We hear a lot about “electrifying” these days. For example, “the crowd was electrified by Obama’s speech,” “McCain’s VP choice electrified the GOP base,” etc. You kind of wish the political pundits would crack open a thesaurus every once in a while.
But one place where the word “electrify” is indisputably appropriate is in describing how, long ago, Bob Dylan electrified his music, in both the now-he’s-using-electricity and the wow-that’s-exciting-stuff senses. This action alienated his folk-purist base, but Dylan the “Maverick” (sorry, another overused word these days) didn’t look back then, and he still hasn’t.
Indeed, although his 1963 all-acoustic folk classic The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan was well-represented in song at his Sunday night concert at the Santa Barbara Bowl, it was not represented at all in style. “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” sounded like a brilliant Highway 61 Revisited outtake, “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” featured a rushed but effective vocal delivery over a somewhat countrified instrumental arrangement, and the concert-closing “Blowin’ In The Wind” became a completely reworked, cheery clap-along.
Other songs that bore little resemblance to their original acoustic versions included “The Times They Are A-Changin’” as a speedy waltz; “Desolation Row,” which was lively enough to draw scattered dancing in the cheap seats; and “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” a song I didn’t even recognize until it was almost over. For the latter song, I was probably hindered by Dylan’s degraded vocal timbre — and let’s admit it, his voice was never really his strongest attribute — which made the lyrics virtually incomprehensible. This is a pity, since his clever wordsmithing is arguably unparalleled in modern music.
Of course, it was not a surprise that Dylan completely rearranged and reworked his older songs. This has been a hallmark of his “Never Ending Tour,” which at more than 20 years and 2,000 shows long still represents less than half of his performance career. He presumably got tired of playing the same old songs the same old way long ago. In fact, he didn’t even play guitar at the concert, instead focusing entirely on singing, playing competent organ, and, a precious few times, playing tasteful harmonica. The rest of the band provided skilled accompaniment, including violin and stand-up bass on several songs.
Sadly, the only songs that were played whose original versions were released between 1966 and his critical resurgence with 1997’s Time Out of Mind were the opener “Cat’s In The Well” from 1990’s Under The Red Sky, and a plodding “I Believe In You” from 1979’s Slow Train Coming. His latest album, 2006’s Modern Times, was, for my taste, over-represented as a quarter of the program. This meant that there were no songs from classic midperiod albums such as Blonde on Blonde, John Wesley Harding, Nashville Skyline, and Blood on the Tracks. Oh, well, it would’ve taken all night for him to play all of his songs that I wanted to hear, not to mention other people’s favorites.
As I was walking out lamenting the songs that weren’t played but also recalling the many highlights of the concert — the biggest of which was probably the raucous sing-along “Like A Rolling Stone,” which kicked off the encore — I saw a sign that Dylan’s music will be appreciated by yet another generation. There was a girl, about 4 years old and well past her bedtime, who was being carried out of the concert by her father. She exhaustedly but affectionately said, “Bye, bye, Bobby Dylan.” I’ll just add that we hope to see him back in Santa Barbara again soon.
1. Cat’s In The Well
2. The Times They Are A-Changin’
3. The Levee’s Gonna Break
4. Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right
5. Million Miles
6. Desolation Row
7. A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall
8. Honest With Me
9. I Believe In You
10. It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)
11. When The Deal Goes Down
12. Highway 61 Revisited
13. Ain’t Talkin’
14. Thunder On The Mountain
15. Like A Rolling Stone
16. Blowin’ In The Wind
— Noozhawk contributor Jeff Moehlis is an associate professor of mechanical engineering at UCSB.