Bob Dylan at The Champlain Valley Expo, Essex Junction, Vermont
Champlain Valley Expo
Essex Junction, Vermont
July 17, 2009
Bob Dylan had a lot to prove at the Champlain Valley Fairgrounds on July 17th following Willie Nelson and John Mellencamp. Both ingratiated themselves to the brave audience fighting the elements, the former with understated charm and the latter with histrionics that detracted from his band. Dylan, as is his wont, let his music speak for him almost exclusively, and it resonated clearly and authoritatively through the steady rain that came with the darkness.
Dylan's only spoken words during his hour plus set included a seemingly heartfelt, "Thank you, friends," to the audiencewho remained generally engaged until the conclusionplus a deserving introduction of his band, which contributed mightily to a diverse choice of tunes.
Dylan and company sounded like a blues band par excellence from the start, chugging with braggadocio as the frontman, in the first of a small handful of selections, handled rhythm guitar on "Leopard-Skin Pillbox Hat." Dylan seemed to be mimicking the unpredictable vocal phrasing of Nelson during the duration of his set, but found his own style on the cryptic "Señor (Tales of Yankee Power)," one of the few numbers that wasn't a shuffle. "Rollin' and Tumblin'" carried no patina of pilferage live as Skip James' story of enervated insomnia followed a tongue in cheek rendition of "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight."
A barbed turn through "Things Have Changed" was one of the focal points of Dylan's set, equal to if not surpassing the one excerpt from his studio album released earlier this year Together Through Life (Columbia). "I Feel A Change Comin' On" sounded ineffably close to the heart, in part because of the guitar phrasing from Stu Kimball and Denny Freeman. They framed Dylan's increasingly authoritative vocals through fascinating arrangements, many rooted in acoustic and electric guitars. The arrangements, however, were also notable for Danny Herron's violin, pedal steel and banjo, and that's not to overlook Dylan's own fairly extensive harmonica work, the detail of which added much to the last half hour in particular.
"Spirit on the Water" sounded like nothing so much as a declaration of defiance on the part of an artist who increasingly refuses to go through the motions on stage; if this set didn't equal Dylan's show from July 2007, it nevertheless packed a discernible wallop. Careening through "Highway 61 Revisited" allowed Dylan and his band to vault to a finish including a stomp through "Summer Days."
A somewhat abrupt encore included "Like A Rolling Stone," notable for Dylan himself teasing those famous organ lines on the keyboards, and a somewhat predictable closing of "All Along the Watchtower," which was ultimately rousing for the charge of the bandcredit the straight-ahead drumming of George Recile for that.
It is tempting to read too much into Dylan's lyrics, but the final tune's opening lines were more than a little pertinent to those finding their way to and from the Expo grounds via Route 15 after the show: "There must be some kind of way out of here." Perhaps not a profoundly relevant statement, but true to life and right in keeping with that evening's down-to-earth performance.
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