From the time I left my house till the time I finally arrived at Princeton, the temperature must’ve dropped at least 15 degrees. Dillon Gym is somewhere in the middle of campus and one thing about Princeton University is that it looks like a college, and Dillon gym was no exception. You wouldn’t know from the outside that it was a gym. We arrived about 20 minutes before the doors were to open and then the fear set in—they’re only letting in students with the doors divided up between undergraduates, graduates and faculty or something like that. And it kept getting colder and there was one Princeton student among us, but by the time the doors finally opened, we had all managed to pair off with students who simply showed their Ids and said, “He’s with me.” We made it up to the stage no problem and stayed there, checking out the equipment, and noticing curiously enough that there were mics placed in front of the speakers on each side of the stage aimed towards the crowd. Somewhere around 8:15, Al Santos made the announcement and they were on Dylan dressed in black, with his black and white cowboy boots and a gold shirt and a gold tie, opening with the now standard “Duncan & Brady” with Dylan emphasizing the “too long” in the chorus. Then Larry picked up the fiddle for a strong version of “My Back Pages.” Dylan was being very serious, all business, and then at the end he went for the harp, not bad for the second song. There were some heavy duty Dylan fans in this crowd, Princeton students or not. Standing in the freezing line, some kid next to me said, “He’s gonna do ‘Desolation Row,’ he does it every other night.” The kid with him asked him how he knew that, and he said he had ways of finding out, and sure enough “Desolation Row” it was. It was good, but didn’t have quite the punch it did the week before at Bethlehem. At the song’s conclusion Dylan took off his guitar and conversed with the band for a second and then before he had his guitar back on, they were into “Frankie Lee and Judas Priest,” my first time seeing it since he did it with the Dead in ’87. But this was one scrambled version with Frankie Lee saying Judas Priest’s lines and vice versa and the passing stranger who burst upon the scene got all tangled up in it too, and the only thing I’m sure of by the end was that the little neighbor boy did whisper underneath his breath, “Nothing Is Revealed.” This led to an equally tangled and quite speedy “Tangled Up In Blue” with Dylan looking at everything but the audience, and when he got to the she lit a burner on the stove verse which might’ve been third but definitely wasn’t fifth he said the first line so fast that it jolted you with a kind of “what the hell was that” and all the time Dylan is doing his best not to crack a smile, and then on the guitar solo he find this one funky high note and kept hitting it and making those strange faces he makes while looking at Larry Campbell who seemed on the verge of cracking up. Another huddle followed, but “Searching For A Soldier’s Grave” came next and Dylan appeared to be waking up. This is a song he likes and on it he did this chameleon thing where all of a sudden he looks 30 years younger and he’s leaning back and wailing standing just like he did in ’63 or ’64, and then another huddle and into “Country Pie” with both Larry and Charlie on telecasters.
An okay “Blind Willie McTell” followed with more scrambled verses and at the end he called Charlie over to him and they blasted into “Tombstone Blues,” and suddenly Dylan was alive and digging it, and leaning into the mic, and no more is this the blues shuffle it had sometimes been in the past, but has the crisper beat of the original recording, and Charlie is getting the exact same tone out of his guitar that the Beatles used on “She’s A Woman,” and against his best efforts Dylan flashes a real smile, and Sexton is finally unleashed on guitar.
“Trying To Get To Heaven” came next, and Dylan was totally into singing it and also very into his rhythm guitar part, playing with more precision than he usually displays, and then came a truly amazing “Wicked Messenger” and now the famous phrasing is coming hard and heavy with particular emphasis on “opened up his heart.”
Then a fairly perfunctory introduction of the band, and into “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat,” which was “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat,” but on this night Dylan seemed to be enjoying the blues numbers and then the lineup though Dylan had a very hard time standing still and started joking with Tony.
“Things Have Changed” resumed the intensity and on “Rolling Stone” Dylan started playing around with the vocal singing the last word of each line on some absurd high note, kind of like “once upon a TIME/you dressed so FINE.”
“If Dogs Run Free” was great and tonight he got all the lyrics right – on the other versions I’ve seen or heard so far, he always seemed to mix up tapestry and symphony, but tonight it was exactly like on the record except for one change: “It can pay your bills/And cure your ills” instead of “It can cure the soul/And make it whole.
Then Charlie kicked off “Watchtower” with the rest of the band almost scrambling to join in and all of a sudden there’s a light show behind them, but Dylan sang it like it meant something, carefully phrasing each line. A sad, moving “Times They Are A-Changin’” came next with the third harp solo of the night, and then into “Highway 61” with the “Georgia Sam” verse sung twice in a row.
There were times tonight when Dylan truly hit it, but the show didn’t seem to have the same power and urgency did that Bethlehem had the week before.