August 1, 2021

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05/10/03 Hilton Hotel Grand Theater, Atlantic City, NJ

Something weird seems to happen every time Bob Dylan plays Atlantic City.  Tonight it didn’t matter at all.  The difference between Friday’s show and Saturday’s was like night and day with the energy level rising like “High Water.”   The show was inspired on all fronts.

Starting again with a rocking “Maggie’s Farm,” they then went into “I Don’t Believe You,” and with the opening songs both having shades of 1965, I wondered where the show would lead.  When it came time for the guitar solos the difference in the band became apparent.  Larry Campbell and Freddie Koella had obviously worked out parts and I began to wonder whether they’d spent the afternoon playing.  And Dylan was on playing a fine harp solo.

“Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum” brought things back to the present in a perfect version with the guitars really ripping and then it was a perfect “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You” with Larry on steel and Dylan playing not one, but two harp solos and since the arrangement was so close to the original, like the night before on “Lay Lady Lay,” I couldn’t help but think if he had played these harp solos on the original record, it was would have been a whole other experience.

“Things Have Changed” was nothing short of amazing, Dylan tearing through the vocals with unbelievable intensity.  It may well have been the best live version I’ve seen of this song.  Then unlike the night before, Dylan put on his Strat for “Drifter’s Escape,” and again the guitars are happening, and Dylan’s into his guitar solo and Freddie does something I’ve seen no Dylan guitar player do, he goes right up to him and plays with him, playing around and with what Dylan is doing on guitar and then Dylan has the harp and he is playing to the crowd and the level of the show went up another few notches.

The lights go down and in the darkness you heard the unmistakable strum of Dylan’s Gibson J-45 and it’s “Don’t Think Twice,” and again it’s time for Dylan’s solo and again Freddie goes right up to him and starts playing with him, and Bob shoots him a glance, but it’s a glance of “hey we’re playing guitars,” and Dylan finds this groove and Freddie goes right along with him and Dylan sings another verse and then it’s back into the guitars again with Dylan finding the same groove and you knew something special was happening.  And the lights go down again and you wonder what’s going to be next and then there’s prolonged silence, and then a voice announces, “Ladies and Gentleman, the fire marshal has determined that the show cannot continue until the aisles are cleared and people return to their assigned seats.  The lights go up.  Plot of the eternal bring down.  But after about 10 minutes they go down again and Dylan and the band came out and rip into a “Highway 61 Revisited” that made you forget what just happened.  The song is soaring.

Then there’s deep, dark ominous piano chords and a swamp groove appears that turns out to be an incredible version of “High Water (For Charley Patton) and Dylan is laying out each line ferociously, and maybe it was after the second verse he comes out from behind the keyboards and does this strange little Dylan shuffle dance moving his hands around, kind of pointing them and then goes back to the piano to repeat the same thing a couple of verses later.  But it was the singing, the voice, almost coming from somewhere else, that thing that makes music be a magical experience, and that thing that Dylan – when he wants to and the stars are aligned – does better than anyone else.

The energy stayed for “Honest With Me,” and then they shifted gears into “Bye and Bye” which was both lounge jazzy and extremely funny with Dylan actually cracking up on stage when he sang the line, “I’m not even acquainted with my own desires.”  Now I’ve seen Dylan laugh when he tells a joke or something to a band member away from the audience, and there’s been a couple of times I’ve seen him where it seemed like he was trying his best to keep a straight face for most of the show and not exactly winning, but the last time I remember him actually cracking up into laughter during a song was at Philharmonic Hall in 1964.

This was followed by an excellent “Summer Days” that more than made up for the one the previous night, with both Freddie and Larry going down on their knees at one point!  And then it was encore time, with a fairly average “Like A Rolling Stone” followed by a standard but at the same time quite good “All Along The Watchtower.”

Now while Dylan was on from the first note singing with not only true conviction, but fire, the difference was in the band.  Tonight, they seemed like a band and jelled like a band and they were having fun.  There were no missed cues, no glaring mistakes.  It is obvious that Campbell and Koella are working out parts where they both trade off each other and play together.  They are onto something, something that could take the sound of this band to a whole other level.  Freddie Koella can play in a variety of styles and he’s not afraid to step out and let loose.  And perhaps at the same time he is challenging Larry, long the backbone of this band to some of his most inspired recent playing.

From talking to people who were there who’ve seen other shows on the current tour, tonight’s show quite possibly may have been the best one yet.