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Last Wednesday night at Wolf Trap in Virginia, I saw a concert featuring two legends:
Mavis Staples and Bob Dylan.
First, let me say I'd never been to Wolf Trap before, but I'll definitely be going back. The sound quality was exceptional, which made a huge difference. And considering the venue is outdoors, it's all the more impressive that they got the sound levels sharp, crisp, and well-balanced. Bob Dylan's elocution isn't his strong point in concert (it's actually not bad on recent albums, even if his voice has never been and never will be conventionally beautiful, with the possible exception of his singing on his country album Nashville Skyline), and at Dylan shows in recent years I've found his vocals too buried in the mix. When you can't hear him as well, it's harder to understand (and therefore enjoy) his lyrics, and his lyrics are a big part of his greatness.
Bob Dylan is my favorite artist in any medium. His songs speak to me like none other, and I'm inspired by the sheer variety, virtuosity, and abundance of his work. Albums like Highway 61 Revisited, Time Out of Mind... songs like "Desolation Row", "Forever Young", "Every Grain of Sand", "Mississippi"... I have a special place in my heart for artists who keep exploring new styles (Dylan, Miles Davis, David Bowie, Pablo Picasso). I emulate that in my own artistic life. As an actor, I relished the opportunity to play roles that were very different from each other (sometimes in the same play!), and it's my ambition that my body of work in comics ends up sharing a similar range of diversity.
This Wolf Trap show was the clearest I've heard Dylan in concert in years, and the best Dylan concert I've been to in years. What's especially surprising about that is that this show's setlist was nowhere near my ideal setlist. When I started going to see Dylan concerts more than 15 years ago, one thing I loved about him was the variety in his setlists. He'd play some new songs from his last album or two, some old hits (in fact, those first few years, at any given show you were guaranteed to hear at least two from a group of five hits — "Blowin' in the Wind", "All Along the Watchtower", "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35", "Tangled Up in Blue", and "Like a Rolling Stone"), and some old obscure songs (the latter being my favorite category). The first time I saw him was his last show of 2000, and the setlist was delightfully eclectic.
Dylan's done away with that unpredictability lately, and the setlist on this tour doesn't vary from night to night hardly at all. What's more, on his current tour he plays only one hit from his most celebrated period, the '60s ("Blowin' in the Wind" — he doesn't even play "Like a Rolling Stone"!); one obscure song from the '60s ("She Belongs to Me"); one hit from the '70s ("Tangled Up in Blue"); one semi-obscure song from 1997 ("Love Sick"); one hit from 2000 (his Academy Award winner, "Things Have Changed")... and all the rest of the two hour show is comprised of songs from his last handful of albums. And not only that, but Dylan, respected foremost as our greatest living songwriter, has inexplicably spent his last two albums covering old "great American songbook" standards made famous by the likes of Frank Sinatra, and that material comprises a sizable chunk of his current setlist (and, to be more accurate, two of the songs he's been playing - "That Old Feeling" and "I Could Have Told You" - are old standards that weren't released on either of his last two albums but might well have been).
Throughout his career, Dylan has followed his own muse, often in wildly unexpected directions, and it has rarely steered him wrong. His missteps have been astonishingly few, and the variation in his music is seldom attempted, let alone accomplished. To say Dylan marches to the beat of his own drum is an understatement. One thing that actually shocked me about this concert was how excited the audience was about Dylan performing those old cover songs. There were some people who walked out, as people do at every Dylan show (some people expect a jukebox instead of a changing, growing artist), but only a small percentage of the audience fled. The place was packed to near capacity, which means there were close to 7,000 people enthusiastically applauding when Dylan would finish stuff like "Why Try to Change Me Now" or "Melancholy Mood". Weird. But I felt the same way they did.
On paper, this setlist is easily my least favorite of any Dylan show I've been to or heard a recording of. Nevertheless, this was an outstanding show. The arrangements were strong, Dylan's singing was strong (yes, he still sounds like what you'd expect Bob Dylan at 75 to sound like), the band was strong. Dylan and his band have taken this set-in-stone setlist and fashioned a sparkling jewel of performance, alternating between tight and relaxed, bluesy and upbeat, lilting and funky-grooved. Knowing the setlist situation, I'd been prepared for this concert to be an enjoyable evening but probably the weakest Dylan show I've attended, but it ended up being one of the best.
Crafty and artful, Dylan at 75 is still full of surprises. I hope we get to hang onto him for many years yet — I can't wait to hear what he does next.
Mavis Staples' voice Wednesday night was strong, rich, fluid, and only weathered in a way that added character — she could still hit all those notes, and she sang with unflagging passion and conviction. Not only is it a source of delight that she's even still alive and making music, but her last few albums — two produced by Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy and one by singer-songwriter M. Ward, both of whom have roots in older styles of music — have been enjoyable and beautiful. And her most recent album, Livin' on a High Note, closes out with a song adapted from a sermon by Martin Luther King, Jr. I have one album of The Staple Singers' later period of upbeat and inspiring soul music they recorded at the venerated Stax label (Be Altitude: Respect Yourself, which includes their famous song "I'll Take You There"). Years earlier, they covered Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind", A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall", "Masters of War", and "John Brown" too. But I especially love their early material — gospel music with minimalist instrumentation and a spotlight on the vocals like "Uncloudy Day", "I'm Coming Home", "Love is the Way", etc. I find gospel music all the more comforting in troubled times like these, and the Staples' work feels timeless and lived-in.
In person, Staples is charismatic, jubilant, energetic, and soulful, with a playful sense of humor (she laughed about having trouble remembering the name of the venue "Wolf Trap" and told us how much she loves to watch "Bobby" Dylan walk). Her backing band was funky and smoking, and their 40 minute set was over much too soon.
Mavis Staples is 76 years old, she's 66 years into her music career, and she's a force of nature.
Flesh Machine, nearing the end of its second of five acts, having passed the 100 page mark last week, updates every Tuesday at michaelavolio.com, where the entire story thus far can be read. If you want to pass along the comic to others you think might enjoy it, you're welcome to also share this description if you think it'll sway them in the direction of trying Flesh Machine:
Lucy Olmos is stuck on Cairn, the dead-end space-port planet where she was born, but her youth and dreams of being a pilot don't fit well with Cairn's dull predictability. So when an intriguing soldier in the Interplanetary Watch crash-lands on Cairn, Lucy fixes his ship and asks to join him in the war against the guerrilla army. At the Watch training outpost, she faces strenuous physical tests during the day and emotional challenges at night. But Lucy doesn't realize what it will cost to be a soldier... or whose side she should be fighting on.
Thanks for reading, and may we all live life to the fullest into our 70s and beyond. (If we want to, anyway.)