Dylan From the Cheap Seats:


Verizon Amphitheatre in Irvine, CA - August 3, 2013

By Ross Altman

[Editors note: Review delayed in publishing due to vacation and memory lapse ... apologies to Ross who wrote this great review]

DylanWilco pulled a rabbit out of the hat last night at Bob Dylan’s Americanarama Fest—all five and a half hours of it at the Verizon Amphitheatre in Irvine, CA—formerly the Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre before the terminal disease of corporate naming rights turned public jewels into private billboards. Bad idea. The rabbit stole the show.

The rabbit was Nancy Sinatra, the only female performer in the entire concert, and apparently the only one who knew what she wanted to say. Call it the redemption of Sonny Bono. It was Sonny who wrote her (uncredited) opening song—Bang Bang, (My Baby Shot Me Down). It was first a hit for Cher—echoing his parting shot to her years before the divorce—that turned into a parting gift when it hit the charts. Nancy Sinatra, like her old man, knew a good song when she heard one, and made a hit out of it as well.

If you thought of Sonny as only the straight man in the duo, and a cheap Dylan imitator with his best-known song, I Got You Babe, think again. Cher was unquestionably the beauty—and proved by far to be the better singer and entertainer—becoming a superstar on her own—the late great former mayor of Palm Springs—where Old Blue Eyes lived—was the brains of the outfit. He designed their act, and wrote their songs.

After the sustained applause died down at the surprise revelation of hearing a song you could understand every word to, this veteran show-woman paused (to great effect) and said, “Well, I guess you know what’s coming now…” Of course we did, but it didn’t stop her and our delight in hearing her smash hit, Lee Hazlewood’s (also uncredited) These Boots Were Made for Walking. The whole audience (for the first time) sang along like this really was an Americanarama Fest—indeed she single-handedly turned it into one. Bravo, Nancy! And Wilco’s bassist John Stirratt replicated the descending double bass line of Billy Strange’s original arrangement. Well done, Ms. Rabbit.

Wilco’s sonic assault weapons were used to great crowd-pleasing effect—and drove me to the restroom for some improvised toilet paper earplugs—I’m sorry—I grew up on Emily Dickinson, not Mettallica—and by the time I returned it was mercifully over. That put the clock at just after 9:00pm—when I finally learned that Bob would not go on until 9:30pm—this from a 5:30pm starting time that began with Ryan Bingham, moved to My Morning Jacket and then somersaulted into Wilco. “And now for someone making quite a splash among the young people,” as Ed Sullivan would have said, before introducing Bob in 1963.

Unfortunately that never happened, since Bob walked out on the show when the CBS censors told him he couldn’t sing The Talking John Birch Society Blues. And by last night Dylan needed no introduction—not even the serendipitous masterpiece that used to precede his concert appearances. Now he just appears, barely even walking out onto the stage, the reason I drove two hours on the 405 to get there. He opened with his Oscar-winning song from the film The Wonder Boy: Things Have Changed. And not always for the better:

Standing on the gallows with my head in a noose

Any minute now I’m expecting all hell to break loose

People are crazy and times are strange

I’m locked in tight, I’m out of range

I used to care, but things have changed.

Dylan - Things Have Changed

Not for me they haven’t. I was thrilled to be there watching the 72-year old version of the 22-year old kid I first heard in 1963 at The Santa Monica Civic Auditorium—where I snuck in to hear the sound-check in the afternoon and he played his opening anthem The Times, They Are A-Changing just for me—you see I was the only one in the auditorium. That was my golden Dylan moment and none of the sheen has worn off in the intervening half century.

Dylan is the Poet Laureate not just of rock and roll, but of existentialism, reclaiming the ground Sartre laid out in No Exit: Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again.

Sartre - No ExitEven driving down to the concert from Los Angeles I found myself locked into Dylan’s mysterious world: I got two completely different sets of directions from two web sites, and could only guess which one was correct. My old Thomas Guide had no exit (there is Sartre again) at Irvine Center Drive, even though that was the exit indicated on the one that I finally relied on. So I sailed past Jamboree Road just hoping for the best. And then I saw a huge well-lit sign above me “Concert Traffic Exit Bake Parkway,” which made me wonder which concert that was—since there was no mention of the artist. “That must be the good concert,” I thought, not the one I’m going to. But before I could get to Bake Parkway I saw the exit for Irvine Center Drive, and since that was the actual address of the Verizon Amphitheatre, I took it.

Sure enough, it led me right into this enormous parking lot without further ado—which was laid out like Dante’s Hell—there was VIP parking for $40, which was almost as much as I had paid for my ticket, so I drove past the first circle. Then I came to the second circle—that was also “VIP” parking, but only $20—so clearly those people were not quite as “Very Important” as the first. I drove past that lot too—until I came to the 9th circle—the free lot for us Very Unimportant People—the ones who have actually been singing Bob’s songs for fifty years. I got a week’s worth of exercise walking back up to the entrance—en route to which I passed an old truck with two bearded zealots handing out free magazines from the back—with Bob’s picture silhouetted on the cover—from the same 12 Tribes of Israel I wrote about in my Dead Sea Scrolls review of his 2012 Hollywood Bowl concert. We had a friendly chat and I thanked them for their latest issue and started walking down the line, thinking they’re really one of the 12 Tribes of Dylan.

Dylan 12 TribesThen I passed folks selling last-minute tickets to the concert for those who had waited too long to buy one. And just before I reached the gate I saw two women waving a ticket in the air—“We’re giving one away!” they said. A young guy in blue jeans came up to her and asked “how much?” She repeated, “It’s free!!” “Really?” he asked. “Yes,” she said, but please don’t sell it. “Oh, I won’t,” he promised—“thank you so much.” I let him pass, thinking I’ll go in last, and said to the generous young ladies, “I guess that’s how you know you’re at a Dylan concert.” “Right on!” they chimed in together.

Just before I passed through the Gates of Eden I asked one of the Live Nation attendants about that Bake Parkway exit. “That was suggested as an alternative earlier because Irvine Center Drive was jammed with concert traffic—you’re at the right concert,” they reassured me.

Once inside the venue I was still a long way from my seat. I strolled through the vast circus of concession stands—including one for Bob’s merchandise—very well stocked with T-shirts, hats and concert posters, but strangely no CDs. I would not have been surprised to see the jugglers and the clowns and lion tamers (especially since I had turned down Lion Country Road to get here). But it was just me and those $12 hamburgers—No Thanks. Then I started climbing Mt. Olympus to get up to the cheap seats high above the stage. It was a quiet but challenging walk, since it was intermission. I noticed what appeared to be a complete joint on the ground and bent over to scoop it up; silly me, it was only a French fry. When I placed it back where it came from the woman next to me smiled and said, “I thought it was too! And I was thinking, ‘Shoot, she saw it before I did.’ “Everybody must get stoned!” We chimed in and kept climbing.

It didn’t matter, though; once I found my seat high atop the amphitheater—right in front of the fence that secured the unreserved lawn for those who were lucky enough to score the early bird general admission lawn seats for $20 each three months ago—I soon realized that if you were even breathing at a Bob Dylan concert you would get a pleasant second-hand contact high. Everyone around me was smoking grass or else expecting rain.

When Wilco came back for their encore they picked a Neil Young classic—Cinnamon Girl. Good idea. The whole audience joined in for the first time in their set and ended on a high note—this time from the music.

Then I noticed how strange the times really were. Suddenly Wilco’s road crew started taking the stage apart and removing what seemed like tons of sound equipment-speakers, platforms, cables and microphones. “What’s Bob gonna play on?” I wondered; how ungentlemanly of them. Of course he had his own set up and soon his road crew started to assemble it on stage—only it took up about half as much space—quite a minimalist production compared to his opening acts. “Isn’t that backwards?” I thought. “Shouldn’t the headliner have the most equipment?” And that’s when I appreciated what this latter day troubadour still represents—no gimmicks, no ear-deafening volume to substitute for the lack of a melody, no light show to distract your attention from the lyrics. With Dylan there’s no window-dressing; it’s all in the telling; just great American music and poetry. Out of the corner of my ear I overheard a man say, “I remember what it was like to be 60 years old.” Exactly, I thought. Me too. The young guy sitting next to me had on a unique baseball cap with the image of what looked like John Trudell—the wonderful Native American poet and musician—with the deft inscription: No Thanks—No Giving surrounding the portrait. Now that’s Americana!

Across the aisle I saw a young mother with her six-month old baby strapped around her waist. Then I turned to the woman on my right, who had what looked like a six-year old daughter with her, and said, “I thought your daughter was the youngest one here—until I saw her”—and directed her attention down the aisle. The young mother smiled at me, “Oh, this is her fourth Dylan concert! She was 27 days old when I took her to her first.” Wow, I thought, as the six-year old was expertly strumming through images on her Smart Phone. Talk about feeling old in a hurry. Then Bob appeared and I settled down for the music I would have waded through cut glass to hear. How to sum it up?

Dylan EyeOne image above all stuck in my mind: the famed Dylan logo “eye” thrown spectrally against the back curtain late in the show. It stuck in my mind because my local cable TV company—Time Warner—another corporate disease—has blacked out CBS and the even more famous CBS logo—the eye—in New York and Los Angeles. For the first time since I can’t remember when I had to miss 60 Minutes—their flagship program—due to corporate malfeasance, incompetence and greed. That’s why seeing Dylan’s medieval version of one human eye peering out into the darkness gave me such comfort—and represented the triumph of humanity over what SDS’s late great president Carl Oglesby named the corporate state. The eye may be blacked out on Time Warner in Los Angeles, but Bob Dylan opened it up again outdoors in the late cool summer sky of Irvine. It was worth the long drive just to see him make it shine.

Here is the set list, with songs as sturdy as The Brooklyn Bridge spanning his fifty-year career: Things Have Changed; Love Sick; High Water (For Charley Patton); Soon After Midnight; Early Roman Kings; Tangled Up In Blue; Duquesne Whistle; She Belongs To Me; Beyond Here Lies Nothing; A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall; Blind Willie McTell; Simple Twist of Fate; Summer Days; [The Weight]; All Along the Watchtower; Ballad Of A Thin Man.

“What’ll you do now, my blue-eyed son?” I remember thinking about half way through, and as if he had read my mind he launched into A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall—now fifty years old. This timeless song could not have been more timely—he also sang it in 1971 at The Concert for Bangladesh for the most desperate among us, and it spoke directly to American political and economic travails as well—at a time when endemic hunger remains a chronic problem and a do-nothing, gridlocked Congress and ineffective President find evermore creative euphemisms to mask it—such as “food insecurity.” Not to Bob:

I’m a going outside for the rain starts a falling

Where hunger is ugly and souls are forgotten

Where black is the color and none is the number.

And outside in what I still think of as the Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre Dylan is still “reflecting from the mountain so all souls can see it.”

Bob brought it all back home with Jim James, Jeff Tweedy and Ryan Bingham joining him on the one collaborative song of the set, Robbie Robertson’s The Weight from his old band—The Band—which became an unspoken tribute to their late lead singer Levon Helm—and prompted Dylan’s one wisecrack of the evening: “Here’s a song you all know well—I hope we know it as well as you!” And then his comforting gravelly voice “Pulled into Nazareth, feeling ‘bout half-past dead…” They nailed the double refrain: “You put the load/You put the load/Right on me.” Temporarily like The Band!

And then he returned to the existential dilemma that defines his best work; variations on Sartre’s theme of No Exit:

There must be some way out of here

Said the joker to the thief

There’s too much confusion

I can’t get no relief

Businessmen they drink my wine

Plowmen dig my earth

None of them along the line

Know what any of it is worth.

But he goes beyond Sartre, for he does find a way out—with an epigrammatic wit that penetrates the darkness of despair with an always resurgent sense of hope:

I see my light come shining

From the west down to the east

Any day now

Any day now

I shall be released.

No wonder Amnesty International made that its official theme song. Prisoners we may be, but Dylan’s caged bird still sings. He speaks as eloquently as a 19th Century English poet who also was a prisoner.

Bob Dylan is the Oscar Wilde of our time, unafraid to bite the hand that’s feeding him, taking on the very mentality that named the amphitheater he is playing in, casting the modern merchants of greed and corruption from his most recent album Tempest in the guise of Early Roman Kings:

I was up on black mountain

The day Detroit fell

They killed 'em all off

And they sent 'em to hell

Ding dong daddy

You're coming up short

Gonna put you on trial

In a Sicilian court

I've had my fun

I've had my flings

Gonna shake em all down

Like the early roman kings

Dylan eschewed the role of prophet back in the 1960s, but some of his most recent work hits closer to the mark than Jeanne Dixon’s: You see Dylan wrote that prophetic line the year before “the day Detroit fell.”:

They're peddlers and they're meddlers

They buy and they sell

They destroyed your city

They'll destroy you as well

They're lecherous and treacherous

Hell-bent for leather

Each of 'em bigger

Than all them put together

Sluggers and muggers

Wearing fancy gold rings

All the women goin' crazy

For the early Roman kings

But Dylan rarely places himself above the fray, and doesn’t do so here:

I ain't dead yet

Ma Bell still rings

I keep my fingers crossed

Like them early roman kings

Indeed, that is his salvation. For who but the early Roman kings and modern corporate America would charge $13 for a beer, $12 for a hamburger and $11 for a hot dog, which were the going rates in the carnival atmosphere surrounding the concert at the “Verizon Amphitheatre.” One of these days—mark my words—you won’t go to Washington, DC to see the White House—it will be re-christened The Coke House—or worse yet—the Koch Brothers House. After they take over the Los Angeles Times. And when that day comes, Bob Dylan’s early Old Testament prophecy will have come true: the hard rain will have fallen.

Out in the parking lot after the show again there seemed to be No Exit; it took close to an hour for the 16,000 plus cars to find some way out of here. “Here I sit so patiently,” I reminisced, “waiting to find out what price/You have to pay to get out of/Going through all these things twice.” Like Oscar, Bob has a great line to encompass every situation.

With no direction home I stopped off at Westminster Ave. to get an In-and-Out hamburger and French fries, for just $3.85. I put Good As I Been To You in the tape deck, and listened to Hard Times Come Again No More with just his achingly pure soulful voice and guitar. Bob Dylan singing Stephen Foster: that’s Americana to me.

On the 50th anniversary of November 22 he will host In Memoriam JFK at The Talking Stick, 1411 Lincoln Blvd, Venice, CA 90291 from 7:00 to 10:00pm 310-450-6052

Bob Dylan’s fall tour of Europe is underway he’s doing full concerts with an intermission, surveying his entire fifty-year career. For information on dates, tickets and set lists see www.bobdylan.com

Ross Altman may be reached at greygoosemusic@aol.com