Wrestling for a way to begin this review of Bob Dylan's concert Thursday night at Verizon Theatre, I came upon a post from New York magazine's Vulture blog titled What does Bob Dylan's voice sound like? Let the critics tell you. My favorite among the colorful descriptions comes from Howard Cohen of The Miami Herald: "a battered instrument that sounds like a hoarse Fred Sanford after an all-night fight with Lamont."
Of course, in Cohen's complete review of Tempest, Dylan's latest album, there's more context: The full paragraph is "On Tempest, Dylan, 71, makes the most of his expressive voice ? a battered instrument that sounds like a hoarse Fred Sanford after an all-night fight with Lamont. He croaks 10 death-rattled story songs, his enunciation and emotional range, from witty to haunted, nearly flawless."
Dylan passed over Tempest on Thursday, focusing the approximately 90-minute set on songs from his distant and recent past. The Fred Sanford analogy, taken out of context, often holds true: Dylan's voice has become so craggy, the result of years of performing, smoking and other indulgences, that you can sometimes wonder whether he'll last through a whole show. But the whole context of Cohen's remarks holds true, too: Dylan makes the most of his battered instrument.
And he was in a robust mood Thursday night, even playful at times, starting with a Watching the River Flow that found his croak in full bellow, as if he were saying, "You can relax -- I am make it through this one."
With the help of a crackerjack band, he then did things we've come to expect -- which with Dylan, is usually the unexpected. Never picking up his guitar, he sometimes simply held the mike in a pose that looked halfway between elfish and a cowboy challenging you to draw, as he did during songs such as Tangled Up in Blue, which came with some new lyrics and a slightly different arrangement. A rollicking version of Things Have Changed had a mischievousness about it, and Highway 61 Revisited had an apocalyptic feel.
Dylan stayed away from the guitar, leaving those duties well-filled by Charlie Sexton and Stu Kimball, and instead banged on an acoustic piano (where he seemed to be having some problems with the mike stand) or blew some strong harmonica solos. He spat out lyrics in short, staccato phrases, with the old familiar classic nasal sound coming through on some songs, including Tangled Up in Blue. And for the most part, he seemed to be having a great time.
But as good as the show was, there weren't really any transcendent moments, things that really set the concert on fire: Ballad of a Thin Man, its confrontational lyrics made even more menacing and even demonic by Dylan's rasp, came close, as did a lively version of All Along the Watchtower. It's not like Dylan was on cruise control, but there was a sense that many of these songs would stand up no matter what he did to them, and given his penchant for the unexpected, the concert could have stood to be a little more surprising.
It takes someone with Dylan's level of skill and confidence to follow an act like Mark Knopfler, who opened with a generous set that clocked in at over an hour. Unlike Dylan, Knopfler didn't lean much on his most famous work -- Brothers in Arms and So Far Away were the only Dire Straits songs -- and concentrated on a strong set of Celtic- and/or blues-influenced songs, the highlight of which was the lengthy Marbletown, featuring Knopfler's crying, singing guitar and an interlude in which fiddler Tim O'Brien and bassist Glenn Worf slow the song down nearly to a halt with pizzicato pickings on their instruments.
Knopfler, who has worked with Dylan before, is nearly a decade younger, and his voice sounds very much like it did in Dire Straits' late-'70s to mid-'80s heyday. But Dylan's gravel voice, even if it is an acquired taste, suits what he's doing right now, and there's more of an impishness to his onstage persona, even if Knopfler chatted and joked with the crowd more. Still, Knopfler gave Dylan a hard act to follow. And Dylan lived up to it. But I'm not sure he surpassed it.
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