Bob Dylan growing from musical diety into rock-and-roller
By Rick Shefchik
Ottawa Citizen — Saturday, June 21, 1986
COSTA MESA, Calif. — Bob Dylan seems finally to be on the verge of overcoming his past as a reclusive legend and getting on with his future as an entertainer.
It’s been a number of years since Dylan has written a song that really mattered in the grand scheme of things, and it’s safe to say the number of record-buyers who regard him as a prophet has dwindled sharply since the ’60s.
But Dylan remains a powerful figure in the pop music world. Just as Elvis Presley’s phenomenon grew in his final years of touring — even as he plumbed artistic depths — Dylan finds himself in a position to make a lot of money in concert if he should be so inclined. He appears to be.
Dylan’s North American concert tour opened on the West Coast to favorable — but not quite ecstatic — reaction. The Los Angeles Times said Dylan “plays old and new songs with a confidence and authority he hasn’t exhibited since the ’60s” — and that about sums it up. Dylan is back, he’s playing well and the fans are enjoying his act.
In fact, Dylan could now be slipping comfortably into a status similar to that of Bob Seger or Eric Clapton: a veteran performer who can be counted on to play the hits, keep the beat and send everyone home happy.
If that seems like a tumble from his previous exalted position as a spokesman for a generation, Dylan probably doesn’t mind. After all, he got into the business to be a rock ‘n’ roller, not a deity.
It was hard to tell if the comfortably contained reception afforded Dylan at the Costa Mesa Amphitheatre here last Monday night was more a function of Dylan’s new, loose attitude, or the typical laid-back nature of the Southern California fans, or the number of wine coolers that had been consumed. You couldn’t even get an accurate reading of the crowd’s reverence for Dylan by counting the number of cigarette lighters held aloft, so few people smoke these days.
But if they were watching the second coming of a rock godhead, you wouldn’t have known it by their reaction. Many in the crowd had no idea what songs Dylan was playing, even though he stuck mainly to his familiar numbers and his arrangements are not nearly as obscure as they have been in the past.
It appeared the crowd was simply enjoying a very fine evening of rock ‘n’ roll.
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers have never sounded better, with Petty and underrated lead guitarist Mike Campbell giving Dylan the most competent and sympathetic support he’s had since he tour with Robbie Robertson and the Band in the ’60s.
Dylan has toughened up his songs, driving them toward the ultimate hard rock and rough blues potential in each of them. To beef up the vocal attack, already strengthened by the presence of Petty, keyboardist Benmont Tench and drummer Stan Lynch, Dylan is carrying a quartet of female backup singers who lend an ethereal yet gutty gospel punch to many of the songs.
Dylan’s own vocals still have a tendency to grate and to gloss over some of the melodic twists and turns of the original recordings, but on several numbers he crooned like a lifelong balladeer.
His mood appears playful, a big change from the silent or suspicious Dylan of years past. By wearing a silver jacket and black leather pants, he announces non-verbally that he knows this is just show business; but he avoids coming off as frivolous simply by gritting his way through some of rock’s most meaningful songs, like a passionate acoustic guitar rendering of A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall.
Between songs at Costa Mesa, he worked the crowd with sly humor. Following a raucous version of Rainy Day Women No. 12 & 35, which featured an enraptured crowd chanting “everybody must get stoned” on each chorus, Dylan played with their single-minded perceptions of the song — and, perhaps, of him.
“You know, that can be taken two ways,” he deadpanned. “Here’s a song that can only be taken one way.”
He went on to play one of his more bitter recent compositions, The Real You at Last, but there was little bitterness in the evening. It was, in fact, a very standard rock ‘n’ roll performance. He even hammed it up once in a while like a lounge singer.
“Ricky Nelson played a lot of my songs,” he said. “Now I want to do one of his, called Lonesome Town.”
While the Amnesty International concerts continue to draw on Dylan’s image as a world peacemaker by performing songs like Maggie’s Farm and I Shall Be Released, Dylan appears much more interested in moving a crowd from the neck down. Los Angeles reviewers have concentrated on the rock aspect of the show, calling attention to the aptness of the Heartbreakers as a backing band, since they have always resembled Dylan’s first rock interpreters, the Byrds.
Now it looks as though Dylan is fulfilling a lifelong wish to be a member of the Byrds, or a similarly powerful touring rock band.
His show is much more diverse and less frenetic than his coronation tour of England with the Hawks (later to become the Band) in 1966; it is also dissimilar to his shambling superstar lovefest, the Rolling Thunder Revue in 1975. And it certainly bears little resemblance to Dylan’s aborted Las Vegas-Neil Diamond period in the late ’70s, or his religious ensemble tour of the early ’80s.
This is Dylan the rocker, the kid from Hibbing, Minn., who left home to be Little Richard and Elvis Presley. There’s nothing very momentous in all of that, but it’s nice to see that Bobby Zimmerman finally got to be what he wanted to be when he grew up.