The Roots on New Years’ Eve notwithstanding, I’ve been derelict about posting on live entertainment I’ve seen this year, like Louis CK in Baltimore, The Motherf**ker with the Hat at Studio Theater, The Last Five Years in Shirlington, Dean Fields in Arlington and The Postal Service at Merriweather Post.
All that being said, since there’s an especially clear precedent here — 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 — I shouldn’t neglect to mention I caught my tenth Dylan show two weeks ago, as part of the Americana Music Festival (with Ryan Bingham, My Morning Jacket, and Wilco). Here’s the setlist:
Things Have Changed | Love Sick | High Water (For Charley Patton) | Soon After Midnight | Early Roman Kings | Tangled Up In Blue | Duquesne Whistle | She Belongs To Me | Beyond Here Lies Nothin’ | A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall | Blind Willie McTell | Simple Twist Of Fate | Thunder On The Mountain | All Along The Watchtower | Ballad Of A Thin Man
Perhaps it’s because the setlists are fluctuating less this tour, or he’s playing a shorter set, or he’s just inspired by the bands he’s touring with, but this was actually the best I’ve heard Bob sound in awhile. He seemed animated and his voice, while always gravelly these days, sounded more mellifluous than it’s been in many a moon. “Things Have Changed” and “Ballad of a Thin Man” are always favorites, but the highlight for me this time around was finally catching Blind Willie McTell live — You can see it as well above, thanks to Joanna’s Visions.
Also, due to the vagaries of having a job and all that — the festival started at 4:30pm over in Columbia, MD — we missed Ryan Bingham’s set and all but the last song of My Morning Jacket, but here was the evening for the Wilco-inclined (who were also very good):
Ashes of American Flags | Bull Black Nova | Blood of the Lamb | Christ for President | I Am Trying to Break Your Heart | Art of Almost | Jesus, Etc. | Can’t Stand It | Born Alone | Passenger Side | I Got You (At the End of the Century) | Heavy Metal Drummer | I’m the Man Who Loves You | Dawned on Me | A Shot in the Arm | The Lonely 1
“Sir John Gielgud admired Mr. Scofield’s stillness and sense of mystery, describing him as ‘a sphinx with a secret.’ Peter Hall, who directed Mr. Scofield’s acclaimed Salieri in Peter Shaffer’s ‘Amadeus’ in London in 1979, said that as a young man Mr. Scofield brought ‘a sulfurous passion, an entirely new note’ to the stage, and that there was always a tremendous tension beneath the surface, ‘like a volcano erupting.‘” Paul Scofield, 1922-2008.
“Morgan’s grasp of Nixon’s place in American culture is confirmed near the play’s end, when Reston endorses an opinion that one seldom hears in routine journalistic commentary but that I believe is undoubtedly true: Nixon was never rehabilitated. He never came back. Despite the pomp and fine words at his funeral, his name remained a synonym for presidential corruption and crime, and the ‘-gate’ suffix attached to scandals ever since certified Watergate’s cultural importance” Rutgers professor and author of Nixon’s Shadow David Greenberg reviews Frost/Nixon for Slate.
Her name is Yoshimi, she’s got a black belt in karaoke…Two choice links via Webgoddess. I thought for sure this was a Slings and Arrows-type April Fool’s joke at first, but no: The Flaming Lips’ Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots is coming to Broadway. “There’s the real world and then there’s this fantastical world. This girl, the Yoshimi character, is dying of something. And these two guys are battling to come visit her in the hospital. And as one of the boyfriends envisions trying to save the girl, he enters this other dimension where Yoshimi is this Japanese warrior and the pink robots are an incarnation of her disease. It’s almost like the disease has to win in order for her soul to survive. Or something like that.” And, weirder still, it’s apparently being written by Aaron Sorkin of The West Wing and Sports Night.
And, also via Kris, my old site The Leaky Cauldron has posted the cover art for the final Potter installment, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, which you can see at right. Clean, simple, I like it.
So, my sister, her boyfriend, and I went to check out The Times They Are A-Changin’, the new Twyla Tharp-choreographed reimagining of famous Bob Dylan songs, last Thursday (with, as a star-gazing aside, some heavy-hitters in attendance: Annie Leibowitz sat directly in front of me, and Tharp herself sat directly behind. Yes, I’m a celebrity hound.) And the verdict? Well, first let me say, that — some early dabbling in community-theater notwithstanding — I’m really not much of a musical guy. I tend to find the American Idol-ish histrionics of Broadway singing really distracting, and particularly when the song in question is something like “Masters of War.” Nor have I seen Moving Out, Mamma Mia!, Ring of Fire, Almost Heaven or any of the other “Broadway Karaoke” shows that currently seem to be the rage, so I can’t really compare it to any of the others — I was really more interested to see some intriguing interpretations of Dylan than I was to partake in a group sing-a-long (which, thankfully, Times is not.) With all that said, I found Times to be…kinda hit-or-miss. While some of the visions here do their source material justice in memorable fashion, others fall flat or just seem ill-conceived. And, while the circus acrobatics on display are amazingly well-performed and at times mesmerizing, too many numbers slip into the same dark carnival-of-the-absurd pattern. The cast works hard, but surely, when you get down to it, there is more to Dylan’s oeuvre than just aggro carny folk.
To its credit, Times samples songs from across Dylan’s career, from the hoary (“The Times They-Are A Changin’,” “Blowing in the Wind“) to the obscure (“Man Gave Names to All the Animals,” “Please, Mrs. Henry“), through the lean years (“I Believe in You,” “Dignity“) and up to the recent critical revival (“Not Dark Yet,” “Summer Days.”) Set in a traveling circus run by the vicious, heavy-handed Captain Ahrab (Thom Sesma) — a character from one of Dylan’s great American fables,”Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream,” not included — the play basically centers around a love triangle among Ahrab, his son Coyote (Michael Arden), and the lady Cleo (Lisa Brescia), one of the circus performers. Through their story — and the larger tale of a power struggle over the circus — are refracted these thirty or so Dylan tunes, strung togther in haphazard but decently compelling fashion.
I’d like to say there’s a formula for when a song works and when it doesn’t, but it doesn’t go over like that. One of the two best numbers, “Simple Twist of Fate” (the only cut from Blood on the Tracks here), is played basically straight. Alone in spotlight, Ahrab sings wistfully in the foreground (as seen at left) while the younger couple cavorts behind him, a haunting memory. “He woke up, the room was bare. He didn’t see her anywhere. He told himself he didn’t care, pushed the window open wide. Felt an emptiness inside, to which he just could not relate.” The bleak, melancholic staging matches the song perfectly, and Ahrab/Sesma channels both its poetry and its pain.
But, in the other most successful number, “Mr. Tambourine Man” (a song I can usually take or leave), Tharp & co. have taken a tune that’s ostensibly about a drug deal and just ran with it. Now, it’s a gripping, Bergmanesque dance of death, with one of the sadder clowns (Charlie Neshyba-Hodges) holding center stage as the ensemble circles around him in black, recalling the doomed pilgrims of The Seventh Seal. Obviously, Tharp isn’t the first to read “Tambourine Man” as a disquisition on mortality. (“I’m ready to go anywhere, I’m ready for to fade…into my own parade, cast your dancing spell my way, I promise to go under it.“) Nevertheless, the staging both feels innovative and cuts close to the bone of the song in surprising fashion.
There are other good moments scattered throughout the show, although few that hold their power over the course of an entire track: For example, a contortionist writhes horribly on a hospital bed during the “Dr. Filth” passage of “Desolation Row,” flashlights whirl and twirl (held by people brandishing them vaguely like tusken raiders) during “Knocking on Heaven’s Door“, the cast memorably get their drink on for “Please, Mrs. Henry,” and one clown reenacts Dylan’s “Subterranean” signage during the latter half of “Like a Rolling Stone.”
But, when a song’s off, it’s pretty off. The most obvious offenders are “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” “Blowing in the Wind,” and arguably “Lay, Lady, Lay,” all of which are performed in a deadly earnest Broadway patter that just stop the show dead. (This is particularly unfortunate in the case of the first one, since that’s how the show begins.) But, there are other problems. The bizarre welcome-to-the-carnival-of-beasties routine works well for “Desolation Row” (since, after all, “The circus is in town“) and maybe even for other rousing numbers such as “Like a Rolling Stone.” But, it’s overdone — in “Highway 61 Revisited,” “Everything is Broken,” “Gotta Serve Somebody,” “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” — to the point that the musical numbers become indistinguishable. (“Masters of War” also falls somewhat into this pattern — I liked it better than most, but was reminded more of ABT’s splendid recent revival of “The Green Table,” which captured the same sentiment better.)
And, sometimes, in my humble opinion, the attempted interpretation falls flat on its face. I thought turning “Not Dark Yet,” Dylan’s gloomy but resigned rumination on death around the corner, into a rage-against-the-dying-of-the-light completely misses the point of the song, which is that he’s given up and given in to the coming darkness. (“I’ve been down on the bottom of a world full of lies. I ain’t looking for nothing in anyone’s eyes.“)
Most egregious in this regard is what’s been done to “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.” Perhaps because it remains such a personal song — a song about two people rather than a generation — I’d say it’s aged much better than almost all of the other hugely popular early-Dylan standards (“Blowing in the Wind,” “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.”) In fact, I might go so far as to say that “Don’t Think Twice” may just be the quintessential Dylan break-up song in a career full of them (although now that I write that…Blonde on Blonde, Blood on the Tracks…ok, never mind. That’s too bold a statement.) At any rate, here, all the complexity of competing emotions that drives the track — “I ain’t sayin’ you treated me unkind, you could have done better but I don’t mind, you just kinda wasted my precious time” — is wasted, as it’s become, inexplicably, a number sung by a woman to her overly eager dog. (Although I will concede that the canine in question — I believe it was Jason McDole — was convincingly and creepily Berkeley-like.)
In sum, A Times They Are A-Changin’ is at times engaging, and may be worth catching if you have a hankering for the carnivalesque, if you’re a Dylan completist, or if you have a higher tolerance for showtune renditions than I do. But, as an exploration of Dylanalia, I found the show too narrowly circumscribed within its three-ring circus, and ultimately unsatisfying. (Then again, in the play’s defense, I didn’t think much of Masked and Anonymous either, so perhaps I’m just ornery about such things.)
No king of England if not of France. Alas, the NY Times didn’t think much of Henry V in the park. I caught it a few weeks ago and enjoyed it better than this reviewer, for sure. Given recent events, I do wish they’d turned up the satire a notch (“We doubt not of a fair and lucky war,” as the posters proclaim) and Bronson Pinchot’s Balki-esque schtick as Pistol seemed wildly out of place. But all in all, I thought the show made for a lively summer evening. And as a fan of the McKellen Richard III, I enjoyed the WWI motif Liev Schreiber & co. were aiming for.