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Saturday, April 02, 2005

His Master's Voice Is Calling Me

Right, so unless yesterday's post didn't make it clear, I'm back from my Bob trip. I had a great time; you could say it was just what the doctor ordered. The drive to and from Denver was a blast. It amazes me how much I still enjoy just being out on the road listening to music, even after all those hours and miles. On the way there I took the more conservative route down through Oregon, across Idaho, Utah briefly and Wyoming and down to Denver. On the way back, I needed a change. I still went through Wyoming and Utah, but went North from Utah up through Butte and Missoula, Montana, through a different part of Idaho, through Spokane and the rest of Eastern Washington back to Olympia. I realize my driving habits are probably of no interest anyone except me, but I just spent all that time typing it out, so humor me.

Amos Lee and Merle Haggard & The Strangers were the opening acts each night. Amos Lee wasn't unpleasant, but I certainly wouldn't go out of my way to hear his stuff. Other than the fact that he's also on Blue Note, it's easy to see why he toured with Norah Jones: they're similarly non-descript and unengaging. Merle Haggard, on the other hand, was a pleasure to watch. He's a certifiable legend, someone whose music I grew up listening to (filtered through the beer-soaked vocal cords of my father) and have gone on to rediscover independently. I'm glad he and Bob toured together, because he's one of those artists I would've never sought out on my own, despite the fact that I love his studio albums. His sets were comprised almost entirely of his greatest hits from yesteryear (you know the ones, "Mama Tried", "I'm A Lonesome Fugitive", "Swinging Doors" and "Big City"), with the occasional recent song or cover ("That's The News" and "Unforgettable", for example) thrown in. He also played "Okie From Muskogee" and "The Fightin' Side Of Me", two songs which I would've expected him to move away from in light of this country's recent case of ├╝ber-patriotism and his comments criticizing Bush. At the same time, I was glad to see he played them anyway, and along with "That's The News" no less; a true artist never does what the audience expects.

Now comes the difficult part. What the fuck of any interest could I possibly write about Bob Dylan? It's possible to analyze the most miniscule aspects of his two performances, comparing and contrasting them with shows 20, 30 or 40 years ago. It's possible to compare his current band to his last band, to the band before that and all the way back to The Band. It's possible to talk about his voice in terms of deterioration (both gradual and self-inflicted) and effort. It's possible to start talking about his set list right now and not stop for a week. Fortunately, none of that interests me. I can talk about my experience, the time I had, and my experience only. I thought they were two great shows, very engaging and exciting. After not seeing him for over two years, my anticipation level was through the roof. I got in line in front of the Fillmore with friends and freaks before noon each day and waited till doors at six to be in the second row, to see his facial expressions, to see him crouch over his keyboard, to see what words he chose to emphasize and to see the band play and interact. For my efforts, I got to hear several songs I've never heard live before, most notably "Desolation Row" (amazing!) , "Blind Willie McTell" and "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues". "John Brown" is an old seemingly anti-war song of Bob's that I've never cared for, but I'll be damned if it wasn't the standout of the second night. Songs he plays nearly every night, like "Honest With Me" and "Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum", sounded vibrant and fresh. It's like that with Bob. It's like what I said about Merle, Bob has never once given me what I expected. He seemed to be having a good time too. I got what I wanted.

I also enjoyed his new band for the most part, despite the fact that Larry Campbell's musicianship was missed. Stu Kimball was very good on lead guitar and Tony Garnier on bass was as fantastic as ever. A lot of people seem impressed by Donnie Herron's steel guitar playing, but I was actually more impressed with Denny Freeman's playing. New violinist Elana Fremerman was the only setback. When she and Bob weren't making eyes at each other (seriously, get a room you two!) she was exaggerating every stroke of her bow and making R. Kelly faces in an effort to mask her overall lack of skill. I make allowances for the fact that she's probably not very familiar with the material, but I did not like her playing, and her grins and grimaces were distracting. Still, that was a minor blemish on two night's worth of some of the best songs ever written played very well.

I haven't come across any recordings of the Denver shows yet, but I'd like to share some mp3s from the current tour of songs he played when I saw him. Keep in mind that these live recordings vary in sound quality.

Bob Dylan - "I Don't Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met) [Live]"

The version of this song I got the first night wasn't quite this good, but I was still very glad to hear it. This version comes from the first show of the current tour, March 7 in Seattle, Washington. It's a great recording and features more effortful singing from Bob than I heard at either Denver show. I love his voice on the "anything I might have tried" and "I'd run and hide" parts, and his harp sounds good. It also rollicks and rolls, showing what this band is capable of.

Bob Dylan - "Moonlight [Live]"

This recording is also from the first Seattle show. It's not quite as dramatic a rearrangement as the one I caught, but it still pales in comparison to the Love & Theft original. The band feels restrained a bit and I think that allows Bob's voice to really standout, which it does quite a bit here.

Bob Dylan - "This Wheel's On Fire [Live]"

This is from the second of three Oakland shows, the date being March 15. It's the lowest quality recording of these four, but it's still pretty good. Bob went centerstage with just a mic and a harmonica for this song in Denver, which he does on this recording too. It's not a song I've ever been especially fond of, but I enjoyed catching it live.

Bob Dylan - "Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum [Live]"

A setlist staple that I didn't expect to enjoy as much as I did. This be from the third and last night in Seattle, March 9. In Denver this was one of the songs on which Elana's violin playing was most overbearing, but it doesn't sound quite so bad on this recording. The majority of my pleasure seeing this live came from just watching Bob's emphasis and hearing his phrasing on each line. I always think of it as a long and winding story-song, but it's actually the shortest of these four.

Bob's still out on the road, moving East. Visit his website for tour dates.

P.S. I've still got that something special I promised before I left, but I'm gonna save it for Monday. Gonna start the week off right, y' heard!

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