Bob Dylan at the Chicago Theatre

The first time I saw Bob Dylan in concert was an amazing experience. This was Oct. 29, 1998, when I was in Toronto for a mini-vacation, with no plans to see any concerts. Dylan and Joni Mitchell happened to be playing a double bill at Maple Leaf Gardens, the hockey stadium next door to my hotel. Throughout the day, I kept passing by the guys selling tickets on the sidewalk. The prices seemed to drop a little just before the concert, so I snapped one up. Joni was pretty good, but Bob blew my mind. I’d heard rave reviews from his tours in the years leading up to that. He seemed to be at the top of his game in the 1990s, though it was hard to explain exactly why. He was on fire that night, singing with such gusto and passion. And taking lots of guitar solos. That was something I hadn’t expected, but Dylan was actually a pretty impressive guitarist, and as he danced around with his little soft-shoe shuffle he was wailing away on his electric guitar during the breaks on songs like “My Back Pages.” I thought to myself, “Why have I waited so long to see this guy?”

What was going on with Dylan at the time? In Chronicles, Volume One, that marvelous but sometimes mystifying memoir, Dylan writes about his struggle to keep his vitality as a performer. In 1987, as he toured with Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, he was “sick of living a mirage.” And then he had a musical epiphany during a concert on Oct. 5, 1987, in Locarno, Switzerland. At one moment, he opened his mouth to sing and nothing came out. Somehow, Dylan recovered from that lapse, and he describes what he did in almost magical terms:

“Figuring I had nothing to lose and not needing to take any precautions, I conjured up some different type of mechanism to jump-start the other techniques that weren’t working. I just did it automatically out of thin air, cast my own spell to drive out the devil. Instantly, it was like a thoroughbred had charged through the gates. Everything came back, and it came back in multidimension. Even I was surprised. It left me kind of shaky. Immediately, I was flying high. This new thing had taken place right in front of everybody’s eyes. A difference in energy might have been perceived, but that was about all. Nobody would have noticed that a metamorphosis had taken place. Now the energy was coming from a hundred different angles, completely unpredictable ones. I had a new faculty and it seemed to surpass all the other human requirements. If I ever wanted a different purpose, I had one. It was like I’d become a new performer, an unknown one in the true sense of the word. In more than thirty years of performing, I had never seen this place before, never been here. If I didn’t exist, someone would have to have invented me.”

Invigorated by this new way of singing (whatever it was), Dylan also determined to discover a new way of playing guitar. He remembered old-time jazz and blues guitarist Lonnie Johnson once showing him a method.

“Lonnie took me aside one night and showed me a style of playing based on an odd- instead of even-numbered system. He had me play chords and he demonstrated how to do it … I had the idea that he was showing me something secretive, though it didn’t make sense to me at the time because I needed to strum the guitar in order to get my ideas across. It’s a highly controlled system of playing and relates to the notes of a scale, how they combine numerically, how they form melodies out of triplets and are axiomatic to the rhythm and the chord changes. I never used that style, didn’t see that there’d be any purpose to it. But now all of sudden it came back to me, and I realized that this way of playing would revitalize my world. The method works on higher or lower degrees depending on different patterns and the syncopation of a piece. Very few would be converted to it because it had nothing to do with technique and musicians work their whole lives to be technically superior players. You probably wouldn’t pay any attention to this method if you weren’t a singer … The system works in a cyclical way. Because you’re thinking in odd numbers instead of even numbers, you’re playing with a different value system. Popular music is usually based on the number 2 and then filled in with fabrics, colors, effects and technical wizardry to make a point. But the total effect is usually depressing and oppressive and a dead end which at the most can only last in a nostalgic way. If you’re using an odd numerical system, things that strengthen a performance automatically begin to happen and make it memorable for the ages. You don’t have to plan or think ahead.”

Frankly, I have no idea what Dylan is talking about here. What is this weird method of thinking about music in odd numbers? Is he making this up? Is it a mental game or an actual system of playing music? As Dylan’s explanation goes on, it seems that he’s talking about playing melodies with groups of three notes. Not triplets or waltzes, but melodic phrases … I think. “I don’t know why the number 3 is more metaphysically powerful than the number 2, but it is,” Dylan writes.

Well, whatever he was doing, it was working. Dylan was still in great form when I saw him a few years later at Chicago’s United Center on the Love and Theft tour. And then, when I saw him March 5, 2004, at the Aragon Ballroom and the following night at the Riviera Theatre, things had changed. Without explaining why, Dylan had stopped playing guitar and spent the showing standing behind a keyboard. He seemed less animated. The shows weren’t bad by any stretch, but compared to what I had witnessed earlier, they were disappointing. By last year, when Dylan played Oct. 27 at the Sears Centre, he seemed to have found his footing again, and it was a pretty solid performance.

And so, when I went to see Dylan last week (Oct. 29 at the Chicago Theatre… for some reason, I always seem to see Dylan concerts around Halloween), I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’d read that he had returned to playing guitar a little bit. He was touring with Elvis Costello and Amos Lee as his opening acts.

Amos Lee is not my cup of tea – a smooth, professional folk-pop singer whose music is inoffensively pleasant… so inoffensive that it bugs me. I can see why it might appeal to some of Dylan’s fans, but to my ears, it sounds closer to the music of Dylan’s son’s band, the Wallflowers, than the old man’s music.

I’m a big fan of Elvis Costello, on the other hand. Even if I have been frustrated occasionally by his dabblings in too many genres and his pretensions toward classical music and jazz standards, at his core, he’s still an excellent singer-songwriter. His solo acoustic set at the Chicago Theatre was top-notch stuff, with some classic tunes such as “Radio Radio” and “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” as well as two new unreleased songs and that “Scarlet Tide” song from the “Cold Mountain” soundtrack, which he’s been playing lately as an anti-war anthem. Costello stepped to the side of the mike during that tune and actually sang out to the huge theater unamplified, a terrific and moving moment slightly marred by the annoying electronic tinkle of someone’s cell phone.

Dylan did indeed play guitar, for the first three songs, before moving over to the keyboard. He seemed to play well enough, though without the same fire or finesse that he had nine years ago. His voice has narrowed down to a raspy croak with a range of just a few notes. On some songs, Dylan has figured out ways of making that croak work, flattening out or lowering melodies but still putting across his words with conviction and clarity. At other times, he just can’t make it work. Case in point: The second song of the night, “Lay, Lady, Lay,” had virtually no vocal melody at all. It’s not that I was expecting a pretty croon out of this guy, but hearing Dylan creakily reciting the words to this song gave me the feeling that I was watching a great singer-songwriter whose powers of performance had been diminished by time and age. There’s still something moving about seeing such a legend, even in his twilight, but I felt a twinge of sorrow.

As the show went on, Dylan seemed to find his groove on certain songs. “Ain’t Talkin’,” my favorite track off his 2006 album Modern Times sounded excellent, but then again, as a recent composition, it was constructed specifically for that aged voice, not for the voice of Dylan as a young man. It’s lovely how this minor key tune ends on a major chord, like a ray of sun bursting through the gloom at the last second.

At times, Dylan’s band seemed to be tiptoeing around him, perhaps keeping the music nimble to give some space for his voice. His current musicians are great at playing old-time blues-rock with a jazzy touch, and at times, they were really cooking. However, the group has a tendency to make all of Dylan’s songs, even the old ones, sound like the music on Modern Times and Love and Theft. Some sonic variety would have helped.

As the concert entered the home stretch, I got the feeling Dylan was playing his standard classic concert-closers with a somewhat lackadaisical or perfunctory attitude. First, I have to wonder about his song selection. He does toss in obscure old tracks at every show, but with so many great songs to choose from, does he have to play “Highway 61 Revisited,” “Like a Rolling Stone” and “All Along the Watchtower” near the end of every concert? “Like a Rolling Stone” lulled instead of rocking, with Dylan sounding weary. During the encore, Costello and Lee joined Dylan onstage for “I Shall Be Released.”

Overall, Dylan and his band put on an all-right show, but this Dylan was a pale shadow of the Dylan I’d seen at Maple Leaf Gardens.

SET LIST: Cat’s in the Well / Lay, Lady, Lay / I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight / You’re a Big Girl Now / Rollin’ And Tumblin’ / Spirit on the Water / Cry a While / Workingman’s Blues #2 / Things Have Changed / Under the Red Sky / Highway 61 Revisited / Ain’t Talkin’ / Summer Days / Like a Rolling Stone / ENCORE: I Shall Be Released / Thunder on the Mountain / All Along the Watchtower

‘Alchemy of Bones’ out in paperback

A quick plug for my book. Alchemy of Bones: Chicago’s Luetgert Murder Case of 1897 is out now in paperback. The book’s available at: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, the University of Illinois Press and bookstores. If you don’t see it at your local shop, you should be able to order it through the store.

Copies will be for sale this Saturday and Sunday (June 9 and 10) at the Printers Row Book Fair in Chicago, at the University of Illinois Press table, which will be in the fourth tent south of Congress on Dearborn. If you’re interested in buying an autographed copy directly from me, please send me an e-mail.

To find out more about the book, visit the Web site I created for it: And in case you’re wondering… yes, I am working on a second book. More about that later.

Writing about music, Part 2

Another favorite passage of mine, this is from Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust. It’s a long excerpt, simply because it’s so hard to trunctate into any short quote that captures its essence. (I have broken it up into smaller paragraphs, however – sorry, Marcel, but when you blog, you need to keep those paragraphs a little shorter.) Quite simply, it’s one of the best descriptions of music’s fleeting and indefinable qualities.

The year before, at an evening party, he had heard a piece of music played on the piano and violin. At first he had appreciated only the material quality of the sounds which those instruments secreted. And it had been a source of keen pleasure when, below the narrow ribbon of the violin-part, delicate, unyielding, substantial and governing the whole, he had suddenly perceived, where it was trying to surge upwards in a flowing tide of sound, the mass of the piano-part, multiform, coherent, level, and breaking everywhere in melody like the deep blue tumult of the sea, silvered and charmed into a minor key by the moonlight.

But at a given moment, without being able to distinguish any clear outline, or to give a name to what was pleasing him, suddenly enraptured, he had tried to collect, to treasure in his memory the phrase or harmony—he knew not which—that had just been played, and had opened and expanded his soul, just as the fragrance of certain roses, wafted upon the moist air of evening, has the power of dilating our nostrils. Perhaps it was owing to his own ignorance of music that he had been able to receive so confused an impression, one of those that are, notwithstanding, our only purely musical impressions, limited in their extent, entirely original, and irreducible into any other kind.

An impression of this order, vanishing in an instant, is, so to speak, an impression sine materia. Presumably the notes which we hear at such moments tend to spread out before our eyes, over surfaces greater or smaller according to their pitch and volume; to trace arabesque designs, to give us the sensation of breath or tenuity, stability or caprice. But the notes themselves have vanished before these sensations have developed sufficiently to escape submersion under those which the following, or even simultaneous, notes have already begun to awaken in us.

And this indefinite perception would continue to smother in its molten liquidity the motifs which now and then emerge, barely discernible, to plunge again and disappear and drown; recognized only by the particular kind of pleasure which they instill, impossible to describe, to recollect, to name; ineffable – if our memory, like a laborer who toils at the laying down of firm foundations beneath the tumult of the waves, did not, by fashioning for us facsimiles of those fugitive phrases, enable us to compare and to contrast them with those that follow.

And so, hardly had the delicious sensation, which Swann had experienced, died away, before his memory had furnished him with an immediate transcript, summary, it is true, and provisional, but one on which he had kept his eyes fixed while the playing continued, so effectively that, when the same impression suddenly returned, it was no longer uncapturable.

He was able to picture to himself its extent, its symmetrical arrangement, its notation, the strength of its expression; he had before him that definite object which was no longer pure music, but rather design, architecture, thought, and which allowed the actual music to be recalled. This time he had distinguished quite clearly a phrase which emerged for a few moments above the waves of sound. It had at once suggested to him a world of inexpressible delights, of whose existence, before hearing it, he had never dreamed, into which he felt that nothing else could initiate him; and he had been filled with love for it, as with a new and strange desire.

With a slow and rhythmical movement it led him first this way, then that, towards a state of happiness that was noble, unintelligible, and yet precise. And then suddenly, having reached a certain point from which he was preparing to follow it, after a momentary pause, abruptly it changed direction, and in a fresh movement, more rapid, fragile, melancholy, incessant, sweet, it bore him off with it towards new vistas. Then it vanished.

He hoped, with a passionate longing, that he might find it again, a third time. And reappear it did, though without speaking to him more clearly, bringing him, indeed, a pleasure less profound. But when he returned home he felt the need of it: he was like a man into whose life a woman he has seen for a moment passing by has brought the image of a new beauty which deepens his own sensibility, although he does not even know her name or whether he will ever see her again.

…at last, he ceased to think of it.

But that night, at Mme Verdurin’s, scarcely had the young pianist begun to play than suddenly, after a high note sustained through two whole bars, Swann sensed its approach, stealing forth from beneath that long-drawn sonority, stretched like a curtain of sound to veil the mystery of its incubation, and recognised, secret, murmuring, detatched, the airy and perfumed phrase that he had loved. And it was so peculiarly itself, it had so individual, so irreplaceable a charm, that Swann felt as though he had met, in a friend’s drawing-room, a woman whom he had seen and admired in the street and had despaired of ever seeing again…

Writing about music, Part 1

From time to time, I’d like to point out some passages of writing about music that I especially like. Here’s one from Stuart Dybek’s superb short-story collection (more of a novel told in stories), I Sailed With Magellan. A stage adaptation of the book will run June 8-July 15 at Victory Gardens Theater, which I wrote about for the June issue of Playbill’s Chicago edition. The wistful final story in Dybek’s book, “Je Reviens,” includes this wonderful description of the protagonist’s uncle performing with a wedding band:

I walked thinking about Uncle Lefty, my godfather. When I was little and he was just back from the POW camp in Korea, he used to take me along on his rounds of the neighborhod taverns. I was considered good therapy for him back then. Later, after he started playing in public again, I’d sometimes go to hear the Gents play wedding receptions held in the back halls of corner taverns. I’d wait for the moment when Lefty switched from his cheap metal clarinet to the tarnished tenor sax that had spent the evening on the bandstand, armed with a number 4 1/2 Rico reed and draped with a white towel Lefty called his spit rag. Swaying drunkenly at the edge of the bandstand, Lefty would launch into a solo with the Bruiser behind him slamming the foot pedal of the bass drum as if flooring the gas and driving his red sparkle Ludwig kit over the edge of the stage, taking the rest of the Gents with him. The dancers whooped and whirled and stomped, but finally were defeated by the tempo and stood on the dance floor gaping and panting while the bridesmaids stumbled dizzily in their disheveled taffeta like deposed prom queens. Lefty blew, possessed and oblivious to the rising imprecations of the wedding guests, who stood on their folding chairs shouting for dance music. Even the pleas of his fellow Gents, all of whom with the exception of the Bruiser had stopped playing, couldn’t silence him, leaving them no recourse but to drag Lefty, still wailing on his horn, off the stage.