Every fan knows Bob Dylan live can be hit or miss, particularly with the way he continuously reinvents his catalog. In the past this has proved both his greatest weakness and strength. But for every throwaway Chuck Berry version of “Highway 61 Revisted” there’s a brilliant, pedal-steel sweetened “Hard Rain.” In fact, just a couple years ago Dylan sounded truly inspired in concert with his Bluegrass-tinged “best band in the land.” At that time he interspersed new songs with revamped takes on his classics, and tossed in an occasional gospel or rockabilly chestnut for good measure. In contrast, his current tour finds him in a different frame of inspiration. During the first performance of his five-night stint at the gorgeous Auditorium Theater, Dylan limply croaks out song selections as if informally auditioning his new backing band. This creates an odd vibe.
Aside from a reconfigured touring lineup (including Hot Club of Cow Town member Elana Fremerman and BR549’s Don Herron delivering a double-fiddle attack), Dylan’s latest method of spicing up his act is to inexplicably limit himself to electric piano. This decision wouldn’t present much of a problem if he was more proficient at the instrument. But instead of tapping a new well of inspiration, Dylan seemed distracted, delivering the songs as an afterthought. It’s a shame because many of his new arrangements are strong, including a truly thundering “Cold Irons Bound” and a keenly reflective, moody “Mr. Tambourine Man.” But Dylan rarely bothered to adapt his lyrics to the new settings, and song after song he eschewed meter and melody, letting the words pile up at the end of each verse. The effect was reflected in the reaction of one audience member when the house lights rose after the encore: instead of the standard lighter, he held his middle-finger high in the air.
At the other extreme of performance was Merle Haggard, Dylan’s opening act. The Bakersfield legend was unassuming and gracious. Throughout the all-too-brief set he wore his band The Strangers (according to Haggard, the “oldest beer joint band in the world”) like the fedora that covered his graying hair. His warm, mellow baritone has only improved with age. Whether on requisite tunes like “Mama Tried” and “Okie From Muskogee” or new songs that touched on his anti-war stance and playful attitude toward marijuana (“Marijuana and Martha Stewart are the greatest threats to this country today!”), Haggard seemed delighted to be onstage, and the audience shared his mood.
Representing the new guard was Philadephia’s Amos Lee, whose rich and varied warm-up set was a treat for the few wise enough to show up early. His mix of blue-eyed soul and rootsy rock set the tone for the evening, offering more promise than was eventually realized by the final curtain.