Review: Bob Dylan

(Above: Zimmy and band roll and tumble.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Two of the most iconic songwriters of the 1960s visited Kansas City just two weeks apart. But while patrons packed the Sprint Center and doled out big money to see Paul McCartney, acres of more reasonably priced empty seats could be found at Bob Dylan’s concert at Starlight Theater on Saturday night.

Part of this can be attributed to frequency. McCartney has only played Kansas City three times since the Beatles called it quits. Dylan rolls through town about every 15 months. But delivery also plays a big role. McCartney performs his beloved numbers exactly (or close to the ways) how everyone remembers them; Dylan plays nothing straight.

Saturday’s performance ran just shy of two hours and felt pretty much the same as Dylan’s many previous stops in town, including the show he played at Starlight just over three years ago. After opening with two tracks from the ‘70s – including a stunning “Senor (Tales of Yankee Power),”  Dylan and his four-piece band ping-ponged between his golden era in the ‘60s and material cut in the past decade.

The best moments were the ballads. The delicate “Just Like A Woman” opened with a lengthy instrumental section that highlighted the subtle interplay between acoustic, electric and pedal steel guitars, and Dylan’s organ, his preferred instrument of the night. The instruments danced deftly until the signature descending guitar riff entered, heralding the first verse. “Workingman’s Blues No. 2” had a similar feel later in the set, and featured Dylan’s best harmonica solo of the night.

Dylan gave a nice treat when he paired two of the best numbers from his protest era. Almost a half a century after their debut, “The Ballad of Hollis Brown” and “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” remain a potent commentary on poverty and race. Their impact was muted, however, by an arrangement of “Hattie Carroll” that rendered the number nearly unrecognizable.

The band mined the Chicago blues for two newer numbers, “My Wife’s Hometown” and “Rollin’ and Tumblin’.” The former was the only time Dylan strapped on an electric guitar. It should have been repeated. His prodding duel with lead guitarist Charlie Sexton seemed to invigorate the rest of the band.

A slump in the final third of the set ended with a spectacular “Ballad of a Thin Man.” The lone illumination from the footlights added an other-worldly atmosphere to the song as Dylan stepped away from his keyboard and sang into a microphone set just off center, in front of the drums.

Reliable encores “Like a Rolling Stone” and “All Along the Watchtower” still pack a punch and hold pleasant surprises. Dylan intentionally dropped his vocals after the second chorus on “Like a Rolling Stone” to give the band some space to play and let Sexton take an extra solo. “Watchtower” came in a staccato fashion that resembled the far-off gallop of the riders’ horses, before they suddenly stormed the gates.

The Dough Rollers: Dylan’s attraction to this duo isn’t hard to spot. Their 35-minute opening set included covers of John Lee Hooker, Mississippi Fred McDowell and early gospel numbers. The pair sounds like they have just been pulled off an old field recording cut by Alan Lomax. Malcolm Ford sounds like he learned to sing by studying antique cylinder recordings. Jack Byrne’s bottleneck slide on “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord” was especially tasty. The set also included an interpretation of “Goin’ to Kansas City.” They would be a great show at B.B.’s Lawnside BBQ or Knucklehead’s.

Dylan’s setlist: Watching the River Flow, Senor (Tales of Yankee Power), Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine), My Wife’s Home Town, Rollin’ and Tumblin’, Just Like A Woman, The Ballad of Hollis Brown, The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll, Cry A While, Workingman’s Blues No. 2, Highway 61 Revisited, I Feel A Change Comin’ On, Thunder on the Mountain, Ballad of a Thin Man. Encore: Like a Rolling Stone, Jolene, All Along the Watchtower.

Keep reading:

Bob Dylan: All Along the Watchtower (2004)

Bob Dylan – “Workingman’s Blues No. 2”

“Tell Tale Signs” Sheds Light on Legend

Dylan’s Christmas offers lots of heart, but little else

(Above: The magnificent video for “Must Be Santa,” far and away the best track on Bob Dylan’s new holiday album, “Christmas in the Heart.”)

By Joel Francis

Bob Dylan surprised a lot of people when he announced the release of his first Christmas album several months ago. “Christmas in the Heart” surprises in a different way, however, by playing it straight and offering no surprises at all.

Adorned with a cover that looks like a Norman Rockwell collectible dinner plate come to life, “Christmas in the Heart” features 15 well-worn holiday favorites with arrangements and production straight out of the 1940s and ‘50s.

In retrospect, Dylan’s desire to record a Christmas album shouldn’t have been an astonishment. For the past several years, Dylan has dabbled in pre-war pop. A cover of “Return to Me” popped up on a soundtrack several years ago, and several similar originals, including “Beyond the Horizon,” populated his 2006 album “Modern Times.”

Of course, Dylan has long been a purveyor of traditional song and the folk tradition. As the oral history components of American society diminish, holiday and children’s music are the few remaining songs passed from generation to generation. Christmas music stands directly at the crossroads of these passions.

A third consideration is that Dylan delights in doing the unexpected and challenging expectations. The man who returned to the Newport Folk Festival nearly 10 years ago in a wig (and dons a similar headpiece in the video for a “Christmas in the Heart” song), appeared in a Victoria’s Secret commercial and wrote a song with Michael Bolton, clearly enjoys toying with his dedicated following and legend.

Unfortunately, this understanding doesn’t make “Christmas in the Heart” an enjoyable listen. Producing the album under the pseudonym Jack Frost, Dylan drapes the album in arpeggio guitars that recall Les Paul’s singles with Bing Crosby, lilting backing voices in the style of the Andrews Sisters and a nostalgic gauze that would be at home on a Perry Como platter. By smoothing every surface, Dylan leaves no room for any rough edges, which, frankly, is all his voice has to offer these days.

The song selection is another stumbling block. The vast majority of these hymns and carols have been heard and performed a thousand times over. Although his arrangements are clever – check out the piano on “Little Drummer Boy” or violin and light country touch on “Silver Bells” – they hem too closely to the tried and true. Dylan does not have a traditional voice, so it’s understandable his singing doesn’t work in this traditional setting. The album would have been better served if Dylan played to his strengths, like a reading of “Run Rudolph Run” a la “Summer Days,” or more obscure choices, like Buck Owens’ “Santa Looked a lot Like Daddy.”

The single “Must Be Santa” hints at what “Heart” could have been. Originally a 1961 sing-along with Columbia Records honcho Mitch Miller, Dylan more than doubles the tempo and thanks to the frenetic accordion playing of Los Lobos’ David Hildago – who also bolstered Dylan’s “Together Through Life,” released just six months prior – turns the song into a mariachi rave. Another lesser-known track, “Christmas Blues” was also a good choice. More songs like this and fewer Latin hymns could have made “Christmas in the Heart” a holiday staple.

With all album proceeds going to charity, Dylan’s intentions are noble and his reasons sound, but the flawed execution prove the record’s undoing. It’s too bad “Must Be Santa” wasn’t released as a stand-alone single, with any of the remaining 14 songs on its b-side, or as the centerpiece of an EP. As it is, “Christmas in the Heart” is best purchased as a Black Friday bargain.

Keep reading:

“Together Through Life” is a Minor Masterpiece

Traveling Wilburies – “Inside Out”

“Tell Tale Signs” Sheds Light on Legend

Bob Dylan – “All Along the Watchtower” (live)

George Kalinsky: Painting with Light

Bob Dylan – “Workingman’s Blues No. 2”

What Bob Dylan Means to Me (part 1)

What Bob Dylan Means to Me (part 2)

Bob Dylan – “Workingman’s Blues No. 2”

 (Above: Happy Labor Day! Bob Dylan’s tribute to Merle Haggard and the working man.)

Bob Dylan – “Workingman’s Blues No. 2”

By Joel Francis

Merle Haggard was on a roll in 1969. In just three years he had racked up seven No. 1 hits and released eight albums. Haggard’s days digging ditches and toiling in prison were finally receding, but he refused to forget the unlucky people he labored beside for so long. “Working Man Blues” was Haggard’s tribute to his fans and his roots.

More than 35 years later, Bob Dylan turned Haggard’s tribute into a personal homage. Abandoning the Bakersfield sound that Haggard helped popularize, Dylan’s “Workingman’s Blues No. 2,” is a nostalgic ballad, introduced by a piano and accented with touches of violin.

Haggard’s “Working Man Blue” is a blazing portrait of a hard-workin’, hard-drinkin’ man with nine kids struggling to make ends meet. In the prime of his career, Haggard’s hero might “get a little tired on the weekend, but “Monday morning, I’m right back with the crew.”

Dylan catches up with a similar blue collar man thousands of shifts later. Worn by hard work and tight budgets, the place he loves best is a “sweet memory.” Too tired to get his boots and shoes, all the weary man can muster is to try “to keep the hunger from creeping its way into my gut.”

Dylan matches Haggard’s detail, but also pulls the camer back a bit, opening with a portrait of “an evenin’ haze settlin’ over the town/starlight by the edge of the creek.” Doubling the number of verses and tripling the song’s length also gives Dylan to explore the weary worker’s love life. The nine kids have moved out and the wife is gone, leaving the fatigued to wonder “am I wrong in thinking/That you have forgotten me?” and imagining his love returning to lead him off to dance in a new suit and a world where he doesn’t have to live on rice and beans.

“Workingman’s Blues No. 2” is less a celebration of the working man than a compliment to Haggard, who toured with Dylan shortly before the sequel was written. At the time it was rumored Haggard would return the favor by penning “Blowing in the Wind 2.” That song hasn’t come to light, but pair of “Working Man” songs provide a perfect Labor Day soundtrack. Play Haggard’s at the outdoor cookout while clutching a cold one; save Dylan’s for some midnight, pre-shift soul searching.

(Below: Merle Haggard’s original “Working Man Blues.” Kick up your heels before the whistle blows.)

“Tell Tale Signs” Sheds Light on Legend

Above: “Dreaming Of You” is one of many stand-out tracks on “Tell Tale Signs.”

By Joel Francis

If there’s one detail to take away from “Tell Tale Signs,” the eighth installment in Bob Dylan’s Bootleg Series, its that “Mississippi” is as vital to his late-career renaissance as “Like A Rolling Stone” was to his electric rebirth.

The song opens both discs of the set (a third version appears on the bourgeoisie-only $130 “deluxe edition”). We first hear it as beautiful, slow folk ballad that features one of Dylan’s best vocal performances. Play this version for people who say Dylan can’t sing. It next appears as a more wirey, blues-influence tune that bears more of producer Daniel Lanois’ fingerprints.

Anyone who heard Sheryl Crow’s cover of “Mississippi” – she cut it for her “Globe Sessions” album before Dylan included it on “Love and Theft” – knows the song’s durability. It’s interesting to see Dylan add and shave layers before settling on a version suitable for release.

“Tell Tale Signs” is mainly a collection of shading and texture. With a few exceptions, hardcore Dylan fans will be familiar with all its 27 songs. What is surprising is the new contexts Dylan continually places them in.

“Most of the Time” is a gorgeous mood piece on “Oh Mercy,” but the alternate version replaces Lanois’ sheen with an acoustic guitar and places Dylan’s regret and pain at center stage. This motif is repeated across the set. Lanois produced two albums with Dylan and it’s telling that a majority of the cuts on this set draw from those sessions. Although their collaborations were critically acclaimed, Dylan and Lanois often struggled over differences in vision. These alternate versions are closer to the sound and feel that Dylan achieved alone on his ‘00s albums and could be seen as refutations of Lanois’ input.

There are only a handful of unheard songs, but what’s here is worth hearing. Lesser artists could build a career with the material Dylan discards. It’s unclear why the evocative “Dreaming of You” was left off “Time Out Of Mind,” but it is one of the brightest gems in this collection. There are two other “Time” discards – the gospel-flavored “Marching to the City” and the longing tale of lost love “Red River Shore.” “Can’t Escape You” is a sideways love song recorded in 2005, while the traditional “32-20 Blues” is an acoustic folk song from the “World Gone Wrong Sessions.”

The live cuts sprinkled throughout aren’t as illuminating, but still worthwhile. “High Water (For Charley Patton)” is angrier onstage, while an acoustic “Cocaine Blues” is a reminder of the amazing chemistry Dylan had with longtime touring guitarist Larry Campbell.

The inclusion of three previously released soundtrack songs is a bit puzzling. We’re given the superb “Cross the Green Mountain” from “Gods and Generals” and the haunting “Huck’s Tune” from “Lucky You,” but where is the Oscar-winning “Things Have Changed” from the “Wonder Boys” soundtrack? (A live version does appear on the $100 bonus disc.) Dylan’s swinging version of “Red Cadillac and Black Moustache” cut about the same time as “Love and Theft” for a Sun Records tribute would have been nice to have.

But these are minor quibbles. While this set doesn’t tell the faithful anything they don’t already know, that doesn’t mean they’re not worth hearing again in a different light.

What Bob Dylan Means To Me (part 2)

Above: the video for “Most of the Time” off the “Oh Mercy” album.

The second installment in this series comes from McKay Stangler, public relations writer for the University of Kansas Medical Center. For more of McKay’s writing, check out his great blog.


I wish I had a great Dylan story.


I wish I could say that some foggy memory lay buried in the deep recesses of memory, a brief excerpt from the halcyon days of youth in which I first discovered Robert Zimmerman. A day when I heard those first notes of “Sara” or “Oh Sister” and was set on an irreversible path toward musical enlightenment.


I wish the 15-year-old me had pulled a dust-covered copy of Blonde on Blonde from a bookshelf in my parents’ basement and become instantly captivated with its sounds. Or perhaps that some tune hummed by the corner vagabond would have remained lodged in my mind’s musical echo chamber, quickly crowding out the assorted noise of the mid-90s, pushing into oblivion the Collective Souls and Blink 182s of the time.


Alas, the truth is much more boring. Although my parents did have Blonde on Blonde, I was first exposed to Dylan through the local oldies radio station. This fixture of the family autos and our kitchen was where I first heard the (overplayed) classics such as “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” I liked them but mostly because they became family sing-alongs by the second verse. Hell, I had the same feelings for “Hang on, Sloopy” and “Daydream Believer” – still do, in fact.


My Dylan knowledge expanded exponentially in college, when I lived for two years with an avowed Dylan-ophile. Tom collected bootlegs and basement tapes with a fervent fixation bordering on obsession – and it was great. He exposed me to the Dylan pop culture often forgets, the wandering, brooding, haunted man who produced some of his best work when the industry was busy forgetting his genius. I heard enough to know I wanted to hear more.


In August 2001, I saw Dylan live for the first time, at the Missouri State Fair in Sedalia with my roommate and another college friend. It was a forgettable venue: we sat in the grandstand of the racetrack while much of the man’s sound was lost in the open summer air. Much of our attention was immediately seized, though, by the charming rural couple seated behind us. They were from Smithville, Mo., and were named, somewhat improbably, Jim and Jane Smith. They’d had a few beers already – the only option at the concert was the gargantuan 24 oz. cup – and said they’d buy us a beer if we correctly predicted what Dylan’s opening song would be.


We thought we were golden. After all, we had my roommate Tom, the Dylan savant! He went with “Roving Gambler,” which had been the opening song at a few recent concerts he had attended. Tom was wrong, but thanks to Jim’s video poker windfall we were clutching beers anyway. Despite being underage, Jim was happy to buy us a round. And then another. And then another. And then about five more.


The end of the concert found us a drunken and boisterous crew, with us promising to visit the munificent couple in Smithville. Dylan’s spotlight had been improbably stolen by the generous, corruptive strangers. Our groups diverged in the main concourse when Jim insisted on throwing money at sideshows. The three of us wandered around for a bit but eventually set a course for the parking lot.


Then we saw Jane. She was wandering alone, drunk and confused. When we asked about her mate, she told us he was lost. L-O-S-T gone. Our offers to help find him were mixed with poorly suppressed laughter at the inanity of the situation. We had Jim paged over the Fair loudspeaker, then flagged down a Missouri Highway Patrol golf cart to help look.


And this was how our night ended. The three of us plus a deeply intoxicated Jane Smith, riding around the Fair with Officer Friendly, finally locating Jim behind a row of public toilets. He was passed out cold, but upon rousing was mighty glad to see Jane and, oddly, us. We rode with them back to their campsite. The magnitude of the night’s misadventures was too much for three drunken students to comprehend.


And this, I suppose, is what Dylan means to me: memories of friendship. Hearing his songs makes me think of college, of sitting around with Tom, futilely trying to stump him with Dylan trivia. Of meeting a couple who would change the course of our night and give us a story to tell for the rest of our lives. Of insisting that the friendly officer take his picture with the five of us, right before Jim passed out again, all of us grinning broadly around the golf cart amid the sparkling bonfires of the campsites. Of listening to Oh Mercy on the way home, none of us speaking a word about the evening until we pulled into a late-night eatery. Of the three of us laughing hysterically, even months or years later, as we recounted the tale for friends.


Huh. Maybe I do have a great Dylan story.

What Bob Dylan Means To Me (part 1)

Above: “Rainy Day Women #12 and 35” from Woodstock ’94.

This is the first installment of what will hopefully be an ongoing feature. I asked a lot of my friends to write about their introduction or experiences with Bob Dylan’s music. The goal is to show that Dylan belongs to the ages, not just the Baby Boomers, but the effect is a series of testimonies.

Brad S., a recent emmigrant to Los Angeles, kicks off the series. 

Dylan’s one of those guys like Elvis Costello, Tom Waits, and Nick Cave: old songwriting warhorses that mostly fly under the radar of popular culture but are revered by nearly everyone who is into music. These musicians have been creating for so long, their bodies of work so varied, yet their number of “hits” are so slight, that each new listener is likely to come away with a completely different set of songs that they deem best.I think I first got hip to Dylan after really getting into the Beatles. Learning that they were contemporaries and that Dylan had an influence on them made me think “Okay, clearly he’s worth checking out.” So I picked up a cassette of “Blonde on Blonde” and…

Hated it.


Except for “Rainy Day Women,” a sentiment that any high school boy can get behind. But the rest of it was so different than the ‘60’s pop that I was just getting into. My musical appreciation still had some developing to do. And I did keep the cassette, maybe anticipating this. And by the time I was a sophomore in college and got a CD player (that is so weird to actually type out), I got Dylan’s Greatest Hits 1 and 2 and I would gradually immerse myself more and more into his music.
Weirdly enough, the element that most people hate about Dylan is one of my favorite elements: his voice. Given that I’m also a Tom Waits fan, I clearly have a tolerance for voices that aren’t “pretty.” I think these gravelly/nasally/whatever voices underscore a rootsy, naturalistic, non-refined, unpretentious core with which their subject matter often explores. 


Top 10 Albums of 2006

Game Theory – The Roots
The Boxing Mirror – Alejandro Escovedo
The Obliterati – Mission of Burma
St. Elsewhere – Gnarls Barkley
Fox Brings the Confessor – Neko Case
Fishscales – Ghostface Killah
Return to Cookie Mountian – TV on the Radio
In the Pines – In the Pines
Begin to Hope – Regina Spektor
Modern Times – Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan: All Along the Watchtower

By Joel Francis

Twenty-plus years after eschewing his “Christian phase,” Bob Dylan assumed the mantle of Old Testament prophet at his joint concert with Willie Nelson at the T-Bones minor league baseball park in Kansas City, Kan.

Dylan cried out warnings of the apocalypse with a voice burdened by so much wisdom and sorrow it frequently broke and scraped under its own weight. There was no alternative but to drench it in echo: This is the way Moses’ voice must have sounded booming down from the mountains, falling like a harsh rain on the sinners’ ears. Then again, if Moses were accompanied by Larry Campbell on steel pedal the way Dylan was, the idolaters likely would have started casting a new statue. Like Isaiah foretelling the destruction of the temple, Dylan’s echo-laden, sparse and mournful arrangement of “All Along the Watchtower,” driven by Campbell’s pedal steel, warns that the future isn’t as bright as many concert-goers would like to believe.

In this new arrangement, the joker and the thief watch in relative safety. From their vantage-point, the riders are no longer approaching, but inside the city walls, raping, ransacking and causing unimaginable destruction. Campbell’s playing suggests that the wind has been howling for some time now._“Look at it,” the thief says in dismay, not wanting to believe his eyes. “We tried to warn them, but no one wanted to listen. Now they’re paying the price.”

A tear trickles down the joker’s cheek as he sees more riders on the horizon. He has lied to the thief, and he knows it: There is no kind of way outta here. The only exit from this horrific scenario is to end the song and turn on the house lights, which is exactly what Dylan does, but only after another of Campbell’s solos. The crowd cheers rapturously, never knowing how close they came to oblivion._But then again, seldom are the prophets’ words heeded in time.