review of 12/10 show at the orpheum in boston

[from "Solid Dose of Dylan, Stunning Set of Smith," by Jim Sullivan, the Boston Globe, December 11, 1995]

About 20 years ago, I slept outside, overnight, in sub-freezing weather so I could buy the best seats to the kickoff of Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue Tour. It wasn't just because of Dylan; it was also because of the gals with him, Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez. Saturday night, I slogged through slush and a storm to get to the Orpheum Theatre for Dylan, and it wasn't just because of him; it was also because of a gal, Patti Smith, who opened up with a full band, including guitarists Lenny Kaye and Tom Verlaine, ex of Television.

Smith had played several local acoustic dates in October and had planned to go out with a band next year after the release of her comeback album. But Dylan made an offer she couldn't refuse, and Smith made for an opening act that made supreme sense: You could see this show as one that linked the pre-eminent rocker/poet of the 1960s to the pre-eminent rocker/poet of the 1970s -- and strongly suggested both are worth your money today.

The sold-out crowd seemed as enraptured by Smith as Dylan -- credit to the crowd -- and she was stunning, sexy and at the top of her game. As to Dylan, this wasn't an A-level/Holy-Smokes-he's-still-got-it! date, but it was no desultory, name-that-tune mumblefest or walk-through, either. It was, in fact, a solid hour-and-45 minutes from Boogie Bob and Men With Hats band, the boys in black hats being guitarist John (J.J.) Jackson, pedal steel guitarist Bucky Baxter and bassist Tony Garnier. Drummer Winston Watson probably couldn't make a hat stay on his tower of locks.

The 54-year-old Dylan has spent more than a decade as rock's No. 1 crapshoot. He's shot himself in the foot again and again, recovered and moved on. Saturday's 16-song set, with about six songs differing from Worcester's show Friday, was no greatest hits parade. He did not knock-knock-knock on heaven's door or play that tune the Stones are recycling these days, "Like a Rolling Stone." Dylan, a man who claims re-invention as a birthright, figures he'll follow his nose and present the slice of Bob he's most comfortable with at the moment. We can be thankful that melodies are recognizable and not convoluted and the lyrics considered, not slurred.

Dylan started with "Down in the Flood" and "Tonight I'll Be Staying With You," and then ripped into "All Along the Watchtower." The latter wasn't the vicious slash it has been; it was more of a thoughtful simmer, with Baxter, Jackson and Dylan driving the groove onward and upward.

Throughout the set, except for the three song unplugged bit (what a concept! Dylan should have thought of this years ago!), they took extended instrumental breaks, pushing many a song to the six or seven minute mark. Big bonus points for the enunciation (clear) and sound mix (ditto). Thus you got to hear and appreciate great lines like "I just wish that one time you could stand inside my shoes/You'd know what a drag it is, seeing you" and "A lot of people I used to know/They're an illusion to me now."

"Tangled Up in Blue," "Ramona" and "John Brown" made up the thoughtful, acoustic segment, and then the rocking resumed with "Maggie's Farm." Boogie, boogie. At the end, it was Jerry Garcia's "Alabama Getaway" -- chunka, chunka -- and more boogie with the demanding stoner classic "Rainy Day Woman No. 12 & 35," aka "Everybody Must Get Stoned!" Profound? No. Pleasing? Yes.

Smith -- the punk legend who became a semi-recluse in Detroit -- started, like Tiny Tim, by God-blessing us one and all and playing the song "Wicked Messenger" from Dylan's "John Wesley Harding." With "Dancing Barefoot" (she shed her shoes and socks, stripper like) and "Because the Night," Smith and company hit a blissful pop/art/garage band peak: spirituality, sensuality and a sense of yearning all intertwined. "Mortal Shoes" was one new delight -- "I was cool/Then I wasn't/Then I was" she sang, archly chronicling her post-rock, working-at-home life. One nice line at the end: "There's always someone who looks stupider than you/If you ever see that person looking stupider than you/Give him a helping hand."

Smith and her band tore into "Rock 'n' Roll Nigger" -- a celebration of "outcast" status -- and wove a dreamscape poem into "Not Fade Away," much as she did long ago with "Land of 1,000 Dances." She encored with a new acoustic song, "Farewell," written for her late husband, Fred (Sonic) Smith. The tears-from-heaven rain and rainbow imagery might have been a bit obvious, but she's earned the right to spy a rainbow and sing to her spouse, "Darling, I can't help but thinking that smile is yours."

Oh, so where was huge Smith fan Michael Stipe of R.E.M.? In the house, but not joining the party onstage.

Copyright © Jim Sullivan 1995

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