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Positively okay

Dylan still has authority; Patti Smith has that and more

by Stephanie Zacharek

["Bob The Patti Smith/Bob Dylan double bill at the Orpheum last Saturday night proved you don't have to kill your idols to supplant them. Dylan and his four-piece band played a set that tread squarely on the side of adequate -- a set that might have been perfectly satisfying if Smith's hadn't been so devastating. During both sets, the smell of pot hung in the air (it's a given whenever an almost completely over-30 crowd assemble to check out icons from their youth), but it was Smith alone who made me feel drugged, spellbound, and maybe even unintentionally poisoned. I could have enjoyed Dylan much more, I know, if it hadn't been for her.

Dylan still has authority -- or rather, has authority this time around. (Anyone who knows anything about Bob Dylan as a live performer knows you never know which Dylan will show up.) His versions of "All Along the Watchtower" and "Tangled Up in Blue" were beautifully manicured -- even the rambling jams seemed nicely groomed -- and he and guitarist J.J. Jackson spun out multilayered guitar phrases as unified as a Celtic knot. Dylan's vocals were even rougher and more spontaneous. He sounded completely engaged, his phrasing fresh, inventive, and illuminating instead of slurred, blurry, and weird. Yet the set's high points were two harmonica solos -- one during "Tangled Up in Blue," the other during one of the encores, a lovely "One Too Many Mornings" -- that for all their subtlety seemed to leap out of the performance. They were breathy, jumpy, uncertain, and determined all at once, their tone uncommonly sweet.

But Dylan's tight little show was unraveled before it began, quietly and unwittingly, by Smith, who after spending nearly 15 years off the live music scene is inching back into the spotlight, perhaps more formidable and more unflinchingly human than ever. People who didn't like Patti Smith -- and even some who did -- used to say she was pretentious, over the top. Today what's amazing is how funny she is, and how she doesn't need to forge any kind of fake intimacy with her audiences: she connects with them instantly. Someone in the crowd asked her to read some poetry and she said she couldn't because she hadn't brought her glasses. "I can't read to you, but maybe my mind will write something for you," she said, not as if she were going to create art in front of our eyes, but as if she were promising us some sort of bumpy, homemade present.

In "Dancing Barefoot," the second song of the set, Smith stripped off layers of baggy clothes until she was down to her shapeless T-shirt and jeans. Then she took off her boots and socks and performed the rest of the show barefoot. Emotionally, she was naked. The show had a spare, intimate, stripped-down feel, driven by a band including original Patti Smith Group members Jay Dee Daugherty on drums and Lenny Kaye on guitar. Guitar king Tom Verlaine sat stage right (a bum leg kept him from standing), unfolding delicate traceries that spoke feelings as complex as roadmaps.

Smith herself sounds almost impossibly virile, as if she'd had fire stored up in her for years with no place to burn. Her "Rock and Roll Nigger" shivered with a spontaneous kind of fierceness; her last encore, a gorgeous acoustic ballad written for her husband, the late Fred "Sonic" Smith, was pissed off, confused, and heartrendingly tender. An earlier encore, a tribute to Jerry Garcia, was a slinky, hard-boppin' version of "Not Fade Away" with a bedtime story tucked into it, a tale about looking up and seeing the sea instead of the sky and having treasure ships spill their goodies down on her. It read as Smith's metaphor for the riches of rock and roll: how lucky she feels to have a lifetime of treasures showered on her by rock-and-roll heroes.

If Smith's performance left Dylan stranded, it also, in a strange way, contained him. Dylan isn't anywhere near finished -- if you listen to World Gone Wrong or Good As I Been to You, or the brilliant MTV Unplugged, you hear how after 30 years he still isn't close to working out a formula for describing human emotion. I think that's part of why so many of us love him so much, still. The Orpheum show left me feeling unsettled and a little depressed -- he sounded fine; why couldn't I like it more? -- until I walked down into the subway and heard Mary Lou Lord busking on the platform. Sounding sterling and true, as always, Lord reminded me that even today -- maybe especially today, when Lord is a rare exception among legions of droopy "folk" singers who've completely missed Dylan even after they've canonized him -- Dylan is a point to work forward from, not just a faint dot of light in the past. That's how Patti Smith can steal his thunder and exalt him at the same time. Dylan lives -- just not always so much in his own skin.


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