Shell out your money and name that tune

June 30, 2005|By KEVIN COWHERD

PLUNKING DOWN your hard-earned money to see a rock legend is always risky, especially if the rock legend is a brilliant but cranky introvert who doesn't seem to like his audience much, doesn't seem to care what they want to hear, and often affects the on-stage demeanor of a guy breaking rocks on a chain gang.

Oh, sure, I know what you're thinking.

You're thinking: Hmm, that describes just about every rock icon, doesn't it?

But in this case we're talking about Bob Dylan, whom I caught when his latest tour stopped last week in the beautiful Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts.

Joining Dylan and his band on this tour is country and western legend Willie Nelson, who has apparently been cryogenically frozen and thawed out at various intervals in his lifetime, because he looks and sounds about the same as he did 25 years ago.

Getting back to Dylan, here is the basic problem with attending his concerts these days: You don't know what the hell he's playing.

There are two main reasons for this.

No. 1, on this tour, anyway, his voice has taken on a raspy, rapid-fire, Tina Turner-ish quality that is decipherable only to small woodland creatures and maybe three people in the entire human race.

Let's face it, even in his hey-day back in the '60s, Dylan was not exactly Perry Como behind the microphone.

Now, hunched over the keyboard as his excellent band drives the music, Dylan seems to mutter a song more than sing it, which tends to cut down on audience recognition of his work.

The other reason you don't know what the hell he's playing is Dylan's enormous artistic conceit, which apparently you're allowed when you've achieved his lofty perch in the rock pantheon.

The point is, the guy insists on playing mostly heavily reworked versions of his songs, even classics like "It Ain't Me, Babe" and "Like a Rolling Stone," which drives certain Dylan fans - OK, like me - nuts.

So he'll start playing a song and you'll be sitting there for two or three minutes, sipping your adult beverage and straining to identify what in God's name you're hearing.

Then the little light bulb goes off over your head, just like in the cartoons, and it dawns on you that this is "Highway 61 Revisited!" or "It's All Right, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" or something like that.

Look, I don't need that kind of aggravation.

Yo, Bob, I'm not shelling out 50 bucks a ticket for "Name that Tune."

At least play the song so we recognize it.

Here's another thing about Dylan that drives me nuts: his standoffish attitude on stage.

Wait a sec, did I say "standoffish?"

Standoffish would actually be a step up for Dylan, who seems to treat his audience with out-and-out disdain at times.

Oh, yeah, I've heard all the excuses.

Cut him some slack, his defenders say. He's been like that forever, he's a reclusive genius, he's eccentric, he's fried from all those years on the road, he's half-nuts, blah, blah, blah.

But you know what?

It gets real old, the way he acts on stage.

Aside from a muttered "thank you" and the obligatory introduction of the members of the band, the guy doesn't have much to say to his fans.

Here he was last week, on a perfect summer night, in a charming old minor-league ballpark in Pittsfield, Mass., in front of an adoring crowd that seemed pretty evenly mixed between young people and baby boomers, with a large contingent of seniors on hand, too.

He could have had the crowd eating out of his hand from the get-go.

All he had to do was say something like: "How 'bout those Red Sox?"

Or something about the gorgeous mountains or the enthusiastic crowd - anything to indicate he knew where he was and appreciated his fans.

Instead, it was the same old Bob Dylan.

Instead, it was just another gig - and another hasty retreat to the tour bus for the ride to the next gig.

Understand, no one's saying the guy has to be all warm and fuzzy on stage.

Lots of big-name rock stars are all business up there - Elton John, for one, comes immediately to mind.

But Elton John looks like a Chamber of Commerce backslapper compared to Dylan.

At least Elton John looks at his audience and talks to his audience.

At least he seems to care.

Bob Dylan is 64 now, and maybe someday soon he'll get sick of all the touring, and sick of the endless road, and retire for good from performing.

You wonder if the old line will apply to him then: He finally learned to say hello when it was time to say goodbye.

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