(Since Bob Dylan and Elvis Costello are, to put it mildly, iconic, A to Z sent two writers to review the show – one who’s never seen either in concert before, and a veteran who has years of Costello and Dylan shows under his belt. Surprisingly, each writer came to about the same conclusions, although the nuanced perspective of each gives a greater picture of the show as a whole. Read on below -- and be sure to check out the YouTube clips, which are generally rare live performances instead of straight videos. -- Annie Zaleski)
Review one: It would be hard to find a concert where expectations were higher than last night’s pairing of Bob Dylan and Elvis Costello at the Fox Theatre. The ornate surroundings of the venue served as the perfect backdrop for three hours of music by two of the most revered songwriters and iconic performers in the history of popular music. But in his own way, each legend managed to deliver and embody his own myth -- by constantly reminding the audience of just how powerful a truly great song can be, regardless of the packaging.
Costello (although performing solo on this tour) came out swinging with a raucous version of “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes,” immediately establishing the mood for a set that rolled by on waves of his signature vibrato. Powerful vocal outbursts easily engulfed the entirety of the cavernous venue, at times without the use of the microphone: Costello would step to the side of the stage and belt out the last chorus of a song all on his own, letting his voice project and fill the naturally perfect reverb chamber.
Opting to run his acoustic guitars through a small tweed amplifier was also a great approach, as the signal would overdrive and distort as Costello attacked the strings more aggressively, giving a nice gritty impression to spirited classics “Veronica” and an absolutely spine-tingling version of “Alison.” Costello worked the microphone and the crowd with precision and grace straight through to his closing number, a haunting rendition of “The Scarlet Tide,” a tune he recently penned with T. Bone Burnett.
As the table was now set nicely for rock & roll royalty, Dylan and his band took the stage and immediately launched into “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat.” Dylan manned a guitar for the first few numbers -- including a great version of “It Ain’t Me Babe” -- taking a few solos and rocking along with the rest of the band before sliding behind the keys for the rest of the set. The precise classic Nashville-style five-piece band followed Dylan through a meandering, nearly two-hour set that resided heavily in the neighborhood of the dark minor-key blues numbers that were a nice fit with Dylan’s demonic, throaty yelps.
And while one could easily question the validity of the vocal performance – and gee, what an original criticism when it comes to Dylan -- or even go down the road of analyzing the relevance of aging rock stars, what really mattered about last night’s performance was that the songs were still relevant, moving and thought-provoking. “Visions of Johanna” still made the hair on one’s neck stand up, and “Highway 61 Revisited” lost none of its ability to make one long for the open road.
The night was capped off with a treat that everyone in the audience hoped for but none allowed themselves to expect: Costello came out during the first encore and joined Dylan for an awe-inspiring duet of “Tears of Rage.” -- Shae Moseley
Review two: He was wearing sparkly cowboy boots instead of his ancient red Doc Martens, but Elvis Costello opened with “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes” and proceeded to run through a twelve-song set that mixed some of his best-known tunes with new and unreleased songs. During this rare solo appearance -- in recent years, Costello has toured with the Imposters or with pianist Steve Nieve -- the singer took a few moments to show off his quasi-operatic method of projection. On “Either Side of the Same Town,” Costello backed away from the mic and let loose a full-bodied chorus that reached the Fox Theatre’s upper balcony.
He previewed a few new songs, including one that he has written with Loretta Lynn. The song, which finds an ex-wife addressing her replacement, relied on imagery from the Adam and Eve parable and, at first glance, struck me as an instance where his wordplay outmatched his heart; the endless snake/apple/gates of Eden references were clever, if a little empty. Costello’s use of Biblical references was much stronger in his guit-picking rendition of “Bedlam” (from 2004’s The Delivery Man) , which recasts the Nativity story in the quagmire of Middle East politics. It may be the best song he’s written in fifteen years, and Costello’s fervor and spitfire delivery of the song’s loaded lyrics complemented the political tone.
He dug into his back catalogue for a blue-eyed soul version of “Radio Sweetheart,” into which he incorporated Van Morrison’s “Jackie Wilson Said.” After an obligatory but beautiful turn at “Alison” and the crowd favorite “(What’s So Funny ´Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding,” Costello closed with the war widow’s lament “The Scarlet Tide.” The song, written with T-Bone Burnett and initially recorded by Alison Krauss, is another instance of Costello’s ability to work his political views into his songs while avoiding grandstanding and hyperbole.
Elvis Costello used his heart and wit to win over the crowd, but it became clear that Bob Dylan didn’t need to work that hard. Bedecked in a trim black Western suit and flanked by his leather-clad backing band, Dylan picked up his Stratocaster and launched into “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat.”
When I saw Dylan in 2004 at the Pageant, he was positioned stage right behind an electric keyboard. He never touched a guitar or approached the microphone that was positioned at center-stage. It was refreshing to see him bash it out on the guitar before moving to the keyboard, even if the appearance of Dylan with guitar was more totemic than musical.
Critics and fans have tried to make peace with Dylan’s tours of the last few years – his reliance on odd tempos and a more country-and-blues based sound, not to mention his rushed cadence. There was little in last night’s set that strictly resembled rock & roll music; pedal steel player Donnie Herron added some sweet-and-low atmosphere, and drummer George Recile kept a jazzy, swinging beat on his ride cymbal throughout most songs. Whatever the genre, the songs kept a simple, formal beauty that allowed Dylan to growl and hustle through his lyrics.
The show mixed some of Dylan’s standards (“It Ain’t Me Babe,” “Highway 61 Revisited”) with his more recent work (read the full set list here). During a languid, intoxicating “Visions of Johanna,” Dylan played a surprisingly lyrical solo on the harmonica – none of that blustery blowing that gave so much raw soul power to his first few records. He would do something similar with the set-closing “Ballad of a Thin Man.”
The show’s highlight came at the encore, when Elvis Costello joined Dylan for an acoustic version of “Tears of Rage,” a song Dylan wrote with Richard Manuel for the Band’s debut Music from Big Pink. It was a fitting song for the pair to sing, as Costello has always worn his love for the Band on his sleeve, and though Elvis took over lead vocal duties, it was charming to see him back away from the mic in deference to Dylan during the choruses. Of the twenty or so shows that Costello has opened for Dylan, the St. Louis show marked the first time that they had shared the stage.
The encore continued with the excellent “Thunder on the Mountain” (from last year’s Modern Times), and the night ended with “All Along the Watchtower.” By that time, many in my section had already left – either tired of the bluesy versions of Dylan’s songs or bored by the lack of dynamics in the show. Their loss. -- Christian Schaeffer
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