Friday, October 26, 2007

Elvis Costello and Bob Dylan - October 22, 2007, St. Louis, MO

As demonstrated by Elvis Costello at the Fox Theatre in St. Louis on Monday night, follow these simple steps to upstage the headlining musical legend:

Enunciate into the microphone in a language that approximates English. Bonus points if your voice can be heard and your words can be easily understood both when singing near the microphone and when singing unamplified for dramatic effect.
Deliver the songs with passion and energy; squeeze an ungodly amount of music and noise out of only a variety of sound-distorted guitars.
Mix in a few excellent new songs to compliment the older material.
Acknowledge at least once that you are aware of the city, state, planet, or epoch you are currently performing in. This can be something as simple as a “how are ya?” to a story about advice your father gave you.

All kidding aside, it is the equivalent of a musical sin to criticize Bob Dylan nowadays; the man’s a musical genius whose concert tours (1966 Europe, 1975-1976 Rolling Thunder, and too many others to count) and recorded output (Blonde On Blonde, Blood On The Tracks, and, uh, Shot Of Love) speak for themselves and crush most other artists’ masterpieces like a grape. His last three studio albums are outstanding. He’s been on a critical and creative high for the last ten years. Long after all these peon hack bloggers like myself have sprung off this mortal coil, people will still be listening to, writing about, and over-analyzing Dylan’s lyrics and life.

Some of my favorite concert memories are of Dylan shows. In 1999 my then-girlfriend (and now-wife, also along for the bumpy ride for this latest Dylan show) and I saw Dylan with Paul Simon at Riverport Amphitheatre; their spooky duet of “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” is something I’ll never forget, pending senility. In 2004, my brother and I spent three nights waiting outside in the cold March rain for early admission to see Dylan at the Pageant, and the highlights from those shows are too many to name (I’ll take “Senor” and “Man In The Long Black Coat” as my favorites).

But none of this changes the fact that Costello stole the show on Monday night. In an intense, far-too-short solo performance that saw Costello switch guitars nearly every song and pound and hack away at the instrument with fury, the singer covered the usual live standards like “Radio Sweetheart,” “Veronica,” and “(What’s So Funny About) Peace, Love, and Understanding,” none of which sounded stale or color-by-numbers. A reworked “Alison” brought out the sinister, stalker undertones of the song, and “Bedlam” was given a savage treatment that surpassed the version from The Delivery Man.

New songs “Sulfur To Sugar Cane” and “Down Among The Wine And Spirits” were solid as well, and have a definite topical bent to them (maybe the next Costello album will be titled Another Side of Elvis Costello). Costello concluded with “The Scarlet Tide,” Costello’s and T-Bone Burnette’s song from the Civil War epic Cold Mountain. Updated with two lines that reference the current mess in Iraq, the ballad hushed the audience (except for one jackass in the balcony section who shouted uncontrollably for about a minute about chicken feathers or something). Costello ended the song unamplified, his voice easily heard throughout the theatre. The effect was chilling.

If the night ended there, I would have gone home happy. As the house lights went up and the crew began re-assembling the stage for Dylan and his band, the usual pre-Dylan performance things began to happen: Dylanphiles materialized from thin air, sporting their recently-purchased $40 t-shirts. Bootlegs were traded in the bathroom. The horde began to move toward the front of the stage, despite the entire show being reserved seating. I’ve come to accept the fact that for many of Dylan’s more “dedicated” fans, assigned seat numbering is a mere suggestion. When the music starts, you can expect the reserved area to quickly be swallowed up; getting someone’s dancing ass thrust into your face is practically a rite of passage for Dylan concerts.

When Dylan and his band opened with “Leopard-Skin Pillbox Hat,” the rapturous applause was deafening and expected; Dylan’s fans are by and large an energetic, boisterous, and perhaps loyal-to-a-fault bunch. Awkward pelvic thrusts and shoulder gyrations could be seen throughout the theatre, many of the dances resembling a two-hour long epileptic fit.

But something else was immediately apparent: both the sound mix and Dylan’s singing were far below par (and yes, I’m aware that Dylan has never had a “traditional beautiful voice”). The mix was essentially a giant a wall of sound; it was far closer to sounding like My Bloody Valentine than Bob Dylan. When Dylan’s voice could be heard over the murk, the words were largely unintelligible; even a few die-hard lifers seated near me readily admitted that they couldn’t make out the words. Dylan’s voice itself was not in good shape either, alternating between a wheeze and a timid bark.

Blame the lousy mix if you want; perhaps Dylan was trying to sing above the sludge, but it’s undeniable that he was inaudible for most of the performance. When the words could be distinguished, his odd cadence of “three words/pause/three words/pause/repeat” didn’t always work. For every song where this vocal styling succeeded (“It Ain’t Me, Babe” was a high point), another song would suffer from the phrasing. “Visions Of Johanna” and “Summer Days” were victims of this approach, as both songs plodded under the odd phrasing, limping toward the finish line.

I don’t think Dylan mailed the performance in, even if he rarely faced the audience and only briefly acknowledged the audience’s presence. By now, those familiar with Dylan’s live show accept the fact that Dylan will follow his muse live, and the concertgoer can form an opinion from that. The musician should be credited for trying to find new ways to present his material, some of which debuted during the Bronze Age. The obvious risk is that sometimes this succeeds beautifully, and other times it fails miserably. Unfortunately, Dylan’s performance in St. Louis fell into this latter category.

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