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Relatively historic
Dylan at Newport

Photograph by Eric Antoniou

Bob Dylan's appearance at the Newport Folk Festival (okay, the "Apple & Eve" Newport Folk Festival) a week ago last Saturday either was or wasn't a historic event. depending on who you talk to. It marked Dylan's first appearance at Newport since he notoriously "went electric" in 1965 and either was or wasn't booed off the stage by the acoustic folkie and "protest"-music diehards either for being a traitor or because his set was too short. At Newport last week, Dylan was the only performer with his own merch tent (selling vintage Opry-style sepia posters that trumpeted Dylan "In Show & Concert") and certainly the only reason the New York Times came to cover the event. Coming on an hour after the previous act (the interval was scheduled to be just a half-hour), he played a two-hour set (as advertised), a mix of "acoustic" and electrified versions -- 19 of them, including encores -- that spanned his entire career. His singing croaked along in the late-period manner that Dylan's fans have grown used to, and he either did or did not play several off-key guitar solos -- or else he was just "pushing" his band with his "unpredictability" and "spontaneity," depending on who you talk to. No one booed, and Richard Gere and his wife, Carey Lowell, sitting in the first row of the VIP section, stayed for the whole thing and seemed to have a good time. Other than that, you might say it was just another Dylan concert.

Which is never entirely a bad thing. He looked spiffy, in a big white cowboy hat, black vest, white shirt, and black pants with white piping. He's pretty hirsute these days, with a beard and long hair that Jon Pareles in the Times claimed were fake.

For the opening number, Dylan, Larry Campbell, and Charlie Sexton plucked the upbeat honky-tonk of the C&W standard "Roving Gambler," harmonizing on the lyrics "I left San Francisco, went up to Maine, I met a gambling man, we got into a poker game." It was an inspired cover and invocation, as historical and up-to-the minute an American narrative as you could hope for at the Newport Folk Festival. And as Dylan followed that up with a series of chestnuts (including "The Times They Are A-Changin'," "Desolation Row," "Positively 4th Street," and "Subterranean Homesick Blues"), it became clear that his lyrics, even delivered with diminished vocal equipment, can still cut like a knife. He varied his attack, so that when he sang, "Yeah, I received your letter yesterday," you'd swear you'd never heard "Desolation Row" before. Newer tunes ("Summer Days," "Cry a While," from Love and Theft) had heft as well as rockabilly loft.

And yet, those vocal experiments could also turn into mannerisms, like the little octave jump Dylan used again and again to punctuate the ends of lines. And the overall lack of musical variety began to wear. Why not more group vocals like "Roving Gambler" or the encore "Not Fade Away"? Why not give Campbell another pedal-steel feature, or Sexton a bit more room for his tasty, clean-picking guitar leads? But to some, that might have been an unpleasant reminder of the lengthy guitar jams of the mid '90s. It all depends on who you talk to.

Issue Date: August 9 - 15, 2002