Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Bob Dylan at WAMU Theater in Seattle, October 5, 2009

I think Bob Dylan has always been a bluesman at heart—and that he’s become a great one in recent years. Maybe that’s too confining. He reaches deep into American music and pulls out everything from Muddy Waters to Hank Williams to Bing Crosby.  He matches Willie Dixon riffs to Chuck Berry rhymes, and sings in a voice that can sound like Howlin’ Wolf, or Jimmy Durante.  It's the bounty of a 50 year career.

Last night at WAMU Theater in Seattle he opened his newest tour and his his set with a 12 bar blues from the late 1970s, “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking.”

Gonna change my way of thinking,
Make myself a different set of rules.
Gonna change my way of thinking,
Make myself a different set of rules.
Gonna put my good foot forward,
And stop being influenced by fools.

It’s a song from his evangelical days-- and amusingly, the days when I first started buying Bob Dylan records.  Some people scorned his preaching blues, but I couldn't afford to then or now-- Slow Train Coming was my second or third Bob Dylan album.  I liked it-- though I find it hard to believe he was ever influenced by fools. The only influences I hear are his fellow geniuses. Another blues he played Monday night bears witness.  “My Wife’s Hometown” is done to the beat of Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon.

She can make you steal, make you rob
Give you the hives, make you lose your job
Make things bad, she can make things worse
She got stuff more potent than a gypsy curse
One of these days, I'll end up on the run
I'm pretty sure, she'll make me kill someone
I'm going inside, roll the shutters down
I just want to say that Hell's my wife's home town

The blues infuse just about everything he does. He did a loud, rocking hard version of “Highway 61 Revisited,” a song set on the blues highway that cuts through his own hometown in Minnesota and Clarksdale in Mississippi. “Beyond Here Lies Nothing” has the jazzier feel of a 1950s sort of urban blues—something Horace Silver might have played,, or T-Bone Walker, with a big band full of horns.

I'm movin' after midnight
Down boulevards of broken cars
Don't know what I'd do without it
Without this love that we call ours
Beyond here lies nothin'
Nothin' but the moon and stars

About half the night Dylan stood stage right playing keyboards. His band includes a powerful rhythm section with Tony Garnier on bass, Stu Kimball on guitar, George Receli on drums. They’ve been together on tour and on recordings for years and provide the sort of rock solid foundation that a group like Booker T. and the M.G.s used to provide at STAX. Donnie Herron adds a host of instruments including a steel guitar, viola, a trumpet and n eager smile. Charlie Sexton plays lead guitar. The band members sat or stood stage left, facing Dylan, watching attentively and responding to whatever nods or musical leads he gave them.

When he wasn’t at the keyboard Dylan moved center stage to play an electric guitar, or his harmonica, or stood leaning into the mike, arms outstretched, and sang. One local writer saw Bobby Darin. I saw Durante.  (Heard him, too!)

When he put on an electric guitar, he held it almost vertically. For a time he seemed to labor with the notes, pushing noncompliant fingers stiffly-- but then he sidled up to Sexton like John to Paul, loosened up, and the notes came rolling and tumbling, Dylan bending this way, Sexton reacting back. There is no doubt who is leading this group of musicians. He gives finger signs, or just leans into his instrument, grinning, pumping out a new theme, and off they all go. He seemed and sounded most comfortable at the keyboard, often set to an organ sound. The last few times I’ve seen Dylan I could never actually hear what he was doing with his keyboards. I wondered if it was just a prop. (Maybe it was just a matter of having larger groups on those visits, and crumbier sound.) Not this time. This time the keyboard was loud and clear, a fundamental part of the band’s sound, sometimes bluesy, sometimes pumping almost like the organ at a baseball game. And although the “WAMU Theater” is a big barn or warehouse, the sound was clear and beautiful, at least from our vantage about 50 feet from center stage. (The only thing not so clear was the view—mostly the back of the heads of the guys in front of me.)

He played a lot of songs from his newest album, “Together Through Life.” “Forgetful Heart” was full of moans and murmers, with Tony Garnier bowing a standup bass and Donnie Herron apparently playing a viola. (I couldn’t see!) They played “If You Ever Go to Houston.”

Mr. Policeman
Can you help me find my gal
Last time I saw her
Was at the Magnolia Hotel
If you help me find her
You can be my pal
Mr. Policeman
Can you help me find my gal

They played “Spirit on the Water,” with its lilting chord changes.

They brag about your sugar
Brag about it all over town
Put some sugar in my bowl
I feel like laying down

And “I feel a Change Coming On”

Everybody got all the money
Everybody got all the beautiful clothes
Everybody got all the flowers
I don't have one single rose

On the record “Modern Times” “Thunder on the Mountain” has a Chuck Berry feel to it, in part because of Denny Freeman’s guitar solos. Here Charlie Sexton gave it more of a rockabilly sound, and Bob Dylan squealed with delight after “thinking ‘bout Alicia Keys.”

When she was born in Hells Kitchen
I was living down the line
I’m wondering where in the world Alicia Keys could be

A few weeks ago I wrote about “Jolene” and said I might hear it. And so I did, as part of the encore, (along with two encore standbys, “Like a Rolling Stone” and “All Along the Watchtower,” where Charlie Sexton channeled Jimi Hendrix.  Someone caught it on video:

There were a lot of other songs. You’ll find set lists aplenty—and soon, a bootleg (They come out for every show.)   He played  “Ballad of a Thin Man,” and “Lay Lady Lay.” I didn’t take notes, and there were two songs I didn't recognize. But I appreciated another chance to see and hear one of our great ones-- one of our truest originals and one of our best copycats and recyclers. I took my older daughter to see him in about 2005. I took my younger daughter to see him last night. Maybe someday I can take my little boy. I hope so. I’m like Chuck Berry in that regard. I hope he lives to be 100, and  that he keeps doing what he does.

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