Sometimes magic comes in the strangest of places, and sometimes magic happens in surprising ways when you least expect it.
Who would have thought that in the somewhat sleepy burg of Fishkill, New York where Fishkill’s finest greeted concert-goers with dope-sniffing German Shepherds that magic could happen? Then again this is somewhere in the territory where Heinrich Hudson used to bowl and headless horsemen roamed the land.
First, Willie Nelson took the stage with an extra band member, classical and all-around musician David Amram (who a long time ago jammed with Bob and Allen Ginsberg) who played among other things French horn, penny-whistle (two at once), flute and an exotic looking drum, and somehow made it all work. Nelson also shook things up a bit adding “City Of New Orleans,” which found his band unable to keep up with him at the beginning in a rather grand collapse that I always felt they were capable of.. Willie nonchalantly said, “They’ll come around,” and eventually they did when he slowed down the beat after a couple of glances back that probably said “Get It Together.” The best surprise of his set however (by request) was “Pancho and Lefty.”
Bob Dylan took the stage wearing a black suit with red piping and a bright red shirt. From the minute he walked on he seemed quite animated, and immediately picked up a harp for “Rainy Day Women.” “Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum” followed and for whatever reason worked quite well in the second spot, picking up the already energetic pace. Looking around, I noticed for the first time this tour the band was wearing matching light gray suits (I figured Stu Kimball’s tour wardrobe had finally been created). “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue” still in its recent staccato arrangement came next and Bob was starting to toy with his vocals, stretching out the last word on key lines, “Look out now, the saints are marching throuuuuuuuugh,” and playing a fairly crazy harp solo that had brief echoes of 1966.
“Lonesome Day Blues” kicked things even higher, with Dylan growling out the vocal (“Lawd I never slept with her even once” and Larry and Stu flying on guitars.
After a brief conference with Tony, the band kicked into “Memphis Blues Again” with Larry on acoustic guitar. This is not one of my favorite live songs – he’s never touched the original. But on this version things started to happen. On one of the choruses, he answered “Can this really be the end,” with his new favorite phrase, “I don’t know,” but then on Kimball’s guitar solo, which found Larry moving from straight rhythm to “Blonde On Blonde” style guitar fills, Dylan stood straight up and was just digging the sound coming from his band. He just looked totally pleased and the expression on his face seemed to say, “I have one great band,” and he does. The band on this tour has for the most part been impeccable and it’s not mechanical either.
“Lay Lady Lay” came next, and during the song Dylan found a bass piano riff he really liked and kept repeating it throughout the song, obviously enjoying himself. But then on the harp solo, something remarkable happened, something I have never seen at a Dylan concert. He played a little riff on the harp, looked at Stu and Stu answered him on guitar, then Bob answered back on harp and Stu answered back. They kept up the call and response for a couple of measures before Bob took over the harp solo and ended the song. Not even in the acoustic duets with G.E. Smith did this ever happen. And considering the song was “Lay Lady Lay,” it was totally unexpected.
A cool version of “Bye and Bye” came next, Dylan placing emphasis on the last line “How loyal and true a man can be,” which went into a kicking “Highway 61” with excellent guitar all around, and Larry grinning broadly at Kimball’s lead solo.
Then came the high point of the show, a simply incredible version of “Not Dark Yet.” It was slow, it was soulful, the guitars beautiful and perfect, with a great harp solo. But it was the vocal, Dylan digging deep into the lyrics, seeming to find every possible level of meaning all at once, getting spookier with each verse, each line, using a tight staccato phrasing almost reminiscent of the Basement Tapes on “Every nerve in my body is so vacant and numb/I can’t even remember what it was I came here to get away from,” and then, you could almost see him deciding how to sing the next line, and he went for it, from somewhere deep inside came this soaring voice from long ago: “Don’t even hear the murmur of a prayer,” and he held the last word and that note and everyone in the crowd (around me anyway) was awestruck. It was a completely remarkable, totally moving moment.
“Honest With Me” gave the crowd a chance to recover, but Bob was having none of it. On the instrumental break he walked that crazy, almost goofy Dylan walk dance to the front center of the stage, his shirt partially unbuttoned (it was a hot and humid night) pointing his hands almost like pistols at the crowd, except he’s doing it exactly in time with the drum beats. It was hysterical and great.
Larry went back to acoustic for an intense “Masters of War,” Dylan venomously spitting out the lyrics: “I hope that you DIE” and then repeating the first, stretching out the line “see through your mask,” except on mask, it wasn’t one note, he went up and down the scale so it came out kind of like “ma-ah-ah-ah-ask,” and it was nasty too.
The rest of the show stayed on the same level with “Tambourine Man” leading off the usual encores. This was easily the best Dylan concert I’ve seen in at least two years. It made the three hour ride home, after six days on the road totally enjoyable.