Bob Dylan’s debut at the mammoth First Union Center found him on from the first note singing “Maggie’s Farm” in a shockingly clear voice and rocking hard. And this arrangement of the numerous arrangements of this song seemed closest in feel and spirit if not in the actual notes to the guy who took the stage at Newport in 1965.
This was followed by a rather astounding “In The Summertime,” with Larry on harmony (and mandolin) but the action was all in Dylan’s staccato-like vocal and he was having a hell of a great time singing it, almost charging the melody with the emphasis on lines and words: STRANGERS they MEDDLED in our affairs. It was an amazing performance.
The charged quality of the vocals kept up for “Tombstone Blues,” and then yet another heartfelt “End of the Innocence,” and when he got the verse “Beautiful for spacious skies,” there was no doubt why Dylan was singing this song. A menacing “Things Have Changed” came next with a fairly crazy piano solo in the middle and Dylan putting emphasis on the line “Feel like falling in love with the first woman I MEET” and then the audience rose for “Brown Sugar.”
The show then seemed to lose a little steam on “Positively Fourth Street, which seemed to drag slightly, with Dylan blowing a line in the second or third verse and didn’t have the intensity of the versions done early in the tour. A few times during the song Dylan switched from his usual acoustic lead playing to actually strum a loud, old-style Dylan rhythm as if attempting to pick up the pace.
This was followed by “It’s Alright Ma,” on which Dylan sounded downright nasty and even angry, enunciating each line clearly before changing gears to the new bluegrassy “Shelter From The Storm” which gets better each time I hear it. My friend Andrew had pointed out to me that that this arrangement is very close to the Band song, “The Weight,” and that observation was very true of the Philly performance. Unlike the two previous versions in New York, Dylan sang the last verse twice instead of repeating the first verse.
The usual version of “Drifter’s Escape” and was followed by “Masters of War,” and this time around George Receli held back on the drums which seemed lower in the mix then at Madison Square Garden. The sound for the show was excellent. I had never been to the First Union Center which dwarfs the Spectrum right next to it and had hear mixed reports about the sound. But at least where I was sitting, there were no echoes or other sound quality annoyances of most arena shows.
A good though not overwhelming version of “Don’t Think Twice” came next with Dylan playing search and find guitar, but then things really got back on track with “Honest With Me,” with Dylan’s vocal regaining the intensity it had at the start of the show, on the last verse singing “I still got their advice ooh, ooooooooozin’ out of my ears.” “Times They Are A-Changin’” came next and once again Dylan was singing every word like he meant it. This intensity stayed through “High Water,” and another truly moving “Mutineer: and then came the night’s big surprise, the second live version ever of “Po’ Boy” with Bob on piano. And while it didn’t have the crazy exuberance of the Grand Rapids debut of year before, it was just perfect, with Dylan lining out each verse in a voice that was as sly as it could be.
As usual “Summer Days” ended the show and this time I was close enough to see what they were actually doing in guitars, especially when it got to the trading solos part which happens astoundingly fast but there is no doubt that Dylan does his part on guitar in making this song sound the way it does.
The show ended with the encore of “Blowin” followed by “Watchtower,” with Dylan singing the final line of the first verse, Any… any of it, any of it is worth.
If the show didn’t have the playfulness of the song selection and emotion of Madison Square Garden, what it did have was Dylan singing with amazing intensity (especially at the beginning) and not only that, but the confidence to make his voice do what he wanted it to do.