02/27/99 Atlantic City, NJ

Once upon a time in New Jersey, Bob Dylan let his backup singers do a song about a gambling town.  “There’s a gambling town around here somewhere,” he said.  “What’s the name? Reno?”  Dylan was being pretty funny that night as he played a massive arena dead smack in the middle of the mafia burying ground.  Why some people even say that Jimmy Hoffa or part of him is somewhere in that arena’s foundation.  Well it wasn’t ten years later that Bob Dylan himself was playing that gambling town.  Well the first show was outside, so you couldn’t quite say it was really a casino show.  Now it took a while for him to come back, but he did to a different place and that was sort of an arena in a casino, but you couldn’t really say that was a casino show either.  But this Sands place, and this Copa room, now this was a casino show.  All the way.  The tickets cost a lot of money and you couldn’t avoid the slot machines and the card tables and the ring ring ringing of money dropping and yes the Sands is one intense place to see a Bob Dylan show.  Kind of like walking right into a verse from Highway 61 Revisited itself.

Now this was a show with a lot of potential.  For one thing there wasn’t gonna be no Natalie Merchant dancing barefoot or with combat boots and doing no David Bowie songs no how.  She wasn’t gonna be having no cold nor wearing layers of upstate New York Jamestown clothing nor whirling like a politically correct poetress nor none of that stuff and that was a good thing too, ‘cause the only person on a Bob Dylan show doing a David Bowie song should be Mick Ronson but that ain’t gonna happen no more no how, not on this planet anyways.  Now the Copa Room was all red kinda like the red room at the White House but maybe even redder and there were these guys you were supposed to tip to get a good seat and if they liked the tip it worked and you needed a pass to go to the bathroom like it was high school or something.  And since it was like a nightclub there were lots of tables crowded together like they have in nightclubs.  Now there were some people at the show who don’t understand the concept of nightclub ’cause it’s like the ’90s and kids don’t even eat lunch in high school anymore ’cause achieving is much more important than developing social skills so they eat standing up between classes and most clubs where they have music aren’t places you’d wanna see in anything close to daylight and anyway these days in clubs everybody just like slams into each other and all kindsa other weird things and it’s what’s happenin’ down on the floor that’s important and the music is really just kind kind of a sideshow to what’s happening on the floor and so what if like the songs or even the music is like moving or even meaningful because it’s much more important that I wave my arms and dance and you see me doing it because what I want now is what I want now and that’s all that’s important is me.  And so since that’s the way it is today it’s quite possible that a lot of people inside the Copa Room just had never seen no place like that before and didn’t know what it was unless they’d seen it on television or something but even if they had they probably didn’t notice ’cause television  is something that you have on while you’re doing something else like talking even if it’s a good movie or something because talking is one of those things like dancing, you do it no matter what the situation.  You do it in the movies, you do it at a poetry reading, you probably do it while the preacher’s talking in church and you do it while someone’s on stage singing a song because hey, you can go home and hear the song on the record  even when you’re seeing the one guy, the guy whose thing (in live appearances anyway) is not to do the song like the record or even like he did it the night before, well some of the time anyway.  But hey someone will always tape and it and you can hear that.

Well anyway, Bob Dylan finally took the stage after an hour of drinks, waiters and bathroom passes, and he was wearing the same grey suit (or one very similar) to the one he wore at the Grammys and he was in his energetic comic mode and it was pretty funny watching him do his moves which were half rock star and half Charlie Chaplin and the band was tight and it was happening and the song was “To Be Alone With You,” and he went right from that into a song about no longer being alone with you, “You’re A Big Girl Now,” which probably should never be the number two song because the number two song is still kind of  a warm up song, but he was leaning into hard and heavy, and on into a kicking “Can’t Wait,” and the thing is he’s letting Larry Campbell play, and play is just what Campbell’s doing making that Paul Reed Smith whatever guitar sound just like a Stratocaster and tearing out a solo not unlike what Mark Knopfler  might have played if he’d been there.  And then into a “She Belongs To Me” that wasn’t all that dissimilar from other ’90s versions, but then again it had this other thing about it to make this version more than a little bit special with Campbell providing gorgeous guitar fills with Dylan playing his own lead, but managing to keep it underneath what Campbell is doing and not interfering with it and into “Memphis Blues Again.” That is the way he does it now and into the acoustic set leading off with a sensitive rendering of “It Ain’t Me Babe,” but halfway through the first verse I realize there’s a conversation going on.  Someone has been talking through the entire song and I can hear it from two tables away and not only that, the conversation has been going on since “Memphis Blues Again,” but “It Ain’t Me Babe” is quieter and I go into my best Michael Corleone stare which scares the shit out of the guy from North Carolina at the table next to me, but the conversationalist is too busy talking to notice so I have to get up and make him an offer to shut up that he can’t refuse and get back in my seat in time for the last chorus, in time to calm down for a way too slow version of “Mr. Tambourine Man.”  Now if there’s one song that shouldn’t be messed with this is it, and I’ve seen him mess with it quite successfully especially in the fall of ’81, but for some reason in the ’90s he’s slowed it down, not as slow as the hand-held microphone version he did at TLA whenever that was, but slow enough that it should be faster.  This is a song that can sing itself, but not at this speed.  “Friend of the Devil” was done at about the same pace, but it’s only “Friend of the Devil.”  Then they soared into “Highway 61” with Campbell again shining on guitar and there was one point when he and Dylan were standing right next to each other the way guitar players should and Campbell pulled out some riff and you could see that even Dylan was impressed.

“Lovesick” started off the encores and was okay, but nothing special and “Blowin’ In The Wind” is the way they do it now with the cool harmonies on the last line, but I was gearing up to hear that totally strange arrangement of “Not Fade Away” ’cause Dylan sings it higher than anything he’s done in years, and they’re getting through the intro and it’s kicking into 2nd then 3rd, when this blonde walks across the stage and then this other woman jumps up and wham bam no thank you maam there’s 60 or 70 people onstage and some kid flashes his soy bomb stomach which was the only semi-humorous thing about it because the song had gone completely out the window and Bob Dylan was nowhere in sight and neither was his band and just a bunch of people I didn’t pay to see on stage doing nothing except flashing hey look at me, I’m on stage with Bob Dylan grins and it was really too bad, because this show had the potential to be something different because it was this small room and everything, but it wasn’t, it was just another show with an annoying ending.  So we beat it on out of there and I walked in my door in time to see Steve Earle do a few songs with the Del McCoury Band that was more satisfying than anything that happened in Atlantic City that night.

02/18/99 Bethlehem, PA

This was my third trip to the little town of Bethlehem to see Bob Dylan play at Stabler Arena.   I’d woke up about five times this morning in a driving rainstorm because of something I shouldn’t have eaten the night before and wasn’t exactly thrilled at the prospect of driving to Bethlehem in the rain.  The last time I saw Dylan at Stabler I ended up trying to race a snowstorm home and didn’t win and had a fun little white knuckle time slipping and sliding down the turnpike to a toll plaza that should’ve been an ice skating rink.   Luckily the rain stopped but my spirits didn’t lift until driving through Bethlehem to a friend’s house for dinner, past the Stabler turn-off, I saw a big gold tour bus probably delivering someone’s band to a sound check.  Once at my friend’s house the talk turned to a safe time to leave in order to miss Natalie Merchant.  I assured my friends 8 pm would be just perfect but they were a little nervous.  I told them I had it down having had a lot of practice during the Ani Di Franco tour, and how when Bob played the Mann I arrived there in time to be right behind Bob’s bus.  So we set out for Stabler at about 8 anyway which was maybe 20 minutes away and just as we’re about to turn into the last road leading to the arena, coming towards us from the opposite direction is a very familiar looking bus.  Well, it’s not every day I get the chance to give the right of way to Bob, so much to the annoyance of my friend’s wife who was following in the car behind us, I sat at the stop sign and let the bus pass and immediately turned in right behind it of course.

Dylan came on stage with his hair still sort of damp with a part in it that only he could have and started as usual with a reasonably strong “Serve Somebody,” can considering he has played just about every night this month, his voice was in pretty good shape.  They worked up a new pretty sharp ending.  “Million Miles” and a semi-countrified “Maggie’s Farm” built around a riff similar to Merle Haggard’s “Working Man Blues” followed, but were nothing special, though it did bring out his first smile of the night.  But on the fourth song, Dylan reached into his bag of tricks and pulled out a new version of “I Want You” that was the first highlight of the night.  It was played at a moderate pace that may have been a tiny bit too slow, but had lots of beautiful steel work from Bucky (who’s really starting to look like Jesse Ventura with a derby), especially in the beginning.  Imagine “I Want You” done at the pace of “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You” and you’ll have an idea.  Now I’ve seen Dylan drive this song right into the very depths of my soul, and it wasn’t like that, but he did seem to care about it.  “Memphis Blues Again” followed with Bob letting loose with some prime search and destroy guitar, but at the same time he was digging into the song and having a good time.  He seemed to be playing more with Larry Campbell than against him.  But I found myself thinking about when was the last time Dylan played two songs in the same order as on an album, and was kind of hoping that follow it with “Leopard Skin Pill-Box Hat” and “Just Like A Woman” for the sheer hell of it.

That wasn’t to be of course because he took of the Fender and put on the Gibson and went into a fairly intense and spooky “Masters of War”  that got one of the first real responses from the fairly sedate, standing crowd.  It was great but I found myself thinking it would’ve been even greater if I hadn’t seen him sing it who knows how many times over the past five or six years.  But then Dylan again pulled out another surprise, a beautiful “Mama You Been On My Mind,” and if he wasn’t knocking over the intensity meter, he certainly was treating the song with care.  “Tangled” was followed by a delicate “To Ramona,” with Dylan again making it plain he cared about the song.  Watching him, I couldn’t help but think of when I first saw him sing it a little over 33 years ago.

“Can’t Wait” followed featuring some nice Steve Cropper-esque licks from Larry Campbell and a strong vocal from Dylan who at this show was making effective use of the lower register of his voice.  “Positively Fourth Street” found Dylan playing around in his delivery and clearly enjoying himself.  As the song went on instead of playing rhythm which he usually does when he’s singing, he started to play lead while he was singing — all of a sudden there’s these guitar licks — which of course led into a solo. “Highway 61” was “Highway 61.”

All the encores were kept at a strong level.  “Leopard Skin Pill-Box Hat” had a new trick intro; the harmonies, make “Blowin’ In The Wind;” but in the grand show-biz tradition, Dylan saved the best for last with “Not Fade Away.”  Here he was clearly having fun and the sort of smiles he let loose the rest of the night turned into a broad one and he looked young for the first time all night, and all the baggage of being Bob Dylan seemed to slip away, and I felt like he was having the kind of fun he probably had with his very first band.

All in all, it was an okay concert, not a great one.  The energy level seemed to be lagging a bit, the band never got into 5th gear.  But after “Not Fade Away,” it didn’t really matter.