Bob Dylan – The Metro (Chicago, IL)
Despite a near-death experience, 1997 was a good year for Bob Dylan: a commercially successful, critically acclaimed album of new material, a Kennedy Center Honor, a papal gig. But perhaps the most revealing turn was his decision to become, for a few nights in a few cities, frontman for one hell of a bar band. One Sunday at the Metro in Chicago, Dylan and his current touring group handled a typical Dylan set mixing classics (“Maggie’s Farm”, “Don’t Think Twice”, “Rainy Day Women”) new stuff (“I Can’t Wait”, “Lovesick”) and lesser-known gems (“Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You”, “Simple Twist Of Fate”, “To Ramona”). For two hours they drove the material with the concentration and intensity of expert highwaymen on some important but familiar run.
Dylan’s presentation of both old and new material might startle those not recently re-initiated: rock’s most enigmatic lyricist and most inventive manipulator of phrase now focuses his energy and caprice on his own lead guitar work. Familiar songs begin with restructured, often unrecognizable instrumental lead-ins, and end with improvisational jams. But though the weight of Dylan’s songs now lies in the melodies rather than the words, his own oft-maligned vocals, at least on this night, came through clearly and dangerously, as though he has once again found something personal and public at stake.
The songs still count as no others can. The mandolin-driven “Tangled Up In Blue” (recalling Steve Earle’s “Copperhead Road”) found him spitting the narrative with equal parts venom and wonder, as if the events had happened yesterday; in the folk standard “Roving Gambler”, Dylan and his band sang the refrain in crafted three-part harmony, turning a forgotten folk song into a cathartic singalong.
Dylan has long claimed to be just a musician — that’s all, that’s enough. Once the awe of proximity passed, seeing the performer in such a small venue rendered him as just that: a man commanding the delight of music. Not only did he let Chicago legend David Bromberg make an unannounced warmup appearance, but halfway through the show he invited Bromberg back for a spirited instrumental “Ragtime Annie” (featuring guitarist Larry Campbell’s lilting fiddle) and an unbounded, garage-blues take on “It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry”. The usually scowl-etched Dylan traded smiles, laughs, licks and verses with his old friend and fellow traveler. And when he attempted the unwieldy “Joey” — batting a cool .700 on remembering the verses — or churned the dark soul of “Cold Irons Bound” with his manic Stratocaster leads, he proved more than ready to takes chances. He needs those risks, it seems, as much as we do.
Thus Dylan’s continuing appeal as a live performer: Just as he continues to re-invent his peregrine persona, his audience re-creates their own emotional relationship to both the Dylan myth and his incomparable catalog. While Dylan’s place as a writer of modern music is beyond dispute, what should also be beyond dispute is his peculiar and relentless heroism regarding live performance. With the possible exception of Van Morrison, Dylan alone among rock legends presents his material with precious little respect for the original moment of conception. Yet by (not) doing so, he reveals his commitment to the only moment that matters: As he folds and unfolds his songs again and again, uncovering both old wrinkles of glory and new presses of grief, he becomes less the wicked messenger and more the message itself: “In the fury of the moment/I can see the master’s hand/Like every leaf that trembles/Like every grain of sand.” Indeed.