First things first: Bob Dylan is in town. The town is Newark, and the place is the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, where Dylan will play with his band Wednesdaynight. I notice you’re not sprinting to the box office, and I think I know why. Dylan has a deserved reputation for inscrutability in performance: he mumbles his words and rearranges his old favorites until they’re unrecognizable. A Dylan show is the opposite of a corporate rock concert where the musical director takes pains to make sure the songs sound exactly as they do on record. You will not get what you expect. The musicians have made sure of that. These days, even Dylan fanatics hesitate before buying a ticket.
I am no Dylan fanatic. But I caught him in Hoboken last year at his Americanarama Festival on the river, and came away impressed. Everything the detractors say is true: he cannot carry a melody past a few notes anymore, and he transformed some world-famous songs so completely that he might as well have been jamming. He didn’t talk to the audience, he didn’t interact very much with his band, he didn’t always project and, to be totally honest, he did not look super-thrilled to be there. Even in his heyday, he was never a particularly acrobatic stage performer, and at 73, he’s about as mobile as an old sofa. But Dylan was, in his crochety way, as swaggering as Jay Z. He gave the impression that the entire crowd could walk out and he wouldn’t do a thing differently. Here’s my music, he seemed to be saying, take it or leave it. And once I surrendered to the inevitable and gave up on trying to figure out what song he was playing, I began to appreciate the skill of his backing group. Dylan spent much of the show at the piano, and played imaginatively, if not expertly.
So I can’t recommend this show to you if you want to sing along to the greatest hits. But to be fair to Dylan, he’s been reimagining his old material in concert for years now. He’s just taking it farther than he did with the Rolling Thunder Revue. Dylan’s singing has always been a site of controversy —many people couldn’t stand it in the ’60s, either. Going to see Dylan at the Village Gate must have been an adventure; remarkably, seeing him in 2014 is still an adventure. All rebels ought to age so irascibly.
The young Max Bemis of Say Anything was occasionally compared to Bob Dylan. Emo is a wordy style, and Bemis had more words in him than most. Like Dylan, Bemis pushed the storytelling song in directions it hadn’t yet gone. Max’s early concerns were more self-absorbed than Bob’s worldly ones were, true, but they were more compassionate, too. … Is A Real Boy, the 2004 album from Say Anything, introduced Bemis to a national audience, and he made good on his band name with songs that felt unfiltered: they’re funny, whiny, outraged, hopeful, sexually forward but fundamentally awkward. Say Anything has made several really good albums since that one, including this year’s Hebrews, an examination of Bemis’ Jewish identity that’s liable to make your local rabbi blush (at least). But it’s Real Boy that his fans love best, and this autumn’s tour is designed to give the people what they want —the whole set, from top to bottom. Say Anything is touring with two other bands playing fan-favorite albums: Princeton’s Saves the Day, performing 1999 pop-punk landmark Through Being Cool, and Get-Up Kids spinoff Reggie and the Full Effect doing 2003’s Under the Tray. This early-zilches nostalgia tour —because that’s really what it is —stops at Starland Ballroom Nov. 29. It won’t be the first time the Ghosts of Bamboozles Past haunt that house.
The continuing interest in album-in-its-entirety performances is good news for local conceptualists who continue to believe in the expressive power of the full-length. Joe Michelini of Toms River-based River City Extension is the sort of songwriter who understands that there are some things that can’t be expressed in a three-minute single; Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Your Anger, RCE’s meditative, multidimensional 2012 album, played like an American travelogue, and like all good sets, was greater than the sum of its parts. Deliverance, the follow-up, comes out next year, and it’s likely that River City Extension will play some songs from the new set at the band’s Stone Pony show Nov. 26.
Michelini’s friends in Brick + Mortar, another Toms River outfit, have so many good musical ideas that it’s virtually inevitable that they’ll drop a good album in the near future. The dance-pop combo plays Asbury Lanes on Nov. 29.