By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Probably too kind

Media Nation readers know my stand on Bob Dylan: I’m for him. Still, this brutal Washington Post review of a recent Dylan show strikes me as being right on the mark. (Thanks to M.T.S. for passing it on.)

I’ve seen Dylan live twice — in 1986, with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and in 1989, with a small band anchored by G.E. Smith. He was pretty good the first time, so-so the second. I’d like to see him once more, if only because he obviously can’t keep doing this forever.

But live performance is not his strength, and hasn’t been since the mid-1970s. His blown-out voice, almost appealing on record, just doesn’t work in front of an audience. And it doesn’t help that he often seems indifferent to the whole thing.

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  1. Anonymous

    On the other hand …A rave here from a recent show in Washington, Penn., says:Tuesday, August 22, 2006Dylan wows crowd with tunes from his 1960s heydayBrad HundtStaff writerTuesday, August 22, 2006As a swaggering version of “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” thundered to a conclusion, Bob Dylan sang “I’ve got nothing, ma, to live up to!” with what seemed to be particular enthusiasm.Of course, Dylan has quite a bit to live up to at this point, with one of the most formidable legacies in pop music to his credit.But he also has nothing to prove.So, really, he could have turned up at Falconi Field in North Franklin Township Sunday night and recited the Pennsylvania Motor Vehicle Code and his legend wouldn’t have been tarnished in the least.Dylan did a good bit better than that, though. The singer-songwriter and his five-piece band presented a concise 14-song set that ranged through his voluminous catalog, sampling both the well-known (“Like a Rolling Stone”) and the relatively obscure (“Blind Willie McTell”). Anyone expecting a conventional greatest hits show undoubtedly walked away disappointed — “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” “Tangled Up in Blue,” “Mr. Tambourine Man” and many others — went unplayed. But for those keeping an open mind, the results were more than satisfying.Keeping an open mind is also necessary when it comes to Dylan’s voice nowadays. The word “beautiful” has never been applied to his pipes in the course of his 44-year career, and, in recent years, his voice has shrunk to a strangled, astringent bleat. But, like Frank Sinatra in the November of his years, the 65-year-old Dylan has found an effective way to work around his vocal limitations, altering the phrasing and melodies of his songs in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. The results can sometimes sound like something out of a haunted attraction at Halloween, but it also can be uniquely affecting. There’s no one like Bob Dylan and, to be sure, no one has a voice like him.Dylan’s set opened with “Maggie’s Farm” and segued into “She Belongs to Me,” both of which hail from his 1965 album “Bringing It All Back Home.” Of the 12 remaining songs performed, nine were from his 1960s heyday. A particular highlight was a reworking of the protest anthem “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” with an electric mandolin played by band member Donnie Herron. This was also the one number where the keyboards that Dylan poked at throughout the evening came shining through.The one stumble in Dylan’s performance was a perfunctory reading of “Every Grain of Sand,” the best song to emerge in his “born-again” phase nearly 30 years ago. If ever a song demanded a simple acoustic reading, it’s this one, and arranging it for a full band did it few favors. Coming after a fiery rendition of “Highway 61 Revisited,” it also slowed the show’s momentum.If there’s one thing that’s par for the course for Dylan, it’s his unwillingness to pander to his audience in any way. That being the case, there were no cheerful “Hello Washington!” greetings. In fact, he barely acknowledged the crowd at all, with the exception of a few faint smiles and some pointed fingers.He also completely bypassed his new album, “Modern Times,” which is due in stores next week. Advance reviews have been uniformly positive, so his decision to not play any material from it is particularly puzzling.Before Dylan took the stage, he was preceded by blues guitarist Jimmie Vaughan, who played with virtuosity through a by-the-numbers set of 12-bar blues workouts. Perhaps more purely entertaining was Junior Brown, the inventor of the “guit-steel,” which combines steel and electric guitars. He has a pleasing, easy-going baritone, which complemented his inspired musicianship.

  2. another face at zanzibar

    Dan,I saw Dylan at the Orpheum last year and he was splendid. Sure, his voice is shot. But his performance was gripping and the band soared. A plus was that Merle Haggard opened up, which may have put us all into the right mood (that and the contact high I just got from walking into the hall).A few days afterward, basking in the afterglow of the night, I wondered whether I was just getting romantic about Dylan. Was he really that good? So I downloaded the show from (along with Merle’s set). I was not mistaken. And Zimmy’s set remains a favorite on my iPod.

  3. Brigid

    I think Dylan is just uneven. I saw him two years ago in South Bend, Indiana (no, really), when he was touring with Willie Nelson. It’s a small venue and most of the crowd was there to see Willie, so when that set was done we were able to get close enough to the stage to see, literally, every wrinkle. Dylan’s voice was raw, but the band was searingly good and the overall effect was electric. When he’s on, there’s nothing like it, and he was on that night.It’s true that he played the keyboards and didn’t make eye contact with the audience the whole time. But he sure didn’t seem indifferent.(And how ’bout that Willie Nelson? It seems like he ought to be dead by now, but his voice was smooth as silk and he did a 75-minute set plus duets with Dylan and the opening band. Whatever he’s smoking, I want some.)

  4. Daphne

    Dylan is an artist and he just expresses what’s in him. He has this unique brand of music that made him a star in the first place. If he’d change just to please his audience, I don’t think many people will like it.

  5. Don M.F.H.

    I saw him in 1989 in Peoria, Ill. and it was easily the worst concert I’ve ever seen.

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