Bob Dylan has got a major racket running. I can't say for certain how long it's been going on, since I only recently bought in, but Mr. Zimmerman has surely been laughing all the way to the bank for at least the last few years.
Last night, Dylan performed at the Arena at Gwinnett Center, a mid-size venue north of Atlanta that's part of a larger convention center complex. With a capacity of 13,000, there was plenty of room to spare. Initially this surprised me because of Dylan's iconic status, but he is forever touring, which probably cuts down on his per-show draw.
Now, I don't consider myself much of a Dylan fan -- I don't have any of his albums, and I probably only know his big hit songs -- but I felt like seeing Bob Dylan is one of those things any reasonably well informed music critic should do before the man dies or stops touring, whichever happens first. What sealed the deal was the opening act: Elvis Costello. With these things in mind, I approached Saturday's concert with high hopes for a legendary concert -- or at least a good one. The odds were in my favor after Costello's stellar opening set, but it was immediately apparent once Dylan mounted the stage that this was not to be.
His arrival onstage was heralded by a bizarre, garbled announcement over the sound system. Tottering across the stage on toothpick legs, Dylan, in a black suit and tan cowboy hat, assumed his position front and center before a five-man backup band attired in matching gray suits. A guitar hanging across Dylan's shoulders on a glittering strap went mostly unplayed for two songs before he gave up that charade, opting instead to pretend to play a keyboard. Thereafter he stood bobbing up and down at a gray console that gave no evidence of being plugged in. Each song came in one of two forms that dominated the eventing: insipid, adult-contemp balladry or a sloppy, soulless 12-bar blues.
The audience clapped and howled its approval every time Dylan reached a chorus (oh that's what this song is...Woooo!) or blew into his harmonica. The second tune of the evening was "Don't Think Twice, it's Alright," by all previous accounts an excellent and poignant song. Here, however, Dylan croaked along arhythmically while his band barreled through, throwing in half-hearted guitar licks and nonsensical drum fills wherever they saw fit. The musicians seemed to be each in his own different world -- but as bad and unmusical as the whole outfit was, the drummer was unparalleled in his hackdom, hardly able to maintain a steady beat. (A cousin or nephew, perhaps?) And, just for the record, the way Dylan sang "Just like a woman" will give me nightmares for weeks.
The songs kept coming in much the same manner for the next hour. I know the man can't really sing and has famously indecipherable diction, but he truly made no effort. Not at playing, not at singing -- or even at being a gracious host. Not once did he address the audience members, who had shelled out at least $40 a pop to see him.
After nearly an hour of unrelenting aural assault, I asked myself what I was doing still there. I had hopes that the band would depart the stage, leaving Dylan alone to strum his guitar for the audience. Or maybe Costello would return and a mind-boggling collaboration of two rock greats would unfold before my very eyes. At this point, it wasn't worth it to me to find out.
It's shocking that someone known for controversial and pointed lyrics doesn't seem to care if anyone understands what he has to say. Dylan clearly doesn't perform to serve his texts, nor does he strive to serve the music -- that was woefully apparent through the band's uniform treatment of every song. The only thing Dylan is trying to serve here is his bank account, and he's got a pretty good scam going.
On the upside, Elvis Costello was excellent. On stage alone with four guitars to choose from, he delivered straightforward, honest, impassioned music, making the vast room feel a little more intimate. He addressed the audience -- he even went so far as to specify the arena's Duluth location, avoiding the general and assuredly more common "Atlanta" designation -- and thanked the crowd before leaving the stage. I feel truly sorry for those who showed up late and missed the opening set.
Costello almost made it worth the price of tickets, but not quite. If any of you were planning on catching this tour, save your money. Go buy Dylan's acclaimed albums instead, and then wait for Elvis Costello to announce a solo tour.