Playing music is kind of a magical thing, almost like your conjuring up something and sometimes it happens and sometimes it doesn’t and sometimes you have to do some extra special things to make it happen, and sometimes even that extra special thing doesn’t always work.
I try not to have any expectations for Bob Dylan shows. They usually work better that way. But there was no doubt in my mind from the very first listen that “Love and Theft” was easily Bob Dylan’s best and most brilliant album in a couple of decades in every way. And then there were the almost unanimously great reviews of the current tour by both fans and the working press.
So despite my inclination not to, I did have high hopes for my first show of the tour at the Bryce Jordan Arena at Penn State University. The air was let out of the balloon almost immediately when Dylan took the stage and opened the show not with “Wait For the Light to Shine,” or even “Hummingbird,” but (ho-hum) “Rovin’ Gambler.” It was okay, but I was kind of brought back to the summer of ’97 when Dylan was playing (for the first time) “Blind Willie McTell,” and also such songs as “Seven Days” and “One Of Us Must Know.” He came to Philly and did a pretty generic set list that he could have performed at just about any point during the previous 20 years.
Anyway, “Girl From the North Country” followed, and it was perhaps the most lackluster version of this song I’ve ever seen or heard started by him totally blowing the opening line (maybe he couldn’t decide whether he was gonna sing this song or “Boots of Spanish Leather,” and it was capped by one of his famous search and destroy guitar solos—only this one was completely in destroy mode finishing up with a jumble of incredibly wrong notes.
“It’s Alright Ma,” one of my all-time favorite Dylan songs followed and during the song all of a sudden the sound started bouncing from the opposite end of the arena so you were hearing everything twice: “As some warn victory, some downfall, as some warn victory some downfall.” This continued throughout the night on every song.
Things kind of picked up but only slightly with “This World Can’t Stand,” but it was nothing special. Then for whatever reason Dylan launched into “Cry A While.” It was sluggish, had none of the intensity of the album, and was probably done too early in the set though the guitar playing by Campbell and Sexton and especially the sound of their guitars was totally on.
The band started a beautiful intro to “I Want You,” but then slowed down the beat to a moderate pace and again Dylan blew the first line. “The gyp/guil undertaker cries.” Actually I don’t know what he sang. At the end he went for the harps, blew a couple of notes on one, picked up another one and delivered an all-too brief solo that went nowhere.
“Floater” came next. It doesn’t really work without the violin. It was okay, but nothing special. At one point Charlie started to play this great jazzy stuff on the guitar, but a few bars into his solo came the intrusion of a three-note search and destroy lead totally obliterating what Charlie was doing. It was one of those moments where I just stared at Dylan and wondered what is he thinking?
Then a roadie handed Larry the banjo and they were into “Highwater.” It was great. Finally Dylan and band were all together with a single purpose. Everything you could’ve hoped for except the sound echoing off the rear wall of the arena.
But then it was back the acoustics. I couldn’t figure out what the song was from the intro, but it turned out to be “Visions of Johanna.” But none of the song’s beauty, mystery, descriptiveness or tension was present in this version, not to mention that he mixed up two of the verses. It was as if he couldn’t remember who or what he even wrote it about.
“John Brown” in a different arrangement than I’d heard previously came next. The band started “Love Minus Zero,” and Dylan was back by his amp looking at and picking up various harps. He put them down. It was a nice version, with Dylan starting low and ending high on various lines.
Some in the audience shouted, “Freebird,” and Dylan was into a beautiful “Sugar Baby.” It was sad, it was beautiful. Perfect. A bunch of people on the floor went crazy at the “Some of these bootleggers, they make pretty good stuff line.”
A fairly decent “Wicked Messenger” came next with Dylan play a too-short harp solo at the conclusion. The energy was there but the show simply never found a groove. Amazingly enough “Rainy Day Women,” a song I could basically care less about was one of the high points of the night with some new verses and Dylan accenting the stone. They’ll sttttttttoooooooone you when……
The encores which started off curiously with “Country Pie” were ok. “Rolling Stone” had a pointless harp (hard to call it a solo) bit at the end. “Honest with Me” was good, but did not have the intensity of the album. “Watchtower” started with a brief passage from “Theme From Exodus,” but the song had a new beat that had none of the raw power of the last versions I saw and I found the repeat of the first verse interesting but unnecessary.
Maybe playing four shows in a row, each hundreds of miles apart was just too tiring. But the set list just didn’t seem thought out in a way to build momentum and take things higher. But whatever it was, there is no way I can say that the Penn State show was a happening concert.