On a day that saw the temperatures dive into the 20s the night before, Bob Dylan and Mavis Staples played the first of two nights at the Tower Theater, just outside West Philadelphia in Upper Darby, PA, a theater Dylan first played in 1988.
Mavis Staples and her three piece band plus two backup singers took the stage at exactly 7:30, and for the next 45 minutes deliver a charged upbeat set featuring several new songs that had the crowd on their feet several times during the set.
After a 15 minute intermission and two announcements telling the audience to power down their cell phones, the lights went dark and Stu Kimball took the stage playing “Royal Canal” on acoustic guitar while the band took their places, and lights coming on slightly as a hatless Bob Dylan took his place at the piano. The stage setup has changed slightly so Dylan now plays facing the audience, and the drums have been moved to the left side of the stage and angled so drummer George Recile is facing towards Dylan, reminding me of Levon Helm’s setup with The Band (though Helm was on the opposite side of the stage). This setup allows the audience to get a much better view of what Recile is doing, and as it turned out, several songs were rearranged with the drums playing a major part.
This was evident on the opener “Things Have Changed” in a new thunderous and rollicking arrangement with Dylan standing at the piano, and at times you could almost see the kid who blasted his high school auditorium 60 years ago. Dylan was in strong voice from the first note and for the most part stayed that way throughout the night. A straightforward and fairly rocking “It Ain’t Me Babe” came next followed by “Highway 61 Revisited.” The opening three songs made it clear that all the songs are now tightly arranged with everyone’s part defined and built around what Dylan is playing on piano, and he took quite a few solos throughout the night. Gone are the interludes where Dylan would play a riff, and then pass it to the rest of the band. Instead the emphasis now on the original songs is on dynamics and sudden rhythmic changes which the band pulls off effortlessly.
Dylan’s turns at center stage are now reserved for the pop standards, and as it turned out, they provided some of the most moving moments of the night, especially “Why Try To Change Me Now” and “Once Upon A Time.”
Several songs, in fact most of them have been rearranged, some drastically. Perhaps a better description would be that they were re-dressed, sometimes in clothes other songs used to wear which made me think of the line from “Desolation Row,” “I rearranged their faces and gave them all another name.” “Tangled Up In Blue” is part “If You Ever Go To Houston,” but it also has this sort of tick-tock rhythm during part of the verse like a clock loudly counting out the time quickly going by. “Trying To Get To Heaven” now has the emphasis on the last line, “Before they close the door,” with Dylan stretching out the last three words each time around. I’m not sure if these arrangements totally work, but they were adventurous and interesting, and particularly in the case of “Tangled,” refreshing.
What did work was “Summer Days,” which now, based around Donnie Herron’s fiddle is sort of bluegrass meets swing at a hoedown without being either bluegrass or swing, but some combination, and the crazy new riffs on “Honest With Me” and “Thunder On The Mountain” They were both hard rocking, in fact ferociously rocking with lots of roll intact, and a lot of the credit for the latter song has to go to George Recile who has a cool drum solo near the end that brought the audience cheering and standing. It had the wildness of the best rockabilly, but it wasn’t quite standard rockabilly either. But he sang it with such energy, clearly having fun, that I found myself thinking now’s the time to resurrect “Subterranean Homesick Blues.”
There were several other cool moments. Charlie Sexton’s guitar on “Early Roman Kings” was raw Chicago blues, and he also played a couple of sweet solos on “Blowin’ In The Wind” On “Desolation Row,” midway through the song on the “Across the street they nailed the curtains” verse, Donnie Herron played a great descending riff on electric mandolin that changed the color of the song. On “Blowin’ In The Wind,” Dylan sang it like he remembered why he wrote it with particular emphasis on “too many people have died,” that made it hard not to think of recent events.
While there weren’t any deep into the mystic moments, it’s still pretty remarkable that at 76, Bob Dylan still keeps finding new ways to present and sing his songs, and on this tour he’s singing with a youthful clarity that hasn’t always been in evidence in the 21st century, with a band that is unbelievably tight.