It’s all about location.
If you had good seats and decent acoustics, you probably thought Thursday’s Bob Dylan-Elvis Costello show at the Cumberland County Civic Center was about as good as it gets.
If your seats were poor and the acoustics muddy, the show felt ponderous, inflated and maybe even a little boring.
Dylan’s set began in a fog, and it took a few songs for him to shake loose the gravel from his old-man voice. When he did, he sounded focused and determined.
His best vocals he delivered clipped and shorn in a quiet setting, spitting out lines with precision and care. For those lucky enough to be in a position to hear him well, his versions of "Workingman’s Blues # 2" and "Ain’t Talking" – both from last year’s Modern Times CD – provided the highlights of the set. Both songs include Dylan’s best recent writing, with great flow and poetic elements. To hear them live and performed well was a real treat.
Generally, the faster and louder songs felt bereft of emotional impact. "Watching the River Flow" had little punch, and "Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat" – the show opener – was sloppy and ineffective.
Part of that may be the reality of the building. The Civic Center is not an intimate setting, and the energy of the songs seemed to vanish.
Dylan is playing with the same band he toured with when he played Portland a year ago. In fact, it’s the same group of musicians who recorded Modern Times, which may explain why the Modern Times songs sounded complete.
Unlike a year ago, Dylan took his turn on the guitar. He played three songs on the electric guitar before moving behind the keyboards for the rest of the night.
Meantime, Costello came out snarling.
Armed with an array of acoustic guitars, Costello burned through a 45-minute set that reminded people why he’s considered one of the most influential artists of his generation. He engaged the audience, introduced new material and paid attention to some of his best-known older songs: "Angels Want to Wear My Red Shoes" and "Veronica" among others.
Whereas Dylan seemed at times to hold back, Costello laid it bare. He held nothing back, and delivered a punchy, thrilling set.
The other winner was Amos Lee. Playing the role of opener on a bill packed with rock luminaries is no easy task, but Lee and his band managed very well.