Constitution Hall Washington, D.C.
October 17th, 1989
Trying to figure out Bob Dylan isn't exactly a new pastime for his fans, but the disparity between the pop icon's latest album and his recent show here lends an additional degree of difficulty to the game. On the recently released Oh Mercy, Dylan is thoughful and restrained, his voice brimming with wit and sly intelligence. But onstage at Constitution Hall, that remarkable confidence was nowhere to be found. On the night that Mr. Dylan went to Washington, he proved loud and boorish, braying his hits as if he bore them a grudge.
Forget the nuance and low-key detail Dylan found in the studio with the help of Daniel Lanois, the producer of Oh Mercy: When it came to new material like "Most of the Time" or "Man in the Long Black Coat," fans got bad diction and instrumental overkill, a combination that rendered the powerful "Political World" all but unrecognizable. Even "Everything Is Broken," the first single from Oh Mercy, which sounded better rehearsed than anything else on the set list, ended unexpectedly, as though Dylan had suddenly lost interest.
Not that the old stuff fared any better. However perfunctory Dylan's treatment of the new songs was, they still came off better than classics like "Highway 61 Revisited" and "Like a Rolling Stone." Performing as if he were consciously attempting to parody himself, Dylan groaned and creaked like a rusty hinge, declaiming his celebrated lyrics in a voice so flat and nasal as to seem purposely tuneless. Then, with his backing band churning noisily behind him, he would wheeze into his harmonica for a few aimless choruses before meandering on to the next victim.
By the time he got to "Ballad of a Thin Man," a third of the way through the evening's fifteen-song set, and the song's infamously unaware Mr. Jones, it was only too obvious what was happening to Bob Dylan. After more than a decade of trotting out the classics for fans too drunk on the mystique of the sage of the Sixties to know whether "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" and "All Along the Watchtower" are done justice, Dylan just doesn't care anymore. Why should he work at making these songs mean something when he's playing for an audience that would give his harmonica rack a standing ovation?
Most frustratingly, there were still flashes of the old fire in this night's show; even "Ballad of a Thin Man" offered brief hints that the song does mean more to Dylan than easy applause. Better still, he gave "Gates of Eden" an impassioned reading during the acoustic portion of his set, and he even dug out such chestnuts as "Boots of Spanish Leather" and "Barbara Allen."
But such moments were the exception. Because Dylan seemed less interested in digging into the depths of his songs than burying them under the garage-rock blare of his current band (the very talented and ill-used trio of guitarist G.E. Smith, bassist Tony Garnier and drummer Christopher Parker, who spent most of the evening fruitlessly trying to put form behind their boss's ramblings), the concert ended up something to be endured rather than enjoyed. And considering the number of empty seats Dylan played to — Constitution Hall was barely two-thirds full — it seems fewer and fewer fans are willing to endure it. If Dylan is to remain as vibrant in concert as he is on Oh Mercy, there is much work to be done — and quickly.
This story is from the November 30th, 1989 issue of Rolling Stone.