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Bob Dylan

Bob Dylanís croaking vocals these days continue to be a shock, and his performances have varied. At the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival last year, some of those uninitiated into "late" Dylan turned away giggling in embarrassment. There have been some shows where his lyrics were all but unintelligible. And these days, he has to compete with his younger self on reissues and previously unreleased "bootleg" performances on spanking new Super Audio CDs (for my review of the new Live 1964: Philharmonic Hall Concert, see "Off the Record"). For the faithful, however, every performance is just another chapter in an ongoing story, and identifying songs at lesser performances has become a kind of parlor game.

Dylan played three sold-out shows at Avalon last week, with faithful and initiates alike paying $49.75 each for the privilege of seeing him in a small hall (ticket prices have been steeper: Melissa Etheridgeís recent show at Avalon charged $75). These days, heís traveling with guitarists Larry Campbell and Freddy Koella, long-time bassist Tony Garnier, and two drummers ó George Recile and Little Featís Richie Hayward. He restricted his own playing to harmonica and an almost inaudible keyboard. The band maintained a relaxed, swinging groove at both slow and fast tempos, Campbell contributed occasional pedal steel, and when Campbell and Koella took off into extended solo guitar exchanges, with those two drummers, one had to wonder whether Dylan was trying to front the Allman Brothers Band.

But Dylanologists donít really care about the band ó they want to hear songs, the more the better, and to divine meanings from the set list. The presence of a jam band only undercuts the song count. On the whole, the arrangements were more concise than when Dylan himself has joined the guitar slinging. In almost two hours, he played 17 songs, including encores. He was in "good" voice (meaning he was engaged with his own lyrics), bit into the rhythmic refrains of "Highway 61 Revisited," held notes for effect ("Now youuu can crahhhhy for a whiiiiile"), and never fell into the repetitious vocal mannerisms that can make a performance like his historic "return" to Newport a couple of years ago so unsatisfying.

"The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" was sung in a near-hush. On "Cold Irons Bound" (from 1997ís Time Out of Mind), Recile laid down a firm New Orleans parade rhythm while Hayward banged tambourine and Dylanís vocals rode atop it all happily. The band played a delicious, swampy-slow groove for "I Believe in You" that was informed by watery guitar reverb as Dylan sang, "They say donít come back no more/íCause I donít be like theyíd LIKE me to." "Summer Night," from 2001ís Love and Theft, took off on a bright rockabilly swing highlighted by Campbellís clean, jazzy solo (the instrumental break got the biggest ovation of the night). And for those wishing to read messages in the set list, there was the opening "The Wicked Messenger," from John Wesley Harding, with its possible allusion to Richard Clarke: "If ye cannot bring good news, then donít bring any."

Dylan wore a black cowboy hat and maroon Nashville-style jacket with white piping, and he took his bows like the wizened old road dog heís become ó Ernest Tubb for boomers and beyond.


Issue Date: April 2 - 8, 2004
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