Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, October 12, 2007

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Dylan showcases his new strengths;
Costello a powerhouse open

Scott Mervis

About a decade or so ago, Bob Dylan used to put out albums and then arrive in concert seemingly oblivious to the fact that he had new songs at his disposal.

But things have changed (don't they always with Dylan?).

Now, he's virtually flipped in the opposite direction. Thursday night at the Petersen Events Center, Dylan was very much in tune with "Modern Times," his 2006 record that topped the charts and critic polls.

It made for a show that went light on his brilliant back pages and heavy on the jazzy Western swing and rollin', tumblin' blues he currently fancies.

First, though, came sets by Amos Lee, a young singer-songwriter for the Starbucks generation who acquitted himself nicely, and the great Elvis Costello. It's not clear exactly why a Hall of Famer like Costello is tooling around as an opening act, but you'll get no complaints here, aside from the abbreviated set time.

Touring solo for the first time in 12 years, Costello delivered his typical powerhouse set starting with "The Angels Wanna Wear My Red Shoes," played on an acoustic guitar that brayed like an electric. Costello had a mike, but he could have sung without one — and did step away from it a few times while still projecting across the Petersen floor.

His voice is an amazing instrument that only gets stronger and more versatile with age, and he's just as passionate as he was when he turned up in '77, whether he was belting out "Crimes of Paris," singing about his grandmother in "Veronica" or pleading for sanity on "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding."

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 (the conservative-looking woman next to me was holding her ears!). The sluggish crowd did warm up as Costello engaged them with "Radio Sweetheart" seguing into a sing-along of Van Morrison's "Jackie Wilson Said." Among the many highlights (actually every song was a highlight) were two newer tracks, "The River in Reverse" and "The Scarlet Tide," a piece about a war widow that drew cheers with the words "admit you lied, and bring the boys back home."

Elvis Costello is a tough act to follow, and only a few would, could or should dare. Dylan hit the stage with three guitars, one of them his, unraveling the opening of "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35." Mr. D hasn't been here in two years, and it wasn't a big surprise, with the man doing a hundred shows a year, that the voice has gotten even more low and sandpapery. He compensated with that halting start-and-stop delivery that scoots around the melodies like a tennis player avoiding the backhand. (I'm officially proposing two gospel singers with him next time.)

Dylan stayed on guitar through so-so versions of "It Ain't Me, Babe" and "Watching the River Flow," offering a few noodling solos, then switched to piano and left the heavy lifting to Denny Freeman, who dazzled with any number of styles. After a stabbing "Love Sick" and a "Tangled Up in Blue" that sounded like a different song than the one on "Blood on the Tracks," the show went into a slow swing mode and lost some momentum with a string that included a poignant "Workingman's Blues #2" and plodding versions of "Beyond the Horizon" and "Spirit on the Water" that were way too close together.

"You think I'm over the hill/ you think I'm past my prime," Dylan sang on the latter, to a round of cheering that we're going to have to chalk up as ambiguous.

The folks who came for the classic tracks got a "Highway 61" that rocked hard and wild, and that classic ode to paranoia, "Ballad of a Thin Man," guitar-driven despite Dylan being right there on keyboards. The always-swinging "Summer Days" got people up and moving and the encores of "Thunder on the Mountain" and "All Along the Watchtower" were both driven by thunderous blues jams. If there was anything resembling a perfect moment for me, it was an emotional reading of "Nettie Moore" that seemed to mirror the dreary atmosphere of the fall day.

All told, it was hardly a Dylan show for the ages — and there will no doubt be hundreds of people grumbling today about the voice or the set list — but on the Never-Ending Tour you take the highs with the lows and the in-betweens.


Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, October 12, 2007

Scott Mervis reviews Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello and Amos Lee, Thursday, October 11, 2007, Petersen Events Center, Pittsburgh, PA.


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