Holmdel, New Jersey
PNC Bank Arts Center
August 10, 2003

[Peter Stone Brown], [S. D. Walter]

Review by Peter Stone Brown

Okay, so Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers are done their set and you know
something's gonna happen because in the darkness you can see an extra mic
has been set up on stage and extra amp which when the lights come up turns
out to be an old tan Fender Bassman and the Heartbreakers file back out
and there's this guy in white, white cowboy, white shirt and off-white
pants and white snakeskin cowboy boots and he's like shimmering, the white
is glistening and this roar erupts from the crowd and whoever he is he's
got this thing that's been missing from the stage for the past 90 minutes
or so and that thing is presence.  So a roadie plugs this guy's Fender
Stratocaster into that tan amp and the band starts to play "Knockin' On
Heaven's Door" and this cowboy dude, well he don't care if Mike Campbell's
on the stage or not, he's gonna play that Strat and take one of his
raunchy maybe I'll find maybe I won't solos and well. it was kinda like
old times.

Thirty-three minutes later more or less after the roadies have rolled up
the Petty rugs to reveal the black and white checkerboard stage the cowboy
dude is back, but this time without a hat a dressed in black, and he's
behind that piano that's behind the lap steel and into "Maggie's Farm" and
it's kicking along nicely and on the last verse he even stretches out a
bit with a long "nooooooooooooooo more," and then just like the previous
night song two is "If You See Her Say Hello," but this version is a bit
more alive and he takes a really crazy harp solo where he does that up and
down thing with a whole bunch of notes in between and after a couple of
more verses does it again and while the harp was pretty wild the night
before it wasn't quite this wild.  At some point in the song Tommy
Morrongiello joined in playing a Strat which he kept on doing throughout
the night, each time apparently waiting for Dylan's invitation.

Then again like the night before he's into "Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum"
and again he's going from this low husky voice where he sounds like he's
gasping for breath but on the next line shows he isn't at all and the best
part of the song was when he sneered the "you're obnoxious to me" line.

That was followed with "Just Like A Woman" with Larry Campbell on pedal
steel and after all the verses Dylan reached for the harp and started to
play, then stopped and let the verse go by and just as you thought the
song was about to end, he then takes a truly insane harp solo that in its
own way went all the way back to Free Trade Hall.

"Highway 61" was "Highway 61," and the best thing about it was Freddie
trading solos and these guys mesh like twin brothers, switching rhythms
and leads effortlessly.  Next came a nice surprise, "Most Likely You Go
Your Way" which was going good until the second bridge where the entire
band seemed to get lost, but the recovered quickly and jumped right into
"High Water" which again was marked by great guitar work, though I still
find the original arrangement preferable.

Next came a sort of strange version of  "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight" that
started off with just the bass and drums.  Larry played a very cool
Western swing influenced pedal steel part but Recile's drums just never
fit with the arrangement, which wasn't quite the sort of boogie rocker
it's been in live performance for the past couple of decades but wasn't
quite the country song of "John Wesley Harding" either.  

"Wicked Messenger," "Bye and Bye" and "Honest With Me" were all fine
though nothing really special, but "Summer Days" started to approach its
former glory.  Dylan was far more animated than he was on Saturday night,
sometimes bopping back and forth across the stage throughout the show and
he was into "Summer Days" with a vengeance, but it was a Freddie Koella
solo that took the song higher.  All of a sudden during his solo, he found
what he was looking for and hammered this one wild bending chord letting
it soar and repeated it over and over and the band just kicked into
another gear with Larry and Tony providing the line from Joe Turner's
"Roll 'Em Pete."  Now it still wasn't on the level of the versions with
Sexton, but this may have been the best version of the song this band has
done yet.

The band returned for the usual version of "Watchtower."  Dylan took the
stage wearing his cowboy hat, carrying his jacket over his shoulder in a
manner similar to the way Jack Fate carries his clothes bag, looked at the
crowd for about five seconds and was gone.

Peter Stone Brown

"I'm having a hard time believin' some people were ever alive" -Bob Dylan


Review by S. D. Walter

For once we gambled on a concert date and won: the PNC Bank Arts Center on
less-frenzied Sunday instead of Saturday; Dylan closing instead of
opening. So why not up the ante by going late instead of early?--the
weather was dismal, the dank air well-nigh unbreathable, and who wanted to
share a parking lot with ten thousand Petty fans, to say nothing of the
venue itself whilst their hero was in his glory? Surely that was pushing
our luck, but we tried it anyway, easing down the central Jersey backroads
at around 7 p.m., from blue-collar Jamesburg, skirting Freehold
(perversely satisfying, I must say, driving to a Dylan show through
Springsteen country) past wealthy Monmouth County towns like Colts Neck,
with its orchards and thoroughbred horses, into Holmdel itself, hitting
the Parkway just south of our destination. Uncharacteristically, our luck
held, and the exit ramp was completely, almost eerily, deserted as we
pulled up in the deepening dusk and coasted into the parking lot directly
in front of the entrance, saving us the long trek into the wilderness
afterward so familiar from previous shows.

It was here that I first saw Dylan, after all, back when it was just the
Garden State Arts Center: nondescript, subpar acoustics, but not yet
warped by naked greed into the chaotic, soul-destroying spectacle we
currently endure. "Subterranean Homesick Blues," like a hammer to the
thumb. The next year, a mournful "One Irish Rover" and a "Tambourine Man"
that transformed the pavilion's ugly, futuristic roof into a magic
swirling ship, if only for a moment. In 1991 ... well, let's move on ...;
in '93, after an interminable set from Santana, the strains of "You're
Gonna Quit Me," and later, "Blackjack Davey." Also saw Van Morrison here
around that time ... "Sweet Thing." Good memories. Now it's like pulling
teeth even to consider going. The date with Simon in '99 was the worst
concert experience I've ever had, logistically, and a lackluster
performance to boot. Would this one redeem it at all, I wondered as we
wandered in.

Yes and no, I suppose. Let me say first that I've got nothing against Tom
Petty; he and the Heartbreakers are skillful, unpretentious purveyors of a
certain genre of music, one which, narrowly interpreted, doesn't interest
me at all. Just as I wouldn't make the effort of turning off a Petty song
on the radio, I was perfectly happy to stand to the side of the lawn,
drinking a $7 beer, listening inattentively to "the hits" or a pallid
rendition of "Little Red Rooster," and occasionally watching his wizened,
scary-elfin visage on one of the big screens nearby. Benmont Tench sounds
as good as ever, and you've got to admire Mike Campbell for maintaining
that '80s hairstyle through all the intervening vicissitudes of fashion. 

What I saw all around me, however, was less admirable by far. I know that
one shouldn't blame an artist for his audience, and I've seen more than
enough aberrant behavior from Dylan concertgoers, casual and otherwise, to
extend his fellow Wilbury the benefit of the doubt. That said, Tom Petty
fans really are the dregs. Based on preliminary observation, they seem to
fall into two major groups: 1) old, moronic, and disgustingly wasted, or
2) young, ignorant, and disgustingly wasted. I mean, enough to make an
Aerosmith crowd embarrassed (and I say that because one was overheard
proclaiming in thick slurred syllables his allegiance to that band, not
because I know what an Aerosmith crowd would consist of, or what would
embarrass them). The diversity and colorful eccentricity of a typical
Dylan event was swallowed up by a look-alike horde of filthy red-eyed
beer-swillers, beer-spillers, lunch-spillers, mud-sliders, and singalong
bellowers, swarming over that venue like some kind of biblical plague,
devouring or soiling everything in sight. It was truly a horror to behold.
The lawn and lots resembled nothing so much as a landfill when they
finally departed, no doubt to rain down further destruction elsewhere.

Needless to say, we stayed as far back from that wreckage as possible
until the encore, Dylan's presence first glimpsed as a flash of white on
the video, of cowboy hat and jacket, and then a silvery flash from his
guitar, seen in frequently in close-up, those long, waxy fingers working
their ancient weirdness once again. Guitar! Why that would seem so
exciting I honestly can't say (old habits die hard), but it certainly was
the animating force behind an otherwise somewhat rough, hesitant version
of "Heaven's Door" -- with Dylan managing to belt out a few impressively
throaty lines, but with Petty and band perhaps too frightened of stepping
on his toes to push toward a effective reading of the song -- and a weak,
Petty-led "Baby Please Don't Go" that went, unfortunately, nowhere fast.

Intermission, and we swam against the current to take our seats, in the
first section but far to the left, so that our view would be of Dylan from
behind as he stood before the keyboard; tonight, alas, like Moses, we
would see the back parts only. (Still, it was fascinating to watch his
playing from that angle: the bizarre, flexed stance, the almost feral
attack, the one-man-band simultaneous harp-blowing and key-pounding, the
burgeoning preoccupation with, and encouragement of, his new "side-stage
guitarist.") I watched the crew do a fast-frame setup -- Tommy M.
disappearing at some point to change into his guitar-playing pants and
otherwise pretty himself up for the show -- and endured the sarcastic
remarks and imitations of Dylan-disparagers on all sides, silently
pondering why I ever thought that a second match-up with Tom Petty was
somehow historic and not to be missed. But then I bethought myself: it's a
Dylan concert, stupid, that's why you're here, and my worries faded like
the just-lit incense in the air, softer now, and with an actual breeze
just penetrating the edges of the rows.

"Maggie's" was as strong an opener as it's been since Fall '02, and I may
as well take the opportunity here to issue a partial retraction of my
statements about Dylan's voice based on several MP3s I'd heard, mostly
from early in the tour with the Dead. Those truly dire-sounding vocals
seem to have been temporary, due to an illness or some other factor that
is at least beginning to dissipate. There were times last night when his
singing was as rawly powerful as any I've heard in the last couple of
years. That said, it is also wildly inconsistent now, much more so than in
the spring, lapsing at times into a kind of metallic drone -- more steel
wool than bright gold -- not unlike the sound of a blade on an electric
sharpener, or like the burr of these cicadas near my window. Not to
mention that there are still traces of that disturbing, oxygen-deprived
gasp which, strangely, will alternate with lines delivered with seeming
confidence and ease. It's disturbing, and I can't help remaining
concerned. Of course, the usual poor sound mix at the Arts Center didn't
help; "If You See Her" was musically taut and compelling, for instance,
but the vocals just weren't coming through, at least where we were
sitting. If I hadn't read them beforehand, I couldn't have made out many
of the new lyrics at all. 

What I want to say about "Tweedle Dee," personally, is that the next time
I hear it -- and there will be a next time -- I will have to resist the
ever more-potent urge to run up on stage and unplug everything in sight.
I'm that tired of the thing, exhausted, in fact. But what I want to say
about "Tweedle Dee" from the perspective of this concert is that, hell,
I'm glad he played it. I'm glad he played for the Petty fans every
semi-obscure or recent (which for them amounted to the same) song he could
think of, just to torment them further. 

Perhaps it takes this kind of distancing for one to glimpse just how
savage a performer Dylan really is, just how gnarled, cranky, and
esoteric: he showed this mixed, already-reluctant -- at times openly
antagonistic -- audience no quarter, none at all. No guitar posing, no
acoustic songs, no flattery, no gratitude. Instead, relentless,
hard-driving exercises in tonal breath control, or demonstrations of its
absence. If he played the rare "standard" such as "Just like a Woman" --
an excellent version, one of the best-sung this night, with a fierce rogue
wave of harmonica at the end -- he doused out any attempts at singalong
with near-impossibly delayed refrains; no surprise, this, but envision the
contrast: Petty up there on the stage, arms outstretched, "learning to
fly" while his fans sang him sweetly back to earth, the wind beneath his
wings. Dylan, instead, pulled the carpet out from underneath them, and
predictably, following a blistering, 3-guitar guerrilla raid down "Highway
61," they began to abandon ship, in a steady stream as he began snarling
"Most Likely You Go Your Way" in that harsh metallic voice -- a
badly-built performance as per usual, one that fell of its stilts
musically more than once, but that featured some seriously nasty playing
in between. It wasn't a mass exodus, exactly, but the place would grow
increasingly honeycombed with empty red seats as the evening wore on and
Dylan ground the infidels beneath his heel.

What to say about the rest of the songs? Nothing much new there, for the
most part, from "High Water" -- strong, but not quite on the level with
the one he did in Atlantic City last May -- through a disjointed "Wicked
Messenger," a sloppy, seemed-longer-than-it-was "Bye and Bye" that glazed
the eyes of any stragglers, a workmanlike "Honest with Me" enlivened by
its instrumental break (but see comment on "Tweedle Dee" above), a hot
"Summer Days" that's finally beginning to acquire its own flavor and
texture with this band, all the way up to a perfunctory "Watchtower"
ending in the new anti-formation, less an acknowledgment than a sort of
gruff dismissal, just before they cleared outta there around 11:30. The
only exception would be the slow, loopily-loping take on "I'll Be Your
Baby," which featured extensive soloing from Koella that no one in my
section seemed to be able to hear, either because of the mix or because of
the low notes he was hitting, leaving one disgruntled audience member to
gesticulate wildly at the stage with one finger pointing at his ear.
Koella seems to bring out these responses from otherwise stolid veterans
-- you know, the ones who stand stock-still throughout the show without so
much as a head-bob or a clap. During "Watchtower," for instance, one of
these right in front of us gestured to his friend, pointing at Freddy with
one hand and pinching his nose shut with the other (he then pointed at Mad
Dog and gave him the ol' thumbs-up).

An average show, then. And I'd be content to leave it at that, if it
wasn't for the strange mood hanging over the proceedings, one that's very
difficult to explain but that was nonetheless palpable throughout. For
sure the audience had much to do with it, although mostly supportive up
front where it counted; still, yuppies on cell phones are one thing,
active hostility, however doltish, another, even if it is repaid with
scorn. Yet that isn't the whole story, either. Maybe I'm deluded, but it
seems to me that something is amiss between Dylan and the band, the more
fascinating because indefinable, "in the air." A malaise. I do not count
myself among the Koella-bashers, who are legion; I think there's real
potential in his playing. On the other hand, they should be a lot tighter
at this point then they are -- there are wonderful moments, yes, but
things just don't seem to be flowing as they should. The presence of Mad
Dog on so many songs, set apart from the band like Dylan's own Mini-Me,
must be somewhat unnerving, no? Is no one thinking, am I going to lose my
gray suit, and will a matchbox hold the rest? Anyhow, maybe they were just
bone-tired, but the band seemed perfectly joyless for much of last night's
performance, with Campbell especially -- who had really just started
emerging from his shell in the last year or two with Sexton -- retreating
into full-scale grim-n-bear it mode. I'm probably wayyy wrong, and would
like to be, but I couldn't avoid the feeling that something was
disorientingly "off" up there, though I'm not at all sure what it was.

In the end, to quote from the reputed author and Dylan authority Dr.
Junichi Saga, "it's up to him whether a session comes alive or falls flat"
... and he had plenty of fire and venom last night to see the thing
through. As for the rest, we'll just have to see how it goes. Walking out
from under the spaceship roof, we were surprised to see a nearly-full moon
overhead, no doubt courtesy of Dylan himself, who can snap his fingers and
require the rain. Not only did he clear the seats last night, he cleared
the sky as well. 


page by Bill Pagel

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