The Dough Rollers
@ The Fox Theater, Oakland
August 24, 2010
Better than: Anyone had a right to expect.
You never really know what you might get into with a Bob Dylan
show. The "Poet Laureate of Rock 'n' Roll," as he was introduced at the Fox Theater last night, often packs his live sets with a few favored warhorses, tosses in a tune or two from his much-maligned Christian period, and ignores songs from his latest releases. Which is partly why last night's classic-packed performance at the Fox left us thrilled. Not only did Dylan load his nearly two-hour show with far more transcendent vintage numbers ("Visions of Johanna"! "Masters of War"!) than we expected to hear, but he played both old and new tunes through the lens of the crackling blues-rock in which he and his band have been working for the last few years. Even if there was nary a folkie moment to be found, last night's simmering rock show made for as good a Dylan concert as anyone could ask for.
Firstly, cynics chuckling about the lack of conventional singing coming from Old Bob, get lost. He did sound like a hoarse grandfather vampire last night, having seemingly lost all of his always-limited ability to adjust pitch. But voices are multidimensional, and so even if Dylan can't much play with, y'know, notes, his sandpapery scratch can still vary volume and diction. Last night, changing up his songs as usual, Dylan wielded his larynx as a slightly otherworldly instrument, intentionally rephrasing the lines to many of his best-known songs.
For example, on "Ballad Of A Thin Man," the main set closer, Dylan rushed some lines and slowed others: the words of "there oughta be a law against" tumbled over each other, while a "yoooouuuuu" languished, and then "coming around" popped out curtly -- a kind of move he used often. Never a conventional vocalist, the 69-year-old Dylan at least isn't trying to imitate the 24-year-old version of himself -- which is a lot more than can be said for many of his peers. Although the hard-to-understand vocals did make many favorites last night more recognizable by their melodies than their lyrics.
Mostly, Dylan and "His Band" -- a five-piece group as supernaturally tight as one would expect -- rocked. Dylan has built his latest material out of a translucent, self-propelled blues-rock, and last night, much of his past work was recast in this vein, to its benefit as well that of the standing-up crowd's. A hard-driving blues version of "Highway 61 Revisited" sent the sold-out theater into a stomp, bringing out more rollick than anyone knew the original had. The slow burn of "Masters of War" discarded all of the original's hints of hippie naivete; the song's intense shuffle morphed its lyrical pacifism lecture into a menacing throb. Newer tunes -- the ones born as dry blues, like "Thunder On the Mountain," "Rollin' And Tumblin," and "Beyond Here Lies Nothing" -- got a more faithful, but still harder-edged reproduction onstage, marking the high-energy marks of the set.
What we will remember most about last night though, are the classic Dylan tunes that, miraculously, just kept coming: the opening anarchy of a pinched-sounding "Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat," the swirling elegance of "Just Like A Woman" -- with breaks of silence that the crowd filled with singing -- the aforementioned "Masters of War," and the freight train of Blonde on Blonde highlight "Stuck Inside of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again," to name a few. Dylan could play his great old songs straight for an entire weekend and never repeat one, but last night offered as solid a cross-section of them as we could imagine. Unlike with many performers of his generation, that's not at all a guaranteed thing at a Dylan show.
So maybe Old Bob was simply in a good mood. Having stuffed the setlist with crowd-withering hits, Dylan proceeded to perform them to an unusual degree as well. Despite an arthritis that makes playing guitar difficult and rare, Dylan donned the Stratocaster for "Stuck Inside of Mobile," and a couple other rockers -- holding his own while trading licks with lead guitarist Charlie Sexton. He played his keyboard most of the time, but for "This Wheel's On Fire" and a couple other tunes, the Poet Laureate stood up front, occasionally waving his arms and blowing out huge, fat harmonica notes.
Looking like a sort of mariachi naval officer in his dark blue, red-trimmed suit and flat-brimmed hat, Dylan played the role of chipper showman last night. Sure, he only addressed the crowd at the very end, to say thanks once and introduce his band. Old Bob didn't need to say anything -- between the fiery performances and the dream of a set list, last night's crowd witnessed an astounding amount of Dylan greatness.
Sound report: Things began harsh and a bit muddy, but by the end of the set, the extraneous frequencies had been cleared out, and every bit of Dylan's capable band could be heard. Regardless of sound quality, his voice is never very easy to understand.
The crowd: Mixed ages, but with a lot of very excited middle-aged fans, who packed the standing room at the Fox as thick as I've ever seen it.
Personal bias: I wrote a paper about "Masters of War" in college, and seeing it performed live was a tremendous -- and unexpected -- treat.
Dylan plays in San Francisco tonight at the Warfield, but no advance tickets are available. They go on sale at 5:30 p.m. today at the Warfield box office for $60 cash only.
Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat
This Wheel's On Fire
Stuck Inside Of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again
Just Like A Woman
Rollin' And Tumblin'
Simple Twist of Fate
Beyond Here Lies Nothin
Visions of Johanna
Cold Irons Bound
Masters Of War
Highway 61 Revisited
When The Deal Goes Down
Thunder On The Mountain
Ballad Of A Thin Man
Like A Rolling Stone