Bob Dylan kind of has a history of playing a lot of standards when he comes to Philadelphia, especially at the bigger venues. Back in ’97 when he was pulling out the likes of “Blind Willie McTell,” “Wheels on Fire,” and the occasional “One of Us Must Know” and “Seven Days” in other parts of the country Philly got “Maggie’s Farm” and “Thin Man” and so it was tonight, but don’t let that part of the set list fool you.
For his only show actually in Philly in the year of ’99 Dylan made sure to bring his ever-changing tour with him.
The show was completely different in mood, texture and feel than the previous night’s show 90 miles to the South in Baltimore. And if some of the set list seemed to recall the days when “Maggie’s Farm” and “Thin Man” were regular parts of the set list, the performance tonight was nothing short of excellent and its own way once again full of surprises.
Instead of opening the acoustic set with “I Am The Man, Thomas,” he pulled out “Hallelujah I’m Ready” which worked just as well.
Then he pulls out the song I was hoping to here in Baltimore, “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” and it was brilliantly intense from the start. In fact the whole acoustic set was perfect! It seemed kind of lowkey, but there was a quiet unified force in the band tonight and each song had a subtle burning power. At Carrol’s conclusion, he reached two songs back from the same album, his 3rd, Times They Are A-Changin’, the album that totally sold me on Dylan a few centuries ago for a masterful “Boots of Spanish Leather.”
And then came one of the best surprises of the night, “A Satisfied Mind,” the old Porter Wagoner country hit that serves as the intro to Saved. And tonight Bob did it the way it’s usually done, country style with fantastic harmonies from Larry and Charlie in one truly glorious rendition. (And for those who pay attention to such things, it should be noted that Ian & Sylvia also covered this song on their album Play One More, the same album that includes a song Dylan has tried on a few occasions, “The French Girl.”)
An equally superb “Mama You Been On My Mind” came next followed by “Tangled Up In Blue.” Now I realize a lot of people are tired of seeing this song in the set list and sometimes I get tired of it myself. But there’s one thing about this song, other than being an incredible song (and one which I know from personal experience is a lot fun to play), Dylan never sings this song the same way. I just saw three shows in a row and every night he found a new angle, a new mood, something else to search for.
Dylan was obviously in good spirits (and looking great too–for the first time this tour I had seats that were as close to the stage as you could get) and at some point during the acoustic set he said, (referring to Temple University), “I always wanted to play here. My buddy, Bill Cosby went to school here. We used to play the clubs.” Or something like that, the last sentence sounded mumbled from where I was sitting.
Big surprise number 2 came with the opening song of the electric segment, another Johnny Cash classic, “Folsom Prison Blues,” again excellently done with Charlie playing the famous Luther Perkins guitar lead. And of course this begs the question, is Dylan going to pull out a different Johnny Cash tune in this part of the show every night for the rest of the remaining shows, and if he does, that will be something.
The lights went down and somebody (I’m pretty sure it was Bob) played the opening lick to “Thin Man” while the huddle was going on–since the lights were down you couldn’t see, and then there was a pause and sure enough it was “Thin Man,” and though this was a song I was really tired of seeing a year or so ago, tonight it was just fine and the perfect lead in to surprise number 3, “Man of Peace.” And a lowdown rocking version it was too, followed by “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight,” featuring an extended gorgeous pedal steel solo from Larry, followed by a simply stunning “Shooting Star.”
And while another past staple, “Maggie’s Farm” closed the set, it had a funky rhythmic groove that could not be denied.
“Love Sick” as usual was the first encore and “Don’t Think Twice” as many times as I’ve heard it, it was exquisite with Larry’s finger-picking setting the tone, followed by a typically fun but powerhouse version of “Not Fade Away.” Dylan bowed, the band left the stage the lights went down.
And then they came back! “Blowin’ In The Wind.” And while some people may complain about this song, the song that initially made Dylan famous, there’s something about those harmonies on “Wiiiiiinnnnnnnnnnnnndddddddd” that hit me every time and tonight they were as moving and powerful as any of this arrangement I’ve witnessed.
But neither the audience nor Dylan was going anywhere and the band kicked into what might be the most spectacularly rocking version of “Highway 61 Revisited” ever done anywhere. It didn’t just kick ass. It FUCKING KICKED ASS. And it seemed to go on forever and everyone in the band was into it and obviously having one hell of a time. On the last verse Dylan really stretched it out into “down on highway sixteeeeeeeeeee one” in one blazingly nasty voice, then Charlie Sexton tore into this supersonic but totally funky guitar solo that wass just beyond any beyond any of the usual words used to describe guitar solos and then Larry answered him with a solo that was equally awesome and then back to Charlie and back to Larry and Bob might’ve gotten in a few licks there too, but mostly he seemed more than happy to play rhythm and Tony is jumping up on the drum riser and driving the rhythm with Kemper and Dylan’s bopping around just digging it and looking as pleased as I’ve ever seen him look if you can imagine Bob Dylan looking pleased and it just kept going on and on, higher and higher and then it was over.
And once again a set list on paper is not the show. And if the Philly show was not as wildly adventurous as the previous four or five shows (especially Baltimore), the musicianship was evident throughout and this band was as tight, perhaps the most tight I’ve ever seen them. They were in the pocket from the first note to the last.