Bob Dylan: Almost on fire | AspenTimes.com

Bob Dylan: Almost on fire

Stewart OksenhornThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado

Elston Gunn/Special to The Aspen TimesThe man from Minnesota kept his ensemble on a tight leash Saturday night.

ASPEN For a guy who has stripped away his old forms of expression joking with the audience, playing guitar, offering up new songs that challenge our ways of thinking Bob Dylan still has a way of communicating that his spirits are high, and that he can revel in being Bob Dylan.Saturday night at the Jazz Aspen Snowmass Labor Day Festival, Dylan bobbed his head, flashed the occasional grin and, at the end of the show, came to center stage and did a quizzical little motion palms down, shoulders scrunched; I half-expected him to dance a jig. Specifically what the gesture was meant to indicate, I havent a clue, but the huge crowd was much appreciative of Dylans openness.His band was so loose and was allowed to have such fun onstage. The band drummer George Recile, bassist Tony Garnier, guitarists Stu Kimball and Denny Freeman, and Donnie Herron, who plays a variety of string instruments has been intact for several years now, long enough to develop their dynamic. Certainly long enough to have gotten over whatever awe comes with playing behind the most influential musician of the rock era. And possibly even long enough to adapt to the quirks of playing with a singer, musician and personality like Dylan. But Dylan seems to keep his group on a tight leash in all ways. They stand virtually stock-still, showing little emotion. Worse, there is little sense of interaction among themselves. They dont jam. Dylan has become infamous in his latter-day incarnation for drastically rearranging his songs, but this hasnt translated to a looseness in the way the songs are delivered. Maybe they dont want to overshadow Dylan? Maybe Dylan doesnt want to be overshadowed? But with Dylan clearly having fun, its curious that the sense of joy doesnt spread a little further.On a happier note, the most common complaint issued against Dylan the performer that those brilliant songs he has created are now rendered all but unrecognizable should be subsiding after Saturdays show. The set kicked off with a most familiar, descending guitar riff; even without the trombone, whistles and shouts, and before the signature refrain of Everybody must get stoned, it was clearly Rainy Day Women #12 & 35. Even the subtler Simple Twist of Fate was immediately identifiable by its lovely chord progression. The only tune that left me puzzled was the set-closing Its Alright Ma (Im Only Bleeding).While the songs sounded familiar, they lacked nuance. Dylans range as a live singer is minimal, to say the least, and his band seems to be following his lead by narrowing its own boundaries. Virtually every song falls into a country-rock beat that is neither here nor there; about the most they broke out of their rhythmic box was on the more uptempo, rockabilly-ish Summer Days. The band switched over to acoustic instruments for Ballad of Hollis Brown, but the change didnt exactly reveal another facet of the band. Instead of revelation, we got high-level competence on a set of tunes that spanned old and classic (Its All Over Now, Baby Blue, Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again, the encores Like a Rolling Stone and All Along the Watchtower) and recent and less familiar (Under the Red Sky, Cry A While).Dylan doesnt exactly help matters by seemingly forgetting just how monumental and expressive his words are. Even Visions of Johanna passed by with little sense that this was one of the greatest lyrical achievements of rocks greatest writer. Virtually every line gets the same delivery, the same sort of idiosyncratic phrasing, with no caressing of the captivating meaning and poetry.Perhaps it should be satisfactory that Dylan, at 67, is still performing, that he cares enough to change up his set lists each night and remember the words, that he reminds us now and again that he even enjoys what he is doing. Given all that, it seems like a small step to unleashing his band, and letting these songs really cook.The Labor Day Festival concludes Monday with a lineup of Yonder Mountain String Band, Jerry Douglas and Otis Taylor.stewart@aspentimes.com

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