By Chris Richards
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, August 21, 2006
Ah, the sights, smells and sounds of the ballpark. A grown man dancing with a sunflower. The smell of reefer blowing in the outfield. A mother lecturing her fidgety child: "He is a legend !"
"He" is Bob Dylan, and yes, kiddo, he is a legend. Dylan's third annual summer tour of minor league ballparks stopped Saturday night at Harry Grove Stadium in Frederick, where parents got to hear one of America's greatest living songwriters wheeze through his greatest tunes while their kids just watched, confused.
It's not breaking news that Dylan's voice has withered over the course of his storied 65 years. Nor is his tendency to rearrange the phrasing and melodies of his songs to suit those battered pipes. But these days, the man sounds less like a rock-and-roll icon and more like Cookie Monster with a head cold.
He played the hits, but would you have recognized them? The opening one-two punch of "Maggie's Farm" and "The Times They Are A-Changin' " was full of promise, but Dylan's run-down vocal delivery rendered the songs almost unrecognizable. The lyrics are still trenchant -- "There's a battle outside and it is ragin' / It'll soon shake your windows and rattle your walls / For the times they are a-changin' " -- but good luck finding them in the garble of huffs, puffs and croaks.
Even more disappointing was Dylan's lack of engagement with the audience. From a stage erected in deep center field, he stood hunched over a keyboard, rarely facing the thousands of fans flooding the ballpark's field and stands. During his 90 minutes onstage he thanked the crowd only once.
He also thanked his band, which brought a bluesy hue to his songbook. After a lean, driving version of "Cold Irons Bound" (a tune from Dylan's 1997 comeback album "Time Out of Mind"), the band slipped into the twinkling, nimble "Girl From the North Country." Dylan reined it in and sang quietly over the song's sparkling guitars before blowing a plaintive harmonica solo.
Despite the ragged vocal performance, the crowd mustered enough applause for an encore in which Dylan cued up two of his masterpieces, "Like a Rolling Stone" and "All Along the Watchtower." It was a once-in-a-lifetime moment: One where you wished those drunk dudes singing behind you would cut loose and drown out the guy onstage.