Bob Dylan Plus Tom Petty Adds Up To Tour De Force For Concert
By Jonathon Taylor
Chicago Tribune - June 15, 1986
In his 22 years in the spotlight, Bob Dylan has carried plenty of weight on his shoulders -- not the least of which has been the responsibility to be the voice and conscience of a generation.
For most of those years, Dylan has tried to shrug off that unwelcome burden. In so doing, often all that remained on his shoulders was a chip.
But last Monday night at the San Diego Sports Arena, Dylan kicked off his first national tour in five years with a performance that offered convincing evidence that he has gotten that chip off his shoulder. While his social conscience and passions remain undiminished, he nonetheless seemed at peace with himself and comfortable with his legacy.
That, in turn, freed him to give his most generous, wide-ranging performance since his tour with the Band 12 years ago. The nearly three-hour show, with no intermission, covered material as old as "It Ain't Me Babe," which he performed accompanied only by his guitar and harmonica, to a rocking version of the recent "When the Night Comes Falling from the Sky."
Although this tour--which includes stops June 27 at Alpine Valley Music Theater and June 29 at Poplar Creek Music Theater--is at least ostensibly to promote his recent "Empire Burlesque" album, it was more a general retrospective of his impressive body of work.
That generosity wasn't restricted to his own material. Dylan included some raucous blues, a song from Lefty Frizzell and a version of Rick Nelson's "Lonesome Town," which he presented as a tribute to the late singer. In short, he was paying his respects to the styles and artists that influenced him.
Much of Dylan's enthusiasm and confidence can be credited to his stellar backing band--Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers--which first played with him at the Farm Aid concert last year. Not only did they take some of the psychic weight off his shoulders, they also challenged and inspired him. The four Queens of Rhythm provided additional backing vocals.
Petty and band have long since established themselves as one of the top touring bands in contemporary rock and roll, and they did nothing to diminish that reputation Monday night.
Lead guitarist Mike Campbell was particularly sharp, providing expressive solos with both Dylan's and Petty's material. Although he is a low-keyed and unflashy performer, Campbell anchored the instrumental aspect of the show, most notably on a searing version of "Ballad of a Thin Man."
But that inspiration went both ways. Clearly the opportunity to play with an artist of Dylan's stature drove Petty and the band to a new level of intensity.
In both their sets backing Dylan and in two lamentably short sets on their own, the band was consistently on the mark. Although Dylan was the headliner, Petty's sets were fully realized performances, an impression confirmed by the audience's loud, enthusiastic reception.
Highlights included a haunting, dramatic version of "Refugee" and a freewheeling version of "I Need to Know."
If the audience wanted a chance to hear more of Petty's material, he seemed to revel in not having to be in the spotlight. He joined Dylan at the microphone to share vocals several times, but, more often, he simply looked like an artist who was thrilled to be playing with one of his major influences.
While the admiration obviously was mutual--Dylan singled out the band several times for applause--the chance to play with such a strong band clearly allowed Dylan to have fun. There was a loose, almost spontaneous feel to the show, as if he was simply going with what moved him at the moment. In lesser hands this could have meant a sloppy and indulgent performance, but Monday night it was a treat.
At times, Dylan updated or rearranged songs, as with a slicker and harder-rocking version of "Masters of War." More often, though, he chose to present the songs unapologetically and without compromise.
Gone are any overt attempts either to make a dramatic statement or to refute his audiences' expectations, both of which have plagued his concerts in the past. If Dylan was trying to convey any sort of message on this tour, it's that he is first and foremost a rock and roll musician who is confident and relaxed enough to simply present the material in a straightforward fashion.
Ironically, perhaps, this type of performance made the songs more eloquent and meaningful than they might have been.
Part of that eloquence was in his warm feelings for the audience. Near the end of the set, Dylan and the band tore into a ferocious version of "Like a Rolling Stone," which brought the capacity crowd to its feet. Many of those in the audience had grown up with Dylan's music, that song in particular, and he seemed to acknowledge its significance through his spirited effort.
the band, then just the band, then just Dylan, then Dylan with the band again, then just the band and finally all of them together again. It was distracting and disorienting.
What's more, both Dylan and Petty offered generous selections of their older, established material, while neglecting their recent work. This means they did not perform "Band of the Hand," Dylan's current single that was produced by Petty. The sense of nostalgia throughout the show was both welcome and a little disconcerting. These two acts have plenty to contribute to contemporary music, and this is no time for them to rest on their laurels.
Finally, there were sound distractions, including the arena's echoing acoustics that turned many of Dylan's words to mush.
But these are correctable concerns and most can be attributed to opening night kinks. While Dylan played with Petty's band in Japan and the South Pacific earlier in the year, their only recent outing was a quick three-song set at the Conspiracy of Hope benefit for Amnesty International in Los Angeles a week and half ago.
Once these performers build up a head of steam, they may well provide the most enduring memories of the summer music season.