A pair of musical mavericks link legendary talents

October 29, 2007


They grew up literally a world apart, but the current tour by Bob Dylan, the legendary son of Hibbing, Minn., and London-born rocker Declan MacManus, better known as Elvis Costello, proved to be an inspired pairing on Saturday, the first of a three-night stand at the Chicago Theatre.

Both are literary-minded songwriters more interested in storytelling than in crafting catchy pop product. Both have famously gruff and unconventional voices, to put it kindly. And at the end of the day, despite the occasional tune sold to a lingerie company or a luxury car commercial, both are musical mavericks possessing immeasurable integrity.

Performing solo acoustic, thereby making his debt to Dylan all the more obvious, Costello delivered a spirited 11-song set mixing pared-down versions of some of his best-known songs -- "Veronica," "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes," "Radio Sweetheart" -- with less familiar material, including a sassy and very funny tune recently written with country great Loretta Lynn.

Running throughout was an anti-war message Costello expressed both in rousing terms -- via a raucous version of "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love & Understanding" -- and in a quieter mode, with a set-closing reading of "The Scarlet Tide," co-written with T-Bone Burnett.

Dylan's set started slowly, with laidback, almost lazy versions of "Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat" and "It Ain't Me, Babe." He played guitar for those but shifted to electronic keyboard, where he remained for the rest of the night.

The 66-year-old musician reportedly has avoided the guitar in recent years because of arthritis. Fans have tried to see the upside by arguing that this puts more focus on his vocals. But for my money, none of the shows I've seen since the shift have been nearly as inspiring as those during the hot streak that stretched from the mid-'90s into the early 2000s, when Dylan gleefully traded fiery solos with some of the best bands of his career.

Part of the problem Saturday was also due to the current band, which shuffled and swayed more than it rocked, even though every member was decked out in ridiculous black leather pants. You couldn't help thinking Dylan would be kicking their shiny derrieres if he was still wielding his ax, but it was too hard to motivate anyone when he was riveted in one spot, and when his keys were either barely audible or none too impressive. (When it comes to tinkling the ebonies and ivories, Bob is no Al Kooper.)

The show only really caught fire three-quarters of the way through, starting with solid versions of "Highway 61 Revisited" and "Ain't Talkin'," and drawing to a moving conclusion before the encore with the poignant and sadly once again timely "Masters of War."

On this night, Dylan was outshone by one of his disciples, and Costello put on the better show. But to be fair, while I've seen much better Dylan performances, I've also seen much, much worse, and Bob playing at the "B" level is still better than many other artists at "A+."