Music: Bob Dylan and Tom Petty
By Jon Pareles
The New York Times — July 17, 1986
Bob Dylan and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers gave an oddly paced, willful concert Tuesday at Madison Square Garden. The joint tour, in which Mr. Petty and his band accompany Mr. Dylan and play two 20-minute segments on their own, opened its three-night stand in New York with a set that ran nearly three hours without an intermission. The show never gathered momentum, but along the way there were some magnificent rockers, some uninspired stretches and a few unexpected cover versions by Mr. Dylan, from Ricky Nelson’s “Lonesome Town” to Ray Charles’s “Unchain My Heart.” As always, Mr. Dylan left listeners wondering what was forced, what was heartfelt.
The 45-year-old Mr. Dylan, who joked, “I must be the oldest person here,” was in fighting trim, sporting such 1980’s accouterments as a single dangling earring and bulging biceps. Although he maintained his usual deadpan scowl, he seemed to be in cheerful spirits – particularly after Ron Wood of the Rolling Stones came onstage – making the Heartbreakers grin and occasionally playing guitar. His singing started out stiff and grew more self-assuredly wayward, sliding around notes and hopscotching around the beat.
Mr. Dylan chose a handful of his mid-1960’s classics and many of his lesser, more recent songs. At key moments, he sang his openly Christian material from the early 1980’s. And both he and Mr. Petty emphasized lyrics about romantic strife.
For the occasion, the Heartbreakers played like two different bands -a rowdy, bluesy jam band behind Mr. Dylan (who also brought four soul-gospel backup singers) and a slicker, more understated band supplying melodic hooks and up-to-date electronic effects for Mr. Petty. Although Mr. Petty shows Mr. Dylan’s influence – and could probably fill arenas on his own rather than deferring to Mr. Dylan – the show pointed up their differences. As a singer, Mr. Petty is closer to Roger McGuinn, a Dylan disciple, than to Mr. Dylan himself; as a songwriter, Mr. Petty concentrates on pop-song character studies of Southerners while Mr. Dylan leans toward moral pronouncements.
The concert’s peak was “Ballad of a Thin Man.” As the Heartbreakers played a loose version of the original 1965 arrangement, Mr. Dylan talked and sang with implacable sarcasm, delivering the song as a corrosive diatribe instead of an oldie. He was more cavalier with other vintage material. In solo versions of “The Times They Are A-Changin’ ” and “One Too Many Mornings,” he drew out the last syllable of each line with elaborate ornaments and crescendoes, as if the songs were, to quote Mr. Dylan’s liner notes from “Highway 61 Revisited,” “exercises in tonal breath control.”
Some newer songs sounded fiery onstage, such as “When the Night Comes Falling From the Sky,” “Shot of Love” and the movie theme “Band of the Hand.” But it was impossible to ignore the
mechanical melodies and blunter, less imaginative lyrics of the recent songs – particularly love songs, which spout greeting-card sentiments.
Even so, Mr. Dylan can still summon his old intensity now and then, twisting a sardonic word or huffing a harmonica solo. And with the occasional sparks, Mr. Dylan’s undeniable vigor and the Heartbreakers rocking through both good songs and bad, Mr. Dylan’s longtime fans will likely be satisfied.