By Joe Heim
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 1, 2007
Do you get to retain your title as America's greatest living singer-songwriter if no one can understand a single word you sing?
In the early stages of Bob Dylan's performance at Merriweather Post Pavilion on Friday night, even ardent fans must have grimaced at the guttural growling that emanated from the singer who once claimed his voice was equal to Caruso's. Unless you were there simply to bask in the Aura of Bob, the distressing, almost thoroughly unintelligible versions of "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35," "Señor (Tales of Yankee Power)" and "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" that led off the show bordered on unlistenable.
It was as if Dylan, looking the part of a well-dressed bandit in his black suit and light gray hat, was playing a practical joke on fans to find out how much deconstruction they'd put up with before reaching their breaking point. He has long reworked his songs to keep them from becoming banal crowd singalongs, but these versions sounded like some sort of diabolic sonic art project.
It wasn't until "Workingman's Blues #2," a full 30 minutes into his set, that Dylan either stopped joking or righted his listing ship. And the turnaround was so magnificent that the idea of the first few songs as a sort of prank seemed almost plausible.
The transporting version of "Desolation Row" delivered by the 66-year-old singer and his five-piece band brought many in the near-capacity crowd to their feet. The lovely, lilting "Beyond the Horizon," one of six songs on this night from last year's "Modern Times," was as revelatory as it was charming. As he rattled off the searing litany of charges in "Masters of War," he sounded as if he had penned the song earlier that very day, not 44 years ago. And the completely reworked version of "Blowin' in the Wind," which ended the show, was yet more proof that Dylan can drastically alter and recast his songs without ruining them for fans in the process.
Enunciation wasn't a problem for Elvis Costello, who preceded Dylan on Friday with a 50-minute solo acoustic set that plowed through favorites and a few obscure choices as well. The (formerly) Angry Young Man is older now (53) and seemingly much less angry. The sneer and snarl that served him so well early in his career have virtually disappeared. (Or maybe he just thought it was impolite to sneer and snarl at fans who had plunked down $75 to $125 on tickets.) Perhaps that's why when he sang "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding" it sounded less like a meaningful anthem than a party tune. And on "Radio Sweetheart" he even raised his cup and led the crowd in a cheery singalong.
Much better for fans of a far more bitter Elvis was an outstanding version of "Alison." Wringing it for all of its wistfulness, Costello could hardly have sounded more plaintive. And on "In Another Room," one of the more unexpected choices, he mixed longing and resentment in a fashion that seems practically his trademark. The real bonus? You could understand every word.