Friday, September 7, 2012

Dylan at Artpark: It’s Dark

The only other time besides Thursday night that Bob Dylan ever played Artpark in Lewiston was back in the mid-90s. Deadheads broke through security during the encore and danced on stage all around him. At first, he was tentative, then relaxed and motioned for security to let the rest up. The show ended in an orgy of dance and happy music on stage and throughout the amphitheatre. At least a hundred babies had to have been conceived that night. It was another time…and not dark yet.

Our seats to Thursday’s show added to our excitement over seeing Dylan again. Only single tickets had been available hours after they went on sale, but man, great single seat they were. My friend and I sat 10 and 12 rows from center stage. We thought we’d be able to see Dylan very well for the first out of six times we’d attended his shows together. This was going to be up close and personal with the man himself.

The show was sold out, but it was slow filling thanks to Lewiston’s poor traffic control and lack of consideration for concert goers, but that’s another issue. At 8:15 p.m. the lights dimmed and we saw shadowy figures stroll onto the stage and assume their positions to thunderous applause. It was as if someone had been watching and the second the place was full they cut the lights. Dylan was in a hurry. They were playing in Massachusetts the next night. That’s a long bus ride. Guitar chords were struck in a muscular fashion as George Recile began what would be a steady, concert-long heavy thumping of the bass drum in something that seemed a bit faster than 4/4, a 100 bpm pulse rate that had the band throwing a tachycardic tantrum throughout much of the concert, yet something of a musical experiment developed and worked its way out, looking for answers it couldn’t quite find but rubbed against at different points throughout the show.

The lights dimly rose illuminating everyone but Dylan, who sat at the keyboards, hidden under a flat, wide-brimmed hat, stage right. The lighting made it appear as if the band were a holograph rocking before a huge cement wall in some large, subterranean structure [at least this is how it appeared from where we were most fortunately sitting]. The sound was garbled from the start. Artpark is perhaps the best venue, sound-wise, in the region [aside from Kleinhan’s Music Hall in Buffalo]. So the sound was a construct, or deconstruct, of the venue’s capabilities. The band was playing in the basement, as if it were a shrunken down dream strumming on the table next to your washer and dryer. And it’s a huge basement with lots of echo, so when the band plays it projects the sensation of singing the national anthem in a stadium, where you’re hearing a line come back at you as you start singing the next line, garbling the hopes for any sonic clarity. It was confusion…a tempest…the name of Dylan’s next album set for release on “Patriot’s Day,” September 11, five days hence…

The thumping bass drum and speed with which Tony Garnier’s bass guitar collaborated, with Dylan trying to fit something in on the keyboards while finding his way word-wise through Watching the River Flow [the opening song], left the crowd confused yet entertained, as no one who’s ever been to more than one Dylan show can tell you what to expect except the unexpected. Even the oddest dishes and courses of the meal leave unexpected aftertastes that leave one feeling strangely sated.

Next thing we know the music stops. Thunderous applause as Dylan stumbles up from the piano stool, raising his arms like Nixon at a rally, and gingerly works his way around the back of the keyboards and around his bandmates, gesturing instructions, light on his feet, seeming a bit drunk, maybe more than a bit, and then finally making his way back to the keyboards for an unintelligible It Ain’t Me, Babe, completely re-arranged to accommodate Dylan’s beyond-the-grave gurgle and growl that was, nonetheless, poorly executed. Throughout the night the band seemed to be standing as far away from Dylan as it could get, as if he were in exile or quarantine, while constantly keeping an eye on him, ready to jump in and cover up his apparently numerous mistakes, especially in the transitions between verses and whatnot. But everyone in the audience loved Bob and whenever he displayed a vibrant Dylanesque flourish either vocally or on the harmonica, the crowd went wild.

That said, however, there were some good performances. The third song, Things Have Changed, seemed especially poignant in light of what was going on on the stage and the world at large. Early in the concert, either just before this song or after, a couple of girls began dancing in the aisle the way they used to at Dead shows [and Dylan’s only other Artpark appearance]. An elderly usher asked them to take their seats. They promptly obeyed. The crowd had that kind of compliant, sheepish feel to it. Western New York is a mean, rundown place, even among those of us who can afford $72.50 tickets. The stress is great. The show seemed to be addressing that stress, somehow. Dylan worked his getting drunk into that expression as well, getting up after each song and raising his arms and behaving like an elderly Liberace on acid, circumambulating the stage in a stumbling, gesticulating gesture of old timey entertainment style delusion, which itself may be an ironic self-commentary, knowing Dylan. He might’ve worn a cape. He could’ve introduced a few Elvis moves, too. And come to think of it, he perhaps did during one of the concert’s two highlights, Love Sick, where he walked around the stage like the King singing In The Ghetto. The sound of that song fit well with the sound the possibly intoxicated bandleader was striving for that night, and it was one of the few times the bass drum seemed to ease up just a bit.  
  Then came a rather long stretch in which re-arranged, loosely played classics were rendered difficult for the audience to recognize: A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall; Highway 61 Revisited; and Simple Twist of Fate. All with a loud, thumping bass drum, sloppy transitions and unfamiliar melodies apparently impossible to properly harmonize with…a tempest of music cyclonically exploding beyond itself into a kind of oblivion, all leading to Ballad of a Thin Man, performed in recognizable fashion, but with Dylan’s microphone set for echo, slyly commenting on everything that’s happening, so when the lyrics hit the first chorus—“Because something is happening here/But you don’t what it is/Do you, Mr. Jones?”—the whole show begins making some kind of sense, the kind of sense requiring one to go home, pick up one’s pencil and write it down.  
But then the band, led totally by Dylan, meandered through lackadaisical versions of Like A Rolling Stone and an All Along the Watchtower that left at least my friend, and perhaps myself as well, wondering if lead guitarist Charlie Sexton was going to last much longer with Bob. He didn’t seem happy. In fact, the whole band seemed a little put off…as if its performance had been somewhat frustrated.
Dylan’s encore, Blowin’ In The Wind, seemed to have the feel of a leaf being blown along rather than something consciously directed, as if the whole thing were subject to the whims of nature’s breathing.
Fifteen years ago, it still wasn’t the case. But on this night, the darkness had arrived.
My friend, a long-time musician, felt the show was an abomination because Dylan had the ability to do so much more with his sound, considering the resources, and he charged so much money for people like us to go see him. He also felt that the band sucked. I somewhat agreed, but said most things Dylan does are intentional, and that it might be more interesting to ask why this performance took the form it did. What was he trying to do? Why did he once again rip us off this way?
My friend didn’t buy it, suggesting it was because Dylan was a drunk, and said if he’d been there by himself he would’ve got up and walked out. I could see his point of view, but couldn’t help feeling fascinated by the whole thing. Dylan had stayed mostly in the shadows all night, and when the light did shine on him he seemed otherworldly, like an intoxicated ragtime carnival barker…a wild west card shark dressed to the nines but sleazy enough between the lines to get what he wanted from you.
We walked back to my car through heavy darkness, feeling humid on the inside and somewhat confused, disappointed yet stimulated, dissing Dylan and complimenting him at the same time.
We had a couple beers on ice at the car and chugged them when we got there, smoking our smokes, waiting for the traffic to thin, comparing and contrasting this concert with the six others we’d seen together over the last 25 years, and realized this was likely our last one. Tempest, his next album, is the name of Shakespeare’s last play. And though Dylan may deny it, remaining on his Never Ending Tour, there’s a feeling of finality, demise, dissolution afoot. Time drains all of us, right down to the last drop.
The darkness, maybe, is here.
The band: Charlie Sexton, lead guitar; George Recile, drums; Stu Kimball, lead/rhythm guitar; Donnie Herron, violin, viola, electric mandolin, pedal steel, lap steel, banjo; Tony Garnier, bass.

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