There are at least two common opinions about Bob Dylan. The first, voiced by Dylan fanatics who think he does no wrong, holds that the concert-stage reworkings of his ’60s classics are as good as the recorded originals. The second, whined by those who don’t know the value of a well-exploited weakness, insists that Dylan has a lousy voice. Dylan was in Boston recently, playing at the Avalon Ballroom, March 24-26, and, on March 25th at least, showed both points to be futile.
First, he proved that the concert reworkings rarely improve on the recordings. He set the originally intimate “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” to an up-tempo country beat and took too much sweetness out, kind of automated “Positively 4th Street” and took too much orneriness out, slackened some dramatic tension in searing accusations such as “Ballad of a Thin Man” and “Most Likely You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine,” and choked the grief of “Girl from the North Country” in favor of a placid beauty—all songs that pre-date the mid-’70s Blood on the Tracks.
Granted, he opened with an upbeat “Drifter’s Escape,” from the somber John Wesley Harding album, that improved the song. He included righteously rollicking versions of “Like a Rolling Stone” and “All Along the Watchtower” in the encore. And, with his band driving the rhythm, he got the acerbic most from lines such as those addressed to archetypically square Mr. Jones, playfully stammering those famous 13 syllables about tax-de-duct-i-ble-char-i-ty-org-an-i-za-tions, one discrete note at a time. But for the most part: boring to hear them translated to routine Rock ‘n’ Rollese. Not enough of the idiosyncratic nuance of vocal expression left in them!
Second, he has a great voice. The best possible voice for his unique songs, even. True, Bob Dylan sounds like a frogman who smoked dope in college and forgot to exhale, but at its best—on the recorded classics, say—his voice is custom-shaped to what might be the most authentically literary lyrics published by a modern, English-speaking songwriter. He proved as much in the classic-’60s crowd-pleasers “It’s All Right Ma” and “Highway 61 Revisited.”
The increasing croakiness of the 60-something Dylan works wonders in the rustic songs of his most recent album, Love and Theft, several of which he played for the working-class-goes-collegiate crowd at the Avalon. Sounding alternately like a Memphis rockabilly lady-killer and a Stephen Foster parlor singer who’s read more Baudelaire than F. Scott Fitzgerald, he put just the right, previously-recorded spin on the lazy southern “Floater,” was pretty faithful to the characteristically accusatory love/hate songs “Honest with Me” and “Cry a While,” and best of all, right before the three-song encore, afire at the keyboard with his smokin’-hot band of casually suited hipsters, got ready to end the night on an explosive note by practically blowing the roof off with a positively raucous Love and Theft song, “Summer Days,” which put both wrong opinions to rest for the night.