Nostalgia got a slap in the face when Bob Dylan and Carlos Santana took similar approaches in presenting their catalogs at the Hollywood Bowl. Both proffered a huge dollop of material unknown to casual fans, perhaps saying that no matter how central these two are to the liturgy of classic rock, they can perform meaningful, modern music that has escaped the trappings of the ’60s. In the end, though, it was only Dylan doing it right.
Dylan’s songs were refreshing and ably powered by a superb quartet that, in posture, dress and musical vitality, brought to mind Dylan’s early work with the Band.
The singer, now 52, bounced between acoustic and electric segments, always using his musicians to create a dynamic that has been sorely missing from other Dylan concerts. About the only thing that didn’t modulate was that pinched nasal whine of his, which Dylan used wisely in an assortment of narrative-based songs.
Particularly engrossing was a version of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” to which the quartet lent a coffee-house feel that made the giant outdoor space seem suddenly intimate. John Jackson’s graceful and biting lead guitar and Bucky Baxter’s soothing pedal steel, mandolin and dobro sparked Dylan into some fine solos of his own. Dylan has probably never performed with better accompaniment.
By devoting about half his 90-minute set to newer and lesser-known material, Dylan — lucky that the sound was excellent — forced listeners to pay attention and served notice this would be no greatest-hits sing-along. After punching out a lilting “Stuck Inside of Mobile” and an “All Along the Watchtower” that took its cues from Neil Young’s version, Dylan spent much of the night as a storyteller. He even dragged out Paul Simon’s “Jim Jones,” as elegant a ballad as either has written, until he closed with a remorseless version of “It Ain’t Me Babe.”
The noisier side of the evening started earlier when Carlos Santana used his 95-minute set to showcase his usual assortment of deftly crafted leads against a barrage of percussion, organ and a rumbling bass. Starting with the recent “Spirits,” Santana touched on ’60s soul, reggae, jazz-rock, weak hard rock and even weaker rap. The rhythms came down on the head rather than up through the soul.
When the two marginal vocalists tried to give this band a focal point — most of the time it was a bright-red backdrop with portraits of ethnic children — they were usually stuck singing trite lyrics that reeked of ’60s idealism and lacked enthusiasm or creativity.
Neither of these musicians is willing to succumb to the demands of an audience that’s a record company’s demographic dream — affluent and willing to buy CD versions of the records they grew up with.
Santana would be wise to toss in more familiar material to get away from his repetitive and predictable solos that have no reference points. Dylan deserves pity, though — he’s trying to move on and his audience is still stuck in high school.
The first band of the nearly five-hour evening was the Rembrandts. The group performed acoustic, establishing a link between alternative rock and Crosby, Stills and Nash-inspired folk rock.