There must be some way out of here I thought to myself as downtown Philadelphia was completely gridlocked and every road heading West was a parking lot. “Big trouble on Philly highways,” said the guy on the traffic report. For some reason on a preposterously warm November Saturday afternoon, a bunch of different people in various key locations decided to crash into each other. 10 minutes later the traffic guy said, “What is going on today?” And I tried all the roads and every shortcut and no matter where I went I ended up sitting taking almost an hour to drive what should take 20 minutes.
Finally I made it to the meeting place in Valley Forge and picked up my friends the double-D couple who had come from even farther from somewhere in the middle of New Jersey. We hopped on the Pennsylvania Turnpike which prides itself on being the oldest such road in the nation. About the only thing that’s changed since it was built sometime in the beginning of this century is the price of the tolls and occasionally the speed limit. This year in the annual trucker’s poll Pennsylvania came in third for worst roads in the country only because Arkansas and Louisiana roads have apparently deteriorated over the past year. The turnpike was miraculously free of traffic and for the most part state troopers and my car was in the mood to go a good 15 miles above the speed limit.
Stopping at the last rest area we exited the car where we were playing my more or less “Dylan Country” tape which is Self Portrait and Dylan along with other stuff thrown in in a different order to notice the temperature had dropped a good ten degrees. Then off the turnpike for a short hop on I-83 to the gravel, up-hill wonders of US 322 West, a mostly two-lane road made out of some sort of gravel material so every 10 feet the wheels go bumpety bump. By this time Dylan-in-Nashville had been replaced by live Otis Redding and I was never able to get the bumps to synchronize rhythmically with the music. 75 miles of this. But it was a nice day and we were in good spirits. Soon we were met by the hundred mile Winnebago caravan coming from the Penn State football game. “Serious tailgating,” said Mr. D.
And then the caravan ended, but as we got closer there were Winnebagos everywhere in fields in ditches, thousands of them and finally there we were in line for the lot with plenty of time to scope out a space for the all-important quick exit. We chose the Winnebago lot. We got out of the car to find the temperature had dropped again, about 20 degrees, maybe more. It was freezing. Time to pull out the hooded sweatshirts. “The hood is up, don’t talk to me,” said Mr. D. In the distance loomed the Bryce Jordan Center like some great Spielbergian spaceship landed in a cornfield in the Pennsylvania blue mountains.
“Never seen no place like this before,” I said quoting a rambling gambling evangelistical song traveler, who said the same thing when centuries ago he played a similar edifice also located next to a giant football stadium located in the middle of what everyone knows is the Mafia burial ground of the state where anything is legal as long as you don’t get caught. Hoods up and not talking we were more or less blown towards the spaceship box office as some wicked Canadian wind appeared to make things even colder. Obtaining the tickets with lots of time we headed for the congregation in the parking lot to secretly partake of the sacred plant. “Are we there yet?” someone might have said. “If you have to ask, you’re there,” came an answer. We stood up and all of a sudden we were back in 1968. Someone had gathered all the Volkswagen busses that had been in hiding for the past two decades and plop them all down together in the Bryce Jordan Center. Bongos were bonging and drums were drumming and all sorts of items grey flannel dwarfs would prefer to see banished were in display in decorated cases like treasures from pyramids embedded in ice. There were people everywhere. Music in all directions. Lots of hair. Dreadlocks, too-long floppy flappy jeans, a circus-meeting of the tribes. There must be some way out of here I found myself thinking for the second time that day, as from out of nowhere some authority loudspeaker boomed, “keep the passageways clear.”
It wasn’t getting any warmer, so we headed for the great looming spaceship arena, check out the souvenir stand, hamburgers for only 3 bucks and into our seats. The floor is maybe almost half full, the soundboards enclosed by a fence. Warren Haynes comes out to check his gear to huge applause. Finally the lights come down and the band comes out, “Viola Lee Blues,” and Derek Trucks is immediately noticeable on guitar and Haynes echoing him and off into some more or less blues-based jam and it’s really okay and somewhere in the middle they find “My Favorite Things” and leave that and come back again and Phil is right there digging in and I suddenly realize I’m really hungry and go out to wander up and down the lonesome town of the spaceship perimeter ’cause I can’t see a thing anyway because the people in the next section are standing up especially this 7 foot tall guy who’s not even paying attention to the show and I don’t understand why when there’s a whole half a dance floor not being used these people have chosen to get seats. Something just doesn’t add up here.
Out in the perimeter it’s gotten very strange. Barefoot guys in skirts are dancing. I get a burger and a no-coke pepsi and wander around. Every ten feet there’s someone with their eyes closed moving around in some sort of trance-like circle. It seems the same people are passing me over and over again and I can’t figure out how they got around the entire spaceship so fast. Security guards are chasing some girl who is totally ignoring them wandering right back into the seats after they just got her out. I suddenly realize I’m back where I started and go back to my seat. “He just sat down 10 seconds ago,” Mr. D. says and wow, I can actually see the whole stage where the band will soon be arriving at Terrapin Station and back into Viola Lee Blues and Mr. D. says, “It’s called a sandwich.”
And they actually stop playing and start “Box of Rain,” and Phil can’t exactly find the melody but he means it so it doesn’t really matter and they leave and come back and do something else or maybe they did something else before, but now the lights are up though they’re still on stage. And soon they are rolling away the equipment and rolling the Bob equipment on.
And soon they take the stage and there he is looking damn fine in his best riverboat gambler clothes with a Lester Flatt or Colonel Sanders tie depending on whether you’re coming from a bluegrass or chicken perspective and they’re into “I Am The Man Thomas,” and it’s a fine upbeat bluegrass/gospel thing and Larry especially sounds a little stronger on it than Bob does and the lights go down and they’re taking their time before going into the Mexican cantina rendition of “To Ramona” that’s almost a little too cantina-ish but still okay and the nights go down and apparently another huddle and before the song starts I hear Bob play this tiny 3-note blues lick that could mean “It’s Alright Ma,” but they decide to do something else and the rhythm starts and it could be “Desolation Row” or it could be “Visions of Johanna” and Dylan or someone is pushing the rhythm and he’s alternately singing it great and okay searching for that indefinable place where he can really drive it home and sometimes finding it, singing maybe half the verses and I wonder if he picks and chooses from different verses each time he does it, but I’m not that much of a statistician. They’re right into “Mama You Been On My Mind,” with Larry picking out crystal clear like water running Doc Watson-ish leads until Bob takes over after the 2nd verse and he kind of seems more into playing it than he is in singing it and another verse and he goes back and picks up a harmonica and actually looks at it to make sure it’s the right one and goes into a really great but two short solo where instead of playing the usual two note thing he’s been doing lately to start (like check out the harp on “Trying To Get To Heaven” on TOOM for an example), he’s playing some really crazy up and down stuff, but it’s over too fast and he gave just enough to let you know he can still do it. Then into Tangled and again he’s searching for that thing singing one verse or maybe even a line high and the next one low and on the “She lit a burner on the stove” verse he hits it and it’s that moment where he just nails the song right through you in the that way that only he can do and the show is going by really fast and it’s into Watchtower with Larry on lapsteel and it’s okay but nothing really special and another lights-down huddle and the intro to Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues appears and this one of those songs that he really cares about and sings every verse except “up on housing project hill,” getting in his best electric solo of the night. And then Shelter with yet another arrangement, kind of moderately paced which leads to a burning “Real You At Last,” with great nasty guitar from Sexton followed by the night’s show-stopper, “Tears of Rage,” carefully done with beautiful back-up vocals from Larry and Charlie with Larry reaching way back summoning the spirit of those Basement recordings and especially Richard Manuel.
And then after another huddle, and a fairly crazy intro, they bounced into a rolling roller coaster of “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat.” And at the end, Bob lingered on-stage after the rest of the band had split and turned around to deliver a classic Bob Dylan-styled bow.
They returned to launch into “Love Sick” notable for “take to the road and plunder” being changed to “Feel like I’m being plowed under,” and into an okay “Rolling Stone,” and then “Blowin’ In The Wind,” and we looked at each other and with 200 miles for me to drive and another 75 or so for my companions made a quick exit into the even chillier Pennsylvania mountains night for the steep downhill drive discussing whether Charlie’s being under-utilized or not as we cruised by the run-away truck ramps.