Monday, October 14, 2002

Breaking the Fall (It's Nice to Get Away Once in a While)

Picture this: a starry Bay Area night in the crisp autumn air sitting in an outdoor 8,000 seat theater built in 1903. The University of California Berkeley's Greek Theater resembles the Roman Coliseum with its stately architecture including large white pillars (as a kitty sitter typically wittingly said when she saw a picture of the venue: "Holler when they bring out the lions and feed the slaves to them...") and the place is shaped exactly like the half moon that shines in the sky above. Three members of the versatile four piece band are dressed similarly (burgundy colored suits the first night, black suits the next). The lead singer is the center of attention not only with his different attire (black suit for night one, gray suit the second night) but also his distinctive swagger. The stage lights go down to the din of an Aaron Copland piece that is mostly drowned out by the whistles and yelps from an expectant crowd.

The band begins with a bluesy rock number. On the left hand side of the stage lead guitarist Charlie Sexton rips off several high arching rhythmic riffs. On the right the other guitarist, Larry Campbell answers Sexton with a less flashy but more melodic stream of notes. Bassist Tony Garnier provides a thumping foundation under the wailing guitars and drummer George Receli is pounding his kit with such force that one fears the fellow's fillings might fly out.

The first surprise of the evening is that the lead singer- who will provide his usually quirky vocals throughout the performance, is half seated, half standing behind an electric keyboard rather than the acoustic and rhythm guitar he usually plays. He pounds chords out simultaneously with both hands looking just like a young boy in Hibbing in the saccharine 1950's shocking an audience of high school students and teachers with his very best Little Richard imitation.

"Well, I'm gonna quit this baby talk now/I guess I should have known/I got troubles, I think maybe you got troubles/I think maybe we'd better leave each other alone/Whatever you gonna do/Please do it fast/I'm still trying to get used to/Seeing the real you at last"


It's all about Jennifer. It has been for quite a while, something that will never be explainable, never be understood just like Anya's, the vengeance demon on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, fear of bunny rabbits. If pressed to say what you mean you'd probably stammer and stumble but failing to do so, failing to explain ultimately says much much more.

In the fall four years ago I was scheduled to go to a Bob Dylan show at Midway Stadium (within walking distance of my house) with my friend Jennifer and another friend. I was a bit anxious about mixing these two particular friendships Lord knows why. But Jennifer stood me up. Walked away. So I was minus $32.50 for the ticket, $5,000 for a home improvement loan, and much much more. Things did forever change.

There are times in life when you just need to hear a particular song whether for inspiration, introspection, insight, distraction or mere entertainment, a familiar song can reboot your inner hard drive every now and then. Last week as I was packing a duffel bag for a three day trip to Berkeley I just had to hear Bob Dylan's Oscar winning "Things Have Changed." I couldn't say why, and I didn't feel I needed to. My CDs are currently in a rather disorganized state so finding one particular disc is sometimes a futile exercise. Unfortunately this was one of those times. And for a minute or two there I thought I was going to unravel if I did not find my Wonder Boys CD. If forced to choose the song would make the short list of my all time favorite Dylan songs- not because it has any of his most unforgettable lines- but rather because of the mood it invokes. The singer has seen quite enough and as he wanders through absurd situation after absurd situation he admits his state of mind- he used to care but things have changed.

"I hurt easy I just don't show it/You can hurt someone and not even know it/The next sixty seconds could be like an eternity/Gonna get low down, gonna fly high/All the truth in the world adds up to one big lie/I'm in love with a woman who don't even appeal to me"

Years later as I found myself serenely sitting at the West Coast venue (within walking distance of my sister's apartment) with my friend Spunky I couldn't help but think about Jennifer. I wouldn't have found myself where I was if not for another Jennifer. When Dylan announced his summer tour schedule and it didn't include the Twin Cities I was a bit disappointed having seen the man perform every year for the past ten years. The closest he was coming was Fargo and Sioux City certainly makeable drives. But one thing working at the Legislature has taught me is the necessity of a legitimate balanced budget- meaning not only should revenues at the very least compensate for expenditures but also that the many areas needing funding receive their fair share. In state terms that includes areas like transportation, health and human services, governmental services, public safety, etc. For me it includes mortgage and insurance payments, utility bills, feeding the dying kitty, and necessary entertainment needs. Already having spent another year's amount for Twins' season tickets as well as an outrageously priced seat for a Paul McCartney show I couldn't justify the traveling costs of going to one of the Dakotas to see Dylan.
I knew my fellow Twin Cities resident Bobfan Jennifer (2) was going to go to the Fargo show with her sister. Keeping my options open I asked if I could hitch a ride with them. Jennifer (2) kindly said yes. But common sense (not always such a good thing) prevailed and I decided to bite a difficult bullet and not see Bob in 2002 (this was all before the announced St. Paul show).

But the relative ease of my decision might have come from knowing another option did exist: he was playing two shows in Berkeley where my sister is going to law school and my old college roommate the irascible Spunky lives within an hour's drive. Having not yet visited either one in their new location I thought it might be the perfect excuse to get a few tickets and fly out and spend time with some important people.

But I couldn't pull the trigger until Jennifer (2) said her experience has always been that once you're standing there watching Bob perform, it always seems worth it in the end (she flew out to see him in Seattle). Turns out she couldn't have been more right. I was convinced.

On our walk to the Greek Theater for night one's show Spunky and I walked past a college building where the notes of someone practicing piano scales floated into the air. I kiddingly remarked that I wondered if that was Bob getting ready for the show. Spunky got the joke (one of the few that most often does). We then encountered a rather large line of people waiting to get in. By the time we were frisked and entered the general admission only event there was scarcely a seat to be seen. We wandered to the far left side and sat down on the now cold cement bench like seats.

The usual introduction ("Please welcome Columbia recording artist Bob Dylan") was embellished (somewhat mockingly) to include references to being rock and roll's "poet laureate" and donning makeup and a substance abuse problem in the 70's, finding Jesus and 'becoming relevant' again with some of his best work in the past few years. It was remindful of Dylan's wicked sense of humor- from his interview with a Time Magazine reporter seen in the documentary Don't Look Back ("I can sing as well as Caruso"); to whatever the LP Self Portrait was supposed to be; to the fake beard he wore this fall at his return concert to Newport where he was booed off the stage in the 60's for having gone electric (a sacred no-no in the serious folk world) to the Traveling Wilburys.

Bob's keyboard playing style was fun to watch. He plays the piano like an aging kitty awoken from a nap stretching his spine as far as he can towards the ceiling not only to feel better but to strut his stuff. Night one's highlights included a terrific "Tombstone Blues" where he sang the line "the sun's not yellow... it's... CHICKEN" like a gleeful grade school child who can't wait to reveal the punchline to a recently learned riddle. There was also a sad and mournful yet confident "Positively 4th Street" and a great great country blues version of "It's All Right Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" that of course got the hippy crowd cheering lines like "even the President of the United States must sometimes have to stand naked..." and "advertising signs that con you into thinking that you are the one/that can do what's never been done/that can win what's never been won/meantime life outside goes on all around you..."

My favorite moment however was a sterling version (the best I've ever heard) of "Things Have Changed" where Bob's weary and sardonic vocal was enhanced by a band that got behind the heart and soul of the observational current state of things (mind) so effectively that even those Berkeley residents (remnants) who smelled of funny herbs seemed to appreciate a newer song.

Bob also did some crowd pleasing covers including the Rolling Stones' "Brown Sugar" and my favorite Neil Young tribute to dads "Old Man." He also included two Warren Zevon songs both nights ("Accidentally Like a Martyr" and "Mutineer") that while not reaching the heights of a Dylan original certainly were quite touching (I cried when I heard about Zevon's terminal diagnosis).

The undeniable highlight of night two was a quiet and reflective "Every Grain of Sand" that usually, unlike most Dylan songs, doesn't match the studio version but this night somehow came quite close. The triplet arpeggios of the song that create such a hypnotic hymn like quality were recreated live by Bob's keyboard work and Larry and Charlie's subtle electric guitar playing. What usually translates live into an awkward ballad was on this occasion a reminder of what a great great intuitive writer/performer Bob is.

He closed both nights with several songs from his last CD Love and Theft, a piece of work that should have changed the world and still might. There were smile inducing jazzy versions of "Floater" and "Moonlight" as well as an apocalyptic "High Water." The swinging "Summer Days" almost fell apart both nights due to the wordiness of the song but I swear the band was swinging/rocking so hard by the end as Bob tried to spit out the words that I was afraid the whole place was going to launch skywards.

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