“Bob Dylan Redeems Las Vegas”

Oct 20, 2009

Bob Dylan Redeems Las Vegas
by Sergio Zurita

To the great George Receli, who gave me an autograph that morning.

It was a thing of beauty listening to Bob Dylan sing about “trying to get to heaven” right in the middle of Sin City, officially known as Las Vegas, Nevada, this past Sunday.

The concert took place at The Joint, a venue for 2,000 people located inside the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, one of the most compelling arguments about rock & roll being nothing but a money machine.

Well, it was in that cultural desert, built upon an actual desert, that Bob Dylan decided to give the best concert I’ve seen of him since November 2001, when I started to go to every show that my time and money allow (this was my 47th, if I’m not mistaken.)

The night before, Bob took center-stage -as he has been doing since guitarist Charlie Sexton rejoined the band a few weeks ago. Without the protection of the guitar across his chest nor the safety net of his keboard trenches, Dylan had only one resource at hand: his singing voice. And, by God, does he know how to use it.

This is going to sound crazy for people who only like the sound of pristine vocal chords, but Bob Dylan is one of the greatest singers in the world. His voice is incredibly expressive and evocative, and he can really interpret a song and transmit images and emotions through it.

The night before Vegas, at the Arizona State Fair in Phoenix, he sang Workingman’s Blues with all his might, making it the perfect song to describe these hard times. The lines “Some people never worked a day in their life/ Don’t know what work even means” had a very deep resonance with that evening’s audience of farmers and agricultors whose governments tell them that “low wages are a reality if we want to compete abroad”.

But it wasn’t just the right time and place that made the song so powerful. It was the way Dylan sang it, with great feeling and masterful technique, modulating his voice from notes of deep melancholy to dry indignation.

His very expressive hands added the right amount of drama to the song, making the singer look like the working man of the title and also, at times, like a scarecrow in an abandoned farm, telling the whole story to no one but the wind.

But I digress. We are again Las Vegas this past Sunday, at THE concert. It began with business as usual, with an ass-kicking “Leopard -Skin Pill-Box Hat”. The extremely good looking and extremely talented Charlie Sexton is the frontman. Bob is on the right of the stage, playing keyboards.

Half of the jewelry-incrusted collar of his shirt is inside his jacket, the other half is not. (I mention this because in every single concert, in between songs, Dylan is constantly tucking his curly hair inside his hat and/or straightening his clothes.)

But this time he doesn’t seem to mind the asimetry of his look. In fact, I don’t think he could care less.

For the second song, he takes center-stage again. But instead of the sadness of Workingman’s Blues, he sings “The Man In Me”, one of his sexiest creations. What happens then is hard to describe without superlative phrases: Dylan swings and croons the song, he smiles at the audience in complicity, he moves his hands with masculine gracefulness. He sounds like a Dust Bowl Sinatra, like Dean Martin’s smoother brother, like a pale Sammy Davis, Jr.

In other concerts, Dylan in Vegas was an oximoron. But on Sunday, he was as in place there as Bugsy Siegel at the Flamingo.

In “Forgetful Heart”, the haunting ballad of Together Through Life, Dylan became Sinatra again. The darkest Sinatra, the Wee-Small-Hours-Of-The-Morning Frank. At that moment, you knew that behind the tinsel, we were in the middle of nowhere, rolling around like tumbleweeds.

In “Spirit on the Water”, Dylan sang that he “can’t go back to paradise no more” ’cause he “killed a man back there”. And later on the show, he tried “to get to heaven before they close the door”.

The truth is this: in Las Vegas, the city closest to hell, everyone who went to see and hear Bob Dylan on Sunday was accepted back in paradise and got into heaven, at least for a little while.