Concert Review: The times, Dylan style a-changin’
By Kevin Cramsey
Reading Eagle — Monday, July 21, 1986
PHILADELPHIA — After Bob Dylan sang “Like a Rolling Stone” near the end of his 3 ½-hour performance with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers Saturday nigh, he was securely in control of the Spectrum’s near-capacity crowd.
When, moments later, Dylan started up “In the Garden” (a “born-again” song from his least-popular album, 1979’s “Saved,”) the excitement was suddenly gone.
This was a familiar scenario throughout the marathon performance, at least when Dylan was on stage. A rousing “Rainy Day Women No. 12 & 35” would then give way to a somewhat tired-sounding “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine.” And so forth.
Keeping audiences offbat is certainly a trademark with Dylan, who repeatedly challenged the audience to stick with him on unfamiliar material.
This isn’t to imply that good live Dylan is all old songs, and mediocre Dylan is new or obscure material. Some of Dylan’s most enthuasiatic singing and playing was on newer songs like “Clean Cut Kid” and “Seeing the Real You At Last.” (They were two of the five songs performed from “Empire Burlesque,” his 1985 release).
Two of the most lackluster performances of the evening were “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” and “It AIn’t Me, Babe.” The tempo and melody of the latter has been altered so much from the original recording that it hardly even seemed like the same song.
Then, too, there’s Dylan’s present inclination toward gospel music.
Both music critics and fans like to believe Dylan has taken the religious components out of his music since he ended his Christian phase several years back, but this is not really the case.
He may not be writing overtly religious material anymore, but he’s still locked into the gospel-style he began using on “Slow Train Coming,” and many of the lyrics still explore religious themes.
A key factor in Dylan’s present sound (aside from the Heartbreakers of course) is a trio of black female backing vocalists. They figure prominently on most of his newer material, and the arrangements of older songs like “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Ballad of a Thin Man” have been updated to highlight their talents as well.
Throughout the evening, the difference between old Dylan and new Dylan was very obvious. Much time was spent jumping back and forth between the mid-’60s and the mid-’80s. Material from Dylan’s successful mid-’70s period was concpicuously absent. Nothing from “Blood on the Tracks” or “Desire” was performed.
Also excluded was material from Dylan’s new studio record, “Knocked Out Loaded.”
I guess even at 3 ½ hours, there just isn’t enough time for Dylan to fully explore the many musical personae he has tried on over the years. As a result, many favorites (“Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” “Just Like a Woman,” “Lay, Lady, Lay,” to name a few) were bypassed.
Also, Petty and Company took center stage twice during the evening for two five-song minisets.
Early on, when Dylan exited after a 45-minute set, things did tend to liven up as Petty picked up the pace with two of his old standards, “Breakdown” and “Listen to Her Heart.”
During their second solo set, Petty and the Heartbreakers reeled off powerful versions of “Refugee,” “Even the Losers,” and “The Waiting.”
At times, Petty seemed to be going over better than Dylan. But when he returned for his final set about 10:30, it was evident he was indeed the main attraction.
True, Dylan is not the most personable of performers, but he does command attention. He cut an impressive figure in boots, a silver shirt, and black leather pants and vest.
For the final selection of the night, Dylan and Petty teamed up to harmonize on “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.”
Near the end of the song, two strings on Dylan’s acoustic guitar could be seen dangling freely in the air.
Yes, even Bob Dylan has to put up with the hassle of broken guitar strings on any given night. He is, after all, human.
So even if his performance Saturday night was not always completely satisfying, it was, nonetheless, pure Dylan.