Back in 1969, you couldn’t get Bob Dylan anywhere near the Woodstock Music & Arts Festival which was held in the little village of Bethel, some 60 miles from Woodstock, New York. Hippies, pilgrims and vagrants were climbing on his roof, so he moved his family to some hidden mountain on the other side of Woodstock and while the festival in Bethel was happening went as far away as he could get to the Isle of Wight. Unbeknownst to most, there actually was a music festival in the town of Woodstock that summer where a little-known Irish refugee named Van Morrison performed who had moved into a house just down the road from Dylan’s, but that’s another story.
And so 38 years later Bob Dylan finally came to Bethel, to perform at the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, a sort of impressive summer shed built on what once was Yasgur’s Farm, the site of Woodstock on some tiny country road.
On the ride in we tried to figure out if the ponds were the ponds. What once were fields now were parking lots, lots of ’em and since we arrived very close to show time, apparently the latecomers were able to park closer to the venue. Still you had to walk endlessly to the venue toll gate and then even further past souvenir stands and tons of food stands and lots and lots of picnic benches before you even saw what appeared to be a concert venue. At the entrance there was a long list of rules and troopers with big black German shepherds, but you were allowed to bring in your own bottled water and even better, you could even keep the cap on the bottle, which is illegal in similar venues in the neighboring states of Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
At 8:35 more or less, Bob Dylan and his band took to the stage and launched into a reasonably upbeat “Leopard-Skin Pillbox Hat,” that seemed a bit more energized than the version played a couple of days before. This was followed by a delicately arranged “The Times They Are A-Changin'” and a not bad “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” leading up to a fiercely delivered “It’s Alright Ma” with Dylan nailing every line. His voice was strong but rough, resorting to an occasional growl, but at the same time his singing was clear.
Dylan then moved to keyboard for a quickly intro’d “Just Like A Woman,” with several audience members attempting to sing along on the chorus. Dylan typically and comically would either delay or rush his lines making the sing along impossible. He also left out the introduced as friends line on the last verse, and then capped the song with a cool extended harp solo.
They then jumped right into “The Levee’s Gonna Break” with standout instrumental work from guitarist Denny Freeman and Donnie Herron on electric mandolin with Dylan putting particular emphasis on the key lines, “Everybody say that this is the day only the Lord could make;” “Some people on the road carryin’ everything that they own.” The performance was relentless.
This was followed by a tightly arranged “Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.” The band quietly played an intricate almost waltz figure, with Stu Kimball’s acoustic weaving out of the tightly interlocked lines of Herron’s mandolin and Freeman’s low volume electric, with Dylan’s keyboard riding underneath. This allowed Dylan, his voice rough in contrast to what was happening instrumentally to deliver a superbly effective and hard-hitting reading of the song, his contempt for the justice system clearly intact. The audience, at least where I was sat quietly throughout.
A wildly charged “High Water” changed the mood immediately. With Donnie Herron’s jazz-grass banjo dancing in and out, and Tony Garnier’s string bass high in the mix, Dylan found some crazy rhythmic riff early in the song, the entire band soon picked up on it taking the song to a new place.
A fairly flowing “Spirit on the Water” came next and was followed by “Tangled Up In Blue” and then a near-perfect “Blind Willie McTell” with Herron on banjo. Then came a nice surprise, a rearranged moderately rocking “I Don’t Believe You.” This may have been Dylan’s best vocal of the night, as the roughness in his voice seemed to evaporate and he let the notes soar.
“When The Deal Goes Down” was the only time the concert seemed to lose steam. At the end of the first verse Dylan used his hand to count out the waltz rhythm he wanted, the band fell in line, but the song, one of the best on “Modern Times” wasn’t as effective as it could have been.
“Highway 61” revived the energy and “Blowin’ In The Wind” was far more meaningful than it was in Atlantic City.
At the end of “Thunder On The Mountain,” Dylan (possibly for the first time this tour) introduced the band, and then said something like, “It’s good to be back. Last time we played here, it was in the mud and the rain at six in the morning.” I thought it was hysterical myself and possibly in reference to an article in a local paper the day before about local residents bitching that he didn’t play the original festival. They then went into a fine version of “All Along the Watchtower,” which now resolves on a major chord.
On the way out of the venue, the full moon was clouded over and a sudden chilly rainstorm erupted and the temperature dropped several degrees. It lasted exactly as long as it took to reach the car, for the endless crawl back to the main road. Luckily at that main road, we were headed for the back mountain roads of Pennsylvania, and didn’t have to join what appeared to be an extremely long line of cars inching towards the New York State Thruway.
And so, almost four decades later, Bob Dylan finally made it to the site of Yasgur’s farm. I don’t know whether he got back to the garden, but he delivered the goods.