News Column

His voice raspy but melodic, Dylan commands attention

April 28, 2014

By Elizabeth Kieszkowski, The Honolulu Star-Advertiser

April 28--If Bob Dylan had not written some of the most literate, heartbreaking, provocative and important songs in American music history, would his concert on Maui have been as remarkable and essential?

Guess not. With his now-ragged voice and willful approach to performance, Dylan has become as talented at challenging -- or should I say confusing? -- an audience as at stunning us with wordcraft and musicality.

His current-day concerts can be part folk-blues barn party, part carnival act and part devastating, time-worn performance of truly classic material, and his show Saturday at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center surely fit that pattern.

Sometimes it was hard to hear just what Dylan was singing, and sometimes it was hard to know just why he was doing it that way.

Ultimately, however, the concert was indeed essential.

On the tail end of a string of shows in Europe and Japan, the 72-year-old musician and his five-man band landed in Hawaii for two shows: one on Maui and one Tuesday on Oahu.

Dylan took the forefront with a voice like a honey-coated, rusty washboard, backed by a stellar band that moved from a raucous to a sublime, soaring groove at the whim of its leader. Some songs he croaked out in a workmanlike shuffle; others took on inescapable momentum.

His first song was "Things Have Changed," written for the film "Wonder Boys," which won Dylan an Academy Award in 2000. That was a calculated opening move, documenting his critical acceptance while also setting the fatalistic tone of his performance.

"I used to care," he sang roughly, as his band carefully chugged along, following his midtempo changes, "but things have changed."

Right off the bat, you had to get used to the painful-sounding break that would sometimes crack his voice as Dylan moved from a lower to upper range. But the song itself is pained, haunting, wounded and hungry, and right off the bat, the music and delivery found common ground.

Dylan followed that with "She Belongs to Me," with its contradictory refrain, "She's an artist, she don't look back." The gentle melody and piercing, lovelorn lyrics left many in the admiring audience rapt. And when he blew on his harmonica for the first time that night, the sharp sound cut through the haze of chatter like the lonesome train whistle it resembled.

From then on, through two 45-minute sets (with a 20-minute intermission), Dylan had our attention. For the most part, the audience remained rapt throughout, though cheers and whistles of admiration erupted frequently.

Perhaps the softness of the Maui air was good for Dylan's vocal cords, because while his voice was raspy and damaged, it was relatively melodic. He moved between a standing mic, at which he sometimes played harmonica, to a piano, sometimes within one song.

Occasionally he stretched his mouth into what looked like a smile. But every direct interaction with the audience, including his nods at the end of the encore, left him looking distant and uncomfortable.

With the rhythm guitar player and drummer wearing porkpie hats, and Dylan in a black suit embellished with floral embroidery at the lapels, hips and wrists, the band took on the air of a pumped-up honky-tonk act, jolly and stoic while playing songs about loss and love.

Dylan didn't make eye contact with or reach out to the audience. He didn't play his songs the way you hear them on the radio. He did build momentum and dynamism over the course of his two sets -- only to settle back into a shambling, nonchalant rhythm for the final song, "Hurricane."

Inspired by a trumped-up murder case against African-American boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, the song arguably helped change the course of history, awakening millions to abuse of power and civil-rights violations in America. But Dylan played it as a lullaby, perhaps meaning to dedicate the song to Carter, who died last week, on April 20.

I'm not sure someone who wasn't already familiar with the song would have recognized it, but if you did, and knew the story, the gentle delivery took on an added layer of meaning.

So, that's the thing. In the pantheon of American songwriting over the past 50 years, Dylan has no equal. And when an artist of that stature performs, it pays to listen.

Protest songs such as "Blowin' in the Wind" -- played as an encore -- influenced the course of history and styles of popular music worldwide, while vivid, adept and ironic love songs such as "She Belongs to Me" inspired generations of writers and songwriters to come.

Those stunning songs created a backdrop for his whimsical, puzzling, ragged and sublime concert at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center.

Follow Elizabeth Kieszkowski on Twitter at @StarTGIF.


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Source: Honolulu Star-Advertiser (HI)

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