Bob Dylan at the Palladium, Night Two (Collect Them All!)
Like a snowflake, each Bob Dylan concert is special. No two are alike, in part because he changes the set list at every show. At Wednesday's gig, the second of three consecutive nights in Hollywood this week, he and his band played a total of 17 songs (just as they did on Tuesday), repeating only eight tunes from the first evening.
Even when Dylan plays the same song, it rarely sounds the same way twice, since he's constantly cracking open its spine, spilling out its guts and rearranging the entrails. Over the years, he's taken a standard like "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" and experimented with it in varying musical contexts, giving different inflections to the lyrics, and transformed it from a reproachful folk anthem into a deceptively perky pop song.
Of course, Bob Dylan shows also have their familiar rituals. As much as he mixes up the set-list medicine, there are certain songs he tends to perform every night, such as "Highway 61 Revisited" and "Thunder on the Mountain," along with the usual encores of "Like a Rolling Stone" and "All Along the Watchtower."
Apart from introducing the band at the end of the show, Dylan rarely talks to the audience (which some newcomers find quite unsettling). It's nothing personal, but what he has to say is already contained in his songs, which come fully loaded with hidden meanings, portents, jokes, wordplay, divined wisdom, romantic propositions, literary allusions, Biblical references and historical shout-outs. Dig in.
As for iconic stage props, an Academy Award is always perched on top of the cabinet that houses the Leslie speaker for his keyboards. It's supposedly the actual Oscar he won for Best Original Song for writing "Things Have Changed," from the 2000 film Wonder Boys, although it looks kind of small from out in the audience.
It's difficult (and probably pointless) to attempt to quantify the subjective emotional experiences of disparate Bob Dylan concerts. Even if he sometimes seems indifferent, and acts like he'd rather be in Memphis when he's actually stuck inside of Mobile, he still might stumble into a song that has deep emotional resonance for you. Forget about what the song might mean to him. You've been listening to the song since you were a kid, and filled its shell with your own lifetime of possessions and meanings. For you, every word of "Tangled Up in Blue" is specifically about your life, with a few of the names and places changed.
So you really don't need a weatherperson to tell you whether or not Bob Dylan blows, but, for what it's worth, I feel that his singing at Tuesday night's show was the best and most consistently melodic I've heard over the course of the half dozen of his shows I've seen in the past four years.
But that was then. What has he done lately? Believe it or not, his vocals were even stronger, warmer and suppler tonight. The band, who had a couple of bumpy patches and tentative moments on Tuesday, were more assured as well. It's not like you can call Dylan a late bloomer, since he's been certified as a legend practically since his debut album in 1962. But is it possible that he's only now starting to peak?
Tonight's concert commenced with a canned introduction by an unseen narrator who recited a list of obvious factoids about Dylan (he was a legend in the '60s, then he found Jesus, etc.) as the musicians walked on stage. Last night, the corny intro was left out. I'm not sure why it was brought back this evening, but it doesn't matter. Within moments, Dylan & His Band were rummaging through the opening song, "Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat," which had a souped-up and electric Chicago blues feel. It got a good response from the crowd, which was somewhat louder (and drunker?) than the audience at the first show.