He takes off his mask before bringing his show home
Bob Dylan strides through the long lobby of the Claremont Resort hotel wearing his game face. His customary sunglasses are missing. Yet, even without that mask, it's hard to predict which Dylan will surface an hour later in concert at the Greek Theater. Poet laureate? Political rebel? Folkie? Rocker? Visionary prophet? Blasphemer? Christian? Jew?
It turns out to be a free-wheeling Bob Dylan: animated, talkative, jocular, intense, passionate. The many sides of Dylan are evident as he proves to be a genuine soul singer - not in the R&B sense, but in terms of singing with his heart and soul - and an unabashed music fan. Backed by the simpatico Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers plus four gospel-trained singers, Dylan interprets numbers by Ray Charles, Lefty Frizzell and Ricky Nelson, recasts his own classics including "Positively Fourth Street" and "Like a Rolling Stone" and sprinkles in a handful of tunes from his most recent albums.
Neil Young is backstage after the concert. So is Annie Sampson, a former singer with the Bay Area R&B band Stoneground; she wants to give her old friend Dylan a tape of her current work. A former Dylan employee and her husband also stop by to chat with the singer in his dressing room.
"This is what happens when I stick around after," Dylan says to a visiting journalist after the well-wishers have left. "So what's happening in Minneapolis?"
"People are getting excited about your show at the Metrodome with the (Grateful) Dead," the visitor says. "It'll be the first actual concert at the Dome - you've been to Twins games there. There have been concerts in association with sporting events but no full-scale concerts. And this will also be your first concert in Minnesota in nine years."
"No. Didn't I come there on the last tour (in '83)?"
"No. And not on the `religious' tour ('80). You got as close as Omaha."
"They're all religious tours," Dylan says with a sly smile. "This one's called the True Confessions Tour."
The superstar's game face is gone. He's joking and jiving. There are none of the usual fronts or masks he puts on for journalists. So the visitor tells the Hibbing-bred singer that he was recently named to the all-Hibbing basketball team by pro basketball star Kevin McHale, who also grew up in Hibbing.
"I can't play," says Dylan with a cup of Jim Beam bourbon and water in his hand. "Who's my substitute?"
(The next day, McHale says, "There is no substitute for Bob Dylan.")
Tom Petty would be the first to acknowledge that Dylan had a major influence on his singing and writing style. In fact, when Petty performs with his Heartbreakers, it sometimes sounds like Dylan fronting the Byrds.
Now Petty and the Heartbreakers are Dylan's backup band on the True Confessions Tour. The show is subtitled "Bob Dylan and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers - Alone and Together," meaning that Dylan takes a solo turn and Petty and the Heartbreakers offer two short sets of their own hits (including "Breakdown" and "The Waiting") during a nearly three-hour performance.
Pianist Benmont Tench was the first Heartbreaker to play with Dylan, on his "Shot of Love" album in '81. Tench and Heartbreakers' guitarist Mike Campbell and bassist Howie Epstein worked on Dylan's 1985 album, "Empire Burlesque." Then Dylan, Petty and the Heartbreakers recorded the movie theme song "Band of the Hand" this spring.
Petty declined requests for an interview. "He doesn't want to talk until his new album comes out later this year," said tour publicist Parvene Michaels. But bassist Epstein was willing to talk.
"I wasn't awed or intimidated by him (Dylan)," says Epstein, who is at least 10 years younger than the 45-year-old Dylan, "but I don't know about the other guys."
Dylan and the Heartbreakers have worked up more than 70 songs for the tour. After a week's rehearsal, their first performance was a 20-minute cameo last September at the Farm Aid benefit concert in Champaign, Ill.; then they toured Australia, New Zealand and Japan together for five weeks last winter. (An HBO special of that tour is being broadcast during the next three weeks.)