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Concert Reviews:
Grizzled vets Bob Dylan and Leon Russell rock at Meadow Brook

for Journal Register Newspapers

Posted: Sunday, August 7, 2011

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ROCHESTER HILLS -- It works like this at a Bob Dylan concert; you will hear songs you know and love, but you might not recognize them, at least until the chorus.

Know that going on, however, and you might just come out with a deeper appreciation for Dylan as an artist, a performer who treats his formidable body of work as living and breathing rather than iconic, approaching the songs however he feels on any given night and willing to take them in directions that might be less fruitful than others. It's a rare artist who does that, particularly in rock and pop, but it's the way Dylan's been for years and why he stays vital, even at 70.

That was certainly the case on Sunday night (Aug. 7) at the Meadow Brook Music Festival, where fans braved the rain the blew in early during Dylan's 15-songs, 95-minute set and were rewarded with a solid and invigorating show in which he and his crack five-member band treated the material with care but not reverence. The opening "Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat," for instance, had a subtle country twang and "Mississippi" took on a loping, easy gait, while Dylan delivered "Tangled Up in Blue" in playful fashion, singing an up note at the ends of many of the lines.

Dylan, who played organ most of the night, was in good spirits, mugging and posing a bit -- especially when he was playing guitar or harmonica at center stage. His voice, typically grizzled, was raspy but authoritative and clear, which lent a passionate kind of urgency to most of the songs. Shuffles such as "Things Have Changed," "Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum," "Highway 61 Revisited" and "Thunder on the Mountain" were taut ensemble jams featuring solos by Dylan and guitarist Charlie Sexton, while "Summer Days" was a Texas swing-flavored delight and "Tryin' To get to Heaven" a soulful highlight.

The protest anthem "Ballad of a Thin Man," with an echo on Dylan's voice for added impact, took on a fresh currency after the recent debt ceiling crisis, while "Like a Rolling Stone" and "All Along the Watchtower" were crowd-pleasing anthems, no more, no less -- the expected conclusions to a show that had more than its share of surprising twists and turns.

Leon Russell -- a fellow Rock and Roll Hall of Famer and, 40 years ago, Dylan stagemate at the Concert For Bangladesh -- brought a little heat with his 45-minute opening set. Though he walked on stage with a cane and barely moved a muscle save for his lips, throat and piano-playing fingers, Russell led his four-piece band through a selection of favorites and favorite covers, including Buck Owens' "Rollin' in My Sweet Baby's Arms," the Rolling Stones' "Wild Horses," the Beatles' "I've Just Seen a Face," Chuck Berry's "Roll Over Beethoven" and a medley that included the Stones' "Jumpin' Jack Flash" and "Paint It Black" along with the Temptations' "Papa Was a Rolling Stone" and Lieber & Stoller's "Kansas City."

The 69-year-old Russell, who also performed Friday (Aug. 5) at Rockin' on the Riverfront in Detroit, surprisingly didn't touch on anything from his Grammy Award-nominated "The Union" collaboration with Elton John, but he did mine his own songbook for hits such as "Delta Lady" and "A Song For You," as well as more obscure fare such as "Stranger in a Strange Land," "Back to the Island," "Hummingbird" and "Prince of Peace" -- with nary a word said to the crowd throughout his portion of the show.

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