Flood and Tornado and flood warnings pervaded all news radio as a skating rink destroying storm barreled up the old East Coast as I headed for New Jersey’s largest skating rink, currently known as the Continental Airlines Arena. While a nice little wind gust on the Ben Franklin bridge did my heart and nervous system wonders. Somehow I managed to stay ahead of the storm and made it safely to the last forgotten diner deep in the heart of Tony Soprano country. While in the diner, a whole other drama ensued as an ex-confederate refugee from the Land of Lincoln got lost in the twilight zone fog of the Lincoln tunnel to learn that a what should be 30 minute trip can easily take four times that. This was combined with two other waiting dramas, while the clock was ticking and somehow I made it to the Meadowlands complex in time to see Bob Dylan.
Once inside the keyboard was a whole lot closer to the center of the stage than it had been during the summer and the band’s setup didn’t seem as far back on the stage either. The beginning of “Cats In the Well” found Dylan in craggy, rough voice mode but he managed to sing his way out of it. Craggy or not, that certain thing he has when he means business was very much in evidence. A couple of minor chords on the keyboard kicked off a reasonably intense version of “Senor.” The song had barely ended when they kicked into a speedy “Rollin’ And Tumblin,’ ” with Denny playing the slide part and Bob roaring out certain lines, especially “I did all I know just to keep you off my mind.”
“Positively 4th Street” followed. I saw Bob Dylan sing this song at the time it was a hit in Newark, New Jersey, so any live version after that has had something pretty difficult to live up to. For whatever reason tonight he sang it like he remembered why he wrote it, spitting out the, I know the reason you talked behind my back,” and “You know what a drag it is see you” lines with venom. There was one point where he sang a line out of order, which could have thrown the song into chaos, but after fumbling the next line, he got the song back on track. The under-rated Denny Freeman played two excellent solos.
Then it was into the current arrangement of “It’s Alright Ma.” This is of course one of Dylan’s greatest songs, and while I prefer it solo on guitar, with the “Wake Up Little Susie” riff, turned into something like a lightning strike, there’s something incredibly menacing and low down about this version, set to the Sonny Boy Williamson II “Help Me” riff, but in some murky muddy swamp of the mind that it just builds and builds and ends up overwhelming. Dylan’s voice tattered voice at times in shards, yet singing with full force only enhanced the contempt in lines such as “Old lady judges watch people in pairs/limited in sex they dare to push fake morals, insult and stare.”
A close to perfect “When The Deal Goes Down” led to “Things Have Changed,” but my concentration was broken by someone near me deciding to have a conversation. However one of the true highlights of the night, a stunning version of “Simple Twist of Fate” followed. Starting off slowly with a gorgeous pedal steel intro by Donnie Herron, this song showed this band’s excellent use of dynamics and imagination. Each verse was treated differently with subtle changes to illustrate each scene, sometimes by Dylan himself, who was not above slipping in a quick joke on the last verse when after singing “People say that it’s a sin,” he quickly added, “How do they know?” While the studio version of this song will never be topped, this was easily one of the best live renditions I’ve seen, aided by two excellent solos from Denny Freeman.
A revised “Highway 61,” with a couple of new stops and licks thrown in led into “Spirit On The Water,” with Dylan emphasizing the “You think I’m over the hill” line.
Dylan was clearly having some fun on “Tangled Up In Blue,” alternating singing high and low almost answering each line like a conversation and finding new meanings in doing so. While the arrangement is based around the acoustic guitar, the use of power chords turns it into something else.
The standout of the night came next, a splendid, “Nettie Moore.” Donnie Herron’s viola and Stu Kimball’s finger-picked acoustic set the tone, and Dylan responded by singing tenderly, and sweetly, the incessant heartbeat of the drums, bass and lead guitar barely audible. On the choruses, Dylan took the song someplace else entirely, almost as if he was singing a high harmony to the melody, one of those little vocal things that only he does and that he is still clearly capable of doing. Nothing else really mattered after that.
A speedy “Summer Days” followed and Dylan was clearly having a good time, at one point either fumbling a line or singing it incomprehensibly. I looked around and way up at the top of the arena on the very last row was a bunch of dancers apparently having a great time, blocking the vision of no one. When I saw this song a few months ago in Reading, all three guitar players took solos, sometimes doing a call on response that echoed the work of the best Western Swing bands, past and present. This time all the solos were handled by Denny, but at the very least it was more fun in the previous arrangement.
“Thunder on the Mountain” in opening the encore makes the connection between swing and rock and roll and in this set list, in opening the encore it echoed both musically and lyrically the opening song of the night. Sometimes Dylan can go into automatic pilot on the encores. Not so tonight, in what was originally the New York metropolitan area show of the tour and Dylan treated this show as such. It was a night with no filler where each song was treated as something of value.