in performance: bob dylan/leon russell

bob dylan.

On the drive home last night from Cincinnati’s PNC Pavilion, I listened to two of my favorite Bob Dylan albums, 1967’s John Wesley Harding and 1989’s Oh Mercy in an attempt to discover what had been missing from the typically carnival-like performance Dylan had just delivered.

Don’t get me wrong. The concert was a hoot, with Dylan appearing to be having the time of his life deconstructing and, in some cases, completely obliterating the framework of his finest songs. Dylan has long been known for taking liberties with his music. But in recent decades, his sense of reinvention has been so spontaneous than even his band seems pretty out of the loop as to what’s happening next.

The keenest sense of organization surrounding last night’s show consisted of Dylan signaling longtime bassist Tony Garnier when we wanted a song to wind down (or, perhaps, when he had simply grown tired of it). Garnier then signaled the rest of the band and the tune at hand would finish.

Outside of that, the songs were like quick sketches. Some, like the show opening roadhouse blues transformation of Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat and the ragged jamboree revamping of Blind Willie McTell were borderline rapturous. Others, like the set closing All Along the Watchtower – where lyrics disintegrated into a series of indecipherable vocal grunts – were bruised almost beyond recognition.

Dylan seemed to be having a blast either way. Playing grand piano for the majority of the evening, there was an air of vaudeville about his presence. He would grin, he would gesture grandly and then he would take a sledgehammer to some of his most prized work.

The ride home triggered one thought as to why a folk icon like Dylan would use his classic songs for target practice. Both albums on the car stereo made expert use of veteran producers – Bob Johnston for the folk (and occasionally pop and country) fortified John Wesley Harding and Daniel Lanois for the more ambient and atmospheric Oh Mercy. Maybe, just maybe, leaving such a massive creative intellect strictly to his own devices isn’t the greatest idea in the world. Maybe having a music director for his tours to add just a modicum of order and organization might unleash the new musical possibilities Dylan searches for in almost whimsical fashion onstage.

That will never happen, though – not at this stage in Dylan’s career. What we are left with is a restless folk genius determined to work within his own scattered flight pattern. It probably wouldn’t be a Dylan show anyway without the requisite number of stylistic train wrecks. But it sure would be cool to see what would happen if he would enlist some objective help to clear some of the wreckage away.

Fellow Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Leon Russell opened the evening with a very rushed 40 minute performance that blended hits (Back to the Island), concert favorites (Prince of Peace) and an unusually heavy number of cover tunes for so short a set, especially considering what an extraordinary stock of original works he has to draw from.

Russell’s concert last spring at Buster’s was vastly preferable and definitely more audience involving. This was an entertaining outing, to be sure, especially in the still-robust barrelhouse tone of Russell’s piano work. But ultimately, the performance felt a little phoned in. Maybe Russell needs some fresh ears to flesh out his shows, as well.

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