Ten years ago, on this exact date, Bob Dylan played this venue, really a basketball gym at Temple University, though back then it was called the Temple Apollo. That was on one of the best legs ever of what his fans are always going to refer to as the “Never Ending Tour,” whether Bob Dylan likes it or not, even though he was the one who coined the term. One of the reasons the fall ’99 tour remains somewhat legendary, is there were surprises every night, often in cover songs, but also that feeling of anything can happen, and because anything can happen, that means catch as many shows as you possibly can – and on that tour I did, mainly because Dylan played a bunch of shows in a two week period all within two hours driving distance. Among the surprises that night were what remains the only live performance of Dylan singing “A Satisfied Mind,” not in the arrangement that appears on Saved, but in the original country arrangement, a hit for Porter Wagoner. Among the other surprises that night were Bob talking about Bill Cosby, perhaps Temple’s most famous graduate, and an extra, in other words a real encore after the encores.
Tonight, the Liacouras Center was not as crowded as it was back then. Let’s just say it would’ve been pretty easy to get a ticket, and in one sense that was a shame, because it was probably in a lot of ways quite possibly the best concert Bob Dylan’s played in Philly since that night ten years ago and for entirely different reasons. But of course different is what Bob Dylan’s all about. It’s one of the primary reasons to go see him because it’s not gonna be the same as the last time you saw him, even if the last time you saw him was the night before. And so I left this show wishing I was seeing a lot more shows, because from this show, it was quite evident that that indefinable thing, that magic thing that can’t be forced, that has to happen by itself is happening on this tour.
Now the buzz started early on this tour, in fact even before the tour was announced, when the news leaked that Charlie Sexton was back in the band replacing Denny Freeman on lead guitar. Now, I was never among the Denny Freeman bashers. I thought Denny Freeman was on often brilliant guitarist, whose style was more influenced by West Coast and Texas blues and also West Coast and Texas Jazz and swing. He was definitely creative, he never played the same solo twice. But in a lot of ways his playing was also cerebral, and while at times he was outstanding, playing as tough and hard as anyone, he wasn’t necessarily always the right guitarist for Bob Dylan.
Charlie Sexton on the other hand is the right guitarist for Bob Dylan. He has an inherent understanding not only of what Bob Dylan’s music is about, but what the songs are about. It was obvious his first time around with Dylan that those songs were ingrained deep inside and that hasn’t changed, and perhaps now it’s even more so. Like the two greatest guitarists ever to work with Dylan, Michael Bloomfield and Robbie Robertson, he plays off not only what the lyrics are saying, but how Dylan is singing them at that particular moment, punctuating phrases with quick jabs like a boxer. Like Mike Bloomfield, he can play fast, often dazzling runs, and like Robbie Robertson he knows when not to play, and when to come in with energized bursts of sound that are more about emotion and intensity than showing off, and crackle like a live wire on the ground and snap like a bullwhip.
Bob Dylan’s first surprise tonight was opening the show with “Memphis Blues Again.” If he’s opened with this before, I don’t remember it. But from the first note the all important energy was there and it totally works as an opener. In fact I felt it worked better as an opener than anywhere else in the show. Actually, I’ve never been a big fan of this song done live, and I waited years to hear it live. The original studio version on Blonde On Blonde is so incredible and also so funny, that it’s been hard to match it live. The humor on the original just never translated to the stage. Tonight however, it was special, and while maybe the humor wasn’t quite all the way there, it did have that light moving feel of the original.
Dylan then moved from keyboard to guitar and went right into the more upbeat arrangement of “Man In the Long Black Coat,” that he debuted in Europe early this year. Powerful stuff, and Dylan even took a really not bad guitar solo, that had none of the search and destroy aspects of other guitar playing I’ve heard from the tour this year. In other words he nailed it. Unfortunately during the song the plot of the eternal bring down appeared in the form of a row of latecomers who of course had to sit right in front of me and decided to continue whatever conversation they apparently were already having. Then all too soon, Charlie Sexton signaled the end of the song. Unlike a lot of past tours, one thing quite noticeable tonight was there are no more long, drawn out endings. All the endings are clear, defined and fast, and all are signaled by Sexton.
The conversation continued right through a not bad “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight,” where Bob’s solo was, well, it wasn’t anywhere near what he played on “Man In The Long Black Coat.” At this point my friend Max, whose been going to Bob concerts with me for 21 years said, “I want to kill these people.” So I said, as politely and nicely as I could, “Could you guys please not talk during the songs?” One guy was cool with it but the other one turned around and said, “Man, people come to concerts to talk.” At this point I had to restrain every James Gandolfini walking out of a clothing store and seeing a photographer instinct I had in me. In the book, The Godfather, there’s this story about when Al Neri was a cop and how he didn’t need a gun, ’cause he’d just use his flashlight instead, and I had this incredible urge to bring my binoculars crashing down on this guy’s skull, but I then I remembered I wasn’t in a movie, even if I’d been through this movie before.
My hit man fantasies were quickly interrupted by Bob returning to the keyboard and the band blasting into a fierce “Beyond Here Lies Nothing,” followed by a fairly upbeat “Spirit On The Water.” From that point on, the energy level never lagged, and was taken higher by “High Water (For Charlie Patton) with Donnie on banjo, during which Bob left the keyboard and moved to center stage for a harp solo.
An almost 66-ish style harp solo started off what turned out to be a truly gorgeous and moving version of “Tryin’ To Get To Heaven.” It was quite possibly the best version I’ve ever seen of this song. Dylan was singing from way down deep. Of course in the middle of it, almost the entire row of talkers left to get beer. This was followed by an equally amazing “Cold Irons Bound” with Dylan singing at center stage and playing harp, with searing guitar work from both Sexton, who got down on his knees, a position he would return to often and Donnie Herron on steel. This arrangement may not have the dramatic show stopping effects of the previous arrangements, but it’s no less, in fact probably more powerful.
Next came an also upbeat “Desolation Row,” that was interesting for a couple of reasons, the first was Dylan borrowed the organ riff from “If You Ever Go To Houston,” and then Dylan went into what some refer to as his sing-song voice. It’s really not sing-song, it’s almost as if you were reading poetry to little kids or something. In the case of “Desolation Row,” it was basically hysterical and took it to new heights of absurdity. At the beginning of the song the chief talker, who had returned from the beer run by himself, to my utter astonishment, turned around and had the audacity to ask me if he could borrow my binoculars. After a moment of Obama-like contemplation, in the spirit of Obama diplomacy, I handed them to him, and he handed them back after a verse or two. However, unlike Obama with the Republicans, it worked, and he pretty much shut up for the rest of the night. A lot of Dylan fans wonder why Donnie Herron watches Bob like a hawk during the shows. This version of “Desolation Row” had the perfect example. During the song, Dylan found some organ riff he liked, and Herron immediately picked it up and echoed it on the mandolin and it took over as the dominant riff for the rest of the song.
Returning to the pedal steel, Herron then kicked off a rearranged “Po Boy” with a country flavored riff. Like every song at this show, this too was done in upbeat fashion. Not speedy to get it over with, but just with energy and cool harp from Dylan.
Next came the high point, the most moving part of an already quite moving show, a stunningly beautiful, “Workingman’s Blues #2,” with Dylan starting at keyboard then moving to center stage and playing harp. In a city that just went through a short but bitter transit strike, a city where jobs are few and far between, a city where it was announced that very day that the city itself had less money than thought, and hundreds if not thousands of city workers would be laid off, in a city where a murder a day, if not more than that has become the norm, this song resonated, and Dylan was powerful especially on the line, “I find it hard to believe, someone would kick me when I’m down.” These solo turns out front by the microphone are something special, just in the way Dylan stands, his hand gestures, the way he moves. It’s been said many times during his career, but what comes to mind is Charlie Chaplin, particularly at the end of Modern Times. Dylan didn’t have a cane, he wasn’t walking down the road, his hat was tilted more like W.C. Fields in It’s A Gift, the lone, sad, poet clown singing about what was going on.
After that, the rest of the show really didn’t matter, but it was all good. Dylan again returned to center stage for “Ballad Of A Thin Man,” “Like A Rolling Stone” resonated reborn, and “All Along The Watchtower,” which ends Bob Dylan concerts for a reason, sounded a warning, with the band pulling off a very cool stop during the repeat of the first verse on the line, “I can’t get no relief.”
The thing about Bob Dylan is that every time you’re maybe thinking he can’t, he shows, always in a new way, that he still can. Like the best magicians, he always has a few more tricks up his sleeve. And that is why this tour, now in its last two weeks is the tour to see.