The Essential Dylan Comes Through
By John J. O’Connor
Warsaw Times-Union — June 24, 1986
NEW YORK — Bob Dylan can’t be described as returning when he’s never really left. The troubadour has been steadily recording albums from the early 1960s to the present. He has rebelled, covered his roots. But the essential Dylan will remain closely identified with the songs of his early years, the various anthems that captured the sounds and images of an era even as he switched from a simple folk mode to electric rock-and-roll. Some of them, or at least their still powerful echoes, can be heard in “Bob Dylan in Concert,” a Home Box Office presentation that can be seen June 27 and 30, July 2, 6 and 8.
The concert was filmed in February at the Sydney Entertainment Center in Australia. It is part of Dylan’s continuing “True Confessions” tour with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers as his backup band. This film person of the event was directed for Angel Street Films Ltd. by Gillian Armstrong, whose movie credits include “My Brilliant Career” and “Mrs. Soffel.” For the most part, the direction is carefully unobtrusive, recording one number, fading out in the middle of the applause and cutting right to the start of the next number. There is no fat. The performance arena is large and darkened. Only that portion of the audience close to the stage can be seen. Perhaps the house wasn’t completely sold out. Perhaps Armstrong, using a crane camera, was merely seeking a theatrical effect.
In any event, Dylan holds stage center, from a distance creating the illusion that time has stood still. Still scrawny and slight, he wears a leather vest and pants, his head topped by a mass of curls, his legs tapering into high-heeled cowboy boots. Hunched over his guitar with feet wide apart, this is the Dylan most fans will remember. Up close, however, it becomes quickly clear that nearly 25 years have passed since “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” album made its debut with songs such as “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” The voice is a bit hoarser, the eyes puffier, the small face almost wizened. From different angles, he can look like anybody from Aaron Copland in a fright wig to a character in “Nicholas Nickleby.” The Dickensian motif is embellished nicely by Petty, who wears a black stovepipe hat.
The set begins with Dylan talking to the audience about heroes. “I don’t know who your hero is,” he says, “maybe Mel Gibson or Michael Jackson or Bruce Springsteen.” Dylan’s, as it turns out, is “the Son of God,” which is the cue for “In the Garden” from his 1980 album “Saved.” Fortunately, this kind of meandering patter is absent from the rest of the program, which wisely concentrates on the music.
Dylan approaches much of the material warily, especially the more familiar songs. Clearly determined to avoid the monotony of perfect reproductions, he takes some of the numbers and gives them a different spin, at times almost reciting the lyrics over the melody, at times doing, with the hint of a wink, what amounts to a riff on his own material. Simple declarative lines, for instance, persistently come out sounding like questions, somewhat in the style of a Belfast brogue. A clearly calculated result is that certain key songs — “Just Like a Woman,” “Like a Rolling Stone” — are not immediately recognizable in the opening moments of these new renditions. As usual, Dylan keeps us on our toes.
Barreling from one number to another, the film builds its riveting momentum, unlike a more reverential portrait of the singer that was done for commercial television a decade or so ago. The essential Dylan finally does come through, marvelously well, whether he is performing solo on such songs as “It’s Alright, Ma” and “Girl From the North Country” or being joined by Tom Petty’s group and a vocal chorus of four women. The musical support, both instrumental and vocal, is first-rate.