Please welcome Columbia recording artist, Bob Dylan

Originally published in 2010, this review of Dylan’s performance at the Edgefield in Troutdale, Or. returns to celebrate Dylan’s 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature, awarded this very day. God bless and God speed Bob Dylan.

This is how he comes out on stage. A disembodied voice (stage manager Al Santos) recites a short, but unbelievably odd interpretation of the artist’s 50-year career, which goes pretty much exactly like this:

“The poet laureate of rock ‘n’ roll. The voice of the promise of the ’60s counterculture. The guy who forced folk into bed with rock, who donned makeup in the ’70s and disappeared into a haze of substance abuse, who emerged to ‘find Jesus,’ who was written off as a has-been by the end of the ’80s, and who suddenly shifted gears and released some of the strongest music of his career beginning in the late ’90s. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Columbia recording artist Bob Dylan.”

The words of a rock critic from Buffalo, constructing a career epitaph that is equal parts hyperbole, cliche, rumor, truth and stone cold absurdity. It appeared originally in 2002. Along with the “Columbia recording artist” part (a contractual obligation going back to his first contract with Columbia back in 1961) it’s arguably the most bizarre, confusing intro-of-an-icon ever. And seeing as this is Bob Dylan we’re talking about, it is also utterly perfect.

Ultimately Dylan is whatever you imagine him to be. Genius, charlatan, lunatic, poetic, thief, rocker, loser. Believe whatever you want, but realize this for damn sure: He is a recording artist. Maybe that’s everything you need to know. So close your moth and listen.

He and the band emerge dressed like a showbiz cowboy bandfrom 1951, Dylan differentiated by what appears to be a 10-gallon hat, glimmering white in the stage lights. The band kicks into a rolling blues riff, guitars blazing, and when Dylan (standing hunched behind a keyboard) bark-croaks the opening line it only takes a moment to realize, ah yes, “Leopard-Skin Pillbox Hat.”

His voice. He prefers that dirt-deep growl these days, a testament to the burden he’s carried (think it’s easy to conduct that much electricity through your nervous system?) and the wisdom of the years. When he’s not sing-croaking, Dylan leans into the keys and locks his eyes on lead guitarist Charlie Sexton, who kneels during his solos, either to emphasize the Atlas-like burden he’s taken on (playing beneath thte gaze of Dylan) or simply prostrating himself before the boss whose dense, swooping organ lines wrap, tangle, support and sometimes subverts the shimmery melodies he’s hurling into the air.

Dylan switches to 2nd lead guitar for “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” riffing with and sometimes against Sexton’s lines, then comes “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” and a crystalline “Just Like A Woman” (god, Sexton’s guitar chimes and rings like Easter Sunday) and the song is all aching beauty, from the rich guitars to Dylan’s churchly organ riffs and his wisdom-of-the-ages recitation of the lyrics, whose undercurrent of contempt collapses beneath a new generosity – underscored by the singalong he conducts on the choruses (and beaming happily each time the audience belts the title in perfect, even harmonized unison).

He played 14 songs. Warhorses, by and large (save for “Workingman’s Blues #2,” a Dolly Parton cover and one or so other less-familiar tunes) except for the fact that what he plays has virtually nothing to do with the songs you think you know. The central riff is now off-kilter. The rhythm has been swiveled on its axis, the melody bears no resemblance. The magic moment came halfway through with “Tangled Up in Blue.”  But this was the moment when it all came together. Dylan standing at center-stage, harmonica in one hand, the lyrics torn from somewhere in the most desolate corner of his soul.

But mostly it was Dylan and his keyboard, Dylan and his guitar, Dylan rolling and thrusting his shoulders to emphasize the push-and-pull of his harmonica lines. The secret, as ever, is to forget about what you think you came to hear. Poet laureate, blah-blah-blah. Listen to the guy play. Listen to his thick, evocative organ lines. Listen to his guitar leads. He’s playing that whole band, too – pushing and goading them to wherever the fuck his imagination wanders. That’s what you’re after. That moment of creation. The lightning explodes from the skies and the aged man lights up again, eyes on fire just like they were in ’63, ’64, ’65, ’66. He’s a natural wonder. Experience him while you can.

John Mellencamp opened the show. He was also taking some serious leaps with his hit-heavy catalogue, opening with a roadhouse blues arrangement of “Pink Houses,” then moving right into an even harsher “Paper in Fire.” He’s got a great band, these are really strong songs. Me and all my snotty friends were riveted. The guy is seriously good, and when he takes himself seriously — and bails on the patented Rock Star moves (fists pumping the air, etc.) — you begin to think that you’ve made a huge mistake in not getting him back in the ’80s. And maybe we did.

Did I mention the kick-ass band? The willowy fiddle player who rocked the hell out of every song she was featured on? The star’s willingness to shrug it all off (this being a career-smoker guy who had a heart attack and kept right smoking once he got out of the cardiac unit) and just do his thing? He’s got a dozen, maybe more huge hits he wrote himself, the publishing alone is all he needs to support generations of younger Mellencamps, their charitable foundations, and more. And the new record, the stripped down one recorded in a variety of low-fi, hi-mojo addresses? (Sun studios, et. al) That sounds fine, too. As did the balls-out reading of “Rain on the Scarecrow,” ibid “Check It Out” and the solo (sadly foreshortened) “Cherry Bomb” (my favorite song of his)

The only time he lost me was at the very end, with the big fist-in-the-air singalong for “Authority Song,” one of his lamer pop hits (Don’t get me started on “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.”). But by then, he’d already notched a victory. Dylan’s crowd was his. He’s got the stuff. Not ALL the stuff, perhaps. But enough. And enough self-knowledge, and respect, to be himself, no matter what you think.

Yo, Mellencamp: Respect.

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