It started raining sometime the night before. Sometimes there was thunder. Sometimes there wasn’t. Sometimes huge torrents, loud enough to wake you up. It was still raining the next morning and into the afternoon. It would stop or slow down, briefly then start up again, full force hard rain. I left my house and got completely soaked just walking to the car. And it was that way the entire drive to Asbury Park. Every once in a while you’d see light up ahead and just as you reached the light, these insane bursts of heavy rain would pound again, the windshield wipers could barely keep up. We finally reached Asbury Park, and as we were trying to figure out whether we had to pay to park, another burst. And then walking to Convention Hall on the boardwalk another burst. Luckily, the fairly slow, long line to get into the hall itself was under cover. And of course what the ticket said was show time turned out to be doors opening time.
I saw Bob Dylan at Asbury Park Convention Hall exactly three years and one day before this show. It was a show to remember for bad sound and cell phone talkers. But some good friends in briefly from California made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.
Leon Russell opened the show. Once upon a time Leon Russell was a pretty big rock star. He’d been a session player for awhile, but gained a lot of notice when he appeared on Delaney & Bonnie and Friends’ first album, Accept No Substitute, which had a lot of great players like Jim Keltner, and Bobby Whitlock and Bobby Keys. It turned out as it often does that that album wasn’t really Delaney & Bonnie’s first album, but that’s another story. Russell pretty much took that band and moved them over to become Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen which is another story. In the early ’70s, he produced and played on a couple of Bob Dylan songs such as “Watching The River Flow,” and then backed Dylan up playing bass with him at the Bangla Desh concert.
Russell started out alright, but for some reason his voice was mixed at the same level as his band which was a bit disconcerting. He did a mix of his best originals such as “Hummingbird” and “A Song For You,” mixed with a bunch of covers like “I’ve Just Seen A Face.” Sitting behind his keyboard way on the right side of the stage, he looked like Gandalf the White wearing a cowboy hat. While his band was tight and more than competent, occasionally delivering nice harmonies, the show quickly grew tiresome and the covers of well known songs and hits by other artists made it seem like a few steps above a hotel lounge band. It wasn’t hard to leave, go up to the outside balcony and watch the storm over the ocean.
After a reasonably quick stage change, Dylan and his band came on and opened with “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat,” followed by a waltzy “To Ramona” with Bob at the keyboard. Neither was high on the intensity meter, and I started mentally preparing for just an okay show. When Bob moved to center stage, harp in hand for “Things Have Changed,” that thought was immediately erased from my mind. It was like bam! The energy level went way way up into high gear. The new train beat arrangement with Stu Kimball playing a rollicking guitar part straight out of Memphis in 1956 revitalized the song along with Donnie Herron’s terrific pedal steel fills, and Dylan was on fire, ending it with a tough harp solo.
Dylan stayed center stage for “Tangled Up In Blue.” It didn’t matter that he left out half the verses, though he did sing the “She lit a burner on the stove and offered me a pipe,” verse, and unlike the last time I saw him didn’t mix it up with another verse. He was literally acting out the song as he sang. Standing to the left of the stage, there was times when Dylan’s profile with his white hat eerily brought me back to the ’75 Rolling Thunder tour and the video clip of the song from Renaldo & Clara. And once again he was putting emphasis on key lines, really singing, not just barking out the words, and fiercely playing the harp.
Dylan then picked up a guitar for “Beyond Here Lies Nothing,” with Donnie Heron on mandolin instead of trumpet. The band was smoking and even Dylan’s guitar solo was no longer search and destroy, but right on target.
Dylan then returned to the keyboard for “Mississippi” and the energy level went down slightly, mainly because of the arrangement, which is one of those Dylan arrangements I’ll never quite understand. It’s not quite the arrangement of a few years ago, and it’s none of the arrangements on record. He sang it great given the constraints of the beat, but it was almost as if he doesn’t want the song to have the effect it could have or reach its full potential. Make no mistake, this is one of greatest, maybe the greatest of his later period songs and may well be one of his greatest songs period. And while I love the acoustic version on Tell Tale Signs, and the one on “Love And Theft,” and if he would just stop messing around and do something closer to the latter, this song could be devastating.
On “High Water” returned to center stage and the show returned to full steam ahead energy. It was the closest Dylan came to acknowledging what was going on outside the hall, but probably was going to be in the set list anyway. I’ve been to shows in the past usually outside ones where Dylan’s done more than a few rain songs and he has a lot of them. Still there was something in the way he emphasized “High water rising, six inches above my head that added extra depth. Donnie Herron’s jazz grass banjo was clear and high in the mix.
“Summer Days” wasn’t at breakneck speed in a hopped up Mustang Ford, but more like a 48 Mercury convertible cruising down the boulevard with the band alternating really turning it on (and this band knows how to really turn it on) with laying back. Dylan seemed to take an evil glee when he snarled out the line, “Politician got on his jogging shoes.”
Dylan then returned to center stage for the supreme high point of the night, “Blind Willie McTell.” The arrangement was somewhere between the speedier version of a couple of years ago and the original beat. With Donnie on banjo, it sounded like early jazz and at other times like early blues. Standing at the mic, Dylan was almost acting out the song as he sang, but it wasn’t any forced pre-planned motion, it was just the way he moved, once again reminiscent of Chaplin, but also WC Fields, but also Three Penny Opera, and while there was no trumpet, you could almost feel the ghost of Louis Armstrong hanging around. Dylan was playing a lot harp at the show, and I noted one solo, but then the solo he took to close the show was amazing. He was just wailing, and then be brought it and the band to a stop, and then picked it up again. It was something.
“Highway 61 Revisited” was as usual about the jam with Dylan returning to the guitar for “Simple Twist of Fate,” with another well executed solo.
“Thunder on the Mountain” had the energy that formerly belonged to “Summer Days,” and the band was positively kicking. Dylan seemed to be alternating between giving a warning and joking around. There were a couple of lines I don’t think were in the English language or any other language known to man.
Once again Dylan took center stage for “Ballad of a Thin Man,” which at times was positively scary. When he sang the bridge, “You’ve got many contacts/Among the lumberjacks/To get you facts/When someone attacks your imagination,” he sang it, imaginaaaaaaaaaaaaSHUN, it was with such a rumbling force, that no one would want to face down this guy in a room ever.
The encores were well the encores, though the new arrangement of “All Along The Watchtower” is a nice twist.
Asbury Park showed (as the field recordings of this tour have indicated) that something is happening and things have changed on this tour. In 2010, it was easy to say, okay, nothing special, a couple of moments. Last night, there were a lot of moments, in fact more than moments. Bob Dylan is really singing again. It’s as if he’s finally figured out how to make his voice the way it is now do what he really wants it to do. The phrasing, the emphasizing of lines is back, and it’s revitalizing the songs and giving them meaning again, both new and old. And it might be a different line every night meaning a different thing in that particular point in time. It might be that the drums seem lower in the mix, allowing both the other instruments in the band and Dylan’s voice to be heard more clearly or might be subtle shift in band dynamics. There’s a certain thing that Bob Dylan can do when he wants to, that only he can do. It’s not something that can be defined and never named. It comes from some other place. But when it happens, you know it, and it was happening at Asbury Park on a rainy night in August.