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Two Dylans show up at Prospect Park

The Brooklyn Paper

It was the best of Dylan. It was the worst of Dylan. It didn’t take long for even the casual Dylanologist to see that Bob Dylan’s performance at the Prospect Park Bandshell on Tuesday night was going to serve up that classic Dickensian schism.

For me, the moment came during the second song, a garbled, growling version of “Lay Lady Lay” that turned the classic from a coy come-on into an old man’s futile plea.

I know the words refer to a big brass bed, but the way Dylan was mumbling and twitching, the only bed I could picture anyone laying across was in a hospital.

Two songs later, “Girl from the North Country,” one of Dylan’s sweetest songs, also got the steel wool treatment from the singer’s no-longer-nimble throat.

And his machine-gun patter on “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” turned this early career lyrical masterpiece into a throwaway that proved to warn that he not busy being born is busy — well, sorry, Bob.

As a Dylan fan, I’ve always been shocked when people — let’s call them fools — say that Dylan never could sing. In fact, that’s a blood libel; the man actually could sing. His voice may have been grating to some ears, but his style of singing — his phrasings, his emphasis, his tone, his pacing — influenced generations of musicians.

His style worked in silly songs (“Honey Just Allow Me One More Chance”), protest songs (“Masters of War”), personal songs (“Like a Rolling Stone”), up-tempo numbers (“Obviously Five Believers”) and, yes, the under-rated Born Again stuff (“Property of Jesus,” “When He Returns”).

It’s heresy for any Dylan fan to say it, but he can’t sing like that anymore. I’ve seen him four times now. After each concert, the Dylan diehards tell me the old man still has it — but it must be said: he does not.

Dylan’s best ballads become dirges. His best lyrics become lost in garble. His best phrasing becomes run-on sentences. An artist who crafted some of the greatest lyrics in rock history spits them out like they’re throwaway B-sides. On Tuesday night, “Masters of War,” the perfect song in a time of seemingly endless war, lost all the power that Dylan’s angry rasp once gave it.

“A world war can be won/You want me to believe” came out as a whisper, not the howl of two generations.

And yet, there was another side of Bob Dylan that showed up on Tuesday night: the new Dylan.

Any time that Dylan and his band broke into one of his new songs — mostly stuff from “Modern Times,” including “The Levee’s Gonna Break,” “Spirit on the Water,” “Thunder on the Mountain” and “Beyond the Horizon” — the joint really got jumping. It was as if Dylan realized that he can’t sing his old numbers, so he might as well trot out the songs that he can sing — and sing well. And the tight, five-piece band behind him kept this from being a novelty act for aging Hippies.

No, it wasn’t “Voice of a Generation” time in Prospect Park, but for about half of a 90-minute set, Dylan was truly the song-and-dance man he once professed to be.

Alas, when he kicked off a three-song encore with “Like a Rolling Stone,” he was back to his old tricks, botching what might be his most-famous song.

How does it feel? It feels a little sad.

Bob Notes

The concert was a classic Brooklyn event, which brought out a crowd of pols (Borough President Markowitz and Councilman Bill DeBlasio), fellow musical legends (bluesman Danny Kalb was in the third row) and plenty of regular folk. … Thousands of people heard (but didn’t see) the show for free, laying out a blanket on the outside of the perimeter fence, which had been covered to prevent a good view. … There was so much pot-smoking in the Port-o-Potties that they should have been called Port-o-Parties. … Dylan’s only acknowledgement that he was in Brooklyn came during the encore when, apropos of nothing, he said, “Man, I wish the Dodgers were still in Brooklyn.”

Gersh Kuntzman is the Editor of The Brooklyn Paper. E-mail Gersh at gkuntzman@cnglocal.com
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Rick from South Brooklyn says:
While it's true that Bob has focused on a more blues-based, deliverable approach with albums like Modern Times, his habit of aggressively rephrasing older tunes is nothing new. He was doing the same thing singing "It's Alright Ma.." fifteen years ago at his 30th Anniversary show. His voice may not be what it once was, but it's difficult to argue that he ever had fantastic range .. just a terribly original delivery and other-worldly songwriting skills. While I agree that the Modern Time numbers like Levee's Gonna Break were outstanding last night, his slurring, whirring, choppy, ear-straining versions of Masters of War, Rolling Stone, etc were fantastic too. Going to see Dylan with expectations is pointless, and takes a good deal of the fun out of it, too.
Aug. 13, 2008, 10:40 am
Lawrence Gordon says:
As someone who has seen Dylan over 20 times (as opposed to Kuntzman's "4"), I can safely say this was one of the best dylan concerts I've seen. While his voice was a little froggy in the beginning it cleared up, there was no "up-singing" (real dylan fans will know what I mean) and for the first time ever I could hear dylan's organ and he was actually playing. Many of us laughed when last year dylan said this was his best band yet, but last night you could understand what he meant- they were sharp, clashing with discordonant chords, and while the lead guitar was not jamming out on solos, I appreciated the fact that he played exactly the way dylan played (and sings, and plays harmonica, and writes, and paints)- small repetitive runs based around a few notes that build in excitement. I agree with "Kuntzman" that some of the finest songs were off his new albums (nettie moore, levee's gonna break), although many of the recent straight blues songs sounded similar (levee and thunder on the mountain). I thought the new phrasing and arrangements on some of his newer songs were very interesting (i.e. honest with me) and I for one very much enjoyed the new arrangement of girl from the north country. Going to a dylan concert is not like going to a U2 concert, "Mr" Kutzaman, just like seeing shakespear is not like watching "Desparate Housewives".
Aug. 13, 2008, 10:55 am
Ace from New Utrecht says:
sorry Mr. Kuntzman, you have succumbed to the oldest fault in the critics game, you start with your "two Dylans" premise and then use the review to try and justify that premise.

Masters of War was very powerful last night and he did John Brown too, gee do you think recent world events have anything to do with that?

I am sorry that you want everything to sound the same as it did but Bob Dylan is a dynamic singer, songwriter, performer who is not going to sit still for you, me or anyone.
Aug. 13, 2008, 11:46 am
alice fishman from south brooklyn says:
The Times has a much better and more accurate review:

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/14/arts/music/14dylan.html/partner/rssnyt?_r=1&oref=slogin
Aug. 13, 2008, 12:33 pm
Ringo from Prospect Heights says:
The saga begins with Gersh complaining he didn't know about the show before tickets went on sale. Then he somehow landed some CHOICE seats in the front of the house, standing their grumpily as he couldn't understand any of the words. I've seen Dylan about 6 times, and this was a great show. The band hasn't been the same since Larry and Charlie left, but the arrangements were tight and everyone seemed to be having a genuinely good time. Even Geraldo who was just to my right.

But the best thing about the show was how striking the band looked in front of our wonderful art deco bandshell. Bob's new arrangements seem as wonderfully anachronistic (or nostalgic) as the what that bandshell represents, and Bob seemed to be soaking it up, waiting to unfurl his logo'ed tapestry til after his first set was done. The sight of his band playing will stay with me for a long time... Here's to hoping Bob comes back to Brooklyn next time around.
Aug. 13, 2008, 12:39 pm
Mitchel Cohen from Bensonhurst says:
In college (Stony Brook) in the 60s (& 70s, & 80s, as it turned out), we used to treat every release of a Dylan album as the word of a prophet with direct access to the intricacies of the cosmos. We'd dissect every album trying to interpret the meanings of each song, and of the relationship of each song to one another.

But, as Gersh Kutzman puts it -- and I agree completely with his review of the Prospect Park concert (except that he gives Dylan and the band too much credit) -- those days are long past.

For the most part, Dylan sang gibberish. I have a friend who subscribes to the view that Dylan, like Paul McCartney, was replaced by the CIA some 30 or 40 years ago. I'd always told him he was nuts, but after seeing this concert I'm not so sure anymore.

The arrangements were absolutely atrocious and the band sounded for much of the time like a German ooompahpah beer band -- and Dylan mumbled strange sounds -- perhaps they were words -- accordingly. Maybe it was his teleprompter, breaking each line into triads. Gone was the sarcasm, the humor. As Gersh says, even "Gates of Eden" -- one of his most craftily worded songs -- was turned into pablum, and not only by Dylan himself but by the way the band turned it into a badly arranged waltz, treachly sweet. Aaaaargh!

Dylan's last song, Blowin' in the Wind, was completely unrecognizable and pathetic. My 19-year old daughter, who has heard me rave about Bobby all my life, turned to me and asked "why does he keeps playing these bad dance songs from the 40s?"

And so it goes. Bye-bye l'il Bobby Zimmerman. See you in another life.

Mitchel Cohen
Red Balloon Collective, and
Brooklyn Greens / Green Party
Aug. 13, 2008, 5:19 pm
Rick from South Brooklyn says:
Who are these folks claiming to be big Dylan fans who apparently haven't seen him live in over twenty years and expect a note for note rendition of Blowin' in the Wind circa 1962? (And yet they're still capable of producing ironically insightful offspring with knowledge of 40's dance music.)

I suspect it's the same people who attend Van Morrison shows wanting Moondance and Brown Eyed Girl to be played exactly like they sounded on vinyl, with no acknowledgment to the idea that the performer has grown or changed over the years.

Even if this concept escapes one's grasp, failing to appreciate the understated talent of the man's band in approaching the bluesy riffs from Modern Times (as they did last night on Levee's Gonna Break) is inexcusable.

The problem with Dylan's iconic standing is that it brings folks out of the woodwork who haven't attended a show in decades, and have no idea what to expect. The 60s were four decades ago, and you expect the guy to sound the same? How could he have been that interesting in the first place if he wasn't capable of evolving?
Aug. 13, 2008, 5:39 pm
sadi ranson-polizzotti from new york says:
excellent review, and honest, and thanks for saying so much of what i myself have been saying and writing. It's all so true about Dylan's voice tho I will say that for those unitiated who go to see Dylan now and didn't really follow him in the past, i wonder what the hell they are expecting? I like it when he sings the newer stuff a lot b/c that's where he is AT right now and seems to do that best. That said, I put in a request for Lay Lady Lay so blame me, tho i love your description.... too funny....

excellent piece, writing, etc... thanks for this....

s.r.p.
Aug. 14, 2008, 12:08 am
Michael from Park Slope says:
I wasn't at the Bob Dylan concert but could easily imagine that the Dylan of today is a far cry from the rocking/acoustic troubadour of yesterday. Songs that were once delivered with dynamic and poetic vitality, today sound like feeble ramblings: an old man singing old songs.

We tend to imagine that legends such as Dylan will somehow outlive and transcend their own legendary status and remain "forever young" --retaining their place in the sun beyond their own time. After all, those of us who grew up in the 50s/60s, see a little of ourselves fade when the legends we created in our image also fade.

However, Dylan's works will always remain alongside the great works of the past century...most of us could only hope to say that much for even a fraction of our accomplishments.
Aug. 14, 2008, 5:02 pm
al pankin from downtown says:
bob dylan never could sign a song..you should have gone to see neil diamond at madison sq garden, a nice brooklyn boy who can really sing and who has alot of talent for a 67 year old singer. you could even understand the songs, every one of them...it was great.
Aug. 15, 2008, 7:48 am
Mia from Park Slope says:
I see a lot of the old greats and a lot of them are still great even as older people. The Meters, War, Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers, Allman Brothers, James Brown, Funkadelic, Maceo Parker, many blues legends, etc, The Skatelates, Desmond Dekker (still sounds like an angel and it old age). But what these bands have in common is that they were always first and foremost musicians who loved to play their instruments and write songs and they can do it to a very very very old age, because when you see them play you can see the transformation the love of music does to them and almost possesses them to make them ageless in their skill as musicians. Many of these musicians mentioned above will play any thing and with anyone who they love to play with because they love music, I have seen every member in the Meters play with other people, same with maceo parker and Funkadelic.

Bob Dylan himself is first and foremost a song writer, a genius of a song writer, but I would not consider him ever a skilled musician and technician of his instruments. For him his instruments (voice, organ, guitar) were tools (a means to) to get across his real genius of songwriting. The musicians above instruments and their skill at them, were an end in themselves
Aug. 17, 2008, 11:48 pm

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