August 23, 2008
Half '60s, half hot streak
By Chris Varias
Paul McCartney is making news this month for driving along Route 66 to celebrate his 66th birthday. It seems like a lot of fuss over a little road trip, when you consider that Bob Dylan, McCartney’s 67-year-old contemporary, has been living out of a tour bus for the last 20 years.
Bob’s endless voyage has included several Cincinnati gigs along the way. His show at National City Pavilion Friday night was his second stop in town in the last 12 months, and just like the others, this one was made of moments that ranked as good, great or sublime.
Sporting the same five-piece band he brought to the Taft Theatre last October, the iconic singer-songwriter performed a 15-song set with a two-song encore. Dylan drew a near-sellout crowd, perhaps the biggest audience for any headliner in the pavilion’s first season. (Take that Huey Lewis, and you too Weird Al Yankovic.)
The two-hour performance was split fairly evenly between '60s classics and songs from his current hot streak, which began with 1997’s “Time Out of Mind.” The serious Dylan-watcher will note that the only two songs not fitting in either category were the show-opener “Cat’s in the Well” from the 1990 album “Under a Red Sky” and “I Believe in You” from 1979’s “Slow Train Coming.”
Dylan exclusively played electric keyboards on every song, except for a couple of harmonica solos. That was the show’s biggest disappointment, although his playing was fine. He was positioned facing stage right the entire time, and his crowd interaction was limited to a single “Thank you, friends” and band introductions. He connects better with the crowd as a guitar player, doing his weird frontman routine that crossbreeds a Charlie Chaplin stumble and a Chuck Berry duckwalk.
Wearing matching black suits, Dylan and the band weren’t dressed to beat the heat and humidity that lasted all night. They threw in the occasional slow number – perhaps their way of cooling down – but the show had enough rockers to keep things engaging.
The '60s selections included finger-pointing anthems like "The Times They Are A-Changin' " and “Chimes of Freedom,” but the best stuff from that era was the rock material, like “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” and “Like a Rolling Stone.”
Dylan was good enough to play two songs from his best album, 1967’s “John Wesley Harding” – the honky-tonk tune “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” and a version of “All Along the Watchtower” that split the difference between his understated original and Jimi Hendrix’s electrified freakout.
The up-tempo, newer material measured up. The crowd seemed just as excited to hear the opening bars of songs like “Thunder on the Mountain,” “Honest with Me” and “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” as to hear “Like a Rolling Stone” or anything else.
“High Water” ranked as the best of the new, as it epitomized his classic, inimitable way of doing business as a songwriter. Verse to verse you could hear him mixing blues thievery (“I believe I’ll dust my broom”) with the hermetical (“They got Charles Darwin trapped out there on Highway Five”) and the hormonal (“Throw your panties overboard”).
Is it about creationism vs. evolution? Is it a silly love song? And if so, what’s wrong with that?