Sunday, October 10, 2010

Throwin’ Sand on the Floor

The Never Ending Tour is on its way to Purgatory.  Tomorrow night, I’ll be spending the evening with Bob Dylan at the Leon County Civic Center in what I’m sure is the first decent show booked in that would-be monster truck milieu since I moved to Tallahassee.  I was beginning to think there was nothing civil about the Civic Center or its patrons. (see what I did there... ).  Alas, after two years of reading the gaudy marquee with disdain and cursing the venue’s promoters for booking events likes: Monday Night Raw, the country-pop “sensation" of the season, lame/commercial off-Broadway productions (that means you "Legally Blonde: The Musical") and various other red-necky gigs, my restraint in not whole-heartedly praying for an air strike on the building paid off.  In a not uncharacteristic bout of spontaneity, the self proclaimed “song and dance man” scheduled five stops in Florida, one of them in my backyard.  Read more about the show after the jump.

For those who don't know, I'm a Dylan enthusiast, bordering on fanatic.  I've seen him live somewhere around 20-25 times and between me and my father, we own or have possessed every record, biography, songbook, film, bootleg series, etc. he's ever officially sanctioned.  It goes without saying that my appreciation of Dylan sprung from my dad, who began taking me to shows, along with my uncle and their friends, as soon as I was old enough to understand the man’s brilliance. 

Twenty-plus shows over roughly fifteen years.  I love live music, but I've never even approached that number with another act/artist.  I've seen Dylan in New York, New Jersey, Boston, DC, Houston, all over Pennsylvania, and spaces between.  Here's a photo of some of the ticket stubs I've accumulated over the years, which an old flame used to condescendingly refer to as my "Dylan Collage."  

“Why am I reciting my Bobfest Resume?” you ask.  Not to boast, but to prove I'm qualified to be your guide should you choose to partake in tomorrow’s event or some other leg of the tour.  What takes place at a Dylan show is something of a ritual and I'm going to try to break it down for you as best I can.

1. The Crowd.  People of all sorts show up to take part in the Never Ending tour.   Some come to pay tribute to a living legend; some come to hear folk music; some come to hear protest songs; some come to remember the 60’s; some come (sadly) because they know they might not get another chance; finally, some come because they’re Dylan junkies (guess which category I fall into).  Despite the differing reasons for attending, all present respect Dylan, are relatively familiar with his expansive catalog, and appreciate the tremendous impact the man had on “Music.” You can expect a moderate, but consistent energy level throughout the show, peaking at “special” moments (Bob reaching for his harmonica, the first notes of Like a Rolling Stone, etc.)

2. The Opening Act.  It goes without saying, Dylan has played with a wide variety of supporting acts over his twenty-two years of non-stop touring.  In my experience, the opening act’s style of play matches whatever method/arrangement Dylan is using on a given leg.  Off the top of my head I’ve seen him play with The Dead, Phil Lesh & Friends, Natalie Merchant, Amos Lee, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, and John Cougar Melon Camp.  Dylan’s yet to announce an opener for his Florida dates, but because his latest album – Together Through Life – has a sort of Chess Records sound to it, I expect a quasi-local southern-blues act with a touch of jam band.  Actually, I just learned he may be playing without an opener and instead showing an excerpt from the 1916 D.W. Griffith's silent film, Intolerance.  If this is the case, it’s unprecedented.

3. The Introduction.  One of my favorite parts of any Dylan show is the introduction.  Since 2002, Dylan has used the same opening and my friends and I measure ourselves as fans by how well we can recall/recite each phase of the celebrated preface.  I’ll do my best here:

It starts with small puffs of smoke wafting from the stage, this is the crew burning a particular brand of incense.  I’ve never figured out exactly what it is, but it’s eerily familiar.

Next, the venue lights dim and a rendition of “Hoe-Down” from the “Rodeo” suite (Aaron Copeland) blasts over the PA system –“Hoe-Down” is, perhaps, more commonly known as the “Beef. It's What's For Dinner” theme.  As this plays, the band takes the stage under cover of darkness.  Finally, while the first movement of the beef song comes to a close, the music lowers and an emcee takes up the microphone to recite the following tongue-in-cheek announcement:
“The poet laureate of rock 'n' roll. The voice of the promise of the '60s counterculture. The guy who forced folk into bed with rock, who donned makeup in the '70s and disappeared into a haze of substance abuse, who emerged to 'find Jesus,' who was written off as a has-been by the end of the '80s, and who suddenly shifted gears and released some of the strongest music of his career beginning in the late '90s. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Columbia recording artist Bob Dylan." (Click here).
The short version of the story behind this quip is that it was adapted from an article published in a Buffalo, NY newspaper, on August 9, 2002.  I like to think Dylan uses it sarcastically, as if to say, “Well, if I wanted to sum up my life in three sentences (two of them fragments), I suppose this would do.”

With the last line, the spotlights hit the stage,the snare drum fires, the electric guitar wails, and the phantom piano (more on this later) ehhhhh blares.  

4. The Show.  Dylan will be positioned near center stage banging away at a “phantom piano.”  (My friends and I have dubbed Bob’s electric keyboard the “phantom piano” because, regardless how into playing it Bob looks, no sound ever seems to reach the audience).  Flanking him will be the current incarnation of his touring band:  Stu Kimball – electric guitar, acoustic guitar; Donnie Herron – pedal steel, lap steel, electric mandolin, banjo, violin, viola; Charlie Sexton – lead guitar, dobro; Tony Garnier – bass guitar, standup bass; and, George Receli – drums.  Behind them all will be a giant dark curtain branded with a variation of the “Eye of Horus.”

All on stage will be impeccably dressed in matching suits. (Dylan will likely be sporting the latest in country-western headwear).  The band will storm through a sixteen to twenty song playlist that includes a mix of classics and material from his later albums. (Love and Theft, Modern Times, Together Through Life) – on a side note, I’ve said many times that these three “recent” albums rank among my favorite of Dylan’s catalog.  I think it has something to do with me being (1) alive and (2) old enough to appreciate Dylan’s mastery when they were released.  I love all his works (even Self Portrait, which is terribly underrated, but these records have a special place in my heart. Probably because I was able to purchase them at a record store on the day they were released.

5.  Bob’s Voice.  One thing’s for sure, unless you’ve recently seen Dylan live, or heard any of the music he recorded this past decade, you’re in for a shock.  I'll be honest, his voice isn’t what it once was (if it ever was once . . .) and the songs he plays will be all but unrecognizable to the untrained ear.  Those expecting to hear a crystal clear version of Mr. Tambourine Man, or a recognizable version of Baby Blue, will be sorely disappointed.

This is Bob at the peak of his powers (his Rolling Thunder Review era):

This is what he sounds like in the present:


Consider yourself warned.

On the bright side, the reason it’s possible to sustain a Never Ending tour; and, for that matter, the reason fanatics like myself go to so many shows, is that Dylan constantly (and deftly) re-arranges his catalog to fit the style that best suits his current band.  In other words, every show is unique; some better than others.  If you accept the fact that the songs Bob performs won’t sound like they do on your stereo and listen past his throaty bark, you’ll have a memorable experience.

6. The Ending.  Dylan has very little interaction with the crowd during his shows.  If you’re fortunate, you might catch one or two "eehh thanks everybody's" and a simple band introduction (this is where I usually go wild for my favorite bass player, Tony Garnier.  Why?  Because he’s the man.  Why else?)

If Bob is in an especially good mood, you might hear a joke.  In the late 90's early 00's Dylan used to tell side-splitters like:

"When  I first met Bucky, he didn't have a penny to his name.  I told him to get another name."

"My ex-wife left me again.  She's a tennis player.  'Love' means nothing to her."

"My drummer's from Louisiana.  They got a lot of snakes down there.  When it rains, he puts them on his windshield and calls them 'windshield vipers'."

These have become legend among Dylan enthusiasts.  I was fortunate enough to be present on at least three occasions where Bob played comedian.

As noted, Dylan usually performs sixteen-seventeen songs, including two encores; one of which will undoubtedly be Like a Rolling Stone.  After the night’s final song is sung, Dylan and his band line up at the front of the stage and stare into the crown, both demanding and returning respect.  This goes on until Bob fidgets nervously, pauses, and exits stage right.  Cue the house lights. Shows over.  The Never Ending Tour heads for another joint.

Well, there you have it, a beginner’s guide to the ritual that is a Dylan show.  I think I’ve about used up my word count for the week, so I won’t trouble you with a long closing.  Fare-thee-well.

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