Bob Dylan at the Aragon in Chicago

Oct 31, 2009

From the Chicago Tribune

Review: Bob Dylan at Aragon
Bob Gendron
Special to the Tribune
October 30, 2009

Bob Dylan didn’t play any Christmas tunes from his new holiday album Thursday in front of a fair-sized crowd at Aragon. Performing the first show of a three-night stand, the feisty singer instead had disaster on his mind, rage in his heart and “the blood of the land” in his voice. And in virtuosic guitarist Charlie Sexton, who just rejoined the bard’s group after an extended hiatus, the 68-year-old icon had a worthy foil to challenge him. In contrast to recent appearances that witnessed him hiding in the shadows, Dylan seemed reinvigorated, stepping out from behind the keyboard and moving to center stage on multiple occasions. He also took several turns on guitar.

Dressed in cowboy-style outfits, Dylan and his backing band looked as if they rode into town on horseback from a distant Texas ranch. South-of-the-border accents and chiaroscuro lighting added to the Old West atmosphere. So did Dylan’s coarse singing. His raspy timbre often sounded like the cough of a soot-clogged furnace pipe–craggy, gritty, polluted. Yet it served as a natural complement to the sextet’s street-tough rockabilly and jump blues, which seldom took a direct route to their destinations.

With each instrumentalist’s eyes fixated on Dylan, who conducted by way of subtle gestures, songs loped and shuffled. Sexton’s smooth, economical fills counterbalanced his leader’s sustained organ runs and throaty harmonica solos. Loose arrangements encouraged impromptu tempo changes and accommodated Dylan’s elastic phrasing. The group’s two-step grooves caused all but a handful of drifter ballads and sleepy meditations to swing.

Reacting to the music’s roll and tumble, Dylan and Sexton squatted and swayed, as if ducking out of the way of the sharp notes, snapping chords and fierce sentiments. Vicious currents blew through a majority of the material. Violence cast a pall over “Ain’t Talkin’,” while a re-imagined “Just Like a Woman” threw sarcastic daggers. Better still, the scampering “Highway 61 Revisited” and scathing “Ballad of a Thin Man” evoked sinister desires. Drummer George Recile even launched “Like a Rolling Stone” with a forceful, pistol-shot snare hit that recalled famously confrontational performances of the song in the mid-60s. Not missing the cue, Dylan answered with a nasal sneer true to the 110-minute set’s outlaw vibe.