It wasn’t that easy to go to Madison Square Garden with the Tramps show still in my mind, figuring that Dylan would resume the typical Simon tour setlist. At 8:30 most of the crowd had settled in and the lights dimmed and Dylan and the band started off with a pretty strong “Cocaine” with Larry playing slide on his acoustic. Unlike Tramps, I could see everybody at once on stage. The one downside of Tramps was trying to find a comfortable line of sight between various heads and shoulders and of course the minute you found one, someone would move and you’d have to start all over again.
“Tambourine Man” followed with the crowd going nuts when Dylan picked up the harp and then a more than masterful “Hard Rain” with Larry and Charlie singing harmony on the chorus. On the second chorus Dylan all of a sudden became really alive and started leaning into it and continued that way through the night.
A more than fine “Love Minus Zero” came next with Larry on steel, but I started feeling ok, this is what I thought it was gonna, be a good Bob Dylan concert. Throughout this song and just about all the others Dylan’s left leg seemed to have a mind of its own, bringing to mind early Nat Hentoff and Shelton articles where they’d talk about how he couldn’t sit still talking and his leg would always be moving.
“Tangled” took things up a notch with Dylan starting to play around with the phrasing and repeating lines somehow almost getting two lines into the space of one. When he turned around to get his harp doing a little Dylan dance over to where his harps were on the amps behind him, the audience sitting behind the stage erupted and Dylan acknowledged them with more of his dance and played the first few bars of the solo to them.
The lights went down and when they came up Dylan’s acoustic was replaced with his Strat, and Charlie still had his cherry red Gibson J-200 and Larry had a mandolin. They started playing something unfamiliar and strange and I was trying to figure out what it was. Dylan kind of mumbled the first line but I caught the second and Oh My God, it’s “Highlands!” Once I got over the shock of him actually doing it, I quickly followed along. As various people reported about the Chula Vista version, he did the whole thing, making little changes here and there. Hardboiled egg became soft boiled eggs and stuff like that. Without the “Charlie Patton guitar riff” that haunts the studio version, the song had a different feel. (But what Dylan song performed by him live doesn’t have a different feel than the studio version?) Larry’s mandolin was in the territory of Sleepy John Estes when the great blues mandolin player Yank Rachell accompanied him — Tennessee blues instead of Delta blues. I’m not sure how much of the audience knew what was going on. Many did. The Neil Young line received a burst of applause and seemed to draw a lot of people into it. The guy in front of me appeared to be checking his answering machine on his cell phone. And there was a certain tension in seeing if he’d make it through the whole song, but he did, and then wondering if he’d take a guitar solo, and for once I almost wanted him to take a solo but after the last line he signaled the band and brought it to a quick conclusion.
There wasn’t much he could to follow that, but rock and rock they did into a blistering “Watchtower” with Dylan resuming his thing of repeating lines, “And the wind/And the wind began to howl.”
“Just Like A Woman” with Larry on steel came next with a pretty good harp solo at the end which ended with a trick ending, where after the between verse riff you almost thought he was going to play a whole other solo, but he just blew a few more notes and they ended it.
Sylvio followed with Charlie singing strong gutsy harmony and they left the stage. There were no band introductions and there were no jokes.
“Like A Rolling Stone” with Charlie stepping out on lead, and “Blowin’ In the Wind” were the encores. Then Dylan said, “I’d like to bring on someone who I hate to say it has been around as long as I have,” (or something like that) Paul Simon. And Simon came out to a big round of hometown applause and into “Sounds of Silence.”
Having seen both bands back the duets, Dylan’s band was easily the more sympathetic one, and once again “Sounds of Silence” was the standout of the duets, with Tony bowing the string bass and the band paying attention to the dynamics. The “I Walk The Line”/”Blue Moon of Kentucky” medley was easily superior to the “That’ll Be The Day”/”The Wanderer,” but not by all that much, though Larry played killer fiddle on “Blue Moon.” While a lot of people have commented that Dylan is restrained on the duets (and he does let Simon pretty much take the leads), I had the feeling at this concert that for whatever reason he is just being really careful with his singing, almost to the point that he seems uncomfortable. While Larry and Charlie provided really nice falsetto oohs for “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door,” this version remains pretty much of a joke stripping it of whatever spooky feeling it originally had.
The duets kind of brought things down a notch, but otherwise a very good concert and obviously, “Highlands” made the night.