Clarion University Clarion Call, October 18, 2007

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Clarion University Clarion Call
  • 2007 October 18

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I used to be disgusted,
and I'm still tangled up in blue


Elisabeth Donato

I got really excited a few weeks ago when a friend purchased a pair of tickets, and invited me to the Bob Dylan show on Oct. 11 at the University of Pittsburgh Petersen Events Center. Elvis Costello — who is at the top of my personal rock performers Pantheon (never mind that most of my students have no idea who he is) — was the opening act.

Frankly, my friend and I secretly hoped that Elvis and Bob would perform at least one song together. After all, Bobby had joined Paul Simon in "Bridge Over Troubled Water" some 10 years ago when they were touring together.

On the evening of Oct. 11, we arrived in Oakland at about 6:10 p.m., managed to find a parking space on the street near the Petersen Events Center (which helped us avoid having to pay for what would probably have been pricey venue parking), and walked to the venue. We had to wait outside for about 15 minutes before being allowed to walk in, but were close to the door, so we did not freeze our butts off.

We entered the Petersen Events Center and found our seats (pretty good ones, on the first level, stage left), and waited for the show to begin.

We decided to forego purchasing T-shirts, which were sold at the outrageous price of $35 a pop, and bypassed the $6 beers as well. We each had a hotdog, and shared a $3 bottled water (and, yes, folks, that was our dinner!). Where have the days of the $20 concert T-shirts gone?

By 7 p.m., the opening band, Amos Lee (the name is that of its lead singer), came on. They were quite good, but their type of music was not exactly my cup of tea. They played for roughly 35 minutes.

By about 8 p.m., Costello followed — of course, he was the act that I was most anxious to see. Just as Scott Mervis did in his review of this concert in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, I still wonder "why a Hall of Famer like Costello is tooling around as an opening act," especially since "it seemed like he had to win over Dylan's crowd, which is a fairly inexplicable situation given not only his stature but the clear influence derived from the headliner." Costello performed only for 45 minutes, and, since he was just an opening act, there was no encore.

Costello was performing solo (which, according to Mervis, he had not done in 12 years), opening with "Red Shoes," one of my favorite songs in his repertoire (how can you not love the opening line of this song, "I used to be disgusted, and now I try to be amused"), mustering amazing power from both his acoustic guitar and from his own voice, which is getting better with age.

He went on with other great songs, "Crimes of Paris," "Veronica," "Alison," "What's So Funny about Peace, Love and Understanding" and "Radio Sweetheart" — during which he managed to get a lukewarm audience to sing along, even segueing into a bit of Van Morrison's "Jackie Wilson Said."

He also sang a brand new song composed with Loretta Lynn (whose title escaped me, but it was in the voice of a woman who is having a conversation with her ex-husband's new wife — the opening line was "my name is Eve, and I think that you should leave"), as well as "From Sulfur to Sugar Cane" (a song penned with T-Bone Burnett) and "The River in Reverse," from his most recent collaboration with Allen Toussaint (in which he snuck the line "I don't wanna be a soldier mama, I don't wanna die," from the John Lennon song "I Don't Want to Be a Soldier.")

Finally, he closed with the powerful closing track of The Delivery Man, titled "The Scarlet Tide," an anti-war song (actually, a song about a Civil War widow) to which, as he had done at his July 2005 show at Station Square, he added the lyrics "admit you lied, and bring the boys back home," which finally drew some cheers out of the crowd.

Back in his early days, Costello cultivated an "angry young man" image, and just ripped through his set list, seldom interacting with his audience. However, in his old age, he has turned into quite a funny dude — he jokes and tells stories. He is obviously a happy man, and it really shows.

He mentioned having dined recently in an L.A. restaurant, close to Governor Schwarzenegger's table, making it a point to mention that the Governator would never be President of the United States. He also made a funny little joke about his 10-month old twin boys (with wife #3, Diana Krall), saying that they were on the tour with him, backstage, smoking cigars and playing cards.

Most of the folks in the audience were actually there for Bob Dylan, who showed up some 20 minutes after the end of Elvis Costello's set. In spite of the fact that I was in awe, and pinching myself to make sure that I was not dreaming that I was seeing this legend, I have to admit that I ended up saying to myself "so what?" Maybe it is because I am not a Dylan fan, and because I barely know his repertoire, except for a few obvious numbers, but, to me, it seems that every song just blended into the next, and that they all basically sounded alike, except for a rousing version of "All Along the Watch Tower," with which Dylan closed his show.

At the ripe age of 66, Dylan looks very good, and he certainly was pretty dapper in a cool dark suit and a white flat top cowboy hat that he never took off. However, his voice — with which I have always had a problem with to begin with — has turned beyond gravelly and, as a reviewer for the Connecticut Post put it, "he almost blurts out his lyrics in grunts." Not that it's a huge problem, in fact, I found it kind of fun to listen to his inflections, which were tons more entertaining live than on any of his albums.

The problem, though, was that it was absolutely impossible to understand any of his lyrics. Roger LeLievre, of the Ann Arbor News, wrote, about Dylan's Oct. 12 performance at the EMU Convocation Center in Ypsilanti, Michigan: "why write such profound, poetic lyrics, only to mangle them in concert? Is it too much to ask that more than a word here or there be understandable?" — so, if you were not a rabid Dylan fan of the type who knows everyone of his song lyrics by heart, you were basically screwed, and bound to get a tad bored. Another thing about Dylan: he established only the most minimal rapport with his audience, which he never addressed, except to introduce his band during his encore. He was not quite as uncommunicative as Van Morrison was at a concert of his that I attended in Londonderry (Ireland) back in June, 2006, but he came close.

But, all in all, it was really cool to get to see Dylan, to whose credit I have to admit that he and his band really rocked, and, although sadly way too short, the Costello set was a masterpiece.

Oh and, of course, Bobby and Elvis were never on stage together. Well, maybe next time...

(Although she will admit to being a Chrissie Hynde or Patti Smith wannabe, Dr. Donato is really not one of those "old fogeys" who listen only to 60s music. Her favorite "current" bands are The New Pornographers, The National, The Decemberists and Belle and Sebastian.)

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The Clarion Call, October 18, 2007


Elisabeth Donato reviews Elvis Costello and Bob Dylan, Thursday, October 11, 2007, Petersen Events Center, Pittsburgh, PA.

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2007-10-18 Clarion University Clarion Call page 06.jpg
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