“It looks like 10,000 people standing round the burying ground,” sang the steel-stringed bluesman Son House in his “Death Letter Blues”. On Saturday, 3 August, at the Newport Folk Festival, the same number of people stood around a different type of burial ground. It was where, in 1965, one of folk music’s greatest leaders, Bob Dylan, plugged in, spontaneously combusted, and then laid to rest his former jingly-jangly self, rather than follow the strictures of the narrowed folk genre.
There was a lot of hype this time around. Would Dylan play any songs from the first festival? Would he say anything about coming back after 37 years? We had to wait all day in the sun before we’d learn that.
In a former life, the Newport Folk Festival was a homegrown type of musical happening where people brought their instruments for workshops (given by some of the performers). And they reveled in being anti-establishment, an alternative to the loud rock ‘n’ roll that was taking over. While Newport reveled in going against the grain it was never a place for musical revolutions. That is why Dylan made such a big splash when he used it as a place to introduce his new sound. But now, there is no establishment. You can’t simply plug in a guitar to make waves. So Newport is once again just a place to hear music. The organic spirit of the old Newport has moved on as well and can now be found at one of the many bluegrass festivals around the country.
The Newport Folk Festival has long been a place for people to be discovered and the side stages did not disappoint. One of the highlights of the festival was Slaid Cleaves’ performance at the Borders Tent on Saturday afternoon. Slaid and his songs thrive in these smaller environments, as if he were on a porch with his buddies instead of a stage. A son in country-rock style to Johnny Cash, Nashville Skyline era Dylan, and Merle Haggard, Slaid plays his songs straight, with most of his chords in the first position, and a lot of strumming. His live acts quickly take off like a battered ’70s Ford 150 on a farm road when “Ramblin’ Man” comes in on the AM dial. No small part of this is the energy of his backup band. Ivan Brown took his solos while balancing both feet on his upright bass. Oliver Steck made his own presence known on the trumpet and accordion as he filled in gaps in songs. And if there weren’t gaps in the song, then he’d make one of his own.
Slaid is in love with characters in the Springsteenian sense. His song, “Horseshoe Lounge”, is peopled with the type of losers that find redemption in a Miller Lite, but Slaid puts them in a place where they seem like anything but failures. Many of the people that live in a Slaid Cleaves song are star-crossed lovers of someone or something still dazed by their own bright blaze as they fall earthward in pieces. “If it weren’t for horses and divorces / I’d be a lot better off today,” sang Slaid in one joyful, yet poignant moment as he brought the voice of one character he met in rural Maine onto a stage and presented it to a wholly captivated audience.
At the Songwriter’s Circle on Saturday, newcomers like Caroline Herring traded songs with folk giants by the likes of Geoff Muldaur. And then came Louise Taylor. She looked like my friend’s mom. She didn’t seem hip enough to know how to play some Blind Blake or Mississippi John Hurt. A few notes escaped from her guitar, and then a lot more until finally we were all surrounded by them. Taylor continued to fingerpick and wove her notes around us in a web, catching anyone who had never heard her before solidly in her grasp. Louise Taylor is a fingerpicker of the highest degree whose style has flecks of blues and folk in it.
Back on the main stage Shawn Colvin, who jokingly thanked Dylan for playing after her, had quite an obstacle in front of her. She had to occupy the stage as it got closer and closer to The Moment. Gone were the days when she would strum the hell out of an acoustic guitar. She played her hits and we thought about where the best place to see Dylan would be. Though Colvin is an accomplished songwriter herself, she never even stayed for an encore and the majority of the crowd didn’t seem to mind. We wanted to know what He would do, how long He would play and how it would sound. Dylan made us wait for another half-hour in the sun and then he made his move, unpredictable as always.
Back in Black (and a Fake Beard)
To disguise oneself in the spy movies of yesteryear all it took was one of those Groucho Marx fake mustache/nose/eyeglass getups and a newspaper. Thus camoflauged, the spy could listen in to enemy conversations, tail the faithless husband or wife, or blend invisibly into a crowd like society’s wallpaper. On a stage, Bob Dylan, unfortunately, has to work a bit harder than to wear a fake beard and a wig to disguise himself. It seemed impossible for Bob Dylan to treat his return to the Newport Folk Festival as just another gig. So why was the man wearing the aforementioned get-up when he returned to the site of his most famous upset? Perhaps the festival takes itself too seriously. Perhaps it’s not the penultimate place to perform for people who play that organic, historically-conscious music otherwise known as folk. To paraphrase Lester Bangs, it’s all folk music anyway. Dylan has always had a bit of the trickster in him, so wearing a get-up that gave him Hassidic Jewish sideburns and a Merle Haggard country-outlaw look was a perfectly Dylanesque way to approach his comeback.
Dylan’s live show these days makes you want to dance and shake your ass a few times at the stolid fools next to you. Those fools are frowning because to them the show sucks since Dylan doesn’t sound like he did in the ’60s and early ’70s. Next time, stay home and don’t take up so much damned space. Dylan’s voice is more of a croak than ever and it matters as little as it always has. He’s well aware of his voice and he continues to write new songs around that voice, such as the majestic “Highwater (For Charley Patton)”. In concert he reworks his old songs. Dylan is fully aware of, and faithful to the ghosts of music past and he typically plays a number of songs that were around well before he was. He announced his return with an acoustic rendering of the type of traditional song the Newport audience of 37 years ago might have expected to hear, “Roving Gambler”. It took a few more acoustic numbers, including a beautiful take of “Mama, You Been on My Mind”, and then out came the ax.
If there is one thing for certain about Bob Dylan, it is that he has long been a fan of his own enigma. He started out his career in disguise by claiming he was a Woody Guthrie-esque hobo who’d rambled all around the different sides of America. In reality he was the son of an appliance store owner from Hibbing, Minnesota. For those of us who love his work, Dylan is more a series of brilliant words and melodies than he is a biography. Not surprisingly, Dylan treated his performance on Saturday at the Newport Folk Festival as another day at work. But Dylan’s calculated complacence was not as uninspired a moment as Woodstock Parts II and III. As an artist, Dylan really does not have to worry about the implications of his actions.
Why would Dylan choose a new look that’s a hearkening back to the old days when Hassidic Jews roamed and tamed the Wild West? Perhaps it’s his way of playing around with all the analysis slathered upon his every move. There is no one Dylan, no understandable Dylan. When you think you understand him, he goes electric, converts to Christianity, or writes a song for the Ya-Ya Sisterhood soundtrack. Really, when you listen to his music, none of these inconsistencies matter.
All this gushing praise is not to say that a Dylan show is flawless these days. Virtually, all the songs off his first Greatest Hits album come across as necessary standards. And there is a good chunk of the crowd there waiting to devour songs like “Mr. Tambourine Man”. It’s that same part of the crowd, the teenagers that is, that make even those of us in our late 20s feel like seasoned veterans and force feed us the realization that the times are a-changin’. Waiting in the unforgiving Newport heat that was in excess of 90 degrees all day to stake out a blanket area quickly became irrelevant in the beginning of Dylan’s set, as those same young whipper-snappers clad in their bright new tie-dies and homemade hemp jewelry, stoned for the first time, and wearing no sneakers crowded in to the front of the stage. And even though it felt like I was on Mars, something about being in the middle of the fray was comforting. It was great to see all the young people at Newport who were there to hear the master, and if they only got excited at the Dylan songs played on the radio, well it was far better than being at a Nickleback concert. Maybe those of us who felt like we were in church needed to chug a few cans of Stroh’s with these newly initiated fans and leave our constant analysis of Dylan to himself.
Dylan ripped into an electric blues rock version of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” that highlighted his love of whimsy and word play. It resurrected the song as an entirely different beast. Two other transcendent moments of the show were his Basement Tapes pieces, “Down in the Flood” and “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”, which were true to the feeling of the originals in that they came across as a highly practiced bar-band drunken raucous that bounced along electrically.
And when Dylan returned, for his encore, with a familiar concert anthem, “Not Fade Away”, which has been passed from Buddy Holly, to the Stones, to the Dead, it was a highlight of a thoroughly engrossing concert. In ’65 at Newport Dylan played a three song electric set and was booed as he left the stage. Festival producer George Wein told him to go back onstage.
“I don’t want to, I can’t go back,” said the 24-year-old who had spent the last few years being treated as some sort of musical savior.
“Bob, we’re going to have a riot on our hands if you don’t,” Wein replied.
“I don’t have a guitar.”
Pete Yarrow of Peter, Paul, and Mary handed him an acoustic guitar. And then Dylan made his most vivid statement the same way he always has, with his music. “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” with it’s lines like “strike another match and go start anew/ cause it’s all over now, baby blue” was as much of a challenge as it was an assault on the close-minded folkies in the audience who were quick to accuse him of that age-old damnation; Dylan’s electricity meant he was a ‘sell-out’. Rock music got a little more serious at that moment as songwriters stood poised to take the place of mere entertainers.
Sure his voice might sound rough and some moments of his concerts are sleepers, but that old Dylan is still there and he’s still looking for the next level of production and creative output. The Newport Folk Festival was better off for his contribution, today as it was yesterday. Newport these days lacks its old bite, and many of its legends such as Skip James and Muddy Waters, have passed on. Is it possible to rile up an audience like Dylan once did? We’ll see. (Wilco did a pretty good job a few years back, when during their song “Misunderstood” singer Jeff Tweedy screamed his line “I want to thank you all for nothing, nothing at all” at the top of his lungs.) As always, the hope lies in the young, the new brood that come prepared to reinvent the scene. As for the old masters, well it’s just nice to see them still on the stage. On his recent tours, Dylan comes across as someone who remembered how to love playing music again, and if he continues to develop his new voice as well as he did on Love and Theft, he’ll not soon fade away. As long as Newport continues to revisit its past, while searching hard for its future, neither will it.