Last year when Bob Dylan played Madison Square Garden, New York City was under siege and you could feel it. Tonight New York was pretty much back to being New York and getting into the Garden, despite everyone being wanded was under definitely more relaxed circumstances. There were plenty of empty seats visible when the lights finally went down about 20 minutes after 8 and by the time the new longer introduction was done, Dylan and band were already on stage, Dylan standing at his white Yamaha keyboard and they tore into “Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum.” It was the opener I’d hoped for a year ago and it was perfect in every way, Dylan’s singing strong and confident.
The next song started off with a familiar riff yet it was hard to place, and almost kind of reggae sounding, until Dylan sang the first line crystal clear and it all fell into place, along with a collective gasp of “Oh my God, I can’t believe he’s doing this,” as he spoke/sang, “The comic book and me just us we caught the bus/The poor little chauffeur was back in bed/On the very next day with a nose full of pus/Yea heavy and a bottle of bread.” It was a classic Dylan moment and an amazing one. A song I was sure I would never ever see him sing and not only that, the harmonies of Larry and Charlie were perfect. He didn’t sing every verse but it didn’t matter. For some reason it never does while the show is happening. At the end, Dylan says, “That was a request” followed by “shut up” though it wasn’t clear (from where I was sitting) to who.
This was followed by a hard and heavy “Tombstone Blues,” and Dylan, wearing a black suit with red piping is practically snarling out the lines, “The commander in chief answers him while chasing a fly,” and gets downright menacing on “the old folks home and the college.” He is not messing around and the band is with him all the way.
All of a sudden the music takes a turn and the riff is not bluesy, but 80s pop, “The End of the Innocence,” and Dylan is deep into it, his voice sad, yet approaching almost mystical heights, and then it’s fast forward into “Things Have Changed” and the sadness is gone and the menace in the vocal has returned.
The lights go down, and someone is playing a guitar riff, sweet, pretty almost celestial but that quickly changes as the lights come back up and the band launches into “Brown Sugar” and the crowd stands up and they nail it and there’s no one thinking or even caring what the song’s about because it’s total rock and roll.
The lights go down again, and you hear an acoustic testing out a minor chord and I’m wondering if it’s gonna be “Thin Man,” but no “It’s Masters of War” and this time I’m thinking about all the things this song is about, but all of a sudden those thoughts are interrupted by some loud crackling noise interrupting and I realize it’s the drums. They’re just not right. They’re too loud and they’re interfering with the song.
Dylan goes back to the keyboard for new “It’s Alright Ma” which is more or less built around the riff of Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Help Me” and he’s really charging into the lyrics, but again George Receli shows he is the busiest drummer Dylan’s ever had, and not only that he’s missing. Dylan shoots him a look and he sort of quiets down, but he’s doing way too much, playing the drums and not the song.
“Just Like A Woman” a standout of last year’s MSG show comes next, and despite nice pedal steel from Larry, it’s only okay and again the rhythm just ain’t right. At last year’s show, David Kemper played Kenny Buttrey’s perfect fills from “Blonde On Blonde,” but Receli is all over the drums.
Then it was back to rocking on “Drifter’s Escape,” and then a strange new arrangement of “Shelter From The Storm,” that had Dylan repeating the last line of each verse with Larry on harmony. This is one of Dylan’s greatest songs and one that he has tried innumerable ways in concert and for some reason rarely pulls it off, never capturing the spooky quality of the studio version, partly because he never sings the melody.
“Old Man” came next and for whatever reason, more than any of the other cover songs of the night, this truly felt like a cover version. Dylan did little to make it his own.
Things took a definite turn for the better with “Honest With Me” which was followed by “Hattie Carroll” which I always like to hear, but this version went nowhere.
Then came the Shot of Love version of “High Water” which was far better than the debut of this arrangement I saw this summer in Worcester, but despite excellent picking by Larry at the end that recalled his original banjo solo, this arrangement turns one of Dylan’s recent stellar musical moments, a perfect blend of bluegrass and rock into another bluesy rock song.
“Mutineer” was beautiful, easily Dylan’s most heartfelt and sensitive vocal of the night, followed by a cool version of “Bye and Bye” on which the line “I’m making my last go round” seemed to resonate.
Then came a killer version of “Summer Days” with great guitar work by everyone involved, though Receli seemed to stick in every drum roll he knows, though the guitars were so amazing at times you could almost swear there was a horn section on stage.
“Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” and “Watchtower” were both fine, with great harmonies on the first song.
After a year of what seemed to be far too many disinterested performances, Dylan is once again sing with conviction and fire and in the best moments, his voice will go right through you. More to the point he seems to care and be aware of what he’s doing. On one line near the beginning of “Shelter,” he lapsed into the sing-song thing, but he didn’t let it happen again.
At MSG, he may have shown his hand a bit too early with the total surprise of “Yea Heavy” but it was a surprise I’ll never forget.