Electric Rodeo

Bob Dylan + The Astrodome's Awful Sound System = Maybe Not Such A Good Idea

Some people think the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo books too much fluff and not enough "important" artists. Rocks Off has never thought it's quite as cut and dried as all that, because although it's hard to make a case for, say, the enduring artistic merit of Rascal Flatts, recent performers Taylor Swift, Carrie Underwood and Keith Urban all have their share of defenders in the press. And does anyone really expect the rodeo to go after Tom Waits or Leonard Cohen?

Besides, on the rare occasion the rodeo does land someone with impeccable critical credentials and the box-office clout to fill 40 to 50,000 seats, it doesn't always work out so well.

The first time Rocks Off went to the rodeo was in 1982 (we think), when someone gave our dad tickets to Lubbock-born Mac Davis' performance. We remember next to nothing about the show, except that it was really dark in the Dome and the stage was really far away. Our seven-year-old brain was a little to green to grasp the lush sounds and striking (if cheesy) imagery of "In the Ghetto," to say nothing of the overtly adult themes of other Davis hits like "Baby Don't Get Hooked on Me" or "Baby Spread Your Love on Me." If he even played them.

It was a full two decades before we went back. In February 2002, Rocks Off was killing time at our parents' house in Friendswood, having recently left our job as Associate Music Editor at the Austin Chronicle and not having quite worked up enough nerve to book travel reservations for New York, where we would eventually spend two and a half fun if frugal months in a fruitless quest for some kind of full-time journalism work.

Back then, we were gullible enough to believe that if you really wanted to make it in this profession you have to be in the Big Apple. Like Bob Dylan sang, things have changed.

Anyway, our old Daily Texan buddy Mike, who did find full-time work in New York, happened to be in Houston helping Kurt Eichenwald cover the fallout from the collapse of Enron for The New York Times. We met him at the Dome for what we hoped would be a very cool show, especially since Dylan had just released his best album since Blood on the Tracks - although we've always maintained that 1989's Oh Mercy deserves much more credit than it ever really gets - in Love & Theft, which had come out the previous September 11. Yes, that September 11.

Turns out things had not changed. (Sorry, Bob.) The Dome was still very dark, and the stage was still very far away - even further away, because this time our seats were in the upper deck. We were also old enough to drink by then, which we did, and had discovered a certain substance that, when you smoke it like we did on the concourse before Dylan's set, sometimes makes it a little hard to remember things.

So we're pretty sure he played "Knockin' On Heaven's Door" and Love & Theft's "High Water (for Charley Patton)." Other than that, even if we had been stone-cold sober, the sound was so awful in the Dome that night we still wouldn't have had a clue what Dylan - who looked like a tiny stick figure in a cowboy hat from so far away - and his band were playing that night. The main thing we do remember from that night was how pretty all the lights at the carnival looked. Wonder why.

A little more than a year later, we had spent those two and a half months in New York, six more in the Piney Woods working for the Jasper News-Boy and looking after our elderly grandmother, and wound up back at the Chronicle. One night in April 2003, we went to see Dylan at the Backyard in Bee Caves. We were much closer to the stage that night, and had not altered our state of mind quite as much, so we had a much easier time picking out the songs Dylan was playing.

But when it came to hearing what he was actually singing, we might as well have been back in that upper deck. Some things you can lay at the rodeo's feet. Other things you can't.

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Chris Gray has been Music Editor for the Houston Press since 2008. He is the proud father of a Beatles-loving toddler named Oliver.
Contact: Chris Gray