Thursday, January 19, 2006

Dylan lets the music talk

The place: Memorial Gardens, Sault St. Marie, Ontario, Canada. The date: Aug. 25, 1992. The occasion: Music icon Bob Dylan is about to perform for an enthusiastic crowd, including my wife Sue and me, during "The Neverending Tour."

There's a growing buzz in the arena joined by a young man in the row behind us who was looking forward to seeing Dylan for the first time. Excited, he reeled-off his favorite Dylan songs and told us how much he admired his music hero.

The lights dimmed amid applause as Dylan's show opened with the traditional "Don't Let Your Deal Go Down," followed by "Pretty Peggy-O." The young fan behind us was quiet, yet restless.

After a low-key start, Dylan launched into his "All Along the Watchtower," using an arrangement perfected by Jimi Hendrix who had taken Dylan's song to No. 20 on the Billboard chart in 1968.

Then, as Dylan played his classics "Just Like a Woman," "She Belongs to Me," and "Simple Twist of Fate," the quiet fan began to holler for his favorite tunes.

Some lesser known performances followed, including "Silvio," "Little Moses," and "Boots of Spanish Leather." While the audience clearly loved Dylan's concert, the fan near us was becoming increasingly disgruntled and started to boo every new song.

Just why was the fan who was so looking forward to the show, now booing? It seems Dylan, with over 600 recordings in his repertoire, wasn't playing the songs the fan wanted to hear.

Dylan, who certainly wasn't aware of one discontented fan, played 18 songs that night in a concert that also included an acoustic set. He barely spoke to the audience, but everybody knows a Dylan show is about music, not conversation.

With 44 albums to his credit, Dylan has had an incalculable influence on modern music, but apparently he can't please everybody.

Less than two months after his Sault appearance Dylan was honored at a 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration at Madison Square Garden featuring some of his famous friends. The list of performers at the Oct. 16, 1992 show was impressive: John Mellencamp, Stevie Wonder, Lou Reed, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Johnny Winter, Neil Young, Eric Clapton, Roger McGuinn, George Harrison and Tom Petty, among others.

They played some of Dylan's best known songs including "Like a Rolling Stone," "Rainy Day Women 12 &35," "Knockin' On Heaven's Door," and dozens more. Dylan himself added "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" and closed the show with "Girl from the North Country."

He didn't say much during this show either. Kris Kristofferson did the narrating.

In fact, Dylan lets his songs speak for him. He has performed thousands of concerts since he first appeared in New York City from the north woods of Minnesota in 1961.

He's been at it for 45 years now, and even a chest infection in 1997 which required hospitalization hasn't slowed him down. The former Robert Zimmerman has continued to release new material and hits packages to the delight of fans and critics alike.

Unlike many celebrities, Dylan is not a publicity hound. In fact, whether published or broadcast, interviews with the intensely private 64-year-old star are rare.

Considering that, fans were surprised to learn that Dylan will perform deejay duties on satellite XM Radio, channel 40, beginning in March. He'll host a weekly hour-long program featuring music, commentary, interviews, as well as e-mails from subscribers.

Dylan's new endeavor might require some under-utilized conversational skills, or he might just let the music do the talking. Tune in. But, no booing, please.

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