This was my third trip to the little town of Bethlehem to see Bob Dylan play at Stabler Arena. I’d woke up about five times this morning in a driving rainstorm because of something I shouldn’t have eaten the night before and wasn’t exactly thrilled at the prospect of driving to Bethlehem in the rain.
The last time I saw Dylan at Stabler I ended up trying to race a snowstorm home and didn’t win and had a fun little white knuckle time slipping and sliding down the turnpike to a toll plaza that should’ve been an ice skating rink. Luckily the rain stopped but my spirits didn’t lift until driving through Bethlehem to a friend’s house for dinner, past the Stabler turn-off, I saw a big gold tour bus probably delivering someone’s band to a sound check.
Once at my friend’s house the talk turned to a safe time to leave in order to miss Natalie Merchant. I assured my friends 8 pm would be just perfect but they were a little nervous. I told them I had it down having had a lot of practice during the Ani Di Franco tour, and how when Bob played the Mann I arrived there in time to be right behind Bob’s bus. So we set out for Stabler at about 8 anyway which was maybe 20 minutes away and just as we’re about to turn into the last road leading to the arena, coming towards us from the opposite direction is a very familiar looking bus. Well, it’s not every day I get the chance to give the right of way to Bob, so much to the annoyance of my friend’s wife who was following in the car behind us, I sat at the stop sign and let the bus pass and immediately turned in right behind it of course.
Dylan came on stage with his hair still sort of damp with a part in it that only he could have and started as usual with a reasonably strong “Serve Somebody,” can considering he has played just about every night this month, his voice was in pretty good shape. They worked up a new pretty sharp ending.
“Million Miles” and a semi-countrified “Maggie’s Farm” built around a riff similar to Merle Haggard’s “Working Man Blues” followed, but were nothing special, though it did bring out his first smile of the night. But on the fourth song, Dylan reached into his bag of tricks and pulled out a new version of “I Want You” that was the first highlight of the night. It was played at a moderate pace that may have been a tiny bit too slow, but had lots of beautiful steel work from Bucky (who’s really starting to look like Jesse Ventura with a derby), especially in the beginning. Imagine “I Want You” done at the pace of “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You” and you’ll have an idea. Now I’ve seen Dylan drive this song right into the very depths of my soul, and it wasn’t like that, but he did seem to care about it.
“Memphis Blues Again” followed with Bob letting loose with some prime search and destroy guitar, but at the same time he was digging into the song and having a good time. He seemed to be playing more with Larry Campbell than against him. But I found myself thinking about when was the last time Dylan played two songs in the same order as on an album, and was kind of hoping that follow it with “Leopard Skin Pill-Box Hat” and “Just Like A Woman” for the sheer hell of it.
That wasn’t to be of course because he took of the Fender and put on the Gibson and went into a fairly intense and spooky “Masters of War” that got one of the first real responses from the fairly sedate, standing crowd. It was great but I found myself thinking it would’ve been even greater if I hadn’t seen him sing it who knows how many times over the past five or six years. But then Dylan again pulled out another surprise, a beautiful “Mama You Been On My Mind,” and if he wasn’t knocking over the intensity meter, he certainly was treating the song with care. “Tangled” was followed by a delicate “To Ramona,” with Dylan again making it plain he cared about the song. Watching him, I couldn’t help but think of when I first saw him sing it a little over 33 years ago.
“Can’t Wait” followed featuring some nice Steve Cropper-esque licks from Larry Campbell and a strong vocal from Dylan who at this show was making effective use of the lower register of his voice. “Positively Fourth Street” found Dylan playing around in his delivery and clearly enjoying himself. As the song went on instead of playing rhythm which he usually does when he’s singing, he started to play lead while he was singing — all of a sudden there’s these guitar licks — which of course led into a solo. “Highway 61” was “Highway 61.”
All the encores were kept at a strong level. “Leopard Skin Pill-Box Hat” had a new trick intro; the harmonies, make “Blowin’ In The Wind;” but in the grand show-biz tradition, Dylan saved the best for last with “Not Fade Away.” Here he was clearly having fun and the sort of smiles he let loose the rest of the night turned into a broad one and he looked young for the first time all night, and all the baggage of being Bob Dylan seemed to slip away, and I felt like he was having the kind of fun he probably had with his very first band.
All in all, it was an okay concert, not a great one. The energy level seemed to be lagging a bit, the band never got into 5th gear. But after “Not Fade Away,” it didn’t really matter.