Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, and Amos Lee

The title sounds like the opening to a really odd joke, but in fact it was the concert bill last night in Albany. Bob Dylan is touring as always, and Elvis Costello is along doing a solo set, with Amos Lee opening for both. Kate and I went to the show, and it was… unusual.

I’ll put most of the review comments below the fold, just to avoid cluttering the front page more than it already is. I think the key realization of the evening, though, was that at age 66, Dylan has decided that he wants to be Johnny Cash circa 1968.

What with one thing and another, we were a little late getting there, and missed most of Amos Lee’s opening set. He must’ve started very promptly at 7:00 (unusually for the music business), because it was only 7:20 when we got to our seats, and he only played two more songs. Those two songs were really good, though, and I’m sorry we didn’t see more. As I noted to Kate, it’s got to be a rare triple bill where he has the most appealing singing voice of any of the acts, but he makes good use of it.

The seats we had were at the far end of the Times Union Center from the stage, off to one side a bit, and may have been the worst seats I’ve ever had for a concert. Not in terms of the view– that was perfectly fine– in terms of the seats themselves. They were cushioned at least, but narrow, and the rows were really close together. As a result, there was really only one way I could sit, which still involved jamming my legs into the back of the seats in front of me, and I got a horrible crick in my neck from having to turn sideways to see the stage. I resolved to spend as little time as possible in the actual seat, and thus spent most of the set breaks out on the concourse buying beer (where, again, I was astounded by the ability of the average person to make simple transactions complicated– there were two kinds of beer on tap, and three in bottles, all five types clearly visible from the entire line. And yet, people would get all the way to the front of the line without knowing what they wanted, and would need to have a little conversation with the tapman).

Elvis Costello played entirely solo– just him, a microphone, and a guitar. I’ve never seen this done in an arena before– I’ve been to a few solo acoustic shows in small theaters (The Egg, Troy Music Hall), but never a show in a hockey rink. Had this show been in a small amphitheater like that, I think it would’ve been really special, but even in the great big room, he did a good job.

The set list was heavy on stuff that I didn’t know, but he mixed a few hits in. The highlight was probably when he segued from “Radio Sweetheart” into Van Morrison’s “Jackie Wilson Said,” leading the crowd in a singalong of the “da da-da da da da-da da da da” bits. There were a couple of points where he talked to the crowd a bit, and showed off his fine command of Stephen Colbert’s list of ways to get applause without asking for it. His stage patter was, as you might expect, pretty funny, and again, were the show in a smaller theater where he could interact with more of the audience, I think it would’ve been something amazing. As it was, I wished I knew more of his back catalogue, so I could follow the songs better.

I’ve seen Bob Dylan twice before, once in 1991 (it was a Fourth of July show at Tanglewood, listed as “Lenox“), and once in New Haven in 1999. The earlier show was pretty bad, really– he was totally incomprehensible, and the music was a little erratic– but the 1999 show was outstanding. So it was a little hard to know what to expect going in to this one.

On this tour, Dylan is with a guitar-heavy backing band: lead guitar, bass guitar, rhytym guitar, and steel guitar. OK, the steel guitar player (Donnie Herron) also plays violin and viola, and the bass player sometimes played upright bass, but really, that’s a lot of guitars. Probably because of that, Dylan spent most of the show playing keyboards, which was a little odd.

Dylan came out dressed like an itinerant preacher in a Western– black suit, white shirt, and a short of flat broad-brimmed hat. The backing band were all in maroon suits with black shirts. Kate asked me what sort of look they were trying to go for, and I originally said “early rock band,” but a couple of songs in, it hit me: what was really going on was Dylan trying to be Johnny Cash circa 1968. The band was very much a 60’s era country band, and every song was played like they were recording it at Folsom Prison.

This worked out better for some of the songs on the set list (you gotta love Dylan fans– the show ended after 11:00, but the set list was posted before I got up at 7) than others. The opening “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” isn’t too far off that sound anyway, nor is “Watching the River Flow,” and of course, most of the material from Love and Theft and Modern Times was recorded with this sort of band. Some of the older songs, though, didn’t make the transition as well. “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” wasn’t bad as a country song (though as it was the second song in the show, they hadn’t really warmed up yet, and Dylan sort of croaked his way through it), but “Simple Twist of Fate” was decidedly odd.

The set list was pretty heavy on new-ish material. Eight of the sixteen songs were from Time Out of Mind or later, and while it might not seem unusual to draw half of the set from the last decade, the man does have almost fifty years of back catalogue, most of it much better known than his more recent stuff. The newer songs do work better with the current band, though, and last night’s set list was pretty typical of the current tour. And you’ve got to give him integrity points for refusing to do a “greatest hits” show.

The best points of the show came toward the end, as he closed the set with a very sinister “Masters of War.” I’m not a huge fan of protest songs in general, as they tend to be really heavy-handed, but this is one of the best examples of the genre, and they did a great job with it. The encore was two songs, and the show-closing “All Along the Watchtower” was probably the best song they did all night. It’s amusing to note, though, that even Bob Dylan feels obliged to get somebody to play the Hedrix riff when he does this song…

All in all, this was somewhere between the earlier two shows. Dylan never had much of a voice to begin with, and there isn’t much of that left, but he’s learned to work with it better than he had in 1991, and the new band is pretty solid. The 1999 show, though (which I have a bootleg tape version of somewhere) had a much larger musical range– he was already starting to move in the direction of the current country sound (the version of “It Ain’t Me, Babe” from that show was fantastic), but he hadn’t taken to re-writing absolutele everything to fit that sound. That show was also a little looser than this one.

And the seats were more comfortable. I swear, I’m planning to buy Springsteen tickets for his show in Albany in November, and “General Admission” is looking better and better…