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Between the Lines: Bob Dylan hiding in plain sight

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Posted on July 25, 2013 |
By Greg Dennis



The Dylan tickets arrived in the mail a couple weeks before last Sunday’s show at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. I’d spent a ridiculous amount of money to get the best seats.

Dylan is 72 and he’s been a smoker forever and survived a weird heart ailment. So if you’re a fan, you always have to wonder if the next Dylan show you see will be the last one.

And having seen him perform in hayfields, outdoor venues, and cavernous basketball arenas, I wanted just once to see him up close.

We were so close, in fact, that our tickets placed us in the orchestra pit. But I was reassured to see that the tickets listed a seat number. I assumed — naively, it turned out — that we would be able to be able to sit down and still be close.

We arrived at SPAC to find that our “seats” involved standing at the performers’ feet and staring up at the stage. For a six-hour, three-act show.

But we couldn’t complain that we weren’t close enough.

* * *

“You’re texting me while you’re at a Dylan concert,” my friend replied to me on my iPhone about halfway thought Dylan’s set. “That’s heretical!”

Except it isn’t anymore. These days, the concert experience begins online with the ticket purchase and ends online, too, with the night’s songs compiled on the setlist.fm wiki.

My Morning Jacket and Wilco were Sunday’s opening acts. I was familiar with Wilco but I knew My Morning Jacket only by reputation. So before the show we went online again, dialing up their latest album on YouTube.

As My Morning began their set, I did some more research on my phone. Their music was excellent, if thunderingly loud, and I couldn’t understand the lyrics.

I found a few clues online, and I learned that the band’s brilliant leader, Jim James, is also known as “Yim Yames.” Thank you, Wikipedia, for that unmakeupable fact.

* * *

If we thought My Morning Jacket was loud, well, Wilco gave the word completely new meaning. It felt like we were on the runway beneath a landing 747. The band seemed to be hoping to achieve the world’s first stationary sonic boom. The audio assault made my teeth hurt.

Wilco made partial recompense for that abuse, though, by bringing out Garth Hudson, from The Band. The now frail but still talented Hudson guested on accordion and then moved over to organ for a memorable version of “Chest Fever.”

No need for online research about that song. I’d spent many a high school night playing it as loud as our Heathkit mono system would allow.

* * *

So much has been written and said about Bob Dylan that I hesitate to add to that magnificent pile. But here goes.

He is of course famously enigmatic. He often doesn’t say anything to the audience, and until he and the band took their bows, he barely acknowledged there was anyone in the house Sunday but his tight quartet.

Millions of us have been searching for clues about Dylan. But in some ways all you need to know is what he does on stage, 100 times a year or so — a never-ending tour on which he has, since 1988, done more shows than Bruce Springsteen, U2 and the Rolling Stones combined.

“I’m Not There” was the title of a film about Dylan. But in some senses he is quite “there,” hiding on stage in plain sight.

The sound for his set was crisp, nicely modulated, every instrument distinguishable. He could teach his opening acts a lot about how to make yourself heard.

Part of the fun of a Dylan show is guessing which old song he’s playing, because he so dramatically rearranges them.

There wasn’t too much of that Sunday, though. Most of the material was drawn from his solid new CD, “Tempest,” and from the recent string of albums that make up his late-career renaissance.

No Las Vegas-style nostalgia show for Bob. He’s keeping it fresh.

“When he was young, his songs came out of an explosion of inspiration. Now his songs are the work of a fine craftsman,” says my friend Alan Reder, author of the excellent music book “Listen to This.”

Perhaps the biggest surprise of Sunday’s show was how good Dylan’s voice sounded — better than it has in 20 years, smooth and expressive, most of the gravel gone. (Has he finally stopped smoking? Another mystery to contemplate.)

In addition to texting my friend during the show, I was feverishly writing down on my iPhone the title of each song as he played it.

I needn’t have bothered. By the next morning the complete set list was faithfully recorded on BobDylan.com.

Past set lists were on the site, too. I was amused to see that among old songs he’s resurrected at different stops on this tour were the folk chestnut “12 Gates to the City” and “Suzie Baby,” a Bobby Vee cut from 1962.

Dylan is still featuring “Tangled Up in Blue,” in which he muses about old friends: “All the people we used to know, they’re an illusion to me now.” As much as any song, it says what he’s doing up there on stage — far from the virtual, online world:

Me, I’m still out on the road

Headin’ for another joint.

We always did feel the same

We just saw it from a different point of view

Tangled up in blue.

We go online to learn more about the music we love. But the heart of the music — and pretty much everything we need to know about Bob Dylan — is still in the songs.

Gregory Dennis’s column appears here every other Thursday and is archived on his blog at www.gregdennis.blogspot.com. Email: gregdennisvt@yahoo.com. Twitter: @greengregdennis.

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