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Bob Dylan's "Americana" Tour, Saturday, July 27th, 2013, Reviewed

Jones Beach Skyline Rag
















Beck invited  Richard Bowden from Ryan Bingham’s band on fiddle on stage with him during his hour plus opening set at Jone’s  Beach Saturday late afternoon, “How fast do you want this?”  Beck asked. “Very” came the reply and he launched into Bob Dylan’s “Nashville Skyline Rag”. The instrumental takes a wonderful melody and a wild finger picking guitar and rides it very very sweetly switching between two separate licks and each instrument, piano, fiddle, guitar, weaves its way through it and at the end each player dashed at it.

“Nashville Skyline Rag” is not considered part of the pantheon of songs that makes Dylan a living legend, but it was really perfect for this particular concert. “Americana” was a gentle evening of song. This became clear early in Bob Dylan’s set itself. A version of “Simple Twist Of Fate” so lovely and stirring, so moving, it came to life in a way I had never heard it do so. Performed fairly straight, the song caresses is,  it is like a metaphor for the audience and the artist: the concert a chance encounter for money, he leaves us and forgets us and we wait and hope he picks us out again.

One more thing: Dylan has been called a misogynist in the past but here his compassion for the prostitute, “maybe she’ll pick him out again” gives the woman a certain dignity and Dylan performs it with a simple dignity and a certain pride in his story. I don’t have particularly good ears, I am not an audiophile, so when I say I have no problems with Dylan’s vocal during this song . He sounds perfect, if he doesn’t sing melody as such, he still does sing melody and he floats on top of his songs with immaculate phrasing. It reminded me of Sinatra at Radio City in the 1990s: the phrasing was so perfect, the sense of moment so extreme, it forgave the lack of range in his vocals.

This sweetness was all over the evening. Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy brought out Beck for an electrifying version of “Loser” and then in a moment of such great generosity, invited Cibo Matto and Sean Lennon on stage and basically handed em the key to the car as, along with Beck and the band, they performed completely living and breathing and exciting versions of the Beatles “Yer Blues” and “Tomorrow Never Knows”. On the latter a line was drawn connecting Wilco’s aural experimentation from earlier in the evening to Lennon the Artist as visionary artist, on the former the band howled and wailed through a song that even on The White Album belied its tongue in cheek title.

It was absolutely terrific and I don’t really like Wilco at all.

“Americana” began with a sharp half hour set by Ryan Bingham. I am not much of a fan of Bingham either, he is too damn mopey for my tastes and anytime you get T Bone Burnett and a mopey singer songwriter it is gonna be somewhat on the somorific side. But Ryan has an arresting voice and he adds depth on stage, he seems to dig a little deeper. “Depression”, off Junky Star, is a good song.

Beck came out and performed a very well paced set mixing it up from Odelay to Songreader…. sometimes to better effect than others. Here is a question, what has he done post-Sea Changes that can equal Sea Changes and earlier? Yeah, yet still I was ready to not like Beck, and for stretches down the hear of the set my attention wandered, still he was the best bandleader of the night, he spoke to the audience with ease and intelligent and you were never far away from something that could take your breath away, “Jackass”, “Sissyneck” and “Where It’s At” were all given sincere and sweet and fun renditions. The Songreader tracks were nothing special but “Gamma Ray” (dedicated to those of us who survived the heatwave -funny guy) and “Modern Guilt” were better than I remembered them being in 2008 and all three songs off Sea Changes were magnificent. The penultimate song of the evening was the Everly Brothers “Sleepless Nights”. I can see why Beck chose it, the melody meanders in a very Beck way. Fun to see the influence so clearly.

I am not too keen on Jeff Tweedy. Maybe it’s the scruffy beard. Or maybe the lack of consistency in his songwriting. Perhaps, I’m being unreasonable, but I have no doubt I couldn’t take a full set. Here I got half a set and half a set of covers, and that I could take. In 2013, Wilco sound like a dumb downed Phish without the funk and without the jazz,  ergo without the blackness. An extended jam on “Sunken Trasure” found former jazz fusion guitarist Nels Cline playing white noise licks for all he’s worth and I guess it wasn’t the worst thing I’ve ever heard. The two Woody Guthrie songs, where Bragg and Wilco added music to Woody’s songs, were alright. But the ending of the set was magnificent. Nothing even slightly sloppy in the Beatles cover.

With the house lights on, and with no shades and no hat, we got to see Dylan about as well as we ever have, and he looks… like Phil Spector! A re-written “Things Have Changed” was lively but not so hot, the problem with Dylan rewrites is they are bizarro world close to the original. It is like “A Hard Days Rut” or something. But Dylan performs it winningly and it is the sole misstep of the evening. “Love Sick” is played straight and it is a charismatic charmer, the lights are still pretty high and Dylan moves about the stage, one on hand on his hip and he sings the hell out of it. His back up band is magnificent on this song. Is this what they mean when they complain all the songs sound the same? I’ve read some very negative things about Dylan on this tour so let’s dealw ith them.

1. All the songs are in the same key and sound the same – It is not true.

2. His voice is shot – He sounds like Dylan, if you haven’t figured out what Dylan sounds like, why are you here?

3. The opening acts are better – Laughable nonsense.

4. He holds his audience in disdain -how? where is the disdain? People don’t understand Dylan even 50 years later. My friend Dede Smith was close friends with Dylan’s mother and she told me that with his mother he was a good son and a good man. I see no reason to doubt her at all and my assessment of Dylan is about the same. I’ve read of him going to his Grandchildren’s kindergarten shows and singing for them. You can’t be a private figure in the public eye for that long without being rightfully wary. But let’s say Dylan was the devil reincarnate, so what? So don’t have lunch with him. What’s it to you?

I am far from being a blinded fan, I swore I would never see him again after a disappointing set at United Palace in 2009. I wrote at that time: “The set neither builds nor subsides, it is like a series of songs disconnected though the set itself is  integrally connected to the one before and the one after it and it doesn’t matter where we are or what we see we don’t get the full picture”.

But this wasn’t that. The song was one long highlight, every song got through, Dylan’s main instrument for the night was the harp and he wailed on it, an extended coda to “High Water (For Charley Patton)” was followed by A very gentle tin pan alley “Soon After Midnight” and then a set highlight “New Roman Kings” with the band building to the best groove of the entire evening by anyone.

On “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” and “She Belongs To Me” Dylan does a complete rewrite but “Blind Willie McTell” and “Tangled Up In Blue” move unsteadily but cleverly through several alternatives. The surprise for me this evening was a “Beyond Here Lies Nothing” -a song I have always considered minor, was actually pretty major. Fifteen songs, not a clunker. Wow.

I can’t believe people complained all the songs sounded the same. I heard country, blues, Tin Pan Alley, “Summer Days” is a waltz. And I saw a Dylan just where he always is, in complete control of his sound and his destiny, teaching his Americana guests that even at 70 years old he is untouchable.

Fifteen songs, not a clunker. Wow.

Ryan Bingham – B

Beck – B+

Wilco – B

Bob Dylan – A

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