Prospect Park Bandshell
There was definitely something sparkling around Bob Dylan’s neck when he took the stage at Prospect Park’s Bandshell. It might’ve just been his ascot, but it was hard to tell. The lights were low, and Dylan’s wide-brimmed hat shaded his face, but his sartorial choices resonated loudly: a refugee from Gilligan’s Island. Somewhere between a seaworthy Thurston Howell III and Bob Denver himself, who might’ve played the 67-year old singer in a parallel section in I’m Not There, Dylan settled behind his keyboard in a double-breasted suit jacket adorned with medallions, his matador pants had a red racing stripe down the sides.
Shuffling lyric sheets in the dark like a man afraid to admit he’s dying his hair, Dylan fronted a quintet so anonymous in character and tone that Dylan’s Oscar for “Things Have Changed” actually had a more prominent stage position than at least one member. Opening with “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35,” the pleasantly inscrutable Bobhead faced the many of the same inquiries he’s faced since he began imploding his catalogue with questionable arrangements on 1978’s Alimony Tour: Will the songs be recognizable? Will they suck something fierce? Do questions about the meaning of Dylan singing “Masters of War” or “Like A Rolling Stone” or “Blowin’ In the Wind” even matter in these present shark-jumped/fridge-nuked/post-novelty times? Will he bother to pick up a guitar?
To paraphrase Dylan himself, we all have our own definition of those words. Except (maybe) guitar. And Dylan didn’t play one anyway, despite the unused vocal mic and amp set up in front of the drums, where a frontman might stand, as if waiting for a never-to-come Elijah-Bob at a Passover seder. Instead, in the 21st summer of the so-called Never-Ending Tour, Dylan finally found himself playing meaningful keyboards behind his own music. His synth switched from electric piano to Hammond, Dylan-the-organist proved surprisingly able—finding a sonic bridge between his current band, the Al Kooper/Garth Hudson bounces of mercurial ’60s jams, and the swampier terrain of Daniel Lanois’s recent productions. He fit right in.
Unfortunately, despite sounding more comfortable than ever with his band— demonstrating swinging litheness on “Spirit on the Water” and sinewy tangle on a revamped “Honest With Me”—Dylan-the-vocalist was just as frustrating as ever. Emphasizing the latter half of his sing-speak formula, Dylan has seemed increasingly unable to locate satisfying melodic reconstructions for his tunes. Since the departure of drummer David Kemper (the mega-laidback former Jerry Garcia Band skinsman) in 2001 and Americana genius guitarist Larry Campbell in 2004, Dylan’s outfit has likewise lost much of its sensitivity. With Don Herron’s pedal steel disappeared in the mix, the group was rarely graceful enough to be stately, a vibe Dylan both needs and deserves.
But every now and then it worked, especially on the pair of tunes where Herron picked up a banjo, cutting through the muck on “John Brown” and “It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding” with high, lonesome patterns. On the former, Dylan singing in a crisp growl, his words were suddenly crystalline, the ’60s obscurity earning a big cheer on the rightful strength of its words—”the thing that scared me most was when my enemy came close/and I saw that his face looked just like mine”—instead of the pure boomer nostalgia that dripped from the Park’s trees when the crowd tried to sing along to the perfunctory “Like A Rolling Stone” encore. He even got excited enough to take a four-bar solo. But, give or take a few nice inventions in “Highway 61 Revisited,” it was frequently too silly for comfort, like the Disney-like schmaltz/waltz retake on “Beyond the Horizon” (itself probably one Larry Campbell guitar part removed from transcendence).
In the end, the hopefully-prodigal Elijah-Bob never showed, though the word “Brooklyn” did escape the Bobhead’s lips (“man, I wish the Dodgers hadn’t left Brooklyn”). And, in the very end, even after a gospel-lite “Blowin’ in the Wind,” Bob Dylan was still a bad-ass, standing at the front of the stage, finger-gunning the crowd, maybe inwardly grinning under his hat, and still not giving a flying fuck.