11/12/17 Tower Theater, Upper Darby, PA

Woke up kind of tired, and all day I was thinking, do I really want to see the same show again? And the answer to that question of course is it’s Bob Dylan. But that really wasn’t the answer. As it turned out the answer really was because it’s FUCKING BOB DYLAN man! The energy at the show tonight was on another level entirely.

Saturday night, Mavis Staples was a bundle of energy. Tonight she was a fireball that never let up, and she did some different songs. A couple of songs in she pulled out the Staples Singers version of “For What It’s Worth” which was amazing in itself, but then a couple of songs later she did an extended version of “Freedom Highway” that not only brought the crowd to its feet, but turned the Tower Theater into a revival meeting. It was an incredible moment.

When Bob Dylan took the stage tonight as Stu Kimball was winding down his acoustic rendition of “Royal Canal,” he didn’t go right to the piano, but walked to the front of the stage and then went to the piano as the band launched into a thunderous version of “Things Have Changed” with Dylan paying attention to every line, phrasing like a madman, stretching out the last word so it was “Lots of water under the bridge/Lots of other stuff tooooooo.”  And he kept that kind of phrasing up the whole night.

He sat down for “It Ain’t Me Babe,” in another strong straight forward version, considering that this is a song that had innumerable arrangements, and I couldn’t help but think that maybe this was the way he really wanted to do it with The Hawks back in 1965.

“Highway 61 Revisited” brought the crowd to its feet midway through the first verse, with Dylan shooting out the lyrics at machine gun pace with both anger and humor in his phrasing as if it was 50 years before and on top of that, he pounded out some very cool piano solos.

Then it was to the front of the stage for “Why Try To Change Me Now” with Dylan almost acting out the words and tonight the audience was not only expecting it, but they got it.

Then it was back to the piano for the new arrangement of “Summer Days,” but again his delivery was just smoking, with every verse phrased in a different way, again placing emphasis on certain words and lines: “Seems like it’s stuuuuck,” and then later, pretty much with a smile, “Politician got on his jogging shoes/He must be RUNNING for office, got no TIME to LOSE. Midway through the song it hit he, he’s playing like Jerry Lee Lewis, who’s had a fiddle in his band for something like 50 years, and I started thinking it’s too bad a producer didn’t suggest Lewis do this song 16 years ago.

After “Melancholy Mood,” came as explosive “Honest With Me” and once again he was emphasizing key lines, “The Siamese twins are comin’ to town,” and especially “When I left my home the sky split open wide/I NEVER WANTED to go Back There–I’d rather have died,” and on the last verse, “Well, my parents warned me not to waste my years/And I still got their advice ooooooozing out of my ears.”

I started to warm to the new arrangement of “Trying To Get To Heaven,” and maybe because my seats tonight were a few rows closer to the stage, I was able to notice some of the things the band puts into it, like the steel lick Donnie Herron does at the stop at the end of each verse. It’s just a tiny little lick, but it adds a lot to the arrangement. And again, Dylan was emphasizing key lines, “When you think that you LOST everything.”

Then it was back out front for a truly moving “Once Upon A Time,” and when Dylan went for the low notes at the end of the song, the audience stood and cheered. Throughout the night, the pace was we’re going to slow it down for a ballad and then we’re going to rock and rock hard.

After a searing “Early Roman Kings,” as the band was doing its tuning and noodling in the darkness, I suddenly heard a banjo, and instead of “Soon After Midnight,” came a dramatic “Scarlet Town” during which I started thinking of certain senate candidates. Donnie Herron’s banjo part was a bit different than it was previously, as he played frailing licks in the background, and the second part of the melody has changed giving the song a less repetitive feel. Then came “Desolation Row,” and Donnie stood right behind Dylan smiling and watching what he was doing on piano like a hawk. I was waiting to see if he’d do the descending mandolin riff again, and at one point Dylan turned around and said something to him, and instead of it happening on the “Across the street they nailed the curtains” verse, it happened later on the “At midnight all the agents” verse, and this time it turned into a mandolin and piano duet that went on for a bit after the verse.

“Thunder On The Mountain” brought the energy level up even higher and featured a terrific solo from Charlie Sexton. Then as Dylan returned to center stage for the last time, an interesting an unexpected thing happened, as the band played the intro to “Autumn Leaves,” the audience stood and cheered and cheered wildly.

The energy stayed high for the final three songs, and again Sexton’s B-bender solos on his Telecaster for “Blowin’ In The Wind” were a delight.

At this point, this band has been together longer than any other line-up of the so-called never ending tour. I think not only having to learn, but to play night after night the more intricate arrangements of the standards has made an already tight band even tighter, and in these new arrangements of the Dylan songs are all kinds of rhythmic changes and stops and starts that they pull off seamlessly. And for his part, Bob Dylan is rocking as hard as he ever has if not harder, and what he’s playing on the piano works all the time.

One other thing, it was a total pleasure to attend a concert and not see a few hundred cell phones waving in the air in front of me. And the audience both nights kept needless chatter to a minimum and actually paid attention to what was happening onstage.

 

 

 

11/11/17 Tower Theater, Upper Darby, PA

On a day that saw the temperatures dive into the 20s the night before, Bob Dylan and Mavis Staples played the first of two nights at the Tower Theater, just outside West Philadelphia in Upper Darby, PA, a theater Dylan first played in 1988.

Mavis Staples and her three piece band plus two backup singers took the stage at exactly 7:30, and for the next 45 minutes deliver a charged upbeat set featuring several new songs that had the crowd on their feet several times during the set.

After a 15 minute intermission and two announcements telling the audience to power down their cell phones, the lights went dark and Stu Kimball took the stage playing “Royal Canal” on acoustic guitar while the band took their places, and lights coming on slightly as a hatless Bob Dylan took his place at the piano. The stage setup has changed slightly so Dylan now plays facing the audience, and the drums have been moved to the left side of the stage and angled so drummer George Recile is facing towards Dylan, reminding me of Levon Helm’s setup with The Band (though Helm was on the opposite side of the stage). This setup allows the audience to get a much better view of what Recile is doing, and as it turned out, several songs were rearranged with the drums playing a major part.

This was evident on the opener “Things Have Changed” in a new thunderous and rollicking arrangement with Dylan standing at the piano, and at times you could almost see the kid who blasted his high school auditorium 60 years ago. Dylan was in strong voice from the first note and for the most part stayed that way throughout the night. A straightforward and fairly rocking “It Ain’t Me Babe” came next followed by “Highway 61 Revisited.” The opening three songs made it clear that all the songs are now tightly arranged with everyone’s part defined and built around what Dylan is playing on piano, and he took quite a few solos throughout the night. Gone are the interludes where Dylan would play a riff, and then pass it to the rest of the band. Instead the emphasis now on the original songs is on dynamics and sudden rhythmic changes which the band pulls off effortlessly.

Dylan’s turns at center stage are now reserved for the pop standards, and as it turned out, they provided some of the most moving moments of the night, especially “Why Try To Change Me Now” and “Once Upon A Time.”

Several songs, in fact most of them have been rearranged, some drastically. Perhaps a better description would be that they were re-dressed, sometimes in clothes other songs used to wear which made me think of the line from “Desolation Row,” “I rearranged their faces and gave them all another name.”  “Tangled Up In Blue” is part “If You Ever Go To Houston,” but it also has this sort of tick-tock rhythm during part of the verse like a clock loudly counting out the time quickly going by. “Trying To Get To Heaven” now has the emphasis on the last line, “Before they close the door,” with Dylan stretching out the last three words each time around. I’m not sure if these arrangements totally work, but they were adventurous and interesting, and particularly in the case of “Tangled,” refreshing.

What did work was “Summer Days,” which now, based around Donnie Herron’s fiddle is sort of bluegrass meets swing at a hoedown without being either bluegrass or swing, but some combination, and the crazy new riffs on “Honest With Me” and “Thunder On The Mountain” They were both hard rocking, in fact ferociously rocking with lots of roll intact, and a lot of the credit for the latter song has to go to George Recile who has a cool drum solo near the end that brought the audience cheering and standing. It had the wildness of the best rockabilly, but it wasn’t quite standard rockabilly either. But he sang it with such energy, clearly having fun, that I found myself thinking now’s the time to resurrect “Subterranean Homesick Blues.”

There were several other cool moments. Charlie Sexton’s guitar on “Early Roman Kings” was raw Chicago blues, and he also played a couple of sweet solos on “Blowin’ In The Wind”  On “Desolation Row,” midway through the song on the “Across the street they nailed the curtains” verse, Donnie Herron played a great descending riff on electric mandolin that changed the color of the song. On “Blowin’ In The Wind,” Dylan sang it like he remembered why he wrote it with particular emphasis on “too many people have died,” that made it hard not to think of recent events.

While there weren’t any deep into the mystic moments, it’s still pretty remarkable that at 76, Bob Dylan still keeps finding new ways to present and sing his songs, and on this tour he’s singing with a youthful clarity that hasn’t always been in evidence in the 21st century, with a band that is unbelievably tight.

 

 

 

 

07/13/16 Mann Music Center, Philadelphia PA

It was raining all day in Philadelphia, sometimes in torrents – which was not the original forecast – finally stopping about 90 minutes before the show. But since people in the City of Brotherly Love have never learned to drive in the rain and didn’t pay attention to things like braking distances and hydroplaning when they learned how to drive, there was a serious crash that closed a key road for getting to the Mann Music Center, which left us sitting in parking lot traffic and missing the opening of Mavis Staples’ set.

Now in its 40th year, the Mann Center for the Performing Arts has never been a great venue. Built on the best sledding hill in the city, the acoustics are great if you’re in the first 20 rows, but after that, a lot of the sound can get lost and jumbled depending on various factors from what kind of band playing to how noisy the crowd is, and how large the crowd is.

The audience was pretty noisy for Mavis Staples with many people still arriving and looking for their seats. There an ongoing conversation happening a few rows behind me for a good deal of her set and people already seated leaving them for whatever reason. At 77, Mavis Staples has her vocal skills intact and more energy than a lot of people a third of her age. Backed by guitar, bass, drums, and two backup singers, one of whom added percussion, Staples was at her best the deeper she got into gospel with the high point being “Freedom Highway” which went right into “For What It’s Worth.” She closed with the hit, “I’ll Take You There.”

Dylan’s set started with Stu Kimball alone on acoustic while the other band members and Dylan took the stage, as usual starting with “Things Have Changed” which had a slightly different arrangement, that was not quite the rockabilly train beat of the last few years. Dylan seemed in good spirits and was throwing emphasis on the final word of various lines, like jitterbug RAG and DRAG. “She Belongs To Me” had similar phrasing on alternate lines, and there was a cool harp solo while Donnie Herron played organ licks on the pedal steel. Dylan then went to the piano for “Beyond Here Lies Nothing,” where Herron’s electric mandolin was high in the mix.

The first Sinatra song of the night, “Full Moon and Empty Arms” highlighted by the interplay between Herron’s steel and Tony Garnier’s string bass, which was followed by the most rocking song of the night, “Pay In Blood.” Amazingly, following that with “Melancholy Mood” made sense, as did the next song, “Duquesne Whistle” which featured a cool twin solo by Charlie Sexton and Herron. Dylan then returned to center stage for one of the more moving songs of the night, “How Deep Is The Ocean,” which was followed by “Tangled Up In Blue,” which had a quickly abandoned false start. Dylan sang it very well though I’m not thrilled by the lyric changes in the version that he’s been doing for the past few years. He delivered a fairly wild harp solo before ending the song at the piano and breaking for intermission.

Returning to the stage for a set where Tony Garnier never touched an electric bass, Donnie’s banjo dominated “High Water (for Charlie Patton),” and while what he was playing was great, the arrangement missed the power chords of previous arrangements that were totally effective in emphasizing the lyrics. A fine “Why Try To Change Me Now” was followed by a fairly dramatic “Early Roman Kings” with Sexton playing a Les Paul Gibson, and Stu Kimball a Stratocaster with everyone including Bob on piano and Herron on steel taking it out on the solos. It was easily the funkiest romp of the night.

“I Could Have Told You” came next and at this point the show started to drag a little. “Scarlet Town” was not as spooky as it could have been, and while Bob appeared to be having fun on “Spirit On The Water,” clearly enjoying his quite good piano solo, the best part of the song was the instrumental work by everyone involved.

The high point of the rest of the set was easily the closer, “Autumn Leaves.” Returning for the usual encore of “Blowin’ In The Wind,” Dylan then pulled a surprise ending replacing “Love Sick” with the always moving “Stay With Me.”

Dylan shows these days are about showing how good his band is, and at this point they can play pretty much anything, and also about singing. In the interview in AARP magazine before Shadows In The Night came out, Dylan said he is not so much “covering the songs as uncovering them.” It is clear he enjoys the challenge of singing these pop standards, and at times the way he sings clearly shows his appreciation of the wordplay in that type of lyric writing.

However, as well planned and performed as these concerts are, there’s another indefinable thing that only Bob Dylan can deliver that is not happening on this tour or perhaps it’s being channeled in a different direction. If there’s one thing that 53 years of listening to Bob Dylan has taught me, it’s that nothing stays the same for long. He may yet have a couple of more tricks up his sleeve.

04/10/15 Borgata Event Center, Atlantic City NJ

And so the 2015 Bob Dylan tour of the South, the Southwest and Midwest starts in Atlantic City, New Jersey, a city that would be below the Mason Dixon line if it extended into New Jersey. And for those who carefully watch Dylan’s set lists, this is the same tour that started in Oslo, Norway, October 10, 2013, and will continue with this format that includes an intermission like the Dylan concerts of the ’60s and ’70s and the set list that has changed very little over that time with one or two exceptions. And it is quite clear that this is a specific show in every way from the song selection to the lighting to the ensemble playing of Dylan’s band to the lighting, the backdrops and the sound and show volume. It is a show designed to put the songs first before the musicians. It’s not about guitar solos, it’s not about flash, it’s totally about the music.

Most of the shows on this tour have taken place in theaters and the great music halls around the world and the staging is designed for that. The ambiance of the Borgata Event Center clashed with the theatrical elements of the show.

The first gong sounded at 9:01, and an acoustic guitar was strummed once, but the lights didn’t dim and it turned out to be a false start. Within a few minutes, the gong sounded again three times and Stu Kimball took the stage playing what sounded like a minor key mountain ballad that I couldn’t quite put my finger on as the rest of the band and Bob Dylan took the stage starting with the song that has set the tone for this tour, “Things Have Changed.”

I was sitting on an aisle seat and the people in the same row right across the aisle were engaged in a conversation that showed no signs of stopping. Keeping in mind Peter Clemenza’s instructions to Michael Corleone that “they should have stopped Hitler in Munich and never let him get away with that,” I knew this conversation had to be nipped in the bud or it would pervade through the entire concert. And being an old hand at this after decades of attending concerts with audiences that have no qualms about spending hundreds of dollars to see someone they pay utterly no attention to, I had a brand new line to try out. I leaned across the aisle and said, “Excuse me, is Bob Dylan interrupting your conversation?” As it turned out, it worked a lot better than say “Shut the fuck up” because the guy actually had to stop and think about what I just said, before admitting that Bob Dylan was interrupting his conversation. Luckily, I didn’t have to take it further than that. Other than that, the crowd was reasonably attentive with the security flashlight shining brigade present in a big way on the hunt for mobile device users, and even with that, people would still hold their mobile filming apparatus high above their heads.

In the meantime Bob Dylan wearing a cool gray suit had begun “She Belongs To Me” which received a big roar of applause on the opening line and the song included a couple of nice harp solos, especially the second one. I couldn’t help but note that the Egyptian ring this time around is no longer red and back to being a plain old Egyptian ring the way it was in the flip side of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” as well as on Bringing It All Back Home.

Dylan then moved to the piano, playing with force and pretty much dominating the sound of “Beyond Here Lies Nothing,” before going into one of the first set’s high points, “Working Man’s Blues #2” placing special emphasis on the lines, “Some people never worked a day in their life/They Don’t Know What Work Even Means.”

“Duquesne Whistle” had kind of a strange opening where I wasn’t quite sure what was going on and wasn’t close enough to the stage to really see, but it may have been because it took the spot usually reserved for “Waiting For You.” Once it got going though, it was another high point. Then it was waltz time with “Waiting For You,” where Dylan seemed to be enjoying his piano solo, but also served to make “Pay In Blood” once of the few rockers in this show even more effective. “Tangled Up In Blue” followed with the version Dylan’s been singing for a couple of years and of course received a roar of recognition and while Dylan was making sure very verse was clear, this time around the verses not sung were noticeable. Simply put, it was too damn short. Just as it was last fall, “Love Sick” was a strong closer to the first set, and for whatever reason, maybe the cool additions this band has added to the arrangement, this song is stronger now than at any previous point.

“High Water (For Charlie Patton)” kicked off the second set into high gear followed by “Simple Twist Of Fate” with Dylan going real low emphasizing the word fate each time around. Then came a slight change as Stu Kimball put down his guitar and picked up maracas for “Early Roman Kings” in a slightly different arrangement with the emphasis on rhythm with George Recile using timpani sticks to beat the drums, while Charlie Sexton kept hitting this one high note all the way up the neck near the body of his Les Paul Gibson at the end of each line basically leaving the solos to Donnie Herron’s slide and Dylan’s piano, and along with the rhythmic changes, it was the piano which dominated the song.

“Forgetful Heart,” remains a song that can’t miss and led off the closing portion of the concert. “Scarlet Town” seemed almost dreamlike and “Soon After Midnight” seemed a little looser than usual, and maybe I didn’t notice it, but “Long And Wasted Years” seemed to be missing the extra stop that was added last fall.

Again, the true high point of the night, after a not bad but nothing really special “Blowin’ In The Wind,” came an emotional and very strong “Stay With Me,” with Dylan making every word count. Of all the songs performed, it seemed that this was the one he really wanted to sing.

Opening night of a tour by any artist is usually not the best concert to attend because by nature, especially after a few months off the road, because by default it ends up being warmup night with few surprises. Dylan was in excellent voice, singing sort of softly the way he does on his latest album but effectively. I think by the time this tour hits Memphis if not before, they should be in full gear the way they were in Chicago, Philly and New York last fall.

11/9/09 Liacouras Center, Philadelphia, PA

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.

11/23/14 Academy Of Music, Philadelphia

I have this really good friend who knew that the thought Bob Dylan playing a mile from my house and not being there would be a bit upsetting, so he got me a ticket. Actually, he got me the ticket, front row center, slightly to the right (looking at the stage) of Bob’s microphone or as the case may be on this tour microphones. And with the ticket came a backpack, well it’s not really a backpack, but it’s a shoulder pack with a whole lot of pockets and it might be really cool for carrying guitar cords and stuff like that and also this laminate in the shape of a really big tortoise shell guitar pick, so it’s hanging on this bulletin board that has a bunch of really ancient press passes, buttons from bands that no longer exist and Buck Owens’ autograph is on there somewhere.

Anyway having that front row seat had its advantages and disadvantages. The stage is really high and the seats are really low, so while I could see Bob at center stage just fine, I could only see the guys in the band from the waist up and couldn’t see Donnie at all, except when he played banjo for about 30 seconds because the piano was in the way. At the same time, I could hear the acoustic guitar and the piano without the sound system.

So tonight’s show was again different than the first two. Bob’s voice especially at the beginning was slightly rougher than the second show and not quite as animated.  The guy behind me decided to sing along with “Things Have Changed,” and then clap his hands to the beat.  He tried the stuff a couple of times and thankfully gave up.  The woman next to him was having a conversation with the person she was with, until I gave her my best Michael Corleone stare, the one he gives Al Neri while he’s embracing Fredo at their mother’s funeral.

Luckily that guy didn’t sing along on “She Belongs To Me” because Dylan was singing it great and Charlie Sexton who was particularly on tonight, was adding nice fills complementing Bob’s harp.

“Working Man’s Blues #2” again was very strong with Bob putting out on the last verse. On “Pay In Blood,” there was added emphasis on the line (not on the album): “But they’ll hang you in the morning and they’ll sing your song.”

“Tangled Up In Blue” may have been the best version of the three Philly nights. While the harp didn’t reach the 1966 craziness of the first show, being that close I could see he was actually treating the lyrics a lot more gently than it may have sounded elsewhere in the hall. And with his hat down close to his eyes, there were more than a few times during the song that I couldn’t help but think of the video version from Renaldo and Clara.

There were various other high points. “Forgetful Heart” was the strongest of all three shows, and “Long And Wasted Years” was by far the best version with Dylan acting out certain parts with broad arm gestures.

The thing about this tour is while the shows may have the same set list, there were differences every night. There were certain things the band did on Saturday night that didn’t happen tonight. Watching the show, I wasn’t even thinking about the set list or what song came next. Sometimes the little tuning and noodling thing the band does between each song would remind me or cue me in. Tonight Dylan seemed to give extra care to the two songs from Blood On the Tracks. But that doesn’t mean “Scarlet Town” or “Soon After Midnight” was any less beautiful. And speaking of that song, while the melody and the arrangement are beautiful, the line Dylan really emphasized tonight was “I’ll drag his corpse through the mud.”

The thing is these are some of the strongest shows Dylan’s given in the 2,000s. And for those who want to hear the old songs or for him to shake up the set list, well he did that for a really long time. The thing is this show is like a play. It’s theatrical without being overly theatrical. And if you ever acted in a play, well you go out and you perform the show and some nights you really hit it out of the park and the other nights it cruises along. Music is the same way, you go out and play the same set every night and after a few nights you’re really sailing, and everything’s second nature. They may be playing the same songs, but there’s little variations that happen each night. Ultimately, the current tour is about Bob Dylan giving consistently good and great performances every night, and that is what it’s about.

11/22/14 Academy Of Music, Philadelphia

Photo courtesy of David Lee Preston
Photo courtesy of David Lee Preston

I was fully and psychologically prepared to present the proletariat perspective from the highest balcony of the Academy of Music, but as I walked into the lobby, a mystical emissary appeared and asked, “Where are you sitting?” I pointed upward towards the heavens, and the mystical emissary said, “Here, take this,” and handed me a ticket for the orchestra. I was not about to turn it down. The ticket turned out to be the same seat I was sitting in the night before which was smack dab in the center directly in front of Bob’s microphone, but six rows closer.

This time Bob and the band were all dressed in black, but as the show started it was different in feel, looser, more energetic, but just as tight and Dylan was in much better voice. And instead of standing with his hand on his hip, like he did the night before, this time he was holding the mic stand.

On “She Belongs To Me,” the harp was more forceful and he started stretching out lines and playing with the phrasing. “Beyond Here Lies Nothing” was all about his piano with rolling bass notes.

Returning to the front for “Working Man’s Blues #2,” he started acting out the lyrics as he sang them, and after a particularly beautiful pedal steel solo, he put out his left hand in the direction of Donnie Herron. “Waiting For You” seemed to flow a bit smoother and Dylan threw a little extra emphasis on the line, “You don’t have to be rich or well to do.”

“Duquesne Whistle” is obviously one of the show stoppers on the tour, and tonight I was better able to notice some things the band and Dylan are doing. Every instrumental break is different, and there was a very cool section were Charlie Sexton and Donnie Herron were doubling their parts. (This happened on a couple of other songs as well.) But what made it interesting was they didn’t do it every time. And on one of the stops Dylan sudden stood for a second still playing piano, sitting back down right on the stop. The song ended with a hot solo from Charlie.

Then it was back up front for “Pay In Blood,” and he sang it like a gangster, and not a 21st century gangster, a 1930s gangster robbing a bank. And after every verse he did this half walk/half dance to the side of the mic, and at one point stopped, faced the crowd with his hands back and then walked back to the mic. “Tangled Up In Blue” was equally animated.

“Love Sick” again was a high point. Stu Kimball starts it with a hard almost ska beat, while Herron on electric mandolin is adding a different accent, and Recile’s drums are way out front, but again there were times where the guitars would double each other, and Dylan singing “I’m sick of it,” with a vengeance.

After what seemed like an extended intermission they returned with “High Water” with Sexton delivering menacing guitar throughout and Dylan emphasizing the everywhere at the end of each verse.

“Simple Twist of Fate” also seemed smoother than the night before, but again “Early Roman Kings” was all about high energy and the proficiency of this band with Sexton and Herron playing off each other and playing off Dylan’s piano, Sexton at one point totally in sync with what Dylan was playing, and meanwhile Dylan’s snarling out, “They destroyed your city/They’ll destroy you as well,” leaving little doubt who he’s singing about.”

During “Spirit On The Water,” amazingly enough the couple who had the vacant seats next to me finally decided to show up three quarters of the way through the show temporarily interrupting the flow of everything, of course talking while they were taking off their coats and sitting down. Luckily they shut up pretty fast when they realized the entire theater was quiet.

The big difference in this show was a higher energy level, with Dylan much more animated which ultimately made his deliver of every song even more effective.

 

11/21/14 Academy Of Music, Philadelphia

Photo courtesy of Sheva Golkow
Photo courtesy of Sheva Golkow

The Academy of Music in Philadelphia, the oldest opera hall in the country and home to the Philadelphia Orchestra for 101 years (until 2001) is sacred ground. It is world renowned for its acoustics. Bob Dylan and the Hawks played a two-night stand there almost 49 years ago, and tonight he returned for a three-night stand.

The show started in darkness with Stu Kimball strumming an acoustic while the rest of the band and Bob Dylan took the stage. The first thing you noticed was how low the volume of the band was, as Dylan in an off white suit and hat moved to the center of the three microphones at the front of the stage for “Things Have Changed,” his left hand on his hip. His voice was gruff, but I’ve heard much gruffer, but the song and “She Belongs To Me” which followed were just the warm-ups, though the latter song included three fine harp solos, especially the last two. Bob then moved to the piano for “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’” which he sang in a low voice as the band started kicking into gear with George Recile’s drums up front.

Bob went back to the front of the stage for a stunning “Workingman’s Blues” with beautiful pedal steel by Donnie Herron. Several of the lyrics have been rewritten and it was the first high point of the night, and Bob made several lines stand out. Then came the carnival waltz of “Waiting For You” which I ended up liking a lot better than I thought I would. The song serves another purpose which is providing a little rest before “Duquesne Whistle” which swung like mad, but also rocked. Tony Garnier’s string bass stood out throughout the song which ended with a cool solo by Charlie Sexton.

It was then back to center stage for “Pay In Blood,” and while it is still in a minor key unlike the studio version, the arrangement has changed since I saw it last year and is a full blown rocker. Dylan stayed up front for “Tangled Up In Blue” standing with his legs far apart. It was basically the version he’s been doing for the last few tours though a couple of lines have been changed and he skips the third and fourth verse, and sixth verse. He took a couple of wild harp breaks, one of which came close to 1966 craziness, and on the final line, he now sings “Depending on your point of view” with the emphasis on depending. It was around this point that I realized how each song in some strange way sets you up for the one following by change of mood, feel and dynamics. Then came a fantastic version of “Love Sick” which has been rearranged with the band doing all these very cool fills that constantly change on each verse. Dylan then spoke for the only time all night announcing the intermission.

The second half again started in darkness with Stu Kimball alone on electric, while the band took the stage launching into “High Water (For Charlie Patton)” with Donnie’s banjo out front. Dylan stayed at center stage for “Simple Twist of Fate” notable for Donnie’s pedal steel and Dylan’s second harp solo. His vocal was clear and tender and the lyrical changes were much smoother since the last time I saw it.

Then it was back to the piano for a fierce “Early Roman Kings” that was half Chicago blues and half swing. Dylan’s piano work was great. Then finally came my first “Forgetful Heart” which has been a major highlight of every show since Dylan started doing it. Then it was back to the piano for “Spirit On the Water” which as usual built up to the “You think I’m over the hill” line. Then it was back out front for “Scarlet Town” which tonight was a bit nastier than it is on the record. Again it was back to the piano for “Soon After Midnight” which was played perfectly. Dylan returned to the front of the stage for “Long and Wasted Years.” This was also my first time seeing this and the arrangement has been changed to add an extra stop at the end of each verse which seemed to get in the way more than enhance the song. They pulled it off flawlessly, but it’s not needed.

Dylan’s piano dominated “Blowin’ In The Wind,” but he sang it like he meant it and considering recent events in this country, he seemed to put extra emphasis on the line “How many years must some people exist before they’re allowed to be free?” Then came “Stay With Me” and it was as if the entire concert was building up to that point, Dylan singing clearly and strongly, and it was over too fast.

This was the most relaxed I’ve ever seen Dylan on stage. His band has never been tighter. This was not a show about hot solos, though when the occurred they were hot. When there were jams which happened only when Dylan was at the piano, they knew exactly what they were doing. There’s a reason Dylan has been doing this show this way with only a few changes to the set list for a little over a year. It is clear he wanted people to hear these songs, the best of his later songs done this way in a concert hall atmosphere. The lighting is low key throughout. There are no spotlights and there are subtle but effective changes in the backdrop. It’s a show that’s about the music. The audience, noticeably older than recent Dylan shows I’ve been too stood up when he took the stage, but quickly sat down and for the most part thankfully were quiet.

After the show, Donnie Herron was walking with friends up Locust Street alongside the Academy when a street hustler tried to sell him a Bob Dylan t-shirt. “No,” he said, “but thanks!” and then laughed and walked into the night.

8/17/11 Mann Music Center, Philadelphia

Bob Dylan returned to the Mann Music Center for the first time in 14 years for his third show at the venue in Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park, the largest city park in the world. When Dylan played there in ’97, earlier in the tour he added a few songs to the set list he had rarely performed such as “One Of Us Must Know” and “Seven Days,” and one he had never performed, “Blind Willie McTell.” But for whatever reason, Philadelphia got none of those songs that night, though he did do “Tears of Rage.” I had to see “Blind Willie McTell,” so four days later I found myself driving to Wolf Trap where I finally saw it.

Foregoing the outrageous 15 bucks parking charge – my motto is real Philadelphians do not pay to park when you can park for free – we arrived at the venue while Leon Russell’s set was already in progress. The line to get a drink was so outrageously long, we entered the theater just as he finished. No big deal.

Dylan started with “Leopard-Skin Pillbox Hat” in a version that was a bit stronger than the one two days earlier in Asbury Park, and followed it with a pretty decent “Don’t Think Twice.”

Moving to center stage for “Things Have Changed,” the energy didn’t quite kick in, though Dylan seemed to be having a lot of fun onstage. That changed with “Tangled Up In Blue” which was sung and played full force with stellar harp, though I wish he’d sing at least another verse. But again, standing at the mic, harp in hand, he acted out the song and the phrasing and emphasis came into play on, “She opened up a book of poems and read it aloud to me,” and then on the final verse with special attention to and a brief pause before “Some are trucker’s wives.”

Bob stayed center stage for “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’ ” more than nailing his guitar solo. Returning to the keyboard, “Mississippi” seemed a bit looser than the version in Asbury Park and his vocal was incredibly strong. With a better view of the stage, and the full band, I noticed they very subtly use the “Love and Theft” intro and go back to it midway through the song, and thre seemed to be a bit more emphasis on the rhythm. Or maybe it was just Dylan’s vocal was so on, that the arrangement mattered less.

An excellent “Desolation Row” came next that included most of the verses with Dylan slightly playing around staccato singing near the end of the song, trying it for a line or two and returning to singing it a bit more straight. This was followed by a fairly rocking “The Levee’s Gonna Break” that was as much about the groove as anything else.

Dylan returned to center stage for “Blind Willie McTell. Donnie Herron’s banjo was an important part of the arrangement which may be the best one for this song yet, giving if the feel of a New Orleans street band. The closing harp solo was exceptional with two false stops.

As usual “Highway 61” was all about the jam, with not bad organ from Dylan.

The high point of the night was a beautiful “Simple Twist of Fate,” tenderly sung and played. The tone on Dylan’s guitar seemed a bit softer, more in keeping with the feel of the song and he played two well thought out guitar solos, the one at the end getting softer and softer as he brought the song to a close.

“Thunder on the Mountain” rocked hard with Dylan singing every word loud and clear saving special relish for the line, “Shame on your greed/shame on your wicked schemes.” “Ballad of a Thin Man” was equally good and again the best vocal parts were on the bridge with the emphasis this time on “tax deductible charity organizations.”

People started leaving before the encore probably to beat the parking lot chaos. But tonight “Like A Rolling Stone” was simply really good. He sang it as if he remembered why he wrote it.

Dylan these days is as much about the music, the band and the interplay between the musicians as it is about the songs and the lyrics. And this band at this point in time is one of his best in terms of backing and also in terms of him playing with them. They’ve mastered the dynamics of holding it back, bring it down then turning it on at the right moment.

While tonight didn’t have the hit you in the gut intensity of Asbury Park, it was a solid satisfying show.

11/19/12 Wells Fargo Center Philadelphia

It takes a lot of guts to play a cavernous arena, ignore your hits, play songs from an album that wasn’t even released in the country you’re playing in, as well as other not well known songs and make the crowd listen. Sounds like something Bob Dylan’s been known to do. But Mark Knopfler and his superb seven-piece band which features more than a few heavy duty musicians did that tonight, and the music was not exactly rock and roll either.

Ever since the soundtrack to Local Hero, Knopfler had been delving more and more into Celtic sounds and themes and at the same time exploring more traditional based American music. The result is stunningly beautiful punctuated by Knopfler’s always stellar, seemingly effortless guitar playing. His band which included uilleann pipes, violin, flute, two keyboard players, various guitar players and bass and drums, with various members constantly switching instruments took this sound to celestial heights. Additional instruments included the bouzouki, sometimes two bouzoukis, and ukulele.

There were several points in the night where the music crossed into bluegrass and back again while touching on several other genres. Knopfler is not only a perfectionist as a guitarist, a songwriter, and record producer but as a bandleader. The dynamics and interplay throughout were excellent.

I haven’t read all the fan reviews of the current tour, but there’s been a lot of talk lately about Dylan’s use of old melodies for new songs which he’s been doing his entire career, but I haven’t noticed any mention that the title track of Knopfler’s latest album Privateering is based on the same melody Dylan used for the song “John Brown,” which is based on the traditional songs, “900 Miles” and “Reuben’s Train,” one of the highlights of the show with Knopfler on acoustic guitar. The show did what it was supposed to do and made me want to pick up his new album.

Dylan’s show started with Stu Kimball appearing strumming ’60s Dylan acoustic riffs while the band moved onstage and took their places. Then it was into a spirited “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” with Dylan at the piano singing some of the verses from the Greatest Hits Volume II version with a couple of lines thrown in he might have made on the spot. A piano-based “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue” followed with Mark Knopfler on guitar. Dylan’s voice was rough, and while still in warm-up mode, he was clearly on. He then left the piano standing front and center and playing harp on whathas been one of the highlights of the current tour, “Things Have Changed.” He was clearly energized and also quite comical acting out the song and standing right next to, almost singing the song to Knopfler as well as reacting to Knopfler’s solos and guitar punctuations. The arrangement is the same faster almost train beat version that Dylan’s been doing for awhile, but he keeps adding these utterly hysterical comments to the lyrics with different lines each night. Tonight after the line, “Don’t get up gentleman,” it was “Why? I’ll tell ya.”

Dylan stayed standing for “Tangled Up In Blue,” which also featured Knopfler, then returning to the piano for the last verse. And it was at this point, the show turned into something special. As Knopfler departed the stage, Dylan said, “Thank you Mark.” “Early Roman Kings” was next, and the band was smoking with Donnie Herron playing funky slide on the lap steel, eventually joining in a slide duet with Charlie Sexton playing a black Epiphone hollow body. It easily rivaled the album version.

“Chimes of Freedom” came next and with it the mood of the concert suddenly changed from that of an arena to one of the more intimate Dylan performances I’ve seen in a long time. Contrary to various reports all along this tour, he wasn’t ignoring the audience, he was singing directly to the audience, in fact always facing the audience while sitting at the piano. And the show had a feel of, I’m gonna sit at this piano and play you all some songs. Then it was back to blues for a rearranged “Rollin’ and Tumblin’ ” with Donnie providing lead on slide on the lap steel in a version that simmered reaching a smoking point on the solos, and then back to simmer again before a smoking conclusion. All of this was bolstered by Dylan’s piano playing which is some sort of crazed combination of barrelhouse, Jerry Lee Lewis, a bit of gospel and Chico Marx thrown in for good measure. And this is the difference since Dylan returned to playing a real piano at the beginning of last summer.

A decade ago, when Dylan switched to keyboards as his primary instrument, first using a piano sound, then switching to an organ sound for several years, the live arrangements of the songs for the most part stayed the same with Dylan trying to fit the keyboard into the existing arrangements. With the change from keyboard to piano, slowly but surely the arrangements are changing to be based around what Dylan is playing on piano, something I’ve been hoping for, for ten years. And he is really playing and certain riffs and runs he uses which never really worked with the organ sound now are working. This allows for call and response with the band, allows for a new spontaneity and allows for Dylan to get deeper into exploring the melodies behind his songs. And Donnie Herron, the key player in this band watches Dylan’s moves like a hawk. And on previous tours and arrangements where Herron used to transmit a riff to the band to pick up on, now it’s more to alert them a stop, a change or a response. And it can happen at any time, and they’re ready. So it’s no longer this heavy guitar based band, but when the guitars are needed to bring it up, they bring it up.

This is easily one of the tightest bands Dylan’s ever had, because they have to be ready to respond at any time, and it can happen at any time. This was the case on every song for the remainder of the show. Dylan and his band made it all count, whether it was “Desolation Row,” “Highway 61 Revisited,” which has taken on new life under the current setup and a slightly rearranged “Mississippi” which saw something of the song’s original heights. “Thunder on the Mountain,” not one of my favorite songs simply soared. And the concluding songs, which I’ve seen played tons of times in various ways, “Like A Rolling Stone, “All Along The Watchtower,” and “Blowin’ In The Wind” all had their own special meaning. Dylan’s voice ain’t what it once was. But it ain’t been what it was for a long time. And the thing is he can still deliver when he wants to, and tonight he made a huge arena seem like a small club and that’s no easy trick. I hooked up with a bunch of friends at the show, and we all took the subway getting off at different stops. And my particular stop is not the safest to get off of at night alone. But as I was halfway down the block, all of a sudden I heard a bunch of voices talking about the concert and about ten people passed me carrying posters from the show. A nice end to a great evening.