When music critics are nominating the latest “new Dylan,” they usually focus on earnest guitar strummers such as Paul Simon, Steve Forbert, Billy Bragg or Conor Oberst. This ignores the fact that the majority of Dylan’s albums and almost all his live shows since 1966 have featured him as the leader of a loud, rootsy rock ‘n’ roll band. So who are Dylan’s true heirs? Who’s out there telling stories with lively language, iconoclastic aphorisms, evocative details, blues grooves, country twang and rock ‘n’ roll punch?
The answer was suggested when the Drive-By Truckers opened for Dylan at the Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, Md., Tuesday night. You couldn’t imagine them at the Newport Folk Festival, but no one’s been writing better songs in this decade than the band’s co-founders, singer-guitarists Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley. Hood, as big and round as a black bear in his blue cowboy shirt and faded jeans, opened the show by singing “Go-Go Boots,” the title track from the band’s terrific new album. It’s a greasy slow blues that doesn’t immediately conjure up the term “Dylanesque,” but as the narrative sinks in—the preacher of a mega-church in Rogersville, Ala., sneaks off to a motel where a young girl dances in go-go boots for him—you can hear the echo of Dylan’s similar songs about small-town hypocrisy: “Ballad of a Thin Man,” “John Brown” and “Maggie’s Farm.”
But the Truckers weren’t willing to let themselves off the hook when it comes to personal failings. Cooley, as small and slender as a fox in wavy brown hair, sang with an insider’s knowledge on “Self-Destructive Zones,” one of which was detailed further on “Where the Devil Don’t Stay.” Bleaker still was Hood’s new song, “Used To Be a Cop,” a step-by-step description of how a person can throw away every good thing in his life. But the Truckers had an antidote for all this gloomy realism: the Southern soul music they grew up around in northern Alabama.
Hood gave a short rap about the brilliant-but-obscure singer-songwriter-guitarist Eddie Hinton from the Muscle Shoals scene and then belted out Hinton’s “Everybody Needs Love” as if channeling Pops Staples. Cooley responded to this R&B challenge by singing “Women Without Whiskey” as if testifying in church about his battles with the bottle. Maybe the band has had better shows, but they’ve never had back-to-back songs where they sounded as good as they did on those two. Perhaps the challenge of opening for Dylan had goaded them into it.
Dylan himself took the stage a half hour later in a flat-brimmed white hat and a dark blue suit with red piping around the collar and down the legs. All his shows in recent years have been hindered by his refusal to warm up vocally before going on, so it always takes him three to six numbers to clear the frog from his voice, and this show was no different. When his throat finally opened up on the sixth song, “Mississippi,” he actually sounded pretty good, pumping out Tex-Mex chords from his electric organ and warbling that the only thing he did wrong was stay in Mississippi a day too long. He then strolled over to center stage and struck a showman’s pose; facing sideways with knees bent, he turned to the mic and sang with understated storytelling his great anti-war song, “John Brown.” Texas guitarist Charlie Sexton added blues solos to both numbers.
A few numbers later, Dylan picked up an electric guitar and led his sextet through an arrangement of “Simple Twist of Fate” that emphasized the hillbilly twang in the tune; Donnie Heron played pedal steel and Stu Kimball strummed an acoustic guitar. Other highlights of the evening included Dylan’s long harmonica solo on “Tangled Up in Blue,” the band’s jazzy swing on “Summer Days,” Dylan’s blues growl on “Cole Irons Bound” and “Ballad of a Thin Man.” The encore version of “Like a Rolling Stone” was strangely sympathetic rather than accusatory, as if he couldn’t be too hard on someone “without a home, like a complete unknown” in 2011. From this revised arrangement to his selection of songs from all phases of career, he was suggesting there’s no need for a “new Dylan,” because he’s always reinventing himself.