Bob Dylan Live by Jeff Apter

"Bob's in there," I overhear some reefer-chugging Dylanspotter in the parking lot say, nodding towards a darkened touring van. Getting a little closer, I couldn't make out any evidence of rock 'n' roll road debauchery, just the unmistakable image of Lisa Simpson flickering on a TV set.

So is this how a legend gets psyched for his next show? And is it enough for Bob Dylan to be a living, breathing icon (and creator of Wallflower Jakob) that he no longer needs to make an effort to connect with his brethren while performing on stage?

An Angry Young Bob

Well, the jury's still out on that one, as the Never Ending tour keeps on rolling, but the Dylan on display tonight, at the University of Hartford Sports Center, definitely wore his another-day-at-the-office face. It just wasn't enough for him to dress like a riverboat gambler and solo until his fingers bled. Somehow, even after all these years, we still want more from Bob.

That's not to say this was a show without peaks. There was the sweetly melodic riff Dylan and guitarist J.J. Jackson locked into as "I Shall Be Released" hit the home stretch, the curious first-to-third person shifts of "Tangled Up In Blue," the radical, raucous reworkings of "Silvio" and "This Wheel's On Fire," and the wry grin that passed across the face of his Bobness as a minor stage dancing invasion happened during the closer, "Rainy Day Women."

Unfortunately, that ephemeral grin was just about the only sign of communication during the entire night. No "thank yous" parted from his lips; Dylan dropped into this half-slumped lurch from the opener, "Not Fade Away," remained that way through the duration of the set, and spent far more time on between-song raps with the band than he did on preaching to the perverted.

There was an annoyingly familiar pattern to every song on the playlist -- even during the unplugged part of the show, where two acoustic guitars, upright bass and mandolin took over from the Fenders and pedal steel. The format typically went as follows: Dylan mumbled his way through a few verses, offered up the chorus, (just so you knew what song it was), then set the autopilot to "rock out," he and the lanky J.J. Jackson exchanging licks like a pair of punch-drunk middleweights.

Yeah, weirdness ruled tonight, even down to the composition of the crowd, where Saturday-night-college-students-who-were- going-to- rock-no-matter-what mingled with Dylanologists (notepads at the ready). The response to every Dylan twitch was euphoric -- even his rusty gate harmonica solo at the close of "Tangled Up In Blue" evoked the kind of reception usually reserved for homecoming heroes.

The well-dressed Bob Dylan Five were dragged back for a trio of encores, including a barely recognizable "Don't Think Twice." Yet like a night at the rock 'n' roll circus, this was a show with plenty of spectacle but little soul. Dylan looked so disconnected, so jaded from his 1000 plus nights on the road (and that's just the '90s) that all the adulation washed over him and barely left a mark.

By resorting to lowest-common-denominator arena rock antics, he's stripped his songs of their deeper meaning; now they're just excuses for him to play his guitar, loud. Maybe Dylan could wise up to his very own words: "Me, I'm still on the road, heading for another joint." Road lag has reduced rock's greatest innovator to pantomime status, the best Bob Dylan impersonator you'll ever hear.

More Bob Dylan on NY Rock:
Dylan Returns with Time Out of Mind (CD Review) Oct '97

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