Halloween is the perfect night for a concert. There's nothing quite like donning the freakiest getup you can muster and shaking your tail to some great rock music, Tootsie Roll pop fixed firmly in your jaw. The sugar-buzzed energy emitted from a few thousand costumed fans can push the show beyond normal-Friday-night-concert levels. Halloween is special.

Case in point: Last Halloween, I saw Phil Lesh and Bob Dylan split the bill at the UIC Pavilion in Chicago. The scene was pure madness: everywhere I looked I saw people dressed up as fairies, monsters, superheroes, princesses-there was even a guy dressed as Fluffhead. So the arena was buzzing a little more than usual even before the concert started. And then Phil came out ten minutes EARLY, surprising both the ushers and the still-arriving fans who promptly rushed the floor. Within seconds the show was virtually general admission, and the mood for the night was set: electric magic. The excitement that poured off the crowd was inevitably reflected back by the musicians on stage, elevating the concert to the status of unforgettable.

But somehow at the Dylan show this Halloween that just didn't happen.

Don't get me wrong; the show was good. Bob and his band poured their hearts out to a capacity crowd at Northwestern University's 8000-seat McGaw Hall. And yeah, there were a few fairies, monsters and superheroes in attendance. The music was truly beautiful. But the energy from the crowd just wasn't there.

The show opened with an acoustic "Duncan and Brady," and while the fans squealed in delight at seeing Dylan shuffle-stepping around the stage in all his glory, the song was largely unrecognized and overlooked. The same with the slow, romantic waltz of "To Ramona," which featured Larry Campbell on mandolin-the stage was awash with gorgeous purple light, and Bob swung his hips around on stage with a charming Elvis-y swagger, manhandling his guitar neck and pushing all his emotion into the gravel-ly vocals: "And someday maybe/ Who knows, baby/ I'll come and be cryin' to you." But the crowd, still filtering into the dark arena, merely bobbed their heads and clapped politely.

Things picked up a little with "Desolation Row," which was introduced by Dylan alone, the rest of the band sliding in behind him when he sang the title line. The smooth waves of sound washed over the crowd and the familiarity of the tune finally got both the aging Dylan aficionados and the frazzled college students grooving together, although hesitantly at first. The song was followed by other classic hits: "Girl from the North Country" and "Tangled Up in Blue," which was one of the evening's highlights. Yellow lights cast a silhouette of Dylan on the back wall, where the whole room could see him dipping and weaving to the song's infectiously joyous guitar riff. "Tangled Up" got the first big reaction of the night, and was followed up by the touching waltz, "Searching for a Soldier's Grave," to end the acoustic portion of the set.

The electric set turned the energy up a notch, beginning with a slick "Country Pie," which slid into a slow and heartfelt "Tryin' to Get to Heaven." The band prodded the audience into dancing with a solid rendition of "Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again," but then brought them back into a quiet stupor with "Not Dark Yet." The last portion of that song was another highlight of the show, as the three guitarists (Larry, Bob and Charlie Sexton) wound their individual parts around each other to create a rich tapestry of sound and harmony.

It was tough to tell if the crowd was apathetic or simply in awe of the art they were hearing. But clearly all were appreciative of the next song, "The Wicked Messenger," electrified and rockin', when they were finally treated to some searing Dylan harmonica work. The end of the song had sort of a "breakdown section," with Dylan's harp and the drums pairing off for a few bars, then being answered by the band. Unfortunately, it seemed to get cut a little short, with slightly frantic hand cues between band members, and didn't do all that it could to shake things up.

"Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat" rounded off the set, featuring outstanding solos by all the guitarists. The hard blues feel of the song finally set people grooving in the aisles, where they were often shut down by the brutish troupes of Gestapo-like ushers. But by the end of the song the band had cut loose and the crowd finally woke up and realized what a great show they'd been standing still for. When the tune was over and the band turned for their curtain call, they received a touching ovation.

The long encore-"Things Have Changed," "Like a Rolling Stone," "If the Dogs Run Free," "All Along the Watchtower," "I Shall Be Released," "Highway 61" and "Blowin' in the Wind"-echoed the mood of the rest of the show, with the band putting out rich, full sound under Dylan's emotional vocals, and the crowd responding minimally. "All Along the Watchtower" was another show highlight, with Dylan desperately growling out the lyrics over the searing guitar lines streaming from the band. "I Shall Be Released" and "Blowin' in the Wind," both done acoustically, were truly beautiful with their soaring harmonies and rich full chords, but under appreciated by the stoic audience, which finally came to life applauding the end, and booing when the lights came back on.

In summary, Bob Dylan and his Band are one of the greatest acts out there today, and anyone who goes to see them will be treated to musical poetry of the highest order. But there's two parts to the concert experience-performer and audience-and if the energy and appreciation don't flow both ways, the show just won't rise to the next level.

Dylan's tour of college campuses will stay in the Midwest for the rest of the week before moving on to Pennsylvania and the East Coast. Catch him at Indiana University's IU Auditorium in Bloomington tonight (Nov. 1); Thursday Nov. 2 at The Elliott Hall of Music, at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana; Saturday night Nov. 4 at Miami University's John D. Millett Hall in Oxford, Ohio; and Sunday the 5th at the University of Michigan's Hill Auditorium in Ann Arbor.

Susie Ochs
JamBase Chicago Correspondent
Go See Live Music!

[Published on: 11/1/00]

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