Bob Dylan does Sinatra — and himself

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The crowd on the law and Chateau Ste. Michelle winery, waiting for Dylan

The crowd on the lawn at Chateau Ste. Michelle winery, waiting for Dylan

Sunday we headed to the Chateau Ste. Michelle Winery in Woodinville for a concert by Bob Dylan. We came of age with Dylan’s music, but we had never seen him live and were not that familiar with his recent work. It turned out to be a fascinating concert, as much for the audience reaction as for Dylan’s performance.

Mavis Staples opened the show, and it says a lot about Dylan that he would have a performer of her calibre as his opening act. Still full of energy at 76, she put on a great show, part concert, part revival meeting, and part civil-rights rally. She did a couple of her father’s songs, with her male back-up singer, who was excellent, taking the lead. They had the crowd up, singing along, and dancing.

After the roadies reset the stage, Dylan walked out to a standing ovation. He wore a flat-brimmed white hat, white shoes, and a gray suit with dark stripes down the pants. From the cheap seats, I couldn’t tell whether it was an actual tuxedo or just made to look like one. One woman thought he looked like an usher.

Dylan has gone through many phases over the years. He began as a folkie and a protest singer, then famously went electric at Newport in 1965. At one point, he was singing country and at another Christian music. Now he seems to want to be a crooner, doing songs by Sinatra and others. He’s certainly earned the right to sing whatever he wants, but one wonders that how many people go to a concert to hear Bob Dylan sing “Autumn Leaves.”

This night was mainly a mix of newer Dylan (post 2000) and standards like “What’ll I Do,” “Melancholy Mood,” and the aforementioned “Autumn Leaves.” Some of the newer stuff, like “Scarlet Town” and “Early Roman Kings,” was certainly evocative of the old Dylan, in both sound and lyrics.

My favorite song of the evening might have been “Duquesne Whistle,” which was new to me even though it’s four years old. I’m partial to train songs, and it’s great to have one from Dylan. It’s not “Orange Blossom Special” or “The Wreck of Old 97,” but it’s pretty good.

The Seattle Times critic, reviewing the Saturday night performance, said Dylan “seemed more engaged than on the past few tours.” I have no point of comparison, but seemed to me that, in stark contrast to Mavis Staples, Dylan doesn’t really engage with his audience. He doesn’t do patter. He doesn’t introduce his band. No “hello Seattle” or or asking the audience to sing along (which wouldn’t work well for a lot of his songs anyway). At the end of the first set, he said “thank you” and announced a break. That was all he said for the evening. He presents the music, and it either captures you or it doesn’t.

As the evening went on, I began to sense a certain restlessness in the crowd. Halfway through the second set, people began leaving. Perhaps they were just trying to beat the exit traffic, but a lady sitting in front of us said she had never seen so many people leave a concert early. Two songs later, she left too.

It seemed clear that a significant portion of the audience wanted to hear the old Dylan. One guy near us kept yelling, “Take us back, Bob.” Of course Bob was taking us back, to the era of Sinatra and Irving Berlin, but that’s not what this guy (who was fairly young) had in mind.

Most musicians with a store of much-loved songs include enough of them to make their fans happy, even as they perform newer material. But Dylan did only three from the 60s and 70s. His second song was 1965’s “She Belongs to Me,” but the arrangement was so different that it was almost unrecognizable. He ended the first set with “Tangled Up in Blue,” and the audience reaction was palpable. People leapt to their feet and applauded.

He drew the same reaction with “Blowin’ in the Wind,” the first encore song, even though it too was a very different arrangement, almost a talking blues. At first it seemed that we might even not get an encore, as the initial applause after the musicians left the stage was on the tepid side. But the hard-core Dylan fans kept at it, raised the volume, and got their man. The second encore, 1997’s “Love Sick,” kept the audience rocking and wanting more, but that was all they got.

We enjoyed the concert. Robin said the music was livelier than she expected, and I liked being introduced to some Dylan that was new to me. So if you like Dylan, especially his newer stuff, and you don’t care if he sings Sinatra, go see him. But if you expect to hear classics like “Positively 4th Street,” “Queen Jane Approximately,” “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” or “Like a Rolling Stone,” you’ll be disappointed.

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