Yesterday on Will the Fire, Sam Sundquist posted about one of the absolute giants of American music- Paul Simon (Will The Fire – Song of the Day: Paul Simon “The Boy In the Bubble …). Today I wanted to shine our humble spotlight on another giant and one of the few with even bigger boot-prints than Simon. Dylan could supply the Song of the Day from now until we grow gills and fins and there would still be plenty of good stuff left to choose from. As a performer he is capable of summoning all of the powers the gods bestow on us mere mortals and the reason I wanted to choose a Dylan song for this fine Autumn day is that I just saw the old man perform live with a couple other highly illustrious WTF hands. I have seen him numerous times in the past and he always killed- reimagining, reinventing and reinvigorating material spanning his entire history. He raged in his craggy growl while his band of black-clad virtuosos burned with volcanic energy behind him and he injected rough-hewn sweetness into the more fragile material. He seemed to reach new heights with each song and returned for multiple encores until nobody in the audience could reasonably ask for more. Unfortunately none of that was true of his performance this past Saturday.
I kept waiting for that old Dylan spell to be cast but it never really was. I kept waiting for the band to kick into gear but they seemed to be experimenting with a new strategy- lowering audience expectations with each successive performance by toning down the intensity just when the songs seem to be crying out for more. You can’t really fault the band for that however as they were just following Dylan’s lead. Every time they built up any momentum Dylan would play something completely incongruous on piano or harmonica and throw the whole thing into disarray. On some nights that might produce creative sparks but not last Saturday. He seemed to be trying to lead the band in a jazzy direction but he isn’t exactly Duke Ellington on piano. There were glimpses of Dylan’s greatness as when he cranked up the eerie menace of “Ballad of a Thin Man” but even that paled in comparison to past performances and was marred by a distastefully (and amusingly) excessive use of vocal echo.
He put a jaunty spin on classics like “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” and “Visions of Johanna” but however interesting those performances were conceptually, they had the overall effect of draining the material of its essential visceral power. I could go on but I think you get the picture. Even when I’ve seen him firing on all cylinders I’ve heard complaints about his voice sounding like hell (it does sound like hell in the best possible way) and the classic songs not sounding the same as the original recordings (if that’s your complaint, please get off at the next possible stop). Personally I love the way Dylan now sounds like he gargles razor blades and whiskey every morning and I love how every time he performs he turns his whole body of work on its head. The magic just wasn’t there on Saturday but Dylan is still a killer- just listen to his new album recently reviewed on Will the Fire by Mr. Eric Stone (Will The Fire – Bob Dylan Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere: “Tempest” is a Triumph).
Just to show that I bear no rancor towards Dylan for his sub-par performance I wanted to pick a song that, in many ways, exemplifies the sort of heat and artistic fervor he has been consistently generating since he really got his mojo working again in the late 90’s. In 1997, during my junior year of high school, he released Time Out Of Mind and it announced itself as boldly as any of his 60’s classics that had bulled me over. The music on the album sounds at once modern and ancient, with atmospheric production from producer extraordinaire Daniel Lanois helping give a ghostly aura to Dylan’s dark, desperate compositions and vocals. Like many of the album’s tracks “Cold Irons Bound” is really in the tradition of classic blues songs like Robert Johnson’s “Hellhounds On My Trail” with its graphic depiction of a man on the run from sorrow that can’t be evaded and weighted down by chains that he can’t shake loose. When I’ve seen Dylan play the song live he’s made those chains shake and jangle with fevered vocals, snaky guitar lines and pounded drums. I hope to see that Dylan again at least once before the 71 year old takes his final bow. I think we still need him and I think he still has quite a few miles left to go before he rests.
This performance of “Cold Irons Bound” is taken from the critically derided but entertaining Dylan-penned flick “Masked and Anonymous”. He may look like a melted wax figure from the Country Music Hall of Fame only partially animated by a weak electrical current but the performance still rocks.