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Bob Dylan + Merle Haggard + Amos Lee

Steve Shymanik

In 1988 -- some 26 years into his career -- Dylan embarked on this Never Ending Tour. It's still going today. But how well is it going?

Bob Dylan + Merle Haggard + Amos Lee

Bob Dylan + Merle Haggard + Amos Lee

City: Chicago
Venue: Auditorium Theatre
Date: 2005-04-05

Bob Dylan
Merle Haggard
Amos Lee
Woody Allen famously said that "80 percent of success is just showing up." I'm not sure if Bob Dylan is familiar with this quote, but I do know that he embodies it. For more than 40 years he's been showing up with alarming regularity. Pick a night, almost any night, and you'll find him in Bakersfield or Sydney or Barcelona playing an idiosyncratic mix of old and new tunes and, more often than not, with genuine feeling and apparent pleasure. In 1988 -- some 26 years into his career -- Dylan embarked on this Never Ending Tour. It's still going today, though there have been a few band changes along the way. Ok, I suppose he's taken a little time off here and there, but it's difficult to identify those gaps. Like novelist Philip Roth, Dylan is in the throes of a remarkable late resurgence that may not be fully appreciated until his career is over -- which doesn't appear to be any time soon. Latter-day Dylan concerts are of variable quality, but a few constants have emerged over the last few months:
  • He will not speak to the audience beyond mumbled band introductions
  • He will wear odd black clothes that make his thin body appear equal parts European squire, modern-day cowboy, and Southern country gentleman
  • He will eschew the guitar, preferring to stand behind an upright electric piano - an instrument he appears to play with vigor, but which is almost completely inaudible
  • He will close with "All Along the Watchtower" and everyone will like it
On this night at the architecturally and acoustically elegant Auditorium Theatre in Chicago, Bob was preceded by another grisly road warrior -- Merle Haggard. One might initially think of the similarities between these old troubadours, but their performances demonstrated the fundamental differences between the two men. Merle, with his long-time band The Strangers, was charming and chatty. On the night before his 69th birthday, he joked playfully with the audience -- witty banter punctuated by rim-shots from the drummer. If the whole thing felt a little like a supper club show in Branson, no one seemed to mind. He played the songs you'd expect, from "Swinging Doors" and "Ramblin' Fever" to "Silver Wings" and "Mama Tried". The highlight was a pleasant juxtaposition of his right-wing rant "Okie from Muskogee" and his more recent, more liberally thoughtful "That's the News":
Suddenly it's over, the war is fin'lly done
Soldiers in the desert sand, still clingin' to a gun
No-one is the winner an' everyone must lose
Suddenly the war is over: that's the news
These two bookends would find a powerful counterpart later in the evening with Dylan's thundering version of his own "Masters of War". To begin with, it must be said that Dylan's current band is not his best. Departed guitarists Charlie Sexton and Larry Campbell, who during their tenure were integral members of The Never Ending Tour Band, are nowhere to be seen. Without them, the guitar playing is considerably weaker and the overall sound is not as compelling. This absence is somewhat compensated by violinist Elana Fremerman who, though she only recently began touring with the band, is given a prominent role center stage. She plays with strength and verve, often taking parts previously played as guitar solos. Still, songs such as "Tombstone Blues" and "Highway 61 Revisited" suffer from the loss of Sexton and Campbell. Dylan also tries to compensate by stepping out from behind the piano to play several entertaining harmonica solos -- interludes that the audience finds particularly pleasing. The mouth organ serves as a link to the acoustic, folkie Dylan of the distant past and these are the only moments of a 21st century Dylan show that have something of the feel of nostalgia. For established Dylan fans, pleasure is found in simply discovering in real-time which pieces of his massive back catalog he'll unearth for tonight's show. On this particular evening, we were pleasantly surprised by "I'll Remember You" (from his underrated '80s album Empire Burlesque), "Absolutely Sweet Marie" off Blonde on Blonde, and "Under the Red Sky", a keeper from his fallow period in the early '90s. Opening the three-act bill was Amos Lee, an earnest young singer-songwriter who has been described as a male, guitar-playing Norah Jones. I suppose this is said somewhat disparagingly, but his 30-minute set of original songs was warm and tuneful and quite captivating. It can't be easy to open for two legends, particularly when most of the audience was still filtering in and paying little attention to Lee and his fine three-member band. Perhaps in another 30 or 40 years Lee will command headliner status and the type of adulation enjoyed by Dylan and Haggard if, like Bob and Merle, he keeps showing up.

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