New York is not the place you want to go in July, but there’s something about Bob Dylan and New York City, something special. Something that goes way back. It’s where he went to make it and where he did make it and it’s part of his songs and it’s part of him. It’s where some of his most legendary concerts took place and where he returned to form the Rolling Thunder Revue. I was lucky enough to see those legendary concerts and the New York area if not New York itself is where I first saw Bob Dylan and so I keep returning there, even in this July of endless heatwaves.
At Tramps tonight, Bob Dylan made it special. Now some people may look at the set lists and groan, “Oh, all ’60s stuff,” and others might say, “What, nothing from Blood On The Tracks? But sometimes there are shows where set lists do not matter, or how many verses he didn’t sing, or even what line he changed. There are some shows that are so amazing
that you don’t even think or care about what he didn’t do, because the only thing that matters is what he did do. See, there’s some shows where he’s bob dylan and then there’s the shows when he’s Bob Dylan and then there’s the shows where he’s BOB DYLAN and every so often there’s the ones where he’s B O B D Y L A N ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! !
He was BOB DYLAN in the biggest boldest letters you can imagine at Tramps. It was easily, without a doubt the best show I’ve seen him do since the Supper Club. At the beginning it could have been any of the shows on this tour, opening up with “Oh Babe It Ain’t No Lie,” followed by a stately “Times They Are A-Changin’,” but then he followed that up with a song from the 2nd side of that album, “Boots of Spanish Leather,” and then just as you’re starting to think “something’s going on here,” and he dips back from that same period and conjures up “John Brown” and then that most New York of Bob Dylan songs, “Visions of Johanna.” And somewhere in the middle of the second verse I hear right behind me, “Well we cut of out of work on Tuesday and went to get in line,” and my brain starts boiling this is Visions of Johanna,” and I’m not sure if this has ever been sung in New York City and finally during the guitar break I have to turn around and say, “Do you have to have a conversation,” and the guy says, “I came here to see my friends and that’s part of the fun,” and I say, “Do you realize that it is totally impolite to talk while he is singing and other people are listening?” He shut up.
And then boom, the electrics are on and it’s 20 years later into a hard charging “Seeing The Real You At Last” and then into “Thin Man,” and there’s times when I could care less if I ever hear that song live again except tonight he’s really singing it and visions of that very first time he performed it at Forest Hills with cops and kids chasing each other ’round the stage are running through my brain and bam he’s into “Most Likely Your Way and I Go Mine” and just as you’re getting over that into a majestic “Every Grain of Sand” and all of a sudden the people to my right are having a conversation about movies or maybe lunch or work or anything but the song which keeps building and building and finally I lean over and say “Could You Be Quiet,” and the guy who doesn’t seem to have the slightest clue who Bob Dylan is starts to say something and I’m thinking people waited in line to early hours of the morning and would have waited all night for these tickets on a work-night yet and I don’t understand – I don’t understand waiting in line for hours and hour to get tickets for a show and then waiting in line for more hours to get into the show and then not even paying attention to the show. Something doesn’t compute there. Something doesn’t make sense. But the guy standing in between me and the talkers said “Thank you” to me and it was all forgotten as Bob was into a kick-ass “Tombstone Blues” with a nasty guitar riff running throughout the whole song and then another immaculate “Not Dark Yet” and Dylan is sailing through the lyrics pulling out all the stops so much so that there’s applause and cheers at the line “I can’t even remember what it was I came here to get away from,” and the guy behind me taps me and hands me a little white rolled up piece of paper with a flame at one end and Dylan finally speaks introducing the band and then they’re down “Highway 61” and the guitars are roaring, all three of them and they’re gone.
And then they’re back again for “Love Sick,” and somehow Larry’s making his guitar sound like an organ the way Bucky used to do with his steel and then one hell of a “Like A Rolling Stone” and I keep thinking I’m almost hearing an organ and Sexton is like the ghost of Michael Bloomfield revisited and Dylan’s playing around with the phrasing making a song he’s sung a thousand times sound new again and then back to acoustic for “It Ain’t Me Babe,” a song he’s performed a thousand different ways and he’s doing another way tonight, in the singing, in the guitar playing that took you melting back into the night and then picking up the harp for the second time that night he went on one of the wildest harp escapades I’d seen or heard in years. He must’ve blown that harp for five minutes, maybe more (I was not looking at my watch) each note clear and strong, perhaps passing through every mood of every version he’s ever sang of that song from sad to defiant to wistful to angry and taking the band with him, changing rhythms soft to loud to soft to loud again.
And then “Not Fade Away,” and it was loud and it was powerful and the band was smokin’. And they leave, but the lights stay down and the audience ain’t goin’ nowhere and the place is roaring and they’re back and the acoustics are on and I’m not quite sure what the song is as they run through the opening instrumental I realize it’s “Blowin’ In The Wind,” but slower than it was last winter and the rhythm guitars are heavy like Live ’66, except not the acoustic side except they’re playin’ acoustics and Dylan’s doing something with the melody, that thing only he does where he seems to find every beautiful space in the melody and make it more beautiful and it’s perfect. And they’re gone again.
And just I as was thinking it has to be over, they’re back and ripping into “Alabama Getaway” and they’re on fire and they’re gone again, but no one leaves and he’s back again, and he goes to the mic and says, “A man who needs no introduction, Elvis Costello.” And Elvis Costello comes out wearing a hat and straps on Bob’s acoustic and into “I Shall Be Released,” and it’s time for the singing to start and Bob sings the wrong line, the second one, “They say every distance is not near,” and instantly realizing what he did, and instead of mumbling something incoherent or not singing at all, he acknowledged it and sang, “And they say it again every distance is not near,” and then Elvis came in on the chorus and then Bob sang the second verse and Elvis did a soulful take on the last verse followed by an instrumental or two and another chorus and then it was over.
Back when Bob Dylan wasn’t touring and hadn’t played any concerts for years, Jonathan Cott (or maybe it was Ben Fong Torres) — it was a long time ago and I can’t remember – and I’m not at home with all my usual source material – wrote a great article for Rolling Stone about Dylan’s Bangla Desh appearance called “I Dreamed I Saw Bob Dylan.” B O B D Y L A N was at Tramps last night and in some ways it was just like a dream.