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It's life and life only

Last night was "Leg One" for what I've dubbed "Summer Rock Month," since I'm going to three "high profile" concerts in the span of about two weeks.  I caught the Bob Dylan show last night at Cooper Stadium here in Columbus.  It's part of Dylan's now annual tour of minor league baseball stadiums.  Next week I'm heading over to Washington, PA to see him play at the home of the independent-league Washington Wildcats (if you don't have tickets, you can probably stand on the side of I-70 and catch the show).

Anyway, this was actually my first time seeing Dylan in concert, so I was interested to see how it would go.  I made it in to see the beginning of Junior Brown's set.  The only thing I really know about Junior Brown is that he plays a hybrid traditional electric/pedal steel guitar, which I think he invented.  I saw him sit in with the David Letterman band about 10 years ago.  Junior sounded nice, but I honestly wasn't paying too much attention.

Stevie Ray Vaughn's brother, Jimmy Vaughn, took the stage after Junior Brown.  Again, I didn't pay much attention.  (I was standing on the first base line of the field, and I was trying to get to the bottom of why so many Major Leaguers run inside the first base line, rather than in the "safety box."  I figure that it's actually shorter for right handers to run inside the line, depending on where they're standing in the batter's box, but I dunno.)  The "highlight" of Vaughn's set was about halfway through, when he said he was bringing out out a surprise guest who was a really good guitar player.  He said, "Let's welcome Eric Clapton."  There was a few seconds where I thought he was going to say, "Just kidding, here's Albert Poindexter from New Albany," but Eric Clapton really did walk on stage and play a few songs with the band.  I'm not really a fan of Clapton's, but he is a great guitar player and pretty much a legendary rock figure, so it was cool seeing him on stage.  Mostly I just got a kick out of seeing the guy who played lead guitar on "While My Guitar Gently Weeps."  (Then I started thinking about how I'm bummed that I never got to see John Lennon or George Harrison live, and if I want to see a Beatle play I have to settle for Ringo or Paul, but I digress.)

Clapton's appearance had me asking the inevitable question, "What the hell is Eric Clapton doing making a surprise appearance in Columbus, Ohio?"  My friend, Jim, told me that word is (that's my Roger Brown tribute) that Clapton's wife is from Central Ohio, and they have a house in the area.  Other people in the crowd were saying the same thing later on, so I guess it must be at least a somewhat valid theory.

The crowd was predictably diverse--everybody from old folks to middle-aged parents with their young children to high school sophomores wearing tie-died T-shirts.  The headline of the Columbus Dispatch review was "Sparse crowd hears Dylan play old tunes."  I guess that's about right.  The crowd was pretty sparse--the field was only at about two-thirds capacity (I'm guestimating), and the stands were about half-full (how's that for optimistic phrasing?).  It was still a good crowd, though, and I'm selfishly glad there weren't more people there because otherwise I would've had to spend another half hour waiting for the parking lot to clear out.

Dylan's set was good.  The first thing that hit me when they came out with "Maggie's Farm" was that Dylan's voice really is almost shot.  He tends to hit a wall in the middle of a line where his voice gives out, and he's left kinda coughing out the rest.  The mix seemed to emphasize the cough-singing because the vocals were a bit bass-heavy.  It reminded me a lot of the experience of seeing Brian Wilson about three or four years ago--I was constantly wincing a bit hoping that we'd all get through the rough parts.

Thankfully, though, Dylan's voice got warmed up after a while, and the cough-singing was kept to trace amounts through the second half of the set.  Probably the best vocal performance was on "Summer Days," which closed the main set.  We got a nice harmonica solo on "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight" (the band really sounded good on that one) and the crowd was into the encores, "Like A Rolling Stone" and "All Along The Watchtower."  Right before the encore, I wondered for a second how many smart-asses shout out "Judas!" as Dylan comes on for his encores, knowing that it seems like he always plays "Rolling Stone" as his encore-opener.

But yeah, the band sounded really good, with a nice country-blues vibe going throughout.  What I really liked about the show was that Dylan doesn't subscribe to the Mike Love Theory on concert performances.  We don't get note-for-note renditions of the records from the 60's (or any other decade for that matter).  Instead, we get interesting new arrangments.  If you want to hear the original version, listen to the record really loud.  I guess no one should be surprised or really even take note of the rearrangements, though, since Dylan's been doing that since the mid-60's.

Highlights for me included an awesomely heavy bluesy full-band rendition of "It's Allright Ma" (which was as fantastic in its own right as the original solo-acoustic version), "Blind Willie McTell" (which, I confess, I didn't recognize until about 30 or 45 seconds into the song), "New Morning," and "Highway 61."  The band (two guitars, pedal steel, bass, and drums--along with Dylans vocals/harmonica/keyboards) was pretty tight (but not too tight, if you know what I mean), and they put life into the interpretations.

I guess the set was good for those who enjoy the full breadth of Dylan's catalogue (I'd put myself in there).  For the casual fans, Dylan's voice (and the $55 tickets) might have been a bit too much.  I'll also take a moment to get on the Columbus Dispatch for lazy reporting.  The reviewer, Curtis Schieber, noted that it was "curious" that Dylan didn't play any stuff off of his new album, which is set for release in about two weeks.  A little research would've shown that Dylan, as a rule, never plays any songs off of upcoming albums for fear (perhaps overly paranoid fear) of bootleggers.  (See "Sugar Baby," which Dylan performed as well:  "Some of these bootleggers, they make pretty good stuff. / Plenty of places to hide things here if you wanna hide 'em bad enough.")   

I'll have a more thoughtful analysis of the Dylan experience after I catch leg two next week.  For a setlist from last night's show, check out Bob Links.


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