As many of my aghast friends will attest, I used to hate Bob Dylan. One too many interminable car trips as a kid listening to his greatest hits (and unfortunate exposure to the excruciating Guns N' Roses cover of "Knockin' on Heaven's Door") instilled in me a deep-seated dislike of the man's music.
But as I grew up, maturity trumped my youthful disdain. I purchased Blood on the Tracks and fell in love with a hardcore Dylanophile, who quoted lyrics from "Up to Me" ("The old rounder in the iron mask slipped me the master key/Somebody had to unlock your heart/He said it was up to me") and played me the bootleg alternate mix of Tracks on the car stereo one sunny New Year's Eve.
Yet for whatever reason I never saw Dylan perform live. Oh, I heard stories about how he changes the arrangements of his songs, his croaky voice, the lack of stage banter and how his shows (if not entire tours) are hit-or-miss affairs. So when he came to the Fox Theatre last Thursday with Merle Haggard, I figured now was as good a time as any.
Even with my no-expectations, I came away disappointed. Merle Haggard's 50-minute set started off the night promisingly; save for a few vocal creaks, his velvety croon and lighthearted comments ("What's a Bob Dylan tour without drugs?") entertained. Highlights included a lovely "If I Could Only Fly," a swank version of the standard "As Time Goes By" and a rabble-rousing "Okie from Muskogee" encore.
But even as the standing ovations and blissful dancing hippies increased when Dylan took the stage half an hour later with a five-piece band clad in gray suits and black hats, the adoration didn't match the presentation.
Sticking to a shrill keyboard throughout, he opened a fourteen-song set with a meandering, six-minute version of "Maggie's Farm" that was recognizable only by the mumbled title phrase.
The same things that plagued that song brought down the rest of the show. Keyboards that should have burbled mostly sounded tinny, like a rickety wedding march or an amateur organist thrust into service at a Catholic mass. The band, while no doubt talented, repeatedly fell into a middling groove that grew monotonous. Especially interminable was a trainwreck version of "Queen Jane Approximately," which sounded like it was going to wheeze to a halt at any moment.
Most disappointing of all was Dylan's voice. Sure, his singing has always been love-it-or-hate-it (and incomprehensible on a good day), but hearing him emote in a tone that was way too reminiscent of Grandpa Simpson was, to put it mildly, discomforting. The sense of complacency beneath the mush-mouthed blurts and guttural groans was distressing and made even anthems like "Highway 61 Revisited" and "Positively 4th Street" feel devoid of the meaning that infused them originally.
Purists may say I'm complaining about the very facets that help constitute his charm; my Dylanophile described him as a troubadour who felt free to experiment and play with his music, instead of just playing it. A fair observation.
Or maybe he was just having an off night. The best tune by far was "High Water (For Charley Patton)," on which the band kicked up the swampy-bluesy licks and tempo and energy crackled throughout the (gloriously rehabbed but still oddly dank) theater.
Maybe a future tour will feature fourteen performances of that caliber. For now, though, I'll stick to Dylan's CDs.