It doesn’t seem like all that long ago, that every night when the set lists would appear, a good friend of mine would inevitably complain how the sets were weighted with songs from the ’60s. Well, for the opening show in the cradle of liberty, the majority of songs were written from 1990 on. The show was over maybe an hour before the complaints from people who weren’t there were already posted. Now if history has taught us anything, especially on the Never Ending Tour, opening shows of a tour are rarely the shows were un-played songs are introduced or other surprises happen. There are exceptions of course such as 1996, when Dylan began his spring tour in the little town of Madison, New Jersey, and started the show playing only harp and debuted “Wheels On Fire.” Or a little more recently and more dramatically, the fall 2002 tour where Dylan started the show playing keyboards, pulling out “Solid Rock” for the first time in ages, and played three Warren Zevon songs, as well as “Brown Sugar.” But generally such shows to open a tour are fairly rare.
The pre-show music set the tone for this one with lots of Bob Wills intermingled with Howlin’ Wolf, Hank Snow and various other artists.
Dylan and band took the stage at 8:05 by my watch, starting with “Cats In The Well.” Dylan’s was singing low volume-wise and his voice was low in the mix as well. Things picked up with a not bad “Lay Lady Lay,” with Dylan increasingly leaning into the vocals as the song progressed and maybe on purpose/maybe not mixing up some lines such as “You can eat your cake and have it too,” which he did twice.
An insistent “The Levee’s Gonna Break” followed with the energy moving up a few notches and the band getting into an extremely funky mode, Chicago blues kind of funky, without it really being Chicago blues. But it had the feel of Chicago blues, crazy wild Chicago blues with the dual electric guitars getting nasty, but never flashy with the rhythms accented, and propelling the song at the same time.
“Moonlight,” in the stop/start arrangement came next, with Bob starting to play around with his phrasing and bringing out the harp for the first time for a cool solo.
“Tangled Up In Blue,” in the arrangement debuted earlier this year came next. While the boot recordings of this arrangement didn’t thrill me, seeing it in person is a whole other story. Starting off with Stu Kimball on solo acoustic, with a kind of choppy rhythm, with just bass and drums, the full band doesn’t come in until the first chorus, and by the second verse you’re totally drawn in, essentially forgetting it’s a different arrangement. Dylan, who by now, had warmed up vocally, started really playing around with his phrasing, on the last two verses getting into a half staccato, half sing-songy emphasis, something he’d return to occasionally during the night. Sometimes it was to emphasize key words or key lines, but there’s also quite a bit of humor that goes along with it, and it was one of several vocal styles that would be revealed during the night.
“Things Have Changed” came next followed by “Spirit On The Water,” and then the rearranged “Honest With Me,” with both guitarists getting down and dirty. Again it wasn’t about flash, it was about sound and rhythm, combined with subtle interplay, and a band that is one of Dylan’s tightest. Then it was back to swing for “Beyond The Horizon.” At previous shows, I’ve seen this song walk on the edge of disaster, but tonight it was on the mark.
Next was a truly devastating “It’s Alright, Ma.” I was really happy when Dylan finally dropped the slow swampy version of this, and returned the song to something approximating its original arrangement and beat. Then he changed it again. Unlike some of the European shows, Denny Freeman was on electric, with Donnie Herron still playing jazz-grass banjo. The song built and built with Dylan thundering out each line, and then on a song that doesn’t need a guitar solo, Denny Freeman took a great one bringing the song up even further and then repeated it. The political mood of the audience was quite evident following the “Even the president of the United States sometimes must have to stand naked line,” equaling in volume audiences more than six times the size of the crowd at the factory. Whatever the indefinable magic thing is that happens, it happened during that song changing the feel of the show totally.
A truly beautiful “Tryin’ To Get To Heaven” came next, echoing the recent versions from Europe. While Dylan may have messed around vocally with some of the other songs during the night, on this song he was really singing in a clear voice from that place deep within.
Then it was back to the blues for “Highway 61 Revisited” with Stu Kimball taking a more pronounced role on guitar. By this time Dylan was quite animated, back to having fun with the phrasing, rushing some lines, drawing out others. On the golden gambler verse, he sang it: …”trying to create the next [long pause] world war.” It was quite effective.
“Nettie Moore,” was good, though not as powerful as some other versions I’ve seen. But on “Summer Days,” a quite interesting thing happened. Dylan had been trying out various phrasing throughout the songs, then about halfway through, he started each verse real low and moving to real high. I am not talking about what some people refer to as up singing. This was jazz influenced vocalizing, with a definite rhythm to each word, and there’s a lot of words in that song, moving right up the scale. Each time he’d get a little closer to what he was after and then on the last two verses, he totally nailed it. At the song’s end, as the lights went down, Donnie Herron stood up and applauded.
A very cool “Ballad Of A Thin Man” closed the main set. Dylan had become increasingly more alive during the night and on this song he became Bob Dylan the performer, playing to and acknowledging the audience. He’d sing a line, or play a riff and in the Chaplin-esque way he’s had from the beginning of his career, kind of step back from the keyboard, face the crowd, go back to singing or playing, and doing it again. Finally having the keyboard sound he wants, he even took an organ solo, much to my amazement and complemented it a verse later with a harp solo that ended the song.
As usual “Thunder On The Mountain” led off the encore, with a great solo by Denny Freeman, then Dylan moving into intensity mode for the line: “Shame on your greed, shame on your wicked schemes/I’ll say this, I don’t give a damn about your dreams.”
“Blowin’ In The Wind” closed the show, in the arrangement debuted last year. When I first heard this version, I was kind of skeptical, but now they have it down, and as a result it’s moved closer and closer towards Memphis soul, with the chorus building up in a way it wasn’t a year ago. Was this among the top Dylan shows I’ve seen? Probably not, but I’ve seen a lot of shows, some legendary. What it was, was a damn good start to a new tour.