First off, let’s get one thing straight geographically. When Bob Dylan plays Camden, New Jersey, he’s really playing Philadelphia. The E-Centre, an essentially hideous venue for a number of reasons is one river away from Philadelphia, a quick five-minute ferry ride. And so as fate would have it, Bob Dylan played Philly just as it was being invaded by its first political convention in over 50 years. Yes the Republicans were having their somewhat overblown party in one of the country’s staunchest Democratic cities and Philly’s been building to a fever pitch for practically the entire month of July.
Dylan’s appearance was barely mentioned in the press, a stupid sarcastic pan in one of the alternative weekly, and a decent preview in a major daily, while the other alternative weekly (which blared a huge “Go Home!” front page with a cartoon of a sanitation worker sweeping up elephant shit underneath. The Convention and Visitor’s bureau was none too happy about that. Major streets are closed, flags are everywhere, traffic is terrible, protesters setting up homeless tent camps on Muslim parking lots, the national guard and stage police hiding out on local college campuses and the thing doesn’t even start for two days. At the E-Centre, I wasn’t allowed to bring the soft pretzel I was eating inside.
And Dylan, compared to every other show on this tour, came out late, at 7:27, and the place was not anywhere near being filled, though it ended up being full by the end of Dylan’s set. The yellow-shirted security guards were quite present, looking up the aisles of seats for what I’m not sure, either tapers or dope smokers.
The audience stood up as the band came on stage led by jump=suited roadies who happened to be women, and Bob blazed into “Duncan and Brady,” his voice strong, confident, the band remarkably sure. And then, “Song To Woody,” but wait, there’s no Larry playing and no Charlie playing, and no bass and no drums, they’re all standing there, holding their instruments, and its is Bob Dylan totally solo, just his voice and guitar for the first verse, and then they all kick in right on “Hey hey, Woody Guthrie, I wrote you a song,” and the girl in front of me starts shimmying and clapping her hands out of time. And then a rocking “Desolation Row,” and even though this song has been played quite frequently this tour, at this show it was never more appropriate with the circus being in town, complete with blind commissioners in a trance, and restless riot squads who need somewhere to go. And Dylan was spitting out the words, “I know them, they’re quite LAME!!!!”
And then one of the first surprises of an evening fairly fully of them, a beautiful, intensely gorgeous “Ring Them Bells.”
“Ring them bells, ye heathen
From the city that dreams,” and the guys behind me were having a conversation, and the security guys are still looking up and down the aisles and people are coming in.
“Oh the lines are long
And the fighting is strong
And they’re breaking down the distance
Between right and wrong”
And I’m wondering if anybody but me, and the three heavy-into-Dylan people I’m with and the six others I know are there is really listening.
And then it’s into “Tangled,” and now two other guys are having a big conversation and they’re both twice as big as I am, so I just shoot them my Michael Corleone stare and don’t say anything and try to hear “Searching For A Soldier’s Grave,” and wham they’re into “Country Pie,” which is over way too fast, and then it’s into “Senor,” and again I’m wondering, why tonight.
“Can you tell me where were headin’?
Lincoln County Road or Armageddon?”
This song is 22 years old, and there is a trainload of fools bogged down in a magnetic field, and the gypsies with a broken flag were busted last week by License and Inspections, and this place still don’t make sense to me no more, except it ain’t a dream no more, it’s the real thing, and three girls in front of me are eating a Domino’s pizza mad talking about something, but it sure didn’t have anything to do with what was happening on the stage, if they were even aware there was a stage, let alone musicians on it, not to even factor in who those musicians were.
And then into “Memphis Blues Again,” the first real why is he doing this song of the night and he didn’t even sing the Senator verse, but it led into an astonishing rendition of “Dignity” with Kemper doing the drum part right off the record and then the band is making strange noises and Dylan’s sort of wandering around, and there’s almost feedback guitar happening and I’m wondering just which song it’s gonna be and,
“I’m beginning to hear voices” WHAM!
“and there’s no one around” WHAM!
And it’s different and it’s strange, and a helluva lot better live than any CDR, and maybe the original arrangement wasn’t quite used up yet, but tonight on the Camden Waterfront this version is SMOKING.
“Up over my head nothing but clouds of blood.”
And then the band intros, this time with some David Kemper joke that I can’t remember, and then “Leopard-Skin Pill-box Hat,” and then they just stand there for a good long time, and my friend, Fielding is watching it and cracking up hysterically, and they’re back and it’s hits time, “Like A Rolling Stone,” a sad, slow “Tambourine Man,” and I’m not all that entranced by the way he does it now, except he really is singing in that way that only he can and “To dance beneath the diamond sky” tonight really is echoing down the foggy ruins of time, except now we’re ripping down “Highway 61,” and they’re putting bleachers in the sun, and all of a sudden, we’re back where we started, a folk song or one that will surely be one a hundred years from now, and then we’re back on the ferry looking at the Philly skyline where this night any way there’s four-million-and-forty red white and blue shoestrings.