Dylan, Petty Open Tour : On Track On Highway ’86
By Robert Hilburn
The Los Angeles Times — June 11, 1986
SAN DIEGO — Bob Dylan brought it all back home–and then some–on Monday night at the Sports Arena here.
In one of the most dramatic moments in a career that spans 2 ½ decades, he kicked off his most ambitious U.S. tour in seven years with the confidence and authority of a man who once again feels secure in his art.
Though the acclaimed singer-songwriter has given many compelling performances since returning to concerts in 1974 after years of seclusion, he usually seemed uneasy on stage–as if struggling to find his place in the post-’60s pop world.
On a tour that continues Monday and Tuesday at the Pacific Amphitheatre in Costa Mesa, Dylan had the lean, hungry look of a man who is finally looking his audience in the eye again.
Backed by Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers and four female backup singers, Dylan played old songs and new in a nearly three-hour program that clearly delighted the nearly 13,000 fans–despite sound so bad at times that many probably had to guess what song he was singing.
“I feel like I’m watching ‘Don’t Look Back’ again–or maybe even a great sequel,” said a longtime fan from El Cajon, referring to the ’60s documentary of one of Dylan’s exciting and vital tours.
For years, fans cheered and held matches in salute at Dylan concerts as the house lights dimmed, signaling the start of the show. But they didn’t always get what they wanted once the show started.
That expectation gap wasn’t always Dylan’s fault. He constantly challenged audiences in recent years, first by forcing them to consider drastically revised versions of his early songs, then by ignoring the old tunes altogether as he switched during the “Slow Train Coming” tour in 1979 to an aggressive fundamentalist Christian viewpoint.
On Monday, Dylan–wearing a loose-fitting white shirt, black leather pants and motorcycle boots–was clearly on the offensive. He displayed the spunk, desire, independence and blazing artistry that characterized him during the ’60s when he did more to shape rock than anyone other than Elvis Presley.
But don’t get the idea that this show is just designed to satisfy the fans.
Dylan still kept bobbing and weaving musically, throwing surprise jabs and hooks at the audience as he moved from old songs (the lovely “To Ramona,” the biting “Ballad of a Thin Man”), to new ones (four from “Empire Burlesque”), to outside material. The last included bluesy, gospel-ish treatments of “Lucky Old Sun,” the old Frankie Laine hit, and an especially tender rendition of “Lonesome Town,” one of Rick Nelson’s biggest recordings.
One reason for Dylan’s more confident presence is the backing by Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, the best set of musicians he’s worked with since the Band: guitarist Mike Campbell, drummer Stan Lynch, bassist Howie Epstein and keyboardist Benmont Tench, whose piano and organ touches were especially flavorful.
The Heartbreakers help Dylan in two ways. Where some of the musicians he pulled together for tours had to get to know each other on the road, the Heartbreakers have worked together so long that they move around the stage with the teamwork of the Boston Celtics.
Also, Dylan doesn’t have the burden of carrying the full load on stage. He can turn things over to Petty, an excellent singer and writer himself, for a couple of 20-minute segments without a loss of momentum. Petty, too, seemed to benefit from the teaming, playing with a joy as refreshing at times as Dylan’s.
Dylan ended the concert on a provocative note, thanks to a couple of interesting musical couplings. Rather than close the formal part of the concert with the usual “Like a Rolling Stone,” he followed that song with “In the Garden,” from the second of his controversial gospel albums. The move is bound to spark debate among Dylanologists over whether he still maintains the much-publicized fundamentalist Christian viewpoint or simply enjoys the song as a gospel number.
However, there was no doubt about the intentions during the encore, when Dylan and Petty barely paused after singing “Blowin’ in the Wind” before kicking right into a new song, with a striking Bo Diddley-flavored rhythm, that they have written together. After all these years, Dylan’s boot heels are still moving.