Mr. Guitar Man
Bob Dylan lets the music do the talking at Great Woods
by Matt Ashare
With the heart infection that had obituary writers scrambling just a few months
ago now behind him, and his first album of new material this decade due in just
a couple months, Bob Dylan appeared very much alive and well on the 20th
anniversary of Elvis's passing. (He's not, however, doing the new songs on this
tour.) The grizzled former folksinger who did more to transform the music that
created Presley -- rock and roll -- than any other single artist back in the
'60s and has been an enigma ever since came to Great Woods on tour with a fiery
young acoustic-guitar-toting woman of the '90s, Ani Difranco. And the timing of
last Saturday's concert was to both singers' benefit: with Phish's mega "Great
Went" in full swing up in Vermont, many of the older hippie types who often
seem to be first in line when Dylan tickets go on sale were otherwise occupied,
leaving room for a large contingent of younger, mostly female Difranco fans.
So Difranco received the kind of warm, rowdy reception ("We love you Ani" was
the shouted refrain) she's become accustomed to as a headliner. It seemed to
come as a pleasant surprise to the charismatic folk-punk with the dyed hair:
midway through an upbeat set bolstered by the light, Dave Matthews-style funk
of her backing band (drummer Andy Stochansky and bassist Jason Mercer), she
admitted that elsewhere on the tour audiences had greeted her with sideways
glances and grumbles of "You're not Bob."
Of course, Dylan has also had to deal with that kind of reaction from his
fans, most famously in Newport three decades ago. So maybe, despite a few empty
seats that went unsold in the back of the house, it was a nice change of pace
for the Dylan of myth to stand before some new faces, to preach, as it were, to
people other than the long-ago converted. For instance, when two Dylan experts
in the row behind me began arguing over the authorship of one tune (called
variously "Cocaine" or "Cocaine Blues," by the Reverend Gary Davis), it was
refreshing to see two young Ani women a few seats up just dancing hand-in-hand
instead of debating to the deep blues groove of the tune.
Not that it has ever been easy to tell what's on Dylan's mind. He offered
nothing more than a "thank you" here and a few unintelligible mumbles there
during an 11-song set followed by three encore tunes. In fact, he spent
surprisingly little time at the microphone, opting instead, as has become his
habit in recent years, to step back and let his guitar do the talking.
Beginning with "If Not for You," which followed the set-opening "Absolutely
Sweet Marie," and continuing through "Just like a Woman" and a muscular,
blues-rockin' version of "Silvio" (from 1988's Down in the Groove),
Dylan solo'd on guitar with gritty grace and growing confidence. He hit his
stride mid set on "Tangled Up in Blue": the song's vocal melody reduced to a
flat, almost spoken croak, he dug in the heels of his cowboy boots and
rediscovered it on his acoustic guitar, playing bent-string leads on nearly as
many verses as he sang.
Dylan's current touring ensemble is all about guitar, with young six-string
specialist Larry Campbell and veteran pedal-steel player Bucky Baxter in
supporting roles. All three guitars solo'd together on the set-closing "Leopard
Skin Pillbox Hat" and again in the outro of the first encore, "Like a Rolling
Stone," from which Al Kooper's indelible organ line was noticeably absent.
Hell, even the world's most famous guitar band, the Rolling Stones, kept the
damn organ in there. But Dylan seems to be searching for something new in his
songs -- and, more important, finding it.