Wednesday in Shea's Performing Arts Center.
"Even the president of the United States sometimes has to stand naked," the singer gruffly intoned to strident applause during one of the brighter moments of Wednesday's show in Shea's Performing Arts Center.
Apparently, even Bob Dylan sometimes has to stand naked as well. Dylan and his band delivered a disappointing set marred by missed opportunities, sketchy on-stage communication between the musicians, and a general lack of fire and direction, despite a handful of torrid performances scattered throughout.
Last year, Dylan played two area shows -- one in St. Bonaventure University's Reilly Center and another on the campus of Rochester Institute of Technology -- and both were strong. Shea's should go down in history as the weakest gig Dylan has offered Western New York in more than a decade.
It's a shame, because the man has been on a winning streak for some time. He hasn't released a misdirected, confused studio recording since reclaiming his genius with the late '80s effort "Oh Mercy." Though he admittedly lost his way and severed communication with his in-concert muse during the better part of that decade and the early 1990s, since roughly '94, Dylan has been quietly and consistently creating a career renaissance.
That can't excuse the seriously muddled, directionless nature of Wednesday's gig, however. Dylan seems to have lost the plot a bit.
The problem rests almost wholly in the lap of his brand new band, which has been together since early March, when Dylan and Merle Haggard launched this shared tour. Just previous to the tour's commencement, longtime guitarist and musical director Larry Campbell gave his notice, ending a roughly 10-year run as the single finest, most versatile guitarist Dylan has ever worked with -- and that includes the Band's Robbie Robertson as well.
With Campbell manning a variety of guitars and the pedal steel, Dylan was reborn as a performer, particularly when he moved from his role as auxiliary guitarist to pianist a few years back. The level of on-stage interplay and the consistently excellent ensemble improvisation was simply startling during Campbell's tenure, and it made Dylan's band one of the best live acts going.
Dylan has lost band members before; in fact, in between his performance nearly three years ago at the Erie County Fair and last night's Shea's show, Campbell, bassist Tony Garnier and drummer George Recile have broken in two guitarists in the role previously held by Charlie Sexton -- Freddie Koella, who was an outstanding addition, and Stu Kimball, who is less so. But with Campbell's departure, Dylan completely overhauled his group, adding violinist Elana Fremerman, violinist/guitarist/pedal steel player Donnie Herron and guitarist Denny Freeman to the Garnier-Recile-Kimball base. The result is a shift away from the guitar-heavy, blazing improvisations of the Campbell band into a slightly more relaxed ensemble sound within which the twin fiddles do battle with Dylan's harp as the primary instrumental voices.
Sometimes, this was great. Sometimes, it was far less so. There was no single fluid, imaginative soloing voice, and the band's attempts to fill that void with a sort of group-soloing approach worked only some of the time.
The song selection was right on the money, as Dylan dusted off some tunes area audiences haven't heard him play in a while. Opening with a mostly wicked "The Wicked Messenger," Dylan followed the first violin solos of the evening by grabbing his harp and heading to the center of the stage for an inspired solo. He then led the band into "She Belongs To Me," one of the evening's highlights. Here, the ensemble suggested it had found a unique group voice that might be capable of filling the gap left by Campbell's departure, as Herron's pedal steel, Freeman's guitar, and Dylan's harp melded to form a stunning wall of sound which earned a standing ovation from the relatively placid crowd.
The moment was blown out of the water by a limpid take on "It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)," during which Dylan stumbled on the lyrics and some directionless soloing ensued. "Queen Jane Approximately" arrived as a pleasant surprise and featured some so-so pedal steel playing from Herron and a great harp solo from Dylan.
"Cold Irons Bound" arrived midset, and it was hands-down the finest performance of the evening, as the band seemed to finally find its groove, sinking its teeth into an arrangement of the apocalyptic blues number not unlike the one Dylan employed for the "Masked and Anonymous" soundtrack.
But instead of using this as a jumping-off point toward greater glory, Dylan and Co. proceeded to stumble through a confused version of "Desolation Row." "Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again" didn't help matters much -- it too lacked the fire generated by strong improvisational interplay.
There were moments when the new Dylan band rose to the heights of its predecessor -- namely, the aforementioned "Cold Irons Bound," the dark and hypnotic "The Man in the Long Black Coat," and the soul-stirring, country-fueled throwdown "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere."
But just as often, the new group seemed to be struggling to find its voice. Dylan himself was in good form, his voice a blend of syncopated bark and mellifluous coo, and his harp and piano playing were consistently great throughout the show. For a long time now, however, Dylan has been reinterpreting his incredible catalog of songs with the considerable support of a band that could out-jam the Allman Brothers Band and dig deeper than any other group the man has worked with this side of the Band. Perhaps, given time, this new group will rise to those same heights. But they aren't there yet, sadly.