Bob Dylan and Merle Haggard at the Auditorium Theatre Chicago

By Mark Guarino

It was easy to be sideswiped by sheer legacy Friday when Bob Dylan and Merle Haggard arrived to play the first of five nights at the Auditorium Theatre. Dylan, the most influential rock songwriter of his generation, and Haggard, the most influential country songwriter of his generation, both came of age in the ‘60s when both genres played on opposite sides of the fence.

Now, decades later, there is commonality. Dylan, 63, and Haggard, 68, are in a more assured stage in their artistic lives where all they have to do is show up and play the songs. Their songbooks keep them one step ahead of the seduction of nostalgia that traps some of their peers in self-parody or irrelevance. Playing back-to-back in a single evening, their similarities, not their differences, became obvious. Their songs have endured the times in which they were written and are bound by working class agitation, a blurring of genres and demure humor.

Haggard charmed his way through his set with self-effacing jokes about his (lack of) hair, his habit for forgetting lyrics and astute observations (“marijuana and Martha Stewart have to be the greatest threats to America”). The seven members of his band the Strangers played with immaculate restraint. Haggard delivered stinging lead guitar on most songs, including his classics “Mama Tried” and “The Bottle Let Me Down.” He also included “That’s the News,” a relatively new song criticizing the frivolity and blatant conservatism of mainstream news outlets.

He was a reminder of how the country music mainstream once made room for eccentrics and rabble rousers. After a one-minute ditty about the pleasures of marijuana, he dipped into his best-known song, “Okie From Muskogee.” Although it became a conservative anthem against the Woodstock counterculture, Haggard sang its lyrics as pure satire.

Dylan played a 14-song set of mostly new songs and obscurities. They had a distinct country flavor due to his new band members: fiddler Elana Fremerman of Hot Club of Cowtown and multi-instrumentalist Don Herron of BR5-49. Dylan stood behind a keyboard (arthritis is rumored to prevent him from playing guitar) while occasionally walking to face the audience during lengthy harmonica solos. He continued to kick new life into epic chestnuts like “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again” by yelping, panting and pouting the lyrics, giving its hallucinatory images new bite.

He worked to avoid being center stage, assigning solos and reworking songs so everyone became the star. That worked to often overwhelm and turn the songs into bracing blues jams. They fared better played with a light touch, resulting in the lovely cadences of “Forever Young” and a gentle transformation of “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Given news that gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, who died in February, requested that the song be played at his funeral, it made sense that the song was no longer a youthful invitation but now, a mournful goodbye.

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