Costa Mesa, California

Orange County Fair
Pacific Amphitheatre

July 15, 2011

[Steven Thwaits], [Roderick Smith], [Howard Mirowitz]

Review by Steven Thwaits

Last night in Costa Mesa Bob Dylan and his band performed a solid, if
somewhat erratic set of the artist's classics, new and old. I don't know
if was the sound in the amphitheater, or my own ears, but this show lacked
the clarity and cohesion of the previous night's performance in Santa
Barbara. One song might be brilliantly focussed and tight, the next
shambling and loose to the point of falling into pieces. Vocals moved from
ragged and nearly careless, to nuanced and sublime, and on some tunes,
like the current stand-out "Ballad of a Thin Man," immensely powerful. 

What a surprise, eh? The bandleader does it his way, and sometimes it
doesn't quite work. Songs that featured stellar interplay between the
musicians in Santa Barbara lacked the same chemistry and magic in Costa
Mesa. Sometimes Bob leads the guys into marvels with the keyboard, other
times up the creek. And then Dylan straps on the guitar and they blaze
through a super hot "Beyond Here Lies Nothin'." That one put me in mind of
the glory years of Dylan, Sexton And Campbell, standing in one line with
guitars, smokin' through the rockers. Of course, back then they didn't
have that particular great song to work with. 

Then straight into a less than inspired version of "High Water," certainly
a far cry from the controlled frenzy of the night before. 

"Tangled Up in Blue" was appreciated by the crowd for it's place in their
heart, but also uninspired to my ears. "Forgetful Heart" was gorgeous,
again. Being a fairgrounds show, a size-able share of drunks and casual
fans (or less) were on on hand, which never adds to the ambiance. People
blabbered through the quiet songs and left for the bathroom. Some of the
older folks in the audience are aging gracefully, like Dylan; others act
like fools. Some are lame, and Bob must be an inspiration of vitality for
them, kicking his legs at the keyboard and going into a deep lean on the
harp solos. Not to mention the life that is undiminished in the music.
Although things have certainly changed. The younger set who meant to be
there were adoring, the ones who were pulled in by forces beyond their
control appeared bored and confused. 

It might sound like I didn't enjoy this show but really I had a blast.
Before taking my seat I found myself looking down over the loading zone
ramp for the venue. And here comes Tony Garnier walking in: "hey Tony," I
shout. He looks at me and I give him a big thumbs up, which he returns
with a smile. A couple minutes later, Donny Heron rambles down, grey
jacket in hand: "hey Donny!" He looks wildly around before he sees me
grinning at him. I give him the thumbs up again and he returns it with a
big smile, and says, "hey man, how are you doing?" "I'm great man, but you
rock!" Okay, sort of lame, but I meant it. Another big smile. Well, I'm
already satisfied but a few minutes later here comes George Recile,
looking a little drowsy or irritated, walking down the ramp. I don't want
to bug him but hey, the drummer needs to be appreciated, too. Softly this
time, "hi George." I give him the positive force and get a little smile
out of him, and the thumbs up back. 

Well, I know Bob isn't coming down that ramp, but what do you know, there
goes Charlie Sexton back up it, carrying something bizarre, looks like a
water ballon or an udder, wrapped in a piece of cloth. It looks heavy and
wet and it seems to be troubling him.  Jeez, I don't know what it was.
Five minutes later he comes back down, tucking in his dress shirt, smoking
a ciggie, looking all disheveled. By this time I am well into my rock star
appreciation cadence: "Hey Charlie!" He smiles up. "You rock, man!"
(creative as ever, I know). But he smiles again, appreciative. I say,
"hey, ask Bob to play "I and I!" At this his smile grows bigger: "Yah,
right," he says, shaking his head and still grinning. I knew it was a
crazy impossible request, hasn't been played in over a decade, but the
song was on my mind. I doubt Bob takes requests, even from his lead
guitarist. I guess I was thinking if they did play it, I would know it was
at my suggestion! No such luck. But it was fun seeing those guys and I
felt like they were happy at the acknowledgment, instead of bothered. 

Have a good time at the shows everyone. Might be a while before I catch
another, back home in the Great Northwest. 


Comments by Roderick Smith

I watch him now, from afar.  A lead soldier toy figure in a glass dome. 
He topples onto the stage. Frames of motion missing. His face pale and
timeless.  Sudden gestures in the dark.   The grey coated band colorless
and hammered.  They huddle the night long ripping the fretboard. Watching.
The strange apparition recites more than sings his poetic songs in barking
staccato.  The keyboard lit up. Animated and demanding. Little boy cowboy
putting up his dukes against that Charlie fast draw. Calling him out. He
teeters on one leg then the other hunched and balanced between chords that
roar a carnival of sound. Its medicine man lounge show on thunder alley. 
The midway is lit like a barn fire. The spinning ferris wheel mandala 
blurs the night sky. The calliope cowboy rides the edge of the furious
sound.  He runs the band and they look weary. But they pour it on.  There
are glints of deep blue sky in some of the songs. Some recognizable nuance
of remembered meaning. Barely.  Its a sideshow of cosmic proportions.
Perfect for the fair ground. The voice harsh.  Gun powder volleys.   
Somewhere nearby a child tosses a ring upon a bottle.  A strong man
hammers the monkey bell.  A couple is pretending to be lost in a maze of
mirrors. A woman takes aim with an air rifle. Everything is calling from
the midway and beyond here lies nothing.


Review by Howard Mirowitz

The Pacific Amphitheatre is co-located with the Orange County Fair, of
which this was the opening night, so the atmosphere was especially
festive, and the venue was pretty much sold out, with folks camped out on
the grass above the permanent outdoor seating. There was a move during the
past two years by the State of California to sell the fairgrounds in order
to raise funds to balance the State budget, which would have ended the
County Fair, but due to grass roots opposition which tied the sale up in
various administrative appeals and court proceedings, that didn't happen,
so the fair went on as usual this year, allowing Bob to play. This, in
addition to it being opening night, might have contributed to the interest
and the size of the audience.

Bob had high energy throughout the show, especially when he came out from
behind the keyboard and sang at the stage center mike. He can't sing, of
course, but he can still perform, still put a song across, through his
phrasing, his "tonal breath control," and with his body language. He
doesn't talk to the audience, true, but when he's at that mike, he
communicates with the audience way more than he ever does when he's stuck
behind that Yamaha, or even when he's got a guitar strapped around him.
It's almost as if getting rid of the instruments encumbering him frees him
to express himself. This really comes out on songs like "Tangled Up In
Blue" where his delivery has a lot of attack, his head snaps from side to
side, he gesticulates, his voice biting and snarling -- "They're an
ill-UUU-sion to me now" -- he's really doing a kind of oratorio rather
than normal singing.

This show was particularly notable for three things. One is that Bob's
harp playing while standing at that center stage mike was spectacular,
just light-years beyond anything in recent memory. He was on the beat, on
key, he was inventive and exploratory instead of repetitive, he played
long solos instead of just little short riffs, and he didn't compulsively
play 100% cross-harp on every single number. And he played harp a lot --
probably on over half the songs in the set list. Unfortunately his harp
was turned up so high in the mix that it drowned out all the other
instruments whenever he played it, but still, it was rather amazing.
Whether this can be replicated in later performances in this tour, I don't
know, but I feel lucky to have seen it. The second notable thing about the
performance was that Donnie was turned loose on "Things Have Changed."
This song had a new pedal steel based arrangement with a speeded up tempo
that relied on Donnie to lay down a whole rapid series of quick tight
little picks interspersed with longer slides, which he did admirably, and
Bob was out front at the mike with a very effective, emotive presentation
of the lyrics that made for an overall very good version. I've always felt
that Bob has had Donnie on too short a leash, kept him back in the
shadows, and this song really demonstrated what he can do for the band.
The third notable thing was a new up-tempo rock-and-roll arrangement of
"Sugar Baby" with Bob out front at the mike on harp that was really quite
interesting even though some verses were left out.

On the negative side, Bob is still keeping Charley on a short leash. As a
result, songs like "Summer Days" and "Highway 61 Revisited" are shadows of
their former 2001-2002 selves, because Charley can't cut loose. There was
a lot of Bob-Charley duetting, including one effort on "Beyond Here Lies
Nothin'" where Bob was on guitar and his guitar was out of tune or
something, and the effect was really awful. On "Tryin' To Get To Heaven"
Charley started to play a really nice lead, and Bob stomped on him with
his organ. The same thing happened on "Thunder On The Mountain," but here
Bob let Charley go a bit more before he kiboshed him. We even had a
harp-guitar duet on "Forgetful Heart" that was interesting, except you
couldn't hear Charley because Bob's harp was turned up so high. Also,
there were occasions where Bob did lapse into sing-songiness, notably on
"It's A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" where I think he hypnotized himself into
singing that way because he was playing the organ in a kind of throbbing
ice-skating rink rhythm. 

But all in all, this show was much better than any performance I'd seen
since Bob's last show at Costa Mesa in 2003. I would say that if you've
been giving Bob a miss these past few years, this is the time to see him
again. Sure, he's acting his age, but you'll be surprised how spry that
really is.


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