Dylan – So you think I’m over the hill?


“You think I’m over the hill, you think I’m past my prime,” Bob Dylan sang with a wink. “Let me see what you got, we can have a real good time.”       The capacity crowd Saturday at the Chicago Theatre whooped in appreciation as Dylan roused himself just in time to salvage what had been a fairly sleepy concert, the first in a three-night stand.

        The 66-year-old singer, looking dapper as always in a black suit and mariachi hat, frequently tinkers with the lineup of his backing bands, and the current five-piece incarnation is still going through some growing pains. “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” sputtered out of the gate, a surprisingly mellow and ramshackle take on a song that only a few years ago was flying higher than ever when guitarist Charlie Sexton was playing alongside Dylan.   

    Concert rarities such as “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” and “Positively 4th Street” fell surprisingly flat; the band tiptoed around Dylan, and the singer’s voice fired on only one cylinder: a monotone rumble.

       Dylan was back on guitar for the first time in years on the first few songs, but returned to keyboards for the majority of the 110-minute performance. And for the first time, those keys were integral to the new sound Dylan has been searching for on the last few tours. Guitarists Stu Kimball and Denny Freeman aren’t really rockers; their role was to create space and breathing room for Dylan’s voice. He used that voice to talk as much as sing, but on the jazz-swing of “Spirit on the Water” he sounded spry and playful, and the music started to open up.

       He reinvented “Highway 61 Revisited,” with his carnival organ chords and Donnie Herron’s pedal-steel guitar laying an ominous foundation for George Recile’s surging drum crescendos. The song turned from a mischievous biblical blues into something far more ominous, a reckoning from on high.

       With the band silhouetted against a curtain, Dylan tapped the menacing heart beat of “Ain’t Talkin’,” as Herron’s violin and the singer’s keyboards emerged from the shadows. “Summer Days” has been a high point of previous tours, and this was no exception, with Tony Garnier’s fingers dancing up and down his upright bass. Then an eerie “Masters of War” wrapped up the main set, in another retooled arrangement that united pedal steel, organ and bowed upright bass in a dark cloud of drone.

     This tour marks another intriguing new direction for Dylan, a move away from the guitar-heavy attack of his recent past and into more muted, spacious arrangements better-suited for his voice. As this show affirmed, he’s still writing this chapter. Can’t wait to see how it ends.

    The night’s biggest disappointment was that Dylan didn’t collaborate with his stellar opening act. Elvis Costello mixed his past (“Radio Sweetheart”) with his present (“Down Among the Wines and Spirits”) and closed with a potent anti-war plea, “The Scarlet Tide.” He sang with gusto over rude, rough guitar, a one-man band on a mission.


    Dylan’s set list:

    1. “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat”: Dylan, who had been playing keyboards exclusively on recent tours, is back on guitar, but the opener still falls flat.

    2. “It Ain’t Me, Babe”: George Recile’s drums build a gliding groove, embroidered by guitars, but the vocals fizzle.

    3. “Watching the River Flow”: Dylan again gets reacquainted with his guitar for a rare solo, then puts it down for the rest of the night.

    4. “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”: Plodding take saps this classic protest song of its venom.

    5. “Rollin’ and Tumblin’”: The band surges after each verse in classic Dylan blues style.

    6. “Positively 4th Street”: Accusation turns into hesitation.

    7. “Things Have Changed”: The blood returns to Dylan’s eye, affirming the suspicion that his best live performances of late have been on more recent material rather than the classics.

    8. “Workingman’s Blues #2”: A talking blues, and Dylan does just that — with a nod to Merle Haggard.

    9. “High Water (for Charlie Patton)”: Banjo and upright bass set the tempo while Dylan growls about impending doom.

    10. “Spirit on the Water”: The night’s high point, with Dylan practically breaking into a tap dance as he tweaks those who would write him off: “You think I’m over the hill?”

    11. “Highway 61 Revisited”: Fresh take on the classic, with Dylan’s keyboard calling down doomsday.

    12. “Ain’t Talkin’”: The stage lighting sets the shadowy mood, a fitting setting for this stroll through a dark alley.

    13. “Summer Days”: Tony Garnier’s upright bass makes it swing.

    14. “Masters of War”: Timelier than ever, with Recile’s drums cracking like gun shots.


    15. “Thunder on the Mountain”: Dylan still sounds like he’s having a ball singing about pork chops, pie and Alicia Keys.

    16. “All Along the Watchtower”: Great song, perfunctory performance. It’s time for Dylan to give this warhorse a rest.

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