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Concert Review: Simon and Dylan musical mismatch

Monday, July 19, 1999

By Scott Mervis, Weekend Editor, Post-Gazette

You had to be there to believe how odd it was to hear the opening strains of "The Sounds of Silence," hear Paul Simon's mournful, melodic opening, and then, in the place of the high harmony of Art Garfunkel, hear the raspy croak of Bob Dylan.

If Bob had been Paul's boyhood friend growing up, let's just say the history of pop music, not to mention the '60s, could have been a lot different. But Dylan grew up in Hibbing, Minn., and thank goodness for that.

Individually, they are two of the greatest songwriters the world has ever known. Together, they are no dynamic duo. Me, you and Julio could have sounded just as good on "That'll Be the Day" and "The Wanderer," a peek into their roots. And the shopworn "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" fell a little short of angelic.

The duet was historic, but it was the least musical part of a classic pairing last night at the Coca-Cola Star Lake Amphitheatre before a crowd of 17,469 that ranged from grandmas to teen-agers.

Simon, wearing jeans and a T-shirt, opened, unleashing what you could call his United Nations Orchestra, one of the tightest, funkiest, most dynamic ensembles that you'll ever see. There wasn't a flat note, a missed cue or an inaudible lyric. Everything was perfect. The horn section, including Pittsburgher Jay Ashby on trombone, was bright and well capable of playing serious jazz. The rhythm section, like a certain cereal, had that snap, crackle and pop.

Simon, who has always refused to be a nostalgia act, was not going to settle for a set of "feelin' groovy" tunes. He opened with a moody, atmospheric "Bridge Over Troubled Water" and quickly launched into the more complex material from "Graceland" and "The Rhythm of the Saints." Songs like "Can't Run But" and "Cool, Cool River" sported beautiful melodies that kept elegantly shifting.

For every introspective song Simon had one that was joyous. Dropped into the middle of the set were "Mrs. Robinson" and "Me and Julio" -- songs that didn't sound any less fresh than they did 30 years ago. As the set wore on, it became even more infectious. Favorites like "Diamonds on the Souls of Her Shoes" and "You Can Call Me Al" had the crowd dancing and the deadheads twirling in the aisles.

Although he has an even bigger repertoire to draw upon, Dylan and his four horsemen had a hard act to follow, especially with Dylan's even more aloof stage presence and his constant tinkering with his classic melodies. (What was wrong with "Tangled Up in Blue" the original way?)

Dylan's set opened like a religious revival with the rousing gospel hymn called "Hand of the Lord," that recalled his shows at the Stanley 20 years ago.

Rather than the bright dynamics of Simon's ensemble, Dylan's bar band, featuring Charlie Sexton on guitar, came to grind it out with only guitars, bass and drums. They aren't the cleanest band in the land, but they can play dark and dirge-like for songs like "Masters of War" and "Not Dark Yet." Or rev up like rolling thunder as they did on "Highway 61."

The puzzling thing about Dylan is he has this strange need to reinterpret his songs, but he's been on a Never-Ending Tour without ever changing the instrumentation.

While Dylan might be better off taking a break to regroup, it would be nice to see Simon around a little more often.

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