The ceaseless enigma of Bob Dylan on the Never Ending Tour

by Ryan Snyder

By this point, it doesn’treally matter what someonesays in a review of a BobDylan concert, becausethe conclusion will almostalways be the same: bandwas pretty good, Dylannot so much. His Saturdayshow at the LawrenceJoel Veterans MemorialColiseum was no different.It’s practicallya clichéthese days to rip on Bob’s liveshows, but since he does little todisinvite it, it’s like picking thelow-hanging fruit. He’s militantlyanti-photo for press and citizenalike; he rarely engages thecrowd beyond the most basic ofperformer courtesies; and his setshave become so mechanical intheir administration that one hasto wonder if Dylan’s “Satisfi edMind” hasn’t been on autopilotfor some time now. In a leg ofhis unending trek that included astop at an Idaho racetrack, everycrowd has to look the same to aman who’s pushing 70 and hitting50 years of live performing.Never mind that the impenetrablecroak that he mustersmakes listening to some of thegreatest lyrics ever written a maddeningexperience. It’s like goingto view “David” by Michelangeloafter it’s been left sitting in theGaetian Harbors for 22 years. HisNever Ending Tour has enduredjust that long and it is almost likea tacit acknowledgement that hewas never really one with the giftof a golden voice to begin with, sowhat’s the use in taking time off torecoup vocally? Keep a tight band,play the songs and the rest willwork itself out at the box offi ce.It’d be one thing to say thathis LJVM show was one of therare exceptions where he busted out a raritylike “Odds and Ends,” but this was not unlikeany of the 71 shows he had played prior in2010. He took the stage in his black suit andwhite Cordobes hat in contrast to His Band’sall-white attire, immediately sat down behindhis keyboard and started bopping away at“Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat,” just like he haddone of every other show. Amazingly enough,his delivery was mostly audible, and its gruffveneer gave a surprising nod to the LightningHopkins song “Automobile Blues” fromwhich Dylan drew the inspiration.Dylan has made signifi cant strides inoffering a more compelling set in the pastcouple of years, however. Rather than planthimself behind the keyboard for 100 minutes,he extended his newly customary olivebranch of two songs meekly strummed onguitar early in the set with “Don’t ThinkTwice, It’s All Right” and “Stuck Inside ofMobile with the Memphis Blues Again.” Itseemed he had already spent his one goodvocal effort on the opener, but give Dylancredit. He doesn’t try to hide his shortcomingsat all. His voice is plunged high andloud in the mix, propped up by his stalwartfi ve-man backing band underneath.The accompaniment known as His Bandis a reasonable facsimile of the Band; CharlieSexton plays the part of Robbie Robertsonadmirably and commands the scraps of attentionthat stray from Bob’s weathered visage.Bassist Tony Garnier, drummer George Recileand rhythm guitarist Stu Kimball do theirjobs so well that you hardly notice them. Thesame can’t be said for Donnie Herron, who’sconstant instrument swaps propelled what isfundamentally a perfectly tunedrock-and-roll band into blues,Americana and even hints ofgospel. The incredible versatilityof Herron seemed to be thekey to giving Dylan’s set itspersonality. While Bob turned“The Lonesome Death of HattieCarroll” into a spoken wordromp, his plugged-in mandolinlent it a considerably more rockingfeel versus the bleak folk ofthe original.The completely aloof Dylanfi nally acknowledged thecrowd with a round of bandintroductions before playingthe evening’s only piece thatcould remotely be considereda protest song. He took centerstage with his mouth harp inhand and played a quietly powerful“Ballad of a Thin Man”to scant accompaniment. Likethe opener, his encore remainedstatic as he grumbled though“Jolene” and “Like A RollingStone,” though he left off “AllAlong the Watchtower,” unlikethe Charlotte set two nightsbefore.Dylan’s vocal shortcomingsand detached stage personaaside, seeing Bob Dylan inconcert still feels like a specialindulgence. That’s the enigmaof Bob Dylan: No matter howmediocre of a show it might be,you’re still seeing Bob Dylanin concert. It’s the same man who pennedBlonde on Blonde and Blood on the Tracks,along with one of the most expansive andshaping song catalogs of anyone. Like hisfriend and the only photographer in hisinner circle Ken Regan said, “It doesn’tmatter if he’s playing for 600 people or5,000 or 50,000. He just wants to play.”