Who expects an Icon, a Legend and a Voice of His Generation™ to be punctual? Not I. Which is why my 9:15 arrival at Pacific Amphitheatre enabled me to catch only the last 40 minutes of Bob Dylan's Orange County Fair performance last night. Turns out that was quite enough, really.
The 66-year-old lyrical genius and his five nattily attired old pros had the largely Baby Boomer crowd in the palms of their hands. After each number, some people actually bowed while howling their appreciation. I, however, was less impressed.
I'm no Dylan hater, but neither am I a rabid fan. I think he had a devastatingly great run of albums from the 1962-67 (Bob Dylan through John Wesley Harding), and then put out a few very good records in the '70s and '80s, amid a lot of mediocre output. I stopped following the man after 1989's Oh Mercy, though consensus opinion says his latest full-length, Modern Times, is yet another Return to Form.
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Be that as it may, the Dylan before us in 2007 is difficult to embrace wholeheartedly. Wearing a boater and a black suit that made me think "maître d' of a classy hotel," Dylan played keyboards, electric guitar, occasionally blew into a harmonica and “sang.” I use scare quotes because what comes out of Robert Zimmerman's mouth in 2007 cannot properly be called singing, no matter how loosely one defines the term. Rather, it is a homunculoid growl, cured by several thousand cigarettes and hindered by substantial quantities of phlegm. One can imagine the mics he uses being sterilized post-show to eliminate the possibility of other vocalists getting cancer from them. Of course, Dylan never had much range and his voice always has been an acquired taste many never acquire, but now it's just downright unpleasant and it does his monumental canon of songs no favors.
I arrive as Dylan & co. are tearing through the jaunty R&B romp “Nettie Moore” off Modern Times. It sounded utterly functional. “Ballad of a Thin Man” follows, with Dylan's phrasing deviating drastically from the recorded version of one of his most beloved songs as heard on the all-time classic Highway 61 Revisited. This way doesn't improve the original, but rather makes a mockery of it. Dylan also radically rearranged “Blowin' in the Wind” to deleterious effect, again coming off like his worst enemy spoofing a chestnut dear to many old folkies. You have to respect an established artist treating his own revered oeuvre with so much irreverence and refusing to stagnate in his dotage. Still, this rendition was grating to the ears, sounding ridiculously awkward and inelegant. Nevertheless, the crowd cheered itself hoarse at its conclusion.
The other songs I caught (“Summer Days,” “Thunder on a Mountain”) rolled by with workmanlike competence. There was an “another day at the office” aura about the whole endeavor. Dylan's Never Ending Tour, by necessity, would appear to wipe out any extreme highs or lows. One expects cruise-control coasting for long stretches, and that's mostly what one gets.
After the Dylan sextet took their final bow, grumbles among audience members could be heard about the absence of “Like a Rolling Stone” (set list and band lineup can be viewed here; looks like I missed the best part of the show, damn it; “It's Alright, Ma [I'm Only Bleeding]” is probably my fave Dylan track), but overall, people seemed quite pleased with Bob Dylan ca. 2007. You have to admire their loyalty, if not their discernment.