Bob Dylan: Oh, Mercy!

Knockin' on Heaven's Door

By Bill Ede

On a recent April 12 Monday evening, Danny Flanigan and his band, the rain chorus (three words, no "caps"), found themselves with the dubious "opportunity" of opening for living legend Bob Dylan at the Kentucky Center for the Arts' Whimey Hall.

Though the plusses for such an arrangement might be obvious in terms of future fodder for press kits and resumes, something to "tell the grandkids" (or "impress the ladies") and the predictable excitement of an all-too-fleeting moment, the weight of "coming between" an audience and a star as loved as Dylan is sure to have been difficult to dismiss. Dylan, in particular, draws such a widespread audience that it would be hard to know where to even begin tapping into its core, much less maneuvering the entirety "onto one 's own wavelength." And since it is common practice in concerts to use a solo act to open for a solo act, any perceived variance of that would seem to only add to the dilemma.

But Danny and Dylan have much in common, despite their obvious differences. Both have extensive experience in both solo contexts and band-front situations; both are visionaries of a sort as wel1 as unapologetic ambassadors of song (not sounds, not licks, not grand notions – though they are all, of course, duly employed), although Dylan has proven less able (or willing) to always limit himself to the three-minute variety.

Ascending the stage at close to the scheduled 7:30 p.m. start time (yes, some things have changed for the better over the years), the rain chorus performed a fine eight-song set of tunes from their tentatively titled Sun Over Rain upcoming release. Among these was the show's opener, "Trust," a song with a lot of heart, which, sorry to say, didn't get heard to full advantage, due to sound adjustments being made during its performance. "The Umbrella Song" started out with just Danny's guitar, as I've heard it countless times in solo settings, but soon took on an almost Latin tone, with drummer Cary Shields and bass player Mike Baker contributing new structure and lead guitarist Todd Johnson playing octaves on the high frets at opportune times.

"Beautiful Day" called to mind "Kind Woman" by Richie Furay (ex-Buffalo Springfield, ex-Poco) and featured exploding vocal harmonies by Flanigan, Baker, Johnson and guest vocalist Kelly Wilkinson, duplicating her studio role. The set ended with "This Is Not a Song." Flanigan's portrayal of indecisiveness and lost innocence, rounding out a strong set of all Danny originals. Despite intermittent sound difficulties and the predictable problems resulting from unloading a set of unfamiliar songs on an unsuspecting audience, the rain chorus performed well their role as opener for that night's main attraction.

Bob Dylan certainly has enough tried-and-true compositions to never find himself at a loss for familiar material, though it is to credit that he carries into his fourth musical decade the practice of ever expanding his already impressive repertoire of both original and cover compositions. The new songs in the case of this most recent concert were non-original songs featured on his current Good As I Am to You recording, including the concert's opener, Stephen Foster's splendid "Hard Times Come Again No More" (referred to on the album as simply "Hard Times"), a song that reportedly took on increasing meaning in Foster's difficult last-days. "Tomorrow Night" was probably leamed from Lonnie Johnson's 1948 rhythm-and-blues version, but actually goes back to a 1939 recording by Horace Heidt and his Orchestra (with vocals by the Height-Lights), which is understandably more tin pan alley than R&B . The Johnson tribute was certainly reventential, though it is unlikely that Dylan or anyone will ever touch the Johnson version, with Johnson's Hawaiian guitar-sounding vocal wail.

Among the lesser known of Dylan's own compositions included were "Born In Time" from the recent Under the Red Sky recording and one of the most powerful songs of the evening, Oh Mercy's "What Good Am I?" The latter is the kind of song any songwriter would be proud to have written and deserves at least as many covers as "Forever Young," though it will likely not get them. Also from Oh Mercy, Dylan performed "Everything Is Broken," which appears to be getting picked up by other artists, most notably Tim O'Brien.

Dylan also performed a fair amount of familiar songs that were not what one would think of as "requirements." These included "The Man In Me," with Dylan singing (not once, not twice, but three times) the line that is conceivably the most forced line he's ever written. (This most famous forced line is, of course, the one ending in "juiced in it" to rhyme with "used to it" in "Like a Rolling Stone.") Other non-requirements performed included a rockabilly version of "Watching the River Flow," Infidels' "I and I," and "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry," with Dylan trading off a surprisingly high amount of minor-scale licks with band members. (We should not be surprised at Dylan's picking prowess. This is the guy who treated us to "Hollis Brown" so many years ago.)

Among the bona fide "requirements" were "It Ain't Me Babe," "Mr. Tambourine Man" and borderline-requirements "All Along the Watch Tower," "Tangled Up 'In Blue" and a "bayou" version of "Maggie's Farm." (There was no "Just Like a Woman," no "Times They Are AChangin'," no "Blowing In the Wind," no — if you can believe it — "Like a Rolling Stone.") Dylan's voice sounded frail much of the time, though it got a little better as he went along. The audience was a typical Dylan audience — those unfamiliar with the songs (and unable to make out many of the songs' words) wondering what the fuss was all about; those knowing the words to "every song Dylan ever wrote" knowing only too well the answer to that; and a whole lot of people in between.

the rain chorus was also scheduled to open Dy1an's April 16 show in Radford, Va.

Good As We Been to Ya

By c d kaplan

The snappy opening to this review/retrospective of one Robert Zimmerman, a.k.a. Bob Dylan, should point out the ironic juxtaposition of the arriving crowd at his April 12 gig at the Whitney with the departing group from a Filson Club lecture. Perhaps a clever quote from "When the Ship Comes In" or "The Times They Are A-Changin'."

But given the slovenly and lethargic performance by the glowering Dylan, I just can't bring myself to do it. And damn it, it's the third time in a row since his '88 show at the Fair.

What I really want to do is just say to Bob: "I wish/that for just one time/you could stand inside my shoes/and see what a drag it is to see you."

However, it just ain't that simple.

At last autumn's homage to Dylan at Madison Square Garden, most of music's heavyweights checked in with their admiration and love. This is a guy whose importance simply cannot be overlooked. (The show was recently aired over KET and if you didn't see it, find someone who has the tape, It's a monster!)

He brought folk music into the mainstream and plugged it in. He made rock and roll important in a political sense. He peeked in on country music before it was fashionable.

He broke the rules and we of his generation, musicians and listeners alike, all took notice.

And sakes alive, could the boy cut a phrase.

Even one's favorites are too numerous to mention. Okay, just one: "Gypsy gal, the hands of Harlem/Cannot hold you to its heat./Your temperature's too hot for taming/Your flaming feet burn up the street."

Hell. mentioning just one isn't fair. There are about a zillion more. Clever, creative and memorable. He's the great poet of recorded music.

Yet, like the desperado, he won't let us love him. So, at his concerts he frowns, diddles around on the guitar, bastardizes his songs, cuts them short, plays without any sense of joy whatsoever and when he does emote he tells us to go away. In his recent concert, the only tune done with any feeling was "It Ain't Me Babe." At the show before that it was the old standard "You Don't Know Me."

And I guess in the long run, I'm more sad than mad. But it sure is a pity. As he did for many of you folks, or your parents, Bob showed up right when I was in a period of flux. As I was dragging my foot locker into my freshman college dorm in '63, the guy in the next room was playing "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll."

In '65, I was among the five hundred or so at Louisville Gardens (then the Armory) as part of the monumental rule-breaking tour with The Band, when they were only the band. In '74, two buddies and I left our law office in the midst of a hectic day, jumped into my Ghia and drove to Bloomington without second thoughts," to get the whole office tickets for The Reunion Tour with The Band.

For years, not a conversation could go by that someone wouldn't throw in a quote. People had costume parties where folks had to dress as song characters. (Always too many Napoleon in Rags, but the occasional duo of Gypsy Davy with a blow torch and his faithful slave Pedro made it worthwhile.) And those are just my memories. You've all got 'em.

And it's just a damn shame that after hearing Dylan live and fully morose, I've got: to go home and put Blood On the Tracks on the Victrola just to be reassured.

So, what can you glean from all this? One man's opinion is that the show at the arts center was a monumental bore. Nonsensical guitar meanderings, indecipherable singing and a blase attitude.

And Bob, like the jilted lover, 1 get the idea. You don't care about me, so I shan't come see you again.

But, I've got your albums and CDs and tapes and, as I have since the concert the other day, shall listen to them over and over again. I shall marvel at your incredible creative talent and at how it's touched so very many people.

And I'll say a prayer for you every night for you seem such a needlessly unhappy guy.