Sunday, July 01, 2007

Bob Dylan: A Mythic Troubadour Visits Hallowed Ground

NYTIMES.COM: One show that wasn’t part of Bob Dylan’s lifelong tour was the 1969 Woodstock festival, which was named for the New York town where he was living at the time but was actually held in another county. Now, 38 summers later, he appeared on Saturday night at the festival site here, which has been turned into the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts.

Concerts at Bethel Woods are by no means the Woodstock festival reborn, but a stop on the orderly suburban-shed circuit: the kind of place with no water fountains and long lines for $3 bottled water.

The natural amphitheater Woodstock used for its hundreds of thousands of people has been left open, and Bethel Woods uses a different hillside for its copper-covered roof and open-air lawn seating, made for about 17,000 people. Mr. Dylan, as usual, had songs for the occasion of his long-delayed arrival to a generational landmark.

The set mingled 1960s songs he could have played at Woodstock with those from his current album, “Modern Times” (Columbia), along with a few exceptions. He sang “The Times They Are A-Changin’ ”: once his advice to an older generation, now a warning to his own. “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” drew cheers when he sang, “I got nothing, Ma, to live up to.” He delivered both songs not with youthful, manifesto-hurling defiance but with a jocular ease, as knowing admonitions from grizzled Uncle Bob.

He also sang “When the Deal Goes Down,” thoughts on mortality from “Modern Times,” as a cozy waltz. The audience, including plenty of gray-haired people in tie-dye, shouted, “No” when he sang the verse near the end of “Spirit on the Water,” also from “Modern Times,” that starts, “You think I’m over the hill/You think I’m past my prime.”

Mr. Dylan and his band — the one that backed him on “Modern Times” — arrived in black suits and black hats, and for the first few songs Mr. Dylan played electric guitar before moving to electric organ. He was unsmiling and intent on the music. The frog rarely leaves his throat nowadays, but his vocal lines are as improvisational as ever, swerving onto or around the beat. And he uses his gruffness both playfully and bitterly, sometimes dropping to a pitiless, sepulchral bass.

During instrumental passages he often played obstinate little licks — a guitar chord repeated on off-beats, a jabbed organ note, a three-note harmonica line — to goad the songs. This lineup of Mr. Dylan’s band, whose longest-running member is Tony Garnier on bass, is rooted in scrappy roadhouse blues. But it can rev up familiar arrangements, as it did with “Tangled Up in Blue” (which had altered lyrics) or pull off variations: putting a Celtic-Appalachian banjo into “High Water (for Charley Patton),” making “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” into something like a folk minuet.

During the set Mr. Dylan metamorphosed from jovial codger to mourner in “Blind Willie McTell” and to baleful prophet with songs like “The Levee’s Gonna Break” and “Highway 61 Revisited.” And then he was Uncle Bob again. The only time he spoke between songs was to introduce the band and to say: “It’s nice to be back here. Last time we played here we had to play at 6 in the morning, and it was a-rainin’, and the field was full of mud.”

Was he conflating Bethel Hills with his appearance at Woodstock 1994, which was in Saugerties, N.Y.? Or was he just tweaking the myth?



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