Bob Dylan once said in an interview not too long ago something along the lines of my stuff is based on mistakes. The Bob Dylan show that rolled into Bethlehem for his sixth performance at Stabler Arena in 29 years was like any good band that’s been out on the road night after night. They had it down in a show that was smooth and quick. Even Dylan’s few turns on guitar were search and find as opposed to search and destroy.
Dylan’s voice was in reasonably good form and at Stabler there was none of the staccato playfulness that depending on your point of view either made a song fun or a disaster that he employed a year ago. Everything was played fairly straight, and even new arrangements didn’t stray all that far from original versions.
It took Dylan and his band about five songs to get warmed up. Though he never really hit full steam, at times he came close. The first three songs, “Leopard Skin Pill-Box Hat,” “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” and “Things Have Changed” were quick run-throughs. Dylan started to get a bit playful on a reasonably soulful “Just Like A Woman” with the band exceptionally tight and Charlie Sexton providing some nice Steve Cropper type fills on guitar. Over the past few years the chorus has turned into a sing-along, and typically Dylan never lets the audience sing their part right, always jumping in on top of them. While he definitely left a space for the crowd to jump in, in Bethlehem, those who sang weren’t all that loud. In fact the audience wasn’t loud at all. In fact, breaking the precedent of every other Bob Dylan review of written on the Internet, no one around me was talking. No one around me was playing with a cell phone or some other device. Everyone was watching and listening. This hasn’t happened in more than 30 years!
After a rather incomprehensible “Rollin’ And Tumblin'” where I could make out maybe every fourth line, though the band was starting to kick, Dylan went into the first highlight of the night, “Simple Twist of Fate.” This was followed by a powerful “Cold Iron Bounds” which featured some excellent harp playing. Dylan’s harp playing was superb the entire show.
The staging has changed this tour to include images behind Dylan on a huge screen where Dylan’s shadow would dominate over shadowy images, some almost recognizable. Images of cities, old buildings mixed with new, the inside of what looked like a trolley, things that looked familiar, but at the same time blurred just enough so you couldn’t be sure what they were.
“Spirit on the Water” which followed “Cold Irons Bound” brought the energy level down a notch just when it was starting to build, only to be brought up again on “Summer Days” where Dylan seemed to enjoy singing the line “Politician’s got on his jogging shoes” with particular relish.
Then came “Tangled Up In Blue.” I’d heard this latest arrangement from earlier shows on this tour, and thought, well better than some not as good as others. In this case, hearing it and seeing it are two different things. Dylan stands at the mic, with just a harp and suddenly the master story teller appears. Everything about the whole presentation was dramatic. However on the “Montague Street” verse, after he sang “revolution in the air,” with both a smile and gusto, instead of singing, “He started into dealing with slaves,” he sang the beginning line of what should have been the previous verse if he’d sung all the lyrics, “She lit a burner on the stove and offered me a pipe.” Whoops! But in a crazy way, it was kind of the high point of the night, because he had to find a way out of it which he sort of did humorously, though I’d have to hear a recording to hear what lines he sang, which I’m pretty sure weren’t in any previous version of the song. He followed that screw up with another great harp solo, but whatever happened seemed to open up the cell or the cartridge in Dylan’s brain where the song lines are kept because all of a sudden on the final verse out came a line he hasn’t sung (as far as I know) since 1984, “Some are ministers of the trade” and I’m not even sure it was sung where it was supposed to be sung. It just popped of nowhere. My friend and I instantly looked at each other with expressions of “What!?”
After a “Highway 61,” that featured some pretty good jamming – Dylan can actually play that organ when he wants to – the story teller returned for “Workingman’s Blues #2” with Dylan starting at the keyboard then moving mid-song to center stage and another good harp solo. There were times during this song where Dylan’s voice mysteriously lost the huskiness of the past few decades with lines and notes ringing out clearly. After an okay “Thunder On The Mountain,” that served to keep the energy going more than anything, Dylan returned to center stage for a “Ballad of a Thin Man,” where he could do no wrong, and with all his performing skills quite intact seemed to enjoy barking out lines such as “You’re been with the professors and they all like your looks.” Returning for “Jolene,” which really doesn’t deserve the next to last spot, he closed with a not bad “Like A Rolling Stone,” where somewhere down through the decades that seem like centuries, he sang it as if he remembered why he wrote it.