Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, and Amos Lee

The title sounds like the opening to a really odd joke, but in fact it was the concert bill last night in Albany. Bob Dylan is touring as always, and Elvis Costello is along doing a solo set, with Amos Lee opening for both. Kate and I went to the show, and it was... unusual.

I'll put most of the review comments below the fold, just to avoid cluttering the front page more than it already is. I think the key realization of the evening, though, was that at age 66, Dylan has decided that he wants to be Johnny Cash circa 1968.

What with one thing and another, we were a little late getting there, and missed most of Amos Lee's opening set. He must've started very promptly at 7:00 (unusually for the music business), because it was only 7:20 when we got to our seats, and he only played two more songs. Those two songs were really good, though, and I'm sorry we didn't see more. As I noted to Kate, it's got to be a rare triple bill where he has the most appealing singing voice of any of the acts, but he makes good use of it.

The seats we had were at the far end of the Times Union Center from the stage, off to one side a bit, and may have been the worst seats I've ever had for a concert. Not in terms of the view-- that was perfectly fine-- in terms of the seats themselves. They were cushioned at least, but narrow, and the rows were really close together. As a result, there was really only one way I could sit, which still involved jamming my legs into the back of the seats in front of me, and I got a horrible crick in my neck from having to turn sideways to see the stage. I resolved to spend as little time as possible in the actual seat, and thus spent most of the set breaks out on the concourse buying beer (where, again, I was astounded by the ability of the average person to make simple transactions complicated-- there were two kinds of beer on tap, and three in bottles, all five types clearly visible from the entire line. And yet, people would get all the way to the front of the line without knowing what they wanted, and would need to have a little conversation with the tapman).

Elvis Costello played entirely solo-- just him, a microphone, and a guitar. I've never seen this done in an arena before-- I've been to a few solo acoustic shows in small theaters (The Egg, Troy Music Hall), but never a show in a hockey rink. Had this show been in a small amphitheater like that, I think it would've been really special, but even in the great big room, he did a good job.

The set list was heavy on stuff that I didn't know, but he mixed a few hits in. The highlight was probably when he segued from "Radio Sweetheart" into Van Morrison's "Jackie Wilson Said," leading the crowd in a singalong of the "da da-da da da da-da da da da" bits. There were a couple of points where he talked to the crowd a bit, and showed off his fine command of Stephen Colbert's list of ways to get applause without asking for it. His stage patter was, as you might expect, pretty funny, and again, were the show in a smaller theater where he could interact with more of the audience, I think it would've been something amazing. As it was, I wished I knew more of his back catalogue, so I could follow the songs better.

I've seen Bob Dylan twice before, once in 1991 (it was a Fourth of July show at Tanglewood, listed as "Lenox"), and once in New Haven in 1999. The earlier show was pretty bad, really-- he was totally incomprehensible, and the music was a little erratic-- but the 1999 show was outstanding. So it was a little hard to know what to expect going in to this one.

On this tour, Dylan is with a guitar-heavy backing band: lead guitar, bass guitar, rhytym guitar, and steel guitar. OK, the steel guitar player (Donnie Herron) also plays violin and viola, and the bass player sometimes played upright bass, but really, that's a lot of guitars. Probably because of that, Dylan spent most of the show playing keyboards, which was a little odd.

Dylan came out dressed like an itinerant preacher in a Western-- black suit, white shirt, and a short of flat broad-brimmed hat. The backing band were all in maroon suits with black shirts. Kate asked me what sort of look they were trying to go for, and I originally said "early rock band," but a couple of songs in, it hit me: what was really going on was Dylan trying to be Johnny Cash circa 1968. The band was very much a 60's era country band, and every song was played like they were recording it at Folsom Prison.

This worked out better for some of the songs on the set list (you gotta love Dylan fans-- the show ended after 11:00, but the set list was posted before I got up at 7) than others. The opening "Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat" isn't too far off that sound anyway, nor is "Watching the River Flow," and of course, most of the material from Love and Theft and Modern Times was recorded with this sort of band. Some of the older songs, though, didn't make the transition as well. "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright" wasn't bad as a country song (though as it was the second song in the show, they hadn't really warmed up yet, and Dylan sort of croaked his way through it), but "Simple Twist of Fate" was decidedly odd.

The set list was pretty heavy on new-ish material. Eight of the sixteen songs were from Time Out of Mind or later, and while it might not seem unusual to draw half of the set from the last decade, the man does have almost fifty years of back catalogue, most of it much better known than his more recent stuff. The newer songs do work better with the current band, though, and last night's set list was pretty typical of the current tour. And you've got to give him integrity points for refusing to do a "greatest hits" show.

The best points of the show came toward the end, as he closed the set with a very sinister "Masters of War." I'm not a huge fan of protest songs in general, as they tend to be really heavy-handed, but this is one of the best examples of the genre, and they did a great job with it. The encore was two songs, and the show-closing "All Along the Watchtower" was probably the best song they did all night. It's amusing to note, though, that even Bob Dylan feels obliged to get somebody to play the Hedrix riff when he does this song...

All in all, this was somewhere between the earlier two shows. Dylan never had much of a voice to begin with, and there isn't much of that left, but he's learned to work with it better than he had in 1991, and the new band is pretty solid. The 1999 show, though (which I have a bootleg tape version of somewhere) had a much larger musical range-- he was already starting to move in the direction of the current country sound (the version of "It Ain't Me, Babe" from that show was fantastic), but he hadn't taken to re-writing absolutele everything to fit that sound. That show was also a little looser than this one.

And the seats were more comfortable. I swear, I'm planning to buy Springsteen tickets for his show in Albany in November, and "General Admission" is looking better and better...


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Informative, but please lay of the use of the word "really." You used it ten times. My high school journalism teacher warned us against these things.

By Mickey Bitsko (not verified) on 07 Oct 2007 #permalink

Great review....for someone in the 10th Grade.

Pointless, useless "review" - you obviously don't know Dylan's music or the popular music context which he creates in...who cares if your seats were uncomfortable ???

By Jay Philips (not verified) on 07 Oct 2007 #permalink

The above comments are unhelpful and do not contribute to my reading experience. C-. Would not read again.

This must be the worst piece of journalism to be found in the terrible world of online journalism. I hope that you get your smarts when you hit your sophomore year.

A warm and hearty welcome to the readers of whatever Dylan fan site linked to this post (Technorati is letting me down). Thanks for stopping by, enjoy your visit, come again soon.

what was really going on was Dylan trying to be Johnny Cash circa 1968. The band was very much a 60's era country band, and every song was played like they were recording it at Folsom Prison.

You say this like it's a bad thing :-)

Hillbillily yours......PR

You say this like it's a bad thing

It works better for some songs than others. "Simple Twist of Fate" didn't work all that well, but "Highway 61" wasn't bad.

Weirdly, he also re-worked "Workingman's Blues #2" off Modern Times, which didn't need it. That wasn't terribly successful, either.

You can, of course, find more positive reviews of the show. The local paper's review was similar to mine.

"current country sound"? What Bob Dylan played on Saturday night was down and dirty rock which owed a lot more to the blues than to country music. I'd concede a point to "rocked out western swing" on Summer Days. Don't be tricked by his hat.

Working Man's Blues #2 and Ain't Talking were astounding. I thought Bob was in fine voice esp on 'Til I Fell In Love With You. A surprisingly energetic performance from Mr. Dylan where I did not miss not having any surprises in the set list.

I have no problem with mentioning the awful seats in the Arena. The venue should not be part of the review unless it influences the patron's enjoyment of the show. The cramped seating and hot humid conditions certainly did that.

By 1ifbyrain2ifbytrain (not verified) on 08 Oct 2007 #permalink

I saw him do the same show in Clemson, SC a few weeks ago. Did you notice the leather pants? Anyway, I was a bit disapointed by the whole band thing he had going on - I wanted to see him with a guitar and a harmonica. I kept hoping he'd ditch the band for a song or two, but it never happened. I expected him to sound the way he did, but I was hoping for at least one oldie. All in all, I only recognized two songs. Sure, I'm 26. I'm not that familar with his music. But I was disapointed.

"current country sound"? What Bob Dylan played on Saturday night was down and dirty rock which owed a lot more to the blues than to country music.

There was too much mournful steel guitar to be "down and dirty rock."

It wasn't Toby Keith country music, but it was definitely Johnny Cash country music. Now, granted, rock and country were closer together back then, but it was more Johnny Cash than, say, Buddy Holly.

You seriously don't have a clue what you're talking about, Dylan has all the respect in the world for Johnny Cash but he does'nt have to imitate him - or anyone else for that matter.

By Brian Sweeney (not verified) on 08 Oct 2007 #permalink

The experience one has at a Dylan show is also affected by where you sit (aside from having perspective on his career). At Tanglewood 1991, I was up front. Dylan entered the stage playing the harmonica and danced all around the stage while playing for most of the number. It was certainly right at the top of the most exciting performances I have ever seen

I saw Bob Dylan and his band in Glasgow, Scotland in April this year. The music was pure rock and roll tinged with some jazz, blues and swing. Nothing like Johnny Cash. He must have altered the band's style a great deal in a short period.

By Dan Govan (not verified) on 10 Oct 2007 #permalink

Toby Keith and most Nashville stuff is pop rock for middle aged folks. No more trucks or drunks or dogs even! They take songs that Journey could do, and throw a little pedal steel on it between Les Paul solos (only 4 bars please...) .......Soccer moms listening to young lookers singing about love, Jesus, and patriotism. What I think of as real country exists in the ditch, not on the road, think Drive By TRuckers, Steve Earle, Chris Knight, and the like which are known as "alt country" by many.

Ya think Toby Keith would drive his lawn mower into town to get beer when his wife took all the car keys??? Wheres George Jones when ya need him.

What Dylan is doing now, and has been for some time now, is to bring more of a roots (I like that better than country, or certainly folk....) type presence to his music. There are some songs that it works better for, this tour has gotten some bad reviews mainly for his voice. A lot of acoustic stuff, mandolin and steel get in there. I like it a lot better than the tours he did with GE Smith and guys in big suits that were loud as hell.

But! Rock is an attitude, not a volume!!!!!!! Although being loud can make it easier. Its hard to rock out an Allman brothers song when the bar owner is bitching about the volume. Course thats better than when they bitch about the low attendance, or low drinking of a mellow crowd. Loud is the easy way out though. But still, "the more you drink, the better we sound....." is a sure bet!

"I was a bit disapointed by the whole band thing he had going on - I wanted to see him with a guitar and a harmonica."
LOL! You're about 40 years too late in expressing those sentiments. See Don't Look Back or Scorcese's No Direction Home to see what I mean.

Dr. Orzel: Are you really unaware that Dylan and Johnny Cash actually recorded together in 1968? (Well, Feb. '69 actually but close enough). Little record called Nashville Skyline, check it out. Too much information on the decades-long relationship between the two can be found here, for the curious.

By Sven DiMilo (not verified) on 16 Nov 2007 #permalink