Music can be a magical experience both for the listener and the player and when it’s really happening and it can take you away to places that can’t be described and make you forget everything else. Nobody and I mean NOBODY is better at churning up that magic than Bob Dylan. These days it’s when he wants to and he lets the magic happen the way it should happen–naturally. He rarely tries to force it which is the way it should be because the magic can’t be forced it has to happen. A truly great Dylan performance should blow you away to the degree that you’re not thinking of anything at all, that you’re in a daze not only on the way to the parking lot but for hours, maybe days afterwards. At Hershey the magic happened in moments.
All day the threat of severe thunder storms hovered over Pennsylvania. Luckily the torrential rain happened on the way to the show, not at it, like it did on another Wednesday night in Hershey 3 years ago.
Dylan in seemingly good spirits looked good and was quite animated throughout. He seemed trim and not at all puffy like he sometimes looks these days. He started out with a reasonably rocking “Absolutely Sweet Marie” in a reasonably strong voice. The sound was a little weird at first, his voice almost distorting, but the sound guys eventually got it together. They never really got the guitar sound together. For some reason Bucky Baxter always seems to get sent to the right-hand speakers (facing the stage) with Larry Campbell in the left-hand speakers. We were in the center not far from the stage a little more towards the left and Bucky got lost in the mix–or maybe he’s not playing as much as he did a while back. It was hard to tell, but there weren’t any of the cool pedal steel organ sounds he excels at. I personally don’t understand that way of mixing a concert. It’s not a CD. There should be equal amounts of all instruments in all speakers. Anyway, Dylan sang the second bridge first and mixed up a bunch of verses leaving out a couple too. The same thing happened on an ok “Ballad of a Thin Man” where the audience who had been standing decided to sit down. Next came an alright, but not astounding “Tough Mama.” It had none of the power or force of when he did it in ’74 with the Band. Again he totally mixed up lyrics. Actually the wait between songs was almost more exciting wondering whether he was going to do it or do “Watchtower” like he did the night before in Scranton. Next came “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” which lacked the charm of when I saw him do it in Boalsburg in the rain earlier this spring. He also left out the “buy me a flute verse.” Now “Nowhere” is a 2 to 3 minute song with only four verses. On some of the long songs with several verses (like say “Memphis Blues Again,”) I can see leaving out or forgetting a couple of verses. And when Dylan’s really on, you don’t even notice it. Not so at Hershey. Instead we got Dylan’s guitar noodling. Now asides from the facdt that the tone of his Les Paul was totally wrong for the song, way too crunchy or something, he has this ace guitarist there not to mention Bucky on pedal steel, both of whom can easily deliver the guitar work necessary to make that song really happen, but does he let them play, NO! Again it was ok, but not the special song it could be. Boom, right into “Sylvio” which is the only time I miss JJ. JJ and Dylan took this song to some amazing almost psychedelic heights.
“To Ramona” was a nice surprise, though Campbell’s guitar was too loud in the mix, his rhythm overshadowing Dylan’s pseudo Mexican licks. Dylan’s singing was really good on this one, but he mixed up the verses again. He finally found what he was looking for in his solos about the third time around after a couple of dramatic errors, but when he finally found it, it was great. Don’t get me wrong, I like the fact that Dylan searches for a sound or feel on-stage. It’s one of the truly great and wonderful things about him. Campbell set up a cool funky riff for “Tangled” but the song never really took off. I’ve seen Dylan play great two-note leads on this that built incredibly in intensity, but he never really found what he was looking for. “Cocaine” followed and Dylan finally really started singing. It was a relaxed fun version with Campbell and Baxter joining in on the chorus and Dylan really leaning into each verse. “God Knows,” evidently back in its traditional and transitional spot was also pretty cool and rocked hard when the band really kicked in after the first verse. This was followed by an absolutely beautiful “Simple Twist of Fate” with stunning echoey guitar work by Campbell and Dylan delivering on the vocals–the first time all night he actually sang a complete song without messing up the lyrics. “Highway 61” was “Highway 61,” but the first encore was the high point of the night “One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later).” Done at a moderate place, not as slow as “Blonde or Blonde” and not as fast as the ’78 versions, but somewhere in between, this song had obviously been worked on. Dylan finally let Campbell handle the leads and he provided Steve Cropper styled guitar with more of the echoey delay he used on “Simple Twist of Fate.” It was truly wonderful and if they keep doing it every night, by the middle of next week it should be amazing. This was followed by a beautiful acoustic version of “Heaven’s Door” and suddenly the energy and passion that would appear only sporadically the rest of the night suddenly coalesced and the magic was happening, proving once again that it really doesn’t matter what song he’s singing as long as he’s really singing it.
When Dylan lets his band, or his band takes the incentive to actually work up an arrangement as they did tonight on “One of Us Must Know” and as I’ve seen and heard them do on “Wheels on Fire” and “Seven Days,” the results can be absolutely mind blowing and a lot more satisfying than when they just bang out a tune without thinking about it. And if he started packing his set lists with those tunes (as he slowly appears to be doing) leaving out the songs he’s played five million times, what heights could be reached. But maybe that’s like hoping he’ll bring back the harmonica which in my opinion he plays a lot more emotionally than he does guitar. And don’t get me wrong, I like the way Dylan plays guitar. But he has players with him who are wasting their talents while he noodles away. I’ve seen Dylan play some amazing guitar where I couldn’t believe he was doing it. But if he could somehow get it together to save them up and deliver solos on just a couple of songs and really let loose, it would be so much more effective. But that’s probably not gonna happen. But then again, I never thought he’d ever perform “Blind Willie McTell” live either.
It was on okay concert with a couple of strong moments, especially near the end. But it wasn’t anything special.