Monday, October 30, 2017

At DePaul's Brand New Arena, Bob Dylan and Mavis Staples Provide Old School Delights -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Bob Dylan
w/ opening act Mavis Staples
Wintrust Arena, Chicago
October 27, 2017

My friend Ken and I often refer to rock music as our religion, and Friday night we went to church. (Or temple.)

Where we worshiped the High Priest of literate lyricism in rock (and folk), whose blend of poetry and protest in song has earned him the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature:

Bob Dylan.

But while we were content simply to revere him for who he had been--in part due to a number of shows I had found less than enthralling, with his never-dulcet voice having sounded akin to Cookie Monster over the past decade or so--it wound up being a night much more about acute enjoyment than respectful deification.

Opening the show, which opened DePaul University's Wintrust Arena near McCormick Place, was a legend in her own right--Mavis Staples--who also clearly established she was there to delight very much so in the present tense.

At 78--two years senior to Dylan--Staples powerfully mined the rich legacy of the Staple Singers by singing “Freedom Highway” while noting that she and its writer—her dad, Pops Staples—had initially sung it alongside Martin Luther King Jr. on his Selma-to-Montgomery march.

Yet the Chicago native also proved rather contemporary with “Ain’t No Doubt About It,” written and produced by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy for her upcoming album, If All I Was Was Black. (Tweedy wrote and produced all its songs.)

Backed by a strong band and fine backing singers, Staples ended her joyful set with the Staple Singers splendid #1 hit from 1972, “I’ll Take You There.”

Less than 20 minutes later, the legend born Robert Allen Zimmerman took the stage with his excellent band on this “Never Ending Tour.”

From the opening song, “Things Have Changed”—one of nine compositions from the past 20 years that he performed—I was impressed but how much better his voice sounded than I remembered.

It didn’t quite sound like 1965 Dylan, but also far less thick and hoarse than Sesame Street's beloved cookie craving monster.

And that one of world’s most famous singers never had the voice of a great crooner was rather impishly inverted Friday night as Bob Dylan belted out songs by Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Yves Montand. (See the setlist here.)

Undoubtedly there were many Dylan disciples present who were well-acquainted with—and appreciative of—his tendencies, but I could imagine DePaul bigwigs and others largely there to break in the new arena being a bit confused, perhaps even perplexed.

For even when Dylan did perform his own “greatest hits”—“It Ain’t Me Babe,” “Tangled Up in Blue,” “Desolation Row”—he, as he has for years, reformulated the tempos so as to render the songs largely unrecognizable until the title lyric.

I had warned Ken about what to expect and advocated that he—heck we—just try to appreciate the show for what it was: not only the opportunity to see one of the greatest living legends at a time when all too many are passing on, but a showcase of truly first-rate musicianship from those who have long-played with the maestro.

With a nod to Greg Kot's Tribune review for reference, Bob Dylan's stellar touring band is comprised of Charlie Sexton and Stu Kimball on guitar, Donnie Herron on pedal steel, Tony Garnier on bass and George Receli on drums.

Sure, I again found it odd that Dylan—who remains quite erudite in interviews—spoke not a single word onstage. 

Nothing about the new arena, nothing about his longtime friend Mavis—with whom he had a Grammy nominated collaboration and, as she revealed in the 2015 documentary, Mavis!, who he once proposed to, unsuccessfully—nothing about his recently-fallen fellow Travelin’ Wilbury Tom Petty, not even a cursory “Thank you.”

He also was apparently uninterested in inviting Staples to sing with him onstage, which for a less inscrutable sort would've seemed to make perfect sense.

And while neither Ken nor I will ever be mistaken for fashion plates, we couldn’t help but wonder how Dylan opted for a non-stylish leather jacket, running pants and white cowboy boots.

But as I had quipped in seeing him previously: He’s Bob Fuckin’ Dylan, just go with it.

That he was in good voice and good company, and--while avoiding guitar and harmonica--played some nice piano licks, made it all the better.

I’m not above seeing cherished artists largely out of reverence; just a few weeks ago I caught Aretha Franklin for the first time, and even more recently, Brian Wilson yet again.

And in being able to check out a new arena—I can’t say it seemed particularly special with concourses too tight and rest rooms and concession stands too sparse—for $42 tickets at the door and free street parking, Mavis Staples alone would have made the night worthwhile.

But the music played by Bob Dylan and his band was never less than enjoyable, and frequently inspired. Beyond the lyrics I've long loved--e.g. those of "Tangled Up in Blue"--I picked up several other quick jabs of genius, such as...

"Now I’m trying to get to heaven before they close the door"

...from 1997's "Tryin' to Get to Heaven." 

Even Sinatra's "Why Try to Change Me Now"--written by Cy Coleman with lyrics by Joseph Allan McCarthy--summed up the evening, and Dylan, with great acuity.

And any day that ends with you singing along to "Blowin' in the Wind" with the legend who wrote it, followed by a brilliant closing take of "Ballad of a Thin Man" is--even if grading on more of a curve than I am here--pretty damn special.

He's still Bob Fuckin' Dylan. And no one else is. 

1 comment:

Hemingway1955 said...

Seth, I read Kot's review before yours...and yours is FAR better. You did a much better job of explaining what the experience of the concert actually was. Also, not bad of a job semi-analyzing the inscrutable Mr. Dylan.

Serenading Mavis, marvelous!! True Soul Staple.

Dylan delivered, all along the lakefront.