Bob Dylan w/ Merle Haggard | The Fox Theatre, St. Louis | 04.20.06

Something about hearing the bearded legend sing this oldie was unbelievably touching; every word seemed to resonate with fresh emotion. “It’s still the same old story/A fight for love and glory.” You bet, Merle.

 

I e-mailed a friend the day before this concert and told her I was excited to be attending a show by “two grizzled old veterans who’ve been to hell and back several times.” Indeed, the combined tally of life experiences that country great Merle Haggard and iconic minstrel Bob Dylan have logged surely eclipses most other musical artists who are still active today, and this memorable show at the Fox illustrated the very different vibes these men generate onstage. Haggard was given a breezy warm-up by one of his band members, and strolled out to a classic western swing riff that primed the audience for some classic country. Clad in his traditional hat and sunglasses, the upbeat Haggard delivered smooth renditions of some of his best-known songs, including “Sing a Sad Song,” “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink,” “Mama Tried” (which upped the applause meter), and the poignant ballad “If I Could Only Fly,” which the veteran sang with utter grace and conviction. A slight technical problem onstage caused Haggard to sit down for a few tunes—“I haven’t sat in a stool since I was 15,” he told the crowd to roars of laughter.

On a tune called “Big City,” Haggard’s band (which numbered eight!) played with an effortless natural swing. Few things are more pleasurable at a concert than seeing polished professionals deliver the goods with the same exuberance and energy they’ve been serving up for years. A couple of other highlights: Haggard’s chipper version of Bob Wills’ “Where’s All the Drugs,” which seemed to make the audience palpably giddy, and an unexpectedly charming take on the chestnut “As Time Goes By.” Something about hearing the bearded legend sing this oldie was unbelievably touching; every word seemed to resonate with fresh emotion. “It’s still the same old story/A fight for love and glory.” You bet, Merle. A concession was made to current events with “Are the Good Times Really Over,” though that song was written in a far different era. The inevitable “Okie From Muskogee” provided the expected crowd-stoking encore. Haggard left behind a theater full of upbeat, energized fans with his warmly satisfying set.
Then ol’ Zimmy came on to weird the place out. You don’t go to a Bob Dylan concert to see thrilling renditions of your favorites; after all, Dylan is prone to changing the actual melodies of his tunes when he performs (partially due to his racked voice, perhaps), and it can take a moment or two to even recognize what he’s playing. No, you go to see Dylan because he’s a living legend, one of the Mount Rushmores of rock. Dylan was glued to a small keyboard which was barely visible; most in the crowd only got a side view of the master, and he rarely acknowledged the audience at all except when he introduced the band (even then, you couldn’t hear the names). Songs included “Maggie’s Farm,” “Queen Jane Approximately,” “Positively 4th Street,” and “It’s Alright Ma I’m Only Bleeding,” among the better-known numbers. Dylan performed several tunes from his Grammy-winning Time Out of Mind album, including “Million Miles” (which featured some nice guitar work by his sidemen), the ballad “’Til I Fell in Love with You” and the harmonica-drenched “Make You Feel My Love.” We also got “Honest With Me” from Love and Theft.

But most in the audience were more pleased by “Highway 61 Revisited,” on which the Zimster displayed something approaching real energy, an effective version of “Girl From the North Country,” and the infamous “Like a Rolling Stone,” way too ragged here to truly enjoy in a more than perfunctory manner. Still, it was Dylan singing one of his gems, so the oldsters in the crowd probably still got chills. As they undoubtedly also did for a fairly stirring version of “All Along the Watchtower.” There was a repetitive quality to Dylan’s performance overall that undermined the impact—although his band was certainly spirited, Dylan really does seem to be going through the motions at times. And would it kill him to say a word or two to the audience? Repeat after me, Bob: “Thank you, St. Louis, for coming out to my show.”

So I personally enjoyed Haggard’s set more. Still, it was a fascinating study in contrasts, and one of those concerts that’s fun to talk about later with friends. Grade: Haggard A-minus; Dylan C.

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