Could there have been a more surreal day/night to go see Bob Dylan? The day after what is easily the weirdest presidential election in my lifetime. Probably like a lot of other people I didn’t get enough sleep, first falling out waiting for Gore to deliver his concession speech and waking up 45 minutes later to his campaign manager announcing there would be no concession, and finally going to sleep for not long enough some time after that. It seemed like the whole country was in a daze, the endless droning of commentators the uncertainty. Hardly any messages on rec.music.Dylan, barely any email, the crazy realization of that long unanswered night sinking in, along with the realization that the country is divided almost exactly in two.
And so, I left early for Bethlehem wanting to beat the rush hour traffic out of Philly with the radio on. This was the fourth concert that Bob Dylan has played at Stabler Arena, first appearing there in the fall of ’81 and every show in that place has been completely different. Stabler Arena itself is a strange place in the middle of nowhere, down winding two-lane country roads just north of Bethlehem, PA, and coming from Philly, you don’t have to encounter Bethlehem at all. I got there pretty early and immediately noticed the three busses and the three semis. I was supposed to meet my friend Andrew in the parking lot and upon arrival it dawned on me there were at least three parking lots. So I got out and walked around. If you got close enough to the building you could hear the band soundchecking. It was getting chilly and I was walking back to my car to get a jacket when Andrew appeared. We went to check out the busses, trying to figure out if one was Bob’s though none looked like his usual bus. Two were parked facing the building and the third, which had the motor running was backed towards the building for an easy exit. Andrew kept daring me to go knock on the door. Finally we walked around to the back to check out the license plate – Oregon. A security guy appeared and told us to beat it or we’d be arrested for trespassing. We walked around to the front of the building and stood near the stage door where we could hear the band checking “What Good Am I,” all instrumental, and then, “Somebody Touched Me.” Someone, probably Larry was letting loose with great flat-picking bluegrass runs.
We split for dinner and came back everything going according to plan. There was now a fourth bus parked behind the arena, also facing out, Dylan’s bus. After passing through Stabler’s somewhat intense security was found are remarkable seats, first row above the floor right at stage level. Roadies were checking guitars and putting out set lists. The lights went down, the band appeared, and then Dylan, dressed in his black suit and yes, sporting a pencil-thin moustache.
They launched into “Duncan and Brady,” and just like the summer shows, he was on from the first note. And then into one of the best versions of “Times They Are A-Changin’” that I’ve seen on the Never Ending Tour. I was pretty sure he was going to sing it—the first song I ever saw him sing in concert, and tonight it seemed as relevant as it did in that November concert in New Jersey almost 37 years ago. And then into “Desolation Row,” which also seemed scarily relevant, Dylan snarling out key lines like “The Circus is in town,” which it most definitely was. Now I’d just seen him sing this only four months ago, but the arrangement had changed, with just the guitars starting out and the drums kicking in as he reaches “Desolation Row,” suddenly taking the song to a higher level and each verse he’s approaching differently and it doesn’t matter which verses he isn’t singing because he’s really singing and then he’s into the guitar solo and it’s building and building and all of a sudden he and Larry are doing this guitar thing together, perfectly meshing with each other right up the scale and we’re looking at each other and wondering, could they actually have worked out a guitar part? And he’s driving the song home, every line making some sort of crazy connection with that other world outside and then into “Fourth Time Around” with Larry on bouzouki which I’d never seen him sing and it’s soft and sweet but still “Fourth Time Around,” and in those three songs it’s also sinking in that he’s showing just who he is, and becoming increasingly clear that on this night anyway, he’s remembered who he is and has decided he’s really going to do it.
And then it’s into “Tangled Up In Blue,” and no matter how many times he’s sung this song, by sheer will or maybe magic, he still finds a way to phrase “tangled” differently every chorus. And as many times as I’ve seen him sing this song, and as many versions that I’ve heard that I haven’t seen, he still somehow can breathe new life into it, and then shifts gears back into old time bluegrassland for “Searching For A Soldier’s Grave.”
And into “Country Pie,” letting the guitar players break loose and almost sneering out the lines, “Raspberry, strawberry lemon and lime/What do I care?” As it ends, my friend Jack says, “Only he could sing that song and never crack a smile.”
Out of nowhere came “Shelter From the Storm,” in a not like it was before arrangement, and midway through I started to imagine Van Morrison singing it this way, and again he’s really singing, and Andrew leans over and says, “The voice is back.”
But before “Shelter From the Storm is even sinking in, it’s time for a fairly nasty and funky romp on “Watching The River Flow,” which basically served as a lead-in warm-up for the all out assault of “Tombstone Blues,” which was the perfect choice for this night, and Dylan is singing it as if he suddenly remembered why he wrote it, almost summoning up the ghosts of Highway 61 and there’s no mistaking the venom in his voice when he sings (on this college campus), “The old folks home and the college” and “Your useless but pointless knowledge.”
But it’s time to shift gears again fast forwarding 30 years into the new “Trying To Get To Heaven,” which may as well be a different song. This arrangement has totally blown my mind and I still don’t know to describe what it’s turned into. It’s kind of like one of the jazz pop standards that Willie Nelson or Van Morrison would sing, but at the same time it’s not. And I’m listening and I’m thinking that he is never finished writing his songs and whatever versions you here are just stops along the way, and I’m also thinking that maybe this is how he really wanted it to be, but he just didn’t know how to take it to this place when he wrote it.
Then it’s backwards and forwards at the same time with the revamped “Wicked Messenger” which rocks as hard as anything he ever did, and finally he picks up the harp and lets loose with a spectacular solo, and closes out the first portion with “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat.”
Returning, they blast into “Things Have Changed,” keep it going with “Like A Rolling Stone,” and then “If Dogs Run Free,” and somehow it all makes sense and there’s no let-up in the energy level, and Dylan is clearly having a good time and in total command at the same time, and just as the experience of seeing him do that song is sinking in, he’s roaring into “Watchtower,” all three guitars on fire as he emphasizes, “There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke,” and “Let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late.” Then it was back to the acoustics for “I Shall Be Released” with Larry and Charlie answering Dylan’s lead with perfect harmony, and while the guitar may have been acoustic the arrangement was somewhere out of soul music, and you could almost imagine Al Green singing it.
And then the inevitable closers, “Highway 61” and “Blowin’ In The Wind,” with Dylan jumping right into the lyrics on the latter.
Tonight was my 75th Bob Dylan concert and in many ways it was as powerful as any I’ve seen going all the way back to that very first one in not very full concert hall in Newark, New Jersey eight days after JFK was shot. Back then you used to go to see Bob Dylan in part to see what he had to say. And tonight, even though in many ways the setlist wasn’t all that different than any other night on this tour, somehow, on this night, at might well be a turning point for this country, in the once industrial town of Bethlehem, PA., those songs – some of the most brilliant and powerful of his career – spoke out once again.