Chicago Sun-Times
Tuning in with Thomas Conner

Bob Dylan at the Aragon

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Though it cannot be denied that Bob Dylan is a living treasure and one of the most important and influential figures in the history of American song craft, the 68-year-old legend recently released a strong contender for the worst album of his storied career, "Christmas in the Heart."

It may have been a noble effort to raise money for charity. But the new disc of massacred holiday standards is nonetheless a miserable listening experience.

Thankfully, there wasn't a harsh, croaking rendition of "Hark the Herald Angels Sing," an endless, torturous version of "Little Drummer Boy" or a weird threat-not-a promise take on "I'll Be Home for Christmas" in evidence Thursday night as the favorite son of Hibbing, Minn., played the first of a three-night stand at the Aragon Ballroom.

In fact, in his patently perverse, willfully noncommercial, change-it-up-every-night and "zag whenever they expect me to zig" style, Dylan completely ignored his new album. Instead, the man whose taped introduction branded him "the poet laureate of rock 'n' roll" gave us a typically atypical night, mixing a heavy sampling of songs from the last three studio albums before "Christmas in the Heart" with a handful of his most memorable anthems.

As usual, many of these songs were barely recognizable, as Dylan shuffled, rewrote, rearranged and just plain messed with them however the spirit of the moment struck him.

One notable failure: A particularly unsubtle and heavy-handed thrashing of "Just Like a Woman," part of a generally sluggish start to the two-hour show. (Dylan began promptly at 7:30 p.m., and there was no opening act.)

Among the standout high points: a revved-up "Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum"; "Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again," which was turned inside out and upside down; a rollicking and rambunctious "Highway 61 Revisited," and a tense and dramatic "Ain't Talkin'."

After a particularly inspired and reliably consistent stretch in the '90s, when his shows were marked by their furious guitar rave-ups and intense interaction with his crack band, Dylan's concerts have become much more uneven and sluggish in recent years. The star has spent much of his time onstage rigidly standing behind an electronic keyboard, reportedly because arthritis has made his guitar playing more difficult.

And the voice... oh, that voice. Even though of us who've applauded its harsh punk charms, forgiven its infamous limitations and championed it as a direct conduit to the songwriter's soul must admit that it's becoming ever harsher, more limited and sloppier, without an appreciable increase in soulfulness.

The current tour marks the return of Austin, TX, guitarist Charlie Sexton, one of Dylan's best ever sidemen, and a big reason why those '90s shows were so fiery. But the bandleader still spent much of Thursday night behind that dreaded synthesizer. When he did don a guitar, he hardly moved and barely acknowledged Sexton, second guitarist Stu Kimball and bassist Tony Garnier at his right side, much less drummer George Recile behind him.

Indeed, the only time Dylan seemed undiminished was when he blowing harp. His harmonica propelled "Ballad of a Thin Man," the last song before the encore, and the evening's climax.

Overall, this was a better night with Bob than the last few this critic has had, but it was far from the best.

The most hardcore fans will contend that any night with their hero is a privilege mere mortals should gratefully welcome without complaints. But I bet that even many of them are glad to have been spared his particularly unique reading of "Winter Wonderland."

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I was there tonight, and to say "Just Like a Woman" was a heavy-handed thrashing shows just how miserly, jaded, and out-of-touch you are, Mr. DeRogatis, like most hard-bitten, trollish critics. Believe me, I used to be in journalism and I've met a few. I know that I and several people around me were extremely moved to finally hear "Woman" and "Girl From the North Country" finally sung by the master who wrote them. I don't know how many people saw Dylan for the first time tonight as I did, but all I know is that when the lights went up after the show, people both young and old were smiling and wiping the sweat from their brows.

Since I didn't see him in the '60s or '70s, I can't compare this Dylan to the one that most people embrace, with that honest, pleading, evocative voice. All I know is that we should be grateful that he is still around and WILLING to perform and share his songs with all of us. I think most critics go astray by not managing their expectations when it comes to the contemporary Dylan. He clearly has tailored his songs to his aging body and voice, but such a master has that prerogative. I think he should be applauded for the courage to remain prolific and to mount an ambitious tour while enduring the ravages of old age. And while critics have to be honest in their assessments, I think that trashing Dylan for his Christmas album when, to my knowledge, he hasn't performed a single song from that album on his current tour (in the U.S. at least) is petty and disingenuous. Mr. DeRogatis, I'm sure you've seen better Dylan concerts, but then again, I've seen much better writers.

Right on, I've seen Dylan before and you are correct. He is Blowing in the Wind and changing as he should with age. I went to the show Friday night and I loved it, many people ask me how can you understand him. I say, I listen with my heart when it comes to him, I have never listened to anyone that can come even close to telling a story like him. He is my hero and always will be, his songs have helped me get through many hard times in my life, and for that I thank him. Rock on Bob.

The Dylan live experience has always been a mixed bag for me but I was hoping Charlie Sexton would bring back the glory of 99-02. That band was great, occasionally jaw dropping, and certainly the best since the Band toiled behind the Bard. Why does Bob still do 100+ shows a year? Royalties alone would keep him in bejeweled Nudie suits for hundreds of years. I guess the only precedent are blues singers/musicians who play until they die. I always thought this was strictly for money as most were royally screwed from whatever shady record company signed them. But if Bob ain't broke then what does he want from us? And if he's broke can we fix him?

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This page contains a single entry by Jim DeRogatis published on October 29, 2009 9:44 PM.

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