It was about eight minutes after eight and still daylight when Bob Dylan took the stage at the Star Pavilion in Hershey, PA. Wearing a black suit with white piping on the pants, a yellow shirt, open at the collar, and a black hat with a red, green and yellow orange feather, he opened with “Cats In The Well.” His guitar strap was twisted which he never adjusted, and on his left hand were two humongous rings. A not bad at all “It Ain’t Me Babe” followed, continuing the arrangement that debuted this spring in Europe. His voice was reasonably strong, hitting quite a few low notes. “Watching The River Flow” came next serving its usual purpose as bluesy filler to get the energy going with Dylan spouting out the lyrics.
“It’s Alright Ma,” had a couple of lyric flubs, some that he caught and some that he didn’t. At times it was comical, when he realized he sang the wrong line, then rushed in the right one, only to blow the next one resulting in something like: mumble mumble busy being born is busy dying.
A slightly fast “Lay Lady Lay” followed with Dylan starting to lean into the lyrics with a staccato emphasis on certain lines that would become more pronounced as the night went on with Donnie Herron resurrecting the original album version pedal steel fills on the second part of the verse.
The audience where I was sat down for “Lay Lady Lay” but stood up for “Rollin’ and Tumblin’.” Donnie Herron was playing his mandolin riff right to Dylan who had moved to the keyboard.
Next came a rearranged “My Back Pages,” done as a long slow waltz. Dylan sang quite clearly but the staccato emphasis took a firmer grasp as he matched words to the rhythm, “My existence led by confusion BOATS.” Also rearranged was “Honest With Me” with the original guitar lick totally gone.
A relaxed “Spirit On The Water” came next. It wasn’t as loungy as the casino version in Atlantic City and had a minor lyric change, “I’m wild about you gal, I’d be a fool to let it be.” Dylan was clearly having a good time singing and his stage demeanor was often comical. This song also serves as an inducement to audience reaction on the “You think I’m over the hill line,” and the Hershey audience was clearly familiar with Modern Times.
“Highway 61 Revisited” came next followed by “Most Likely You Go Your Way,” with more rhythmic vocalizing.
A near perfect, carefully played “Nettie Moore” was the emotional peak of the night, and almost as if on cue with the song’s chorus, all vestiges of daylight were gone. Dylan’s voice had a tender almost vibrato sweetness on key lines which he contrasted with gruffness on others: “The judge came in, all rise.” Herron’s viola work was simply beautiful.
“Summer Days” was instrumentally pure western swing with Herron inserting steel riffs from Bob Wills & The Texas playboys and Tony Garnier spinning his string bass the way he once did in Western Swing Band, Asleep At The Wheel. A return to “Like A Rolling Stone” closed the set in an alright performance with Denny Freeman playing the original guitar riff right before the chorus.
The intro to “Thunder On The Mountain” served as the unveiling of the gigantic eye as the stage backdrop. Dylan was clearly having fun on this one and Freeman played some wild solos. “All Along The Watchtower” was an effective closer and the band’s use of dynamics throughout the song was excellent providing Freeman the perfect ambiance for some stratospheric solos.
The last time I saw Bob Dylan in Hershey, Pennsylvania was almost 10 years ago at this same venue. That night he pulled out to my amazement and delight, “One Of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later).” Nothing like that happened tonight, but it’s a different time and a different band and things have changed. This band is not as loud, but perhaps tighter and definitely subtler and Dylan is perhaps more confident as band leader. Throughout the night he was throwing little signals, a hand movement, a nod. There’s all kinds of textures and sounds going on with interplay between Herron and Freeman, and rhythmic changes, pauses and stops, but it’s never overt.
While the show wasn’t raging in intensity, it wasn’t necessarily trying to be. It was a well performed entertaining concert on a near perfect summer Sunday night and maybe that’s good enough for now.