC Davis Activities and Recreation Centre Pavilion, and found "Highway 61 Revisited" to be a highlight amongst "an evening full of highlights". Dylan, he claims, was enjoying himself as much as the audience; "....It was apparent that Dylan was having fun onstage and clearly enjoyed every musical aspect of the show....With a little dash of showmanship (pulling up his sleeves like a carnival magician), he offered a simple "Thank you", grabbed a bouquet of roses, and lead the band off the stage as quietly as they entered. Bob Dylan's performance left many in the crowd mesmerised, some confused, others amused, and nearly everyone pleasantly entertained. Just another unorthodox night at the office." 

The University of Wisconsin sent along Jared Blohm to review the UW-Oshkosh's Kolf Sports Centre show for their Advance-Titan campus newspaper. His piece concentrates mainly on the post-gig reactions of the audience, which ranged from "I thought it was awesome" and "The show was amazing. I''m very thrilled. I loved it" to "I was a little disappointed that he didn't play at least one or two of his songs on the guitar" and "I thought it was way too much band and way too little Dylan."
What was that about not being able to please all of the people all of the time? 

The OshKosh Northwestern's Jeff Potts attended the same show and decided that the show was so good that the only thing the audience should really have to complain about was that they had to leave their cigarettes and lighters at the door on the way in.
So, no "Before The Flood" album sleeve at that particular gig, then. 

Tim Brouk, writing in Indianapolis' Journal And Courier, thought that the biggest surprise of the show at Purdue University's Elliot Hall of Music was that Bob remained firmly rooted behind his keyboards and didn't pick up the guitar all night (not been to a Dylan gig for a few years, Tim?). Even so, "Dylan was surprisingly the most animated on stage, as his rock-solid backing band kept a laid-back persona. It was fun to see Dylan jerk to piano hits like a member of Devo." 

Kira L. Schlechter of The Patriot News was more than impressed with the Messiah College's Brubaker Auditorium gig, perhaps because this was the smallest venue of the tour and Dylan was feeding off the energy of the 1,600-strong audience, appearing "loose and energised".
"In this day of giant-sized concert venues," she concludes, "The intimacy of Messiah's tiny auditorium reminded all who were there what live performance is really all about: the performance, not the spectacle, where the performer himself is spectacle enough. Dylan's presence in such a small space was electrifying, and he fully lived up to the billing.

Similarly, The Pittsburgh Daily News carried an enthusiastic review of the University of Pittsburgh's Petersen Events Centre gig. Dave Fennessy preferred the rockers and only considered a "lacklustre" "Lay Lady Lay" to be less than perfect. For him, the highlights included a version of "Positively Fourth Street" that "turned the spurned friend/lover's enraged flip-off of 1965 into a tender, almost conciliatory lament" and an encore of "Like A Rolling Stone", transformed into "near-ballad tempo".

Equally as impressed with the same show was Scott Mervis of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, who considered that only "Sugar Baby" was below par, being "the victim of too many sour notes." He was surprisingly impressed by the quality of Dylan's voice, given that he didn't enjoy Dylan's last Pittsburgh appearance during November 2002, when "his singing was terrible and he was out of sync with the band, and the very notion of playing Rolling Stones, Neil Young and two Warren Zevon covers - when he's written the best songs on the planet - was absurd." Oh well, it takes all sorts, I suppose. I think 99.9% of people reading this would gladly take any autumn 2002 show over anything 2004 had to offer, or is that just me? Perhaps, in two years time, we'll be harking back fondly to the glory days of autumn 2004 (scary thought).
Anyway, I digress. Mervis continues thus; "Rumours of his voice being shot have been greatly exaggerated. Dylan has always toyed with the melodies, either speeding up or slowing down the phrasing - sometimes muttering away the high notes. On this night, his growl was deep and strong and full of menace."
I'd still take any 2002 "Mutineer" over yet another tedious 2004 rock-out of "Summer Days" any old day of the week, but I guess even the cover versions would become tiresome if Dylan peddled them year in and year out. 

The Lansing State Journal's Chris Rietz decided, after viewing the MSU's Breslin Centre show, that "Dylan is a tireless performer and arguably the most successful of his rock-god peers at keeping the old songs as fresh and relevant as the new stuff". He won over the 3,400 crowd straight away, and, "with the crowd in his hand, he ramped up the energy early on with "Tweedle Dum And Tweedle Dee", an irresistable rocker and one of the evening's high points - and the notoriously taciturn Dylan was smiling." 

The St. Bonaventure Reilly Centre show seemed to split the audience right down the middle, with many leaving well before the end and many more dancing at the front of the stage until the very last note had been played. According to the Olean Times Herald's Marisa Lampert, one attendee exclaimed, "He's having a good time, the band's having fun, the crowd is having fun, everyone is having fun!" while another reckoned that it was "one of the mellowest Dylan concerts" and that his mother was sleeping in the bleachers. Most said that it had not necessarily been a disappointing show, but neither was it on par with his last show in the area. As one woman observed, that's just par for the course; "He plays according to his mood, and some shows are slower than others." 

In contrast, John Hanchette of the Niagara Falls Reporter attended the same show and thought it was "terrific", despite some of the "wishy-washy" reviews he'd read. He states that Dylan played for over two hours (not always the norm on this tour), did three encores and was happy enough to treat the crowd to one of his corny jokes. In fact, Hanchette's only gripe was with the $15 tour programme, which, although it featured some interesting photographs, contained only very little text, and that was a tired transcript of an old interview concentrating solely on "Hearts Of Fire".
He notes that many in the audience lit up their cell phones and turned them towards the stage, "which seemed to amuse Dylan". But, lest you think that the crowd was entirely made up of yuppies attempting a hi-tech replica of the "Before The Flood" sleeve that I mentioned earlier, I'm happy to report that "the distinct aroma of ganja wafted into the upper seats, and the smoke danced through the floodlights until staff personnel started scurrying through the crowd in an apparently futile effort to find the culprits."
Hooray - rock 'n' roll! Am I the only one who finds the image of hundreds of people holding aloft illuminated mobile phones at a rock gig to be ever so slightly stomach-churning? 

Mike Paquet, writing for Lehigh University's student newspaper The Brown And White enjoyed the Stabler Arena show, though he reports that the crowd was very laid-back; ".....few in the audience stood up during the 100-minute, 16-song set, and even fewer danced."
This is a well-written review and from somebody who's enough of a fan to know exactly when Dylan began phasing in his keyboard playing and that "This Wheel's On Fire" was co-written by Rick Danko. For him, the low point came during a version of a rearranged "Honest With Me", which "suffers from poor lyrics to begin with (and).........sounded like a cross between a hiccup and a skipping CD." As in many other reviews, Paquet found "Positively Fourth Street" to be the highlight, alongside a take on "Under The Red Sky" that was "executed with a combination of instrumental care and emotional control unrivalled in contemporary rock."
Dylan even played a request; "a delicate reading of a new arrangement" of "Girl Of The North Country" dedicated to a "young man named Alladin". Apparently, the lucky recipient was one Alladin Jaloudi, who Dylan had met earlier in Easton. Having finished tthe song, Dylan joked, "Anybody else wanna hear anything? Well, it's too late!" 

The Morning Call's Geoff Gehman also enjoyed the same show, describing Dylan's phrasing as "bizarre and brilliant". "Positively Fourth Street" was performed "with all the passion of someone smoking a cigarette at breakfast", whatever that's supposed to mean, and, though his voice rarely veered from a "grizzled gargle" (apparently, "sometimes he imitated a grandfatherly oracle, sometimes the witch in "Hansel And Gretel"), "on a stabbing-blues take on "Masters Of War", he was crystal-clear and casually menacing".
The encore was a "phenomenally spooky, phenomenally powerful "All Along The Watchtower". Guitars howled, drums prowled and Dylan used a vocal echo device to intensify a sense of yowling danger. Like Dylan himself, the performance was a teasing hurricane."

Chang Liu of The Harvard Independent similarly enjoyed Bob's gig at the Gordon Track, claiming that the song selection "became opportunities to prove his vitality". His favourite song, "Forever Young", came early in the set; ".....From the wistful prayer of its album version came the harsh edge of Dylan's voice against the backdrop of the 4-piece band." And, perhaps because that voice "sounded like it was losing its battle with emphysema, Dylan was the old gypsy grandfather, mixing a strain of tenderness in a tone as hard as a knife's edge."
I must admit that I like Liu's observation that "throughout his set, he did not so much "play" his standards as he reminded us of them", as well as his final pay-off line (while discussing "John Brown") that "the common theme of his political songs was the indignation of the conscience against the brutality of the avaricious system. That, unfortunately, has not changed."
If only all reviews could be as eloquent as this one. 

The Boston Globe's Steve Morse was also at Harvard, though he was decidedly less impressed than Liu. The sound, he eloquently reports, was "sludge city" and Dylan was definitely having an off-night.
There were, he says, far too many "Love And Theft" songs, and many of the students in the 4,000-strong audience were unfamiliar with the album and left early.
"Can we really stand one more version of "Tweedle Dum And Tweedle Dee"?" asks Morse. Well, speaking purely for myself, the answer has to be "No". As I commented a couple of months ago, what was genuinely new and exciting during the autumn of 2001 is tired and as tedious as watching grass grow three years down the line. 

Katherine Chan reports in The Harvard Crimson that the show was a great success as far as the organisers were concerned. It was sold out, there were no backstage or onstage problems and Dylan was only fifteen minutes late taking to the stage (as compared to an earlier Busta Rhymes gig which ran two hours late).
Some of the students complained that they couldn't understand what Dylan was singing ("I can't understand a thing," says one, "But Dylan is Dylan. This is a pilgrimage.") and that the bulk of the crowd were listless and unenthusiastic; "There's not enough dancing. You can dance to Bob Dylan. People should be jamming."
One fan, Kate A. Farrel, danced alone, and later called the crowd "lame" because they weren't "familiar with his new stuff". As far as she was concerned (unlike many others), the fact that Dylan resolutely remained behind his keyboards throughout the night was not a surprise or a disappointment, and she felt that he was right to stick to setting the tempo on the keyboards. To expect him to revert to guitar, she asserts, would have been like "asking a dentist to floss. You can just have others do that." 

Kevin O'Hare of The Republican went to Bob's show at the University of Massachusetts' Mullins Centre and declared; "Despite anything you might hear, when Dylan wants to, he can sing. Really sing. His voice was pushed way up in the sound mix, and when he started the night with an energised "Maggie's Farm", he delivered a borderline beautiful voice."
During the encores, he delivered another of his "jokes", this one about guitarist Stu Kimball being a farmer who recently got one of his cows onto some scales. "He wanted to see how much his milky weighed," Dylan deadpanned.
"Thankfully," O'Hare concludes, "The night didn't end with that. Instead, Dylan led his troupe through a roaring run through "All Along The Watchtower" before departing." 

At the same show, The Massachusetts Daily Collegian's Brian Duffey reports that "Like A Rolling Stone" was the best song of the night, and quotes various audience members, some of who felt that this show was "mellow and relaxing" and a far cry from his greatest onstage successes. Then again, others considered him to be "incredible" and "so professional", and, as Teal Maxwell exclaimed; "He's a legend, you gotta see him!" 

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Away from the tour, Dylan's much-lauded interview on "60 Minutes" earned him a few more column inches and helped to promote "Chronicles", which, presumably, was the whole point in the first place. However, one can safely conclude that his fifteen minutes of prime-time American TV did him little favours, and, if it wasn't quite a catastrophe of Live Aid proportions, it was still a catastrophe all the same. 

Previewing it in The Buffalo News, Jeff Simon admits that he's never loved Bob Dylan, but he loves the idea of him. "Some celebrity in modern America has to be the perfect anti-celebrity," he writes, "And Dylan is it. No one else simultaneously offers his fans so much and so little. Dylanologists, it seems, can spend a lifetime pondering the sublimities, miasmas and banalities that comprise Bob Dylan and yet get absolutely nowhere. They can know every song, know every woman he ever shmoozed and every joint he ever rolled; they can even know how many Dove Bar wrappers are in his garbage. And the more they know, the less they seem sure of."
Simon reminds us that Dylan's last TV appearance had been on the "Dharma And Greg" show ("He had the bewildered but wry and cooperative look of a quantum mechanics physicist asked to address a convention of scientologists"), which was "so off-the-wall funny".
Then again, he suggests, "a good argument could be made that Dylan has approached his entire last two decades as a long episode of "Dharma And Greg".
Simon clearly thinks that "60 Minutes" and its ilk are superfluous and on their last legs here in the 21st century, and yet they perfectly encapsulate America's shallow skin-deep approach to celebrity nowadays ("So help me, if Leo Tolstoy were an American writing in 2004, he'd probably let "60 Minutes" film him wearing serf mufti on his estate and contemplating the holiness of the chickens he won't eat"). He claims that he's expecting "a total lack of edification in this evening's Dylan hallucination, but that's entirely in keeping with "60 Minutes" celebrity interviews. Especially these days." (Which - let's be honest - is pretty much exactly what he got).
"What better time for Bob Dylan to appear amid all the aged dinosaurs on "60 Minutes" and confound all the easy notions of celebrity in his time?" he concludes, "If it's closing time in this particular bar (whose denizens are, for sure, not going to last forever), who better to come in for one of the final rounds?" 

Slate's Dana Stevens found the interview to have been ultimately as worthless as Jeff Simon predicted it would be, claiming that neither interviewer or interviewee showed the slightest interest in the proceedings; ".......Dylan displayed the flat affect of the clinically depressed, avoiding eye contact, mumbling evasively and sometimes visibly wincing at Ed Bradley's questions, which were not just toothless but gumless. Not that there's any need to put the 63-year-old artist through the wringer, but for God's sake, at least ask him something that rises to the level of mildly interesting cocktail chatter."
Bradley, she complains, failed to ask Dylan "anything about music, current events, pop culture or religion" and, instead, "dwelled awkwardly on Bradley's amazement at the fact that Dylan might not enjoy being a celebrity."
For those (un)lucky enough to have missed it, she provides a basic template of the entire Q and A session; "Bradley: "Many regard you as a prophet/god/saviour/genius. What do you say to that?" Dylan: "Argh, erm, well, hmmm." Bradley: "Wow, you're so enigmatic."" 

In a lengthy review for The New Republic, David Yaffe also blames Bradley for asking the wrong questions and not pushing Dylan to get his arse into gear.
To be fair, Yaffe does admit that Bradley got "the more evasive Dylan" who seemed determined to answer every question with one word or less, but he blames him for not pushing Dylan further or delving deeper into "Chronicles" and trying to snag Dylan's interest with some of the characters that walk through his book.
"The segment immediately preceding the Dylan interview was on adult ADD," he writes, "Appropriate for a programme that reduced Dylan's entire life's work to gnomic sound bytes, and each one of them wrenched out with great anguish. Why did Dylan bother doing it? For most of the interview, he seemed like he would rather be undergoing root-canal work." 

The UK's Uncut reckoned that the thing was a "disaster" and that a more coherent Bob Dylan could be found on the Fox channel, where a mumbling cartoon Bob was being interviewed in the latest "Simpsons" episode (or did they get the real thing and CBS' "60 Minutes" got the mumbling cartoon? These days it's pretty difficult to tell the difference).
"You could only cringe," insists
Uncut, "When he referred to God as "the Chief Commander"."

Steve Fennessy takes a similar stance on the Creative Loafing website, claiming that "Chronicles" is a fine book, but that the interviews arranged to promote it were "shit". Ed Bradley and "60 Minutes" return to take their share of the flack, but Newsweek's David Gates also comes under attack for failing to address Bob's bike accident, his conversion to Christianity, his divorce(s) or the Victoria's Secret advert and for generally treating Dylan like a member of can-do-no-wrong royalty.
Instead, we learn that, during the interview, Dylan sips coffee from a Styrofoam cup and that it was raining. "Smelling the shit yet?" asks Fennessy.
To be fair, the questions that Fennessy (and, I dare say, all of us) would have preferred Gates and Bradley to pose to Dylan would have probably gotten the interviews aborted before they'd even begun. Any interviewer worth their salt is going to realise that the only response a question like "Bob, you've been married and divorced twice now. Do you think you're doing something wrong?" is going to get is the sight of Dylan's boot heels disappearing through the nearest door marked "EXIT".
"Bradley's interview with Dylan made Gates look like the Seymour Hersh of the music business," Fennessy concludes, "I'd use the word "vacuous" but it doesn't quite capture the emptiness, the galactic banality of Bradley's questions.....It's no wonder Dylan hates the press. What’s to like?"

And there we must leave it for this month, just as the post-"Chronicles" backlash kicks in with a vengeance.
More on that next time.