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Bob Dylan 971216 at the El Rey Theater, Los Angeles, CA

Subject: muddy sound plagues el rey opener (review)
From: "oracle@delphi" (oracle@del.phi)
Date: 17 Dec 1997 05:14:00 -0700

the el rey seems like a fine building for music at a moderately 
pumped-up cabaret-level volume -- with chairs and tables
removed, the basketball-gym-sized carpet+dance floor
packed with over-heated humanity -- seemed ripe for the plucking; 
but, bob is bob, and for some reason, instead of inching up the volume 
to capture that spontaneous saloon feel, dylan obliviously jacks up
two unecessary black towers of speaker artillery.

the oracle, who has given up waiting on lines, wandered in a 
little after 20:00 in the middle of beck's set.  from the sides of the 
sro-packed hall with a two-step recessed dance floor in the 
center -- beck appeared to have the same wry demeanor and 
hairstyle as dana carvey from _saturday night live_.

while his guitar was competently -- even superlatively twangy
and warm, his songs were rather not unpleasant passive wisps
of impression.  he seems like he'd be great at a party, but not
having heard him before, i would guess this low-key performance
didnt show his virtues to best effect.

in any case, no more opening acts for bob dylan, who should 
be taken straight with no chaser.

having checked out the venue the day before and pointing out that
the two speaker towers would be way too loud for the potentially
intimate room, the oracle was reassured that "bob dylan doesnt 
make that much noise."  

well, maybe once upon a time, but a potentially snappy reading 
of _cold irons bound_ was nearly ground in a tangle of 
over-amplification, turning the high-ceilinged hall into a 
liquor-serving welding hangar.

even beck's guiltar alone -- with no other instruments --
sounded (the reproduction, not the performance) like a dental
drill without a muffler.

but the seasoned dylan-listener has been through worse overkill, 
and there's always the acoustic set to provide 20 minutes of relief 
from the bedroom window of sound bricks which flames into 
monotonic oblivion such potential pleasers as _highway 61_ 
and _stuck inside mobile.

the problem is: dylan's best feature: intimacy, is corrupted by 
playing all the electric songs at arena level.  a certain columbia 
recording artist might do well to start saving on amplifier bills.

eventually, a letter-perfect, grave and beautiful _hattie carroll_ 
sets a gratifyingly sustained tone and level -- until the next
swirling sea of echo-chaos began with _mobile; like the one 
effectively drowning out a spunky, reggae-inflected 
 _cant wait_ drowned underwater, especially to 
those on the sides, at least halfway down the walls. 

the sound man -- at the back of the hall -- claimed it sounded fine, 
but this pa system should've been set-up like _unplugged_ or 
letterman; not the usual dylan small-to-medium auditorium.

fortunately, dylan's now unconscious mastery of sporadic 
poignance allows even the listener-unfriendly to be 
captured by exposed passions -- but only on the slower 
songs merging kemper's garcia-bred lope with larry and 
bucky's charmingly flat-footed bar-band harmonies.

so, what we have is the world's greatest bar-band being forced
by you-know-who to be amplified at the same level as the ramones. 

the venue itself is audience-friendly, though a _jack daniels_ 
bourbon is six dollars; and a diverse deli menu offers small pizzas -- 
a tasty prandial expedient, at $4.

the people were 99.99 44/100 caucasion -- only about 1/4 female; 
males mostly all long-haired or balding or both.

another problem with the ambience: during beck's set -- the
heat and stagnant air.  even dylan made a comment about the
heat onstage, especially under his bulky black coat with silver-
colored buttons, a long black-white-green-striped bowtie and
embroidered maroon 4-pronged spider-thingies on his jacket.

later, it seemed some air-conditioning helped, but only

dylan looked good except was clean-shaven -- he always looks
most relaxed with the _pat garrett stubble -- but i guess he
doesnt want to be a gray-beard just yet.  look where it
got garcia.

anyway, before the set, bucky came onstage in a shiny green 
shirt after beck left -- to tune the pedal steel he used on nearly 
every song but i couldnt hear *any of it at all* in the mix.

finally, after beck's batteries finally ran down, and a sizeable wait --
about 9:15 the band takes the stage and hops into a gritty _maggie's 
farm_ which has a nice country feel but murked the sound system,
essentially making it another mumble-fest, drowning dylan's fresh
biting half-spoken delivery.  unfortunately, you had to filter out 
the noise around it and keep your mind on the bouncing 
drumbeat -- a combination of the 90's fast-version with the 
country-version from '96.  

the whole show had a soft country feel in the "slower songs," which 
worked to near perfection.  the guitar-hero songs were too fucking 
loud for the size of the room and wouldve played just fine with the
original amplifiers (well, maybe a little help, but just a little).

second song: a warm and generous, though quick and direct, _tonight 
i'll be staying here; again, kemper's quasi-reggae syncopation puts 
imperceptible spaces between the off-centered beats, allowing the 
song, and eventually the hall, to breathe between lines, letting the 
music complement the vocal rather than engulfing it.

_cold irons bound_ was *performed* effectively, but you couldnt
differentiate the orchestral dynamics.  i imagine someone who hasnt 
heard this song would think it sounds likes a straight-ahead 
rocker.  the eerie-chunky-percussive intro is quickly absorbed 
into a whirlpool of amplification -- and strangely enough, like the 
album, the bristling vocal finds itself buried.  tempowise it worked
as a mid-speed ballad, but there were too many conflicting echoes 
to give it salubrious modulation or nuance.

paradoxically, _you aint goin nowhere_ took good advantage 
of the extra-intense sound system since it was sung with that
pupit-style arrangement, more slowly and consistently paced,
hitting the chorus in stride and light-hearted, bouncing and
pleasing -- giving the bobster a chance to ring them bells
in the throat.

i think _cant wait_ was #5.  the vocal reading was sharp 
with quick-witted irony (the lyrics more allegorical
than imaginative); band is powerful, but loudness
makes it hard to follow subtle moments of unspoken
musical relationships.

let's see, oh, _silvio_ -- felt constrained -- too loud for the enclosed
space, too vibrant to be toned-down.  since _silvio is now the
official #6 meat-and-potatoes staple, a la _watchtower/_tangled (when 
it was electric at #5 in '94 and they rushed through it every night) --
it's going to come every night like a rising moon, and 
when it works it blazes, combining all the instruments in a tightening
pyramid of precision.  tonight, in the echoed space hurting the loud 
songs -- after the first few notes it seemed, while not completely
generic (because it had genuine passion, feisty rhythm, and youthful
enthusiasm), i guess you could call it: neutral.  it didnt build
and climax instrumentally like some mature versions right before 
watson handed over his drumsticks.  winston had arena energy 
and palpable rhythm, which allowed him to lead the pack on songs 
like _silvio.  kemper's more gentler, bouncy style better suits the 

onward: _cocaine_ without spontaneity, but focused 
intense delivery; bucky and larry on harmonies.
filled the hall with perfect blend of voice and instrument.

too bad the loud songs had no modulation though bob was pounding
them out with quotidian dedication -- even if you're
standing far away from the speakers, they blend into a hurricane
of torrent, which is fine if you know the lyrics, but...

okay, _hattie carroll_.  #2 acoustic song (no drummer weighing 
down the acoustic set for a change), right about the time when 
the old adenoids get warmed and working: passionate, proportioned,
perfect.  more cutting than the l.a. '95 version at the also-general-
admission _palladium_.  when this song is done right it is tragic.

i also noticed for the first time, lyrically, that the first few verses
begin with william zanzinger; then the story shifts to hattie carroll
then i dont remember what happens because im entranced by
dylan's ability to give every line a punch of energy at the 
beginning middle or end

obviously when you find a point in the show where you feel
that flash of harmony and passion, you're sure that that
first few chords of the next song are enchanted.  later, you may
hear a copy and begin to feel that it sounded just like a thousand other 
nights.  anyway, those jangled a-g-a chords of _tangled up in blue_
began ringing like a mantra.  the expository lyrics blew like
a biting whip -- a difficult, wordy song like _tangled, 
with no chorus and a river of half-spoken rembrances -- frequently,
this song gets glossed like _stuck inside mobile -- where it becomes
long and unweildy and dylan likes to play fast and get
it over with.  but this time _tangled had a measured intensity, 
allowing the audience to rub up against a man's torn tapestry.

_stuck inside mobile; well, this song, wordy though it must be,
sounds better at slower speed, giving the listener time to take in
the hallucina-comic lyrics; this reading had a few
flashes of playfulness, but with the bitching sound and slightly
rush, it stayed at one listenable but undeveloped level.  i began
thinking the useless: "what if...  were played acoustically, instead of only the old
blues tunes and early-album solo-guitar structures.  _stuck inside
mobile...acoustic...backed by strings alone.  not tonight.

_this wheel's on fire_; eh.  started with a requisite _intensity_ but
didnt kick in emotionally.  too vague a lyric; causes distortion
off the ceiling being over-presented for the size of the
building.  fortunately, it was shorter than most; dylan really
sunk his fangs into it, but seemed noisy and colorless.

_till i fell in love_; great but too fast.  it could've had a
mischievous rhythm but it started out grinding when it could've
been bumping and never recovered an expansive enough vibe.
later it sped up and down in search of the ineffable groove but 
got louder and more jumbled.  again, what a waste of potential 
intimacy.  still worth hearing though.

since dylan's latest "death-scare" since the motorcycle accident,
he's been again elevated to national celebrity status for a while.  
kind of ironic since he's been doing his own thing for so long -- 
bad or good -- it always takes a brush with the reaper for the 
world to gawk at his staying power.  unfortunately, in the case of 
the lyrically-impaired _toom, the media was actually reviewing dylan's 
career, since one after the other they stole the same cliches about 
his "return" from some sloppy undefined mediocrity.

i dont think one of the national critics -- excluding the dylan-mutant
-specialists and maybe jon pareles of the ny times (who at least 
recognized _wgw as at least a highlight of dylan's career) -- yet in '93 
when it came out i couldnt find it on any of the ny times' top ten lists.
anyway, i dont think one national critic has the slightest idea of the 
cultural significance of the songs on _wgw, especially since the 
re-issue of the _harry smith folk anthology_ where numerous songs 
from _gaibty, and _wgw are found, e.g., _love henry, _stack-o-lee, 
_frankie and johnnie_, etc.

anyway, when these idiots refer to _toom as "his best work since 
_blood on the tracks_," they're covering their hineys,
since it's common knowledge that the 80's as a compositional time
were more sporadic and transitional; anyway, not one critic
in all the worldwide mainstream -- well, maybe
one or two -- mentioned that _wgw might be dylan's best album
ever, if not, only because he didnt write any lyrics.  i dont think they 
have the slightest idea what's on that album, how he sounds, and what 
significance it has on his work or the history of acoustic musicology.

where were we; oh yeah, now dylan's in a trap where he wants
to take a stab at the masses again before his popularity condenses
into the curious and the obsessed.  so, he's really giving his all
out there night after night and getting into some kind of heavenly
groove, but he doesnt think about what it actually sounds
like 50 feet away.  the louder it's amplified, the more it echoes.

i dont think it was such a joke when that german critic supposedly
asked him if he likes "torturing his audience."  even springsteen
wants the _sound_ to be perfect.  dylan wants you to filter out
a dissonant chaos-factor; well, it's not that he's got an agenda --
he just doesnt think about the listener's experience, which is
unfortunate because on the softer songs he shines, and the
bigger songs he obscures his gifts.   

anyway, back to work: _highway 61_ too blasting; negligible 
nuance; good intensity; salvageable but not too individuated

_forever young_: affecting though dutifully standard

_love sick_: hate this song; meaningless pseudo-mystical;
works as a bayou-style blues; but zero emotional impact with 
blurry cliches of love; replace immediately with _not dark yet_

_rdw; if you've got to play this with a full band, start giving 
out free joints; it works better at the beginning then gets too 
loud for the size of the room.

overall, the technical smudgery of using too much speaker
equipment for the size of a packed, intimate hall, eats away
at about half the songs.  the other half were letter-perfect, 
as is becoming the norm.

(c) oracle@delphi, 17dec97

Subject: Dylan - El Rey Review - 12/16/97 From: ( Date: Fri, 02 Jan 1998 01:32:23 -0600 Bob Dylan @ The El Rey Theatre - 12/16/97 - Los Angeles

I found a great space on the raised area stage left in front of the speakers about 18' from center stage. There wasn't a skinhead in the audience. But I did wonder how many people dye their hair. Naturally. Very polite crowd. Let's say mature. The security guards looked like they woulda prefered a little rap music. The soundman had made himself quite a little shrine back there with a couple of bottles of wine on ice, incense, and a variety of extra items. For once, being 6' 6" paid off. I had a great view of the stage. A lot of excitement in the audience that Bob was playing such a small venue.

Beck was met greeted with an appreciative applause as he came onstage at the El Rey Theatre and welcomed the audience of 900 to the "Bob Dylan guitar.And a harmonica. He started off with a Jimmie Rogers tune, "Waiting For A Train", and followed that with "Lampshade"; "Cold Brains"; "Girl Dreams"; "Breathless"; "Tie Myself Down"; "One Foot In The Grave"( an outstanding song with fine harmonica work); "Dead Melodies"; "Rowboat"; "Little Sparrow" ( this one on a banjo) ; "Nobody's Fault But My Own"; My Good Leavin' ( some slide work on a National Steel Guitar ); "I Get Lonesome". I don't know any of these songs, and I don't know the Beck album, but I was impressed with the countryfried Beck. I liked the sound. It was unpretentious. I'd be interested in hearing more of this kinda stuff from Beck. He thanked Bob for letting him open for him. Later in the evening Bob acknowledged Beck "as a young man with an incredible future". And I do remember reading on the web that Beck had been spotted in Japan purchasing a number of "bootleg" Bob Dylan CDs. During Beck's set, I spotted David Kemper, Dylan's drummer, peeking through the curtain checking out the scene.

"Ladies and Gentlemen, please welcome Columbia recording artist Bob Dylan" AND he was onstage and into 1) "Maggies Farm" ( a clear signal that these are all gonna be "new" songs and the intensity begins here and keeps going!). These are not the original recordings. Bob had added the Jam Factor. His band is a little different. Larry Cambell on guitar; David Kemper on drums; Bucky Baxter on pedal steel guitar and mandolin; and Paul ? on guitar and bass. Later when Bob introduced them, he said, "I wish we had Lindsey Buckingham up here. We couldn't get him. Maybe next time." 2) "Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You" (a great surprise!); 3)"Cold Irons Bound" (hot stuff!); 4) "You Ain't Going Nowhere" (whew!); 5) "Can't Wait" (hot stuff!); 6) "Silvio" ( a strong rocking number that has a new life); 7) "Cocaine Blues" ( an acoustic traditional with just two acoustic guitars and the bass); 8) "Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carrol" (acoustic and eyeball to eyeball); 9) "Tangled Up In Blue" (acoustic...This did it. The audience was totally alive!!!) ; 10) "Stuck Inside of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again" (jammin'!); 11) This Wheels On Fire; 12) "'Til I Fell For You" (hot stuff!); 13) Highway 61 Revisited (the first encore that had Bob going places he's never been before and Larry Campbell appearing amazed. Maybe the finest version of this song I've heard ); 14) Forever Young (acoustic and brilliant. There is an honesty and passion to Bob's voice and playing); 15) "Love Sick" (very hot stuff!); "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35" ( it ripped!).

Gram Parsons had nothing on Bob in terms of fashion. He was the man in the long black coat. A black frock coat. Purple pants with a golden seam. Patent leather boots with high heels and a tad of golden strip. Oh. And the bowtie.

Oh. I was taking notes at my little space on the speakers. The volume had picked up and the soundman was cool enough to give me a set of earplugs. Very nice. So I'm taking notes and this guy next to me says, "Mr. Hilburn since you seem to write from a historical view, how about if you set up a web page with all your reviews so that we could access them?" Not wanting to disappoint him we carried on quite a conversation and I got his view on Bob, the new album, the show, etc. Little did he know that the real Robert Hilburn was just a couple of feet away and asked me if I knew what the name of "that song is?" ("You Ain't Goin' Nowhere"). As his clone I politely obliged.

Bob was 18' away from me during the entire show. I was immediately struck by how he was kinda like Ed Sullivan with a wig. He was definitely into the music and alive. Relaxed, but with an inner intensity. But it was his physical expressions that were unique. I've never seen such movements. The Ed Sullivan Show would have showed only from the waist up. He was kinda like a puppet. He looked like he was having fun. But he showed a side as a performer I've never seen before. I figure he keeps the tension in his knees and his ankles. And he does The Dylan Squat, The Dylan Herky Jerky, The Dylan Dip, The Dylan Slide, A bit of the Wilbury Twist, The Dylan Stagger. I'm pretty sure I caught him picking his nose as he turned upstage. AND there was the Sonic Bob doing the Machine Gun, The Dylan Eye Roll, The Dylan Teeth, The Dylan Snarl. A lot of this was subtle, but the guy was having fun.The man is a giant. But I tell yah...when he had that acoustic guitar out there...I coulda swore it was bigger than he was! Wild sounds. I liked it. It was kinda like vaudeville.

I've never heard him talk so much. Repeatedly he said, "Thank you everybody". He introduced the band. He said, "I don't know if it is hot out there, but it sure is hot up here." He gave flowers on the stage to a girl up front. Someone up front slipped him a CD and he graciously said thank you and took it with him in the end. He actually was giving "five" to some of the audience up front and after some of the jams.

All in all wonderful stuff. Alistair (Al) Hunter

December Setlists