On the evening of September 15th, the Boston Red Sox were in New York City trying to get back into first place. In New Orleans, just before Muhammad Ali made his comeback, TV commentator Howard Cosell introduced the fighter by quoting from the song "Forever Young"; "May your hands always be busy,/May your feet always be swift,/May you have a strong foundation/When the winds of changes shift." And in Augusta, Maine, the composer of that song was inaugurating a three-month tour of the United States and Canada that will include sixty-five concerts in sixty-two cities.
According to an Associated Press review of the opening night, Bob Dylan "drove a packed-house audience of 7200 into shrieks of ecstasy. The thirty-seven-year-old folk-rock singer mixed old songs and new. His audience in the Augusta Civic Center was a mixture of people who first knew Dylan as an angry young poet in the early Sixties and high-school students more accustomed to punk rock. Dylan satisfied both, although his veteran fans seemed the happiest."
After a highly successful series of concerts in Japan, Australia, New Zealand and western Europe earlier this year, it might seem peculiar to think of Dylan's latest American tour as a kind of comeback. But, at least in this country, Dylan recently has been the recipient of some especially negative reviews, both for his film, Renaldo and Clara (which, incidentally, was warmly greeted at this year's Cannes Film Festival), and his latest album, Street Legal. This billingsgate, moreover, has come from a number of Dylan's "veteran fans." In the Village Voice, seven reviewers – a kind of firing squad – administered justice to the film with a fusillade of abuse. And Rolling Stone, in its two August issues, featured a column and review that pilloried the album.
Yet Street Legal seems to me one of Dylan's most passionate, questing and questioning records. It presents two songs of ironic and bitter-sweet explanations and resolutions ("True Love Tends to Forget" and "We Better Talk This Over"); a song of waiting and searching ("Señor"); a song of black magic ("New Pony"); a song of need ("Is Your Love in Vain?"); a song of pleading ("Baby Stop Crying"); a song of the stripping bare of personality ("No Time To Think"); a song of loss and encounters ("Where Are You Tonight?"); and a song that combines medieval romance, Tarot dreams and a Palace of Mirrors in which each image is seen as if on a different floor ("Changing of the Guards"). Street Legal reflects the night and day sides of Dylan's art and personality – the last three songs mentioned being among the singer's most complex lunar landscapes (illumined with imagination, intuition and magic), the first two radiating with the solar attributes of intellection and objectivity – while the other songs hover around like mysterious satellites.
Dylan recorded this album in a week, and much as I like its rough, deglamorized sound, the LP hardly gives an idea of the brilliance, dexterity and inventiveness of his new band – which he has taken on all his recent tours and which includes lead guitarist Billy Cross; rhythm guitarist Steve Soles; bassist Jerry Scheff; keyboardist Alan Pasqua; drummer Ian Wallace; David Mansfield on steel guitar, violin and mandolin; Bobbye Hall on percussion; Steve Douglas on wood-winds; and backup singers Carolyn Dennis, Jo Ann Harris and Helena Springs.
I caught up with Dylan and his group at their second concert, on September 16th at the Portland Civic Center. It began with the band – dressed in black and white velvet and satin – performing a lilting, gossamerlike instrumental version of "My Back Pages" As that concluded, Dylan – wearing white sneakers, black jeans decorated with diamond stars, a black leather jacket and a purple scarf – appeared and led the band in a sultry reworking of Muddy Waters' "I'm Ready," which featured the lines, "I'm read as I can be/I'm ready for you/I hope you're ready for me." (Quite a different opening from "Most Likely You Go Your Way and I'll Go Mine," which introduced his 1974 tour with the Band.)
Next came an eerily high-pitched and intense rendition of "Is Your Love in Vain?" that combined the vocal inflections of James Brown and Little Anthony with the Dylan voice of Highway 61 Revisited. He furnished "Shelter from the Storm" with a new, romantic, rootless-sounding melodic line, full of unresolved ca-dences, and sang it in a kind of incantatory style reminiscent of Kurt Weill.
After a calypso-flavored version of "Love Minus Zero" – which featured his first harmonica solo of the evening – Dylan gave a soulful, torch-ballad rendition of "Tangled Up in Blue," singing it to the accompaniment of tenor sax and Yamaha synthesizer as if he were on the stage of a Parisian music hall. "Ballad in Plain D," "Maggie's Farm" and "I Don't Believe You" followed – the first delivered in an ironically showbiz manner, the second featuring a driving Stax-Volt riff, and the third insinuating itself in a sly, feline ways. In "Like a Rolling Stone," Dylan gave an entraced recitation of the words against a pulsating wall of sound, after which he switched gears and sang "I Shall Be Released" with the vocal timbre he once used on Nashville Skyline. He ended the first half of the set with an occasionally newly worded version of "Going, Going, Gone."
He began the second half with a sardonic, taunting version of "I Threw It All Away." Then, after the band withdrew, the audience started cheering as Dylan performed his one acoustic number of the night, an unadorned version of "It Ain't Me Babe." In the light of Dylan's continually changing presence and sound, this moment betokened both cultural nostalgia and artistic vulnerability.
The band returned to accompany Dylan on one of his recent R&B songs, "You Treat Me like a Stepchild," which was followed by a Bo Diddley-propelled version of "One More Cup of Coffee" and a beautiful, slow, gospel-haunted "Blowin' in the Wind." As with "Tangled Up in Blue," Dylan sang "I Want You" as a torch ballad – you could almost imagine Edith Piaf performing it in the same spirit. After a powerful rendition of "Señor" ("I wrote this song on a train from Monterey to San Diego," he anounced), Dylan sang "Masters of War" as a kind of reggae war chant that concluded with an almost psychedelic blaze. Then came "Just like a Woman" – and it took your breath away: a grave waltz, surrendering, rejecting and erotic, with tenor sax and harmonica solos at the end.
An impassioned version of "Baby Stop Crying" led into "All along the Watchtower," a rhythmic, satanic march that ended with a demonic, tour-de-force violin solo by David Mansfield. A band-clapping, foot-stomping version of "All I Really Want to Do" was followed by an almost orchestral-sounding rendition of "It's Alright, Ma." "You all have a safe trip home and see you next time, y'hear?" he told the audience, and concluded the set with a down-home version of "Forever Young." The encore was a light, brisk performance of "Changing of the Guards."
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