Journalism

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BY MARK GUARINO | CHICAGO SUN-TIMES

November 9, 2014

At some point in recent years, Bob Dylan, his management, or maybe just an overambitious set designer friend, conceived his music as cast from shadows, requiring minimal lighting and musical arrangements that made every song sound like it was creeping across the transom.

Heavy with atmosphere, the presentation was never so complete than Saturday at the Cadillac Palace, where Dylan played the first of three consecutive nights. Over two sets, his stoic five-member band held back so far they could have disappeared into the many dark pockets of the stage. Topped with a white gambler’s hat and wearing white boots to match, the singer dressed in a knee-length black coat; it and his pants adorned with white trim. He stood at the front of the stage singing into a microphone but rather oddly was surrounded by four other microphone stands the exact same height. Did the background singers miss their bus? No matter. Standing behind all those tall rods, Dylan looked like he was behind bars, which fit the evening’s somber mood.

The majority of songs over the 90-minute show were from recent albums, namely his 2012 album “Tempest” (Columbia). Among these were the few throwaways: the clunky 12-bar blues of “Early Roman Kings” and the plodding “Workingman’s Blues #2.” Other songs, despite their early shelf life, have already been transformed into wholly new versions. “Duquesne Whistle,” once an upbeat jump blues, was now driven by Dylan’s piano playing, making it a shuffle in half time.

The musicians Dylan tours with are now his oldest companions on the road. They play with almost scientific precision, making these songs hit all the marks with all the rough edges smeared away. Which is in contrast to what Dylan is ushering into stores this month: a six-CD set of the complete Basement Tapes, the recordings he and The Band made in 1967 that are renowned for their ramshackle improvisation and homegrown warmth.

So many decades later, Dylan, 73, can’t be blamed for not possessing the same relaxed or naive spirit of those recordings. But there is something deadening about a show that ticks more like a Swiss timepiece than one that follows its own course, wherever that may lead.

This is why Dylan often drew the most reaction when he stepped away from the microphone and did some faint high stepping, or when he sat at a baby grand piano and hammered some keys. He didn’t touch a guitar but rotated between standing before the audience taking harmonica solos and staying close the piano.

Besides a lean new take of “Love Sick,” the band laid low, particularly guitarist Charlie Sexton, who Dylan has unleashed in different tours. Instead the band turned inward through acoustic segments (everyone switching to fiddle, banjo, standup bass, acoustic guitars and brushes) that dominated the night. Songs like “Forgetful Heart” were laid out, with all parts played like delicate fibers and Dylan pushing soft, single notes through his harmonica. “Spirit On the Water” was similarly autumnal. For “Simple Twist of Fate,” he slowed the band down so his lyrics almost doubled as talking. A coda of long harmonica notes followed.

Dylan ended the night with a clue to what is next: “Stay With Me,” a pop ballad recorded by Frank Sinatra in 1965. Rumor has it the song will be on a standards collection he plans to release next year. It was a good thing the song was placed last; as the night wore on, Dylan’s voice grew richer, deeper. With the lights of the house still casting shadows, the pain in the song could not escape.

 

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