The show at the E-Centre was the first Dylan/Simon show I attended, and my first time at the E-Centre, a huge indoor/outdoor pavilion, built by Sony and Blockbuster in the unlikely city of Camden, N.J. The day started eerily, waking up to the disappearance of JKF Jr’s. plane. When it first opened the E-Centre was notorious for nasty security guards, but major concerts have since been taken over by Electric Factory Concerts and security for this event anyway seemed pretty mellow. But the tickets weren’t the only thing overpriced at this show. Five bucks for a coke is outrageous, and of course they do not let you bring in any drinks or food.
Paul Simon began the show with a fairly lackluster “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” Following the song he talked about John Kennedy Jr., and how events like this show how precious life is or something to that effect and that life is to celebrate. Simon was never more than okay despite his huge percussion-laden band. Simon’s hand problems seem to have affected his guitar playing considerably because mostly he used the instrument as a prop and mainly just held it occasionally strumming and rarely playing, even though he switched guitars quite a few times. This is a shame because Simon was at one time a great finger-picker. While his band got a groove going during songs like “You Can Call Me Al” and “Late In the Evening,” ultimately they were just too slick and essentially soulless despite several top-notch players.
I can understand Simon’s exploration into various forms of world music, but it comes at the expense of his songs. Once upon a time he could make his songs mean something, but there’s something about his music now and pretty much from “Graceland” onward that doesn’t really make me want to take the time to figure out what he’s singing about.
Easily for me, the most moving part of his set was when Dylan came out for “Sounds of Silence.” Maybe it was the ghost of another Kennedy tragedy hanging over the proceedings, or maybe it was the arrangement, much slower than the original Simon & Garfunkel single (and pretty much the way Simon’s been doing the song for the last 15 years or so) with Simon playing the melody on electric (finally doing some picking) but a lot of it had to do with Dylan being on stage. Dylan has presence and Simon for all his hand motions during his set just doesn’t — not at this show anyway. Dylan was singing in one of his spookier voices and immediately you knew that he was singing strongly as well.
In any case the duet worked. The other 3 songs they did together, “That’ll Be The Day”/”The Wanderer” and “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” can pretty much be written off. There were fun parts, but nothing really to keep or hear again. On “Heaven’s Door” both Dylan and Simon really went after the recently improvised “I hear you knockin’ but you can’t come in” and were obviously having fun, but as fellow RMD-er Dylan Orlando said to me, “Two of the greatest lyricists of all time and this is all they can come up with.”
Dylan came out for his set wearing a black suit, a red polkadot shirt with a black tie and snakeskin boots and launched into an uprousing “Somebody Touched Me” with Larry Campbell playing perfect Doc Watson-ish bluegrass runs on his acoustic. If the recent change in the line-up has done anything, it has pushed Campbell in front which to me is a good thing. He is a superb musician. The new line-up has a leaner sound to it and while I dug Bucky while he was in the band (and also when he was with Steve Earle) I did not find myself missing him.
However Dylan was in excellent vocal form all night, singing much clearer than in recent memory (last winter) and enunciating, but not exaggerating, yet making certain words stand out. “Tambourine Man” was a tiny bit faster than the last time I saw him do it, but for me still not fast enough. The original tempo (meaning the Bringing It All Back Home) recording was perfect for this song and I wish he’d return to it. It seemed like he only sang two verses, but I may be wrong, and ended the song with an okay but not great harp solo. Now this is one of Dylan’s greatest harp songs and there’s a certain thing that’s hard to describe that he used to do but doesn’t any more where he really let the harp sing, sing almost the words that he did on the original recording, which was expanded on on the ’65 and ’66 versions and remembered years later at the Bangla Desh concert. But it just ain’t gonna be that way no more.
A very strong “Masters of War” came next, and while it seems I’ve seen him do this song almost at every show for the past five years or something it was still effective. On the guitar solo, instead of Dylan taking the whole thing he got into a night call and response with Campbell, Dylan playing a lick and Campbell answering him with another lick. Quite effective. A really pretty “Love Minus Zero” followed with Larry on pedal steel, easily displaying his mastery of the instrument. “Tangled,” which Dylan introduced as “A love song that we love to play,” came next with the usual upbeat version, but it seemed more than a few verses were missing. Dylan played harp again totally putting down the guitar and this solo was an improvement over his previous one.
Then it was into “Watchtower” with another cool Campbell solo. Now the strange thing about the band now is that Charlie Sexton is known as a lead guitarist in his own right, but he rarely steps forward and mainly plays rhythm. The main difference seems to be that when Dylan stops playing rhythm, the bottom no longer drops out of the sound and it also allows Campbell to play more effectively working his own lead runs around what Dylan is doing on the guitar, and for once Dylan didn’t hit any outrageously wrong notes either. He may have been searching but he wasn’t destroying.
The level of the show took a dip with Dylan saying, “Here’s a song that was on the country charts thanks to my buddy Garth Brooks” or something like that, and then told the tennis joke again, saying “I wrote this for my ex-wife” twice. The joke was silly but I couldn’t help but wonder what other songs from “Time Out Of Mind” he wrote for his ex-wife. It was okay, probably better than the record, but no big deal. “Memphis Blues Again” came next and was better than I expected with Dylan emphasizing certain words rather than entire lines. Once upon a time in the years when he never played this song it was the one song I kept wanting to hear. Once he started doing it, and I got over the initial excitement of he’s finally doing it, I really didn’t want to see it any more because he’s never come close to touching the insanity and more importantly, the humor of the original where the reverse order and mixed up events and images culminated in a usually hysterical punchline at the end of each verse. But tonight, instead of mumbling through it which I’ve seen too many times, he sang it clearly and strongly and if the punchlines weren’t really there, overall he made it work.
“Not Dark Yet” was easily the song of the night. He sang it strong, he sang it tenderly, and it was beautiful, with both Dylan and the band displaying an amazing sense of dynamics, bringing it up where it’s supposed to go up and bringing it down where it’s supposed to be soft. It was perfect!
Dylan then introduced the band saying, “These are some of the best players in the country,” and kicked into “Highway 61” which featured two incredible and even brilliant slide solos from Larry.
Encores were “Rolling Stone,” not bad but not great, but strong. Again he was really paying attention to making the words ring clearly, but interestingly enough on the 3rd line of the first verse, he just sang “People’d call, say ‘Beware doll’ “ and never sang “you’re bound to fall.”
An excellent “It Ain’t Me Babe” with more lush picking from Campbell came next along with a nice harp solo from Bob. I think he’s sung this at every concert (not necessarily club dates) in Philly (and while this show took place in Camden, it was really the Philly show) for the past 11 years if not longer. A cool “Not Fade Away” ended the night.
While I wasn’t totally blown away by this show, Dylan absolutely put out, and he seemed to be energized and alive, especially after the last few shows I saw last fall and winter where he seemed to be in sort of doldrums, a having fun at time doldrums, but doldrums nonetheless. Like the shows right after TOOM was released, he was paying attention to the music and particularly to his singing. I left the show now awed, but feeling good and also feeling that if Dylan keeps singing and playing like he did tonight, things bode well for the future.