That's Dylan. What Else Can You Say?

By Bob Bahr

For big Bob Dylan fans, the show November 8 at the KCA's Whitney Hall wasn't too much of a shock. For several years now (that's all this pup can vouch for), Bob Dylan has been wildly inconsistent in concert. One show would be muddled, confused and dull, the next show would be an unforgettable gem.

Dylan's recent show at the Whitney, while drenched in the glory of his legend, was decidedly of the first variety. Dylan's bewildering performance was more of a missed opportunity for greatness rather than an unmitigated disaster. Only Dylan's contributions were disasterous.

Given, Dylan is not the one to learn nuances of the guitar from. Neither is he a model harmonica player. Nor is he much of a singer. Dylan fans and the public at large forgive him his faults. It's part of what makes him special.

But some of his guitar bits in his last concerts would have sounded wrong even in the most avant garde of jazz. He played these horrid notes willfully, as though he knew better. He'd glance over at guitarist John Jackson, working his way through a sensible solo, and pick up another guitar and sabotage Jackson's solo in the worst way. Did he do it purposefully?

With Dylan, one walks an Emperor's New Clothes line, giving the 50+ year old performer considerably more than the benefit of the doubt. I found myself nearly screaming out to Jackson, "Shut up, Dylan has something different to say!" I constantly thought that if Dylan were playing solo, these "wrong notes" would be right ones. I thought that maybe the band just wasn't following Dylan's lead.

T'weren't so. The mistakes were real, and it was Dylan who was consistently messing up the forms of his own songs. Best just to laugh, shake your head, and enjoy the redeemable parts of the performance.

The good parts started early. Dylan and his three-piece band opened the show with a fast, countrified "Maggie's Farm," chugging merrily along like a moonshine-powered tractor in a children's book. Dylan spat out the lyrics quickly in a low voice, stepping back after each line to join the band in the jam. The musicians were back lit on a sparse stage, with considerable effect.

With a strong rockabilly feel, the band roared through "All Along the Watchtower," Dylan talking his way through the lyrics. "Simple Twist of Fate" was enhanced by an acoustic bass, and damaged by Bob's seemingly bored vocal treatment. During the bridge before the last verse, Jackson power-chorded through a solo a la U2's the Edge. Dylan walked back to his guitars, picked up an electric, and the two guitarists were at odds again. Jackson tried to end the song tightly, but Dylan wouldn't have it. You get the picture.

On "Gotta Serve Somebody," the band came off sounding very much like a contemporary country act, with Dylan cutting a mean rock 'n' roll profile with legs shoulder length apart and guitar blazing on a folk groove of sorts.

The rock gave way to acousticity for "Hey! Mr. Tambourine Man," and "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right," the latter rightfully dosed with bite and cynicism. Dylan's voice was warmed up and the sound was sweet. Jackson stayed just out of the lights accompanying Dylan on acoustic guitar, and again, I wished it were Dylan by himself.

"Oh Mercy's" "Everything's Broken" emerged as the strongest song yet, with Jackson supplying the lion's share of structure. Again, I wondered if it were structure Jackson gave him or just too much starch in Bob's collar. "Just Like a Woman" lacked the necessary venom, but "Highway 61 Revisited" was raucous electric fun. The stage went dark, and the crowd pushed hard for an encore.

Dylan came back for a reasonably impassioned reading of "The Times, They Are A-Changing," sounding relevant despite the stagnant waters of today's politics. The evening ended with the surreal, satiric "Ballad of a Thin Man." Dylan invited and was subsequently mobbed on stage by several young blond women. The crowd emerged laughing and smiling. Unpredictable? That's Dylan.