Sunday, May 17, 2015

Dylan and then McGuinn in Michigan - May 15 and May 16, 2015

Roger McGuinn at the Michigan Theater, May 16, 2015
How often do we get to see the master and arguably his greatest interpreter back-to-back? Not too often, I don't think. So off we were Friday to see Bob Dylan at the Fox Theater in Detroit, and Roger McGuinn at the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor the next evening.

Dylan, of course, has been charting his own path as a performer for... well, forever. These days, he's not altering his setlists, so a quick look at his most recent performances on his official website -- even though it was two weeks out of date -- gave a fairly precise idea of what he was going to play.

I was "busted" for taking this snapshot of Bob and the band.
As with the last time I saw Dylan at the Fox in 2012, the stage was dark, dark, dark. "Photography is Strictly Prohibited" signs were posted approximately every 3 feet, and the staff were instructed to enforce just as strictly (I was "busted" after taking a picture of the bow after the last song, much to the amusement of myself and all around me).

Dylan has accentuated his piano playing more and more in recent years, to the point where it now has a leading role in several songs. The setlist, though, was pretty much impenetrable for anyone who didn't already have the songs memorized. In 2012, Bob surprised me by playing nearly an entire set of "familiar to the casual fans" songs. No such "luck" Friday night. "Blowin' In the Wind" in the encores was sublime, and included Dylan's most forceful piano playing of the evening. "Tangled Up in Blue" was also in the set. Beyond that, many fans had to be wondering just what they were hearing. Even "She Belongs to Me" wasn't easy to recognize, and anyway, when was the last time most of them listened to it? Not that I have an issue with songs like "Pay In Blood" (a world premiere at the 2012 show that was also played Friday evening) or "Early Roman Kings," it's just that without a libretto they're not easy to follow. I spent so much effort trying to figure out what he was playing, that I didn't ever get to why he was playing it.

Dylan at the piano for "Blowin' In the Wind."
Dylan's most recent album, Shadows In The Night was a collection of covers of Frank Sinatra tunes. Late in the set, he played "Autumn Leaves," one of the tracks on the album. This, apparently, was the life dream of one particularly loud (and possibly not quite sober) fan behind us, who screamed deliriously as the song began. The encores ended with another of the new songs, the almost ironic "Stay With Me."

Roger McGuinn opened with a Bob Dylan song ("My Back Pages"), wore a big hat, and played many other Dylan songs over the course of his two hour concert, but that's where any similarities between these two shows ended. McGuinn's roots are in folk and he has substantially gone back to those roots with his Folk Den Project. Yesterday's show combined songs from The Byrds, McGuinn's solo career, and his more recent folk recordings. Where Dylan seemed to issue a dare to his audience to figure out his meaning, McGuinn explained his history and his song's meanings at length.

So we got the story of how McGuinn once played for the Chad Mitchell Trio. We got the story of his time in the Brill Building with Bobby Darin, and of one of his first songwriting attempts there. We got the story of how The Byrds came together, of how they got access to "Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man," and how he ended up singling lead. We got his story of the Rolling Thunder Revue, and of another tour years later with Tom Petty and Bob Dylan. Time after time the stories were presented as opportunities, of McGuinn just happening to be in the right place at the right time, and being just smart enough -- usually after a delay -- to smile and say "ok." McGuinn, like Dylan, doesn't vary his setlist. Yet it all felt fresh.

These stories might be wearying in the hands of someone else, but McGuinn so clearly enjoyed the moment, enjoyed the telling, and most of all enjoyed the music that he easily brought the audience along with him. That included frequent sing-alongs, even on some of those old Bob Dylan chestnuts. Oh, and he did "Chestnut Mare," too. McGuinn showed how talented he is, both as instrumentalist (he played his Rickenbacker as well as 3 other instruments) and as singer. He closed with "Turn! Turn! Turn!," the Pete Seeger adaptation of Ecclesiastes that became a #1 hit for The Byrds, and "May the Road Rise Up To Meet You," an original song based on a traditional Irish blessing.