07/27/99 Madison Square Garden, New York

Photo courtesy of Andrea Orlandi.
© Andrea Orlandi.

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.

Photo courtesy of Andrea Orlandi.
© Andrea Orlandi.

“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.

07/26/99 Tramps. New York

New York is not the place you want to go in July, but there’s something about Bob Dylan and New York City, something special.  Something that goes way back.  It’s where he went to make it and where he did make it and it’s part of his songs and it’s part of him.  It’s where some of his most legendary concerts took place and where he returned to form the Rolling Thunder Revue.  I was lucky enough to see those legendary concerts and the New York area if not New York itself is where I first saw Bob Dylan and so I keep returning there, even in this July of endless heatwaves.

At Tramps tonight, Bob Dylan made it special.  Now some people may look at the set lists and groan, “Oh, all ’60s stuff,” and others might say, “What, nothing from Blood On The Tracks?  But sometimes there are shows where set lists do not matter, or how many verses he didn’t sing, or even what line he changed.  There are some shows that are so amazing

that you don’t even think or care about what he didn’t do, because the only thing that matters is what he did do.  See, there’s some shows where he’s bob dylan and then there’s the shows when he’s Bob Dylan and then there’s the shows where he’s BOB DYLAN and every so often there’s the ones where he’s B O B  D Y L A N ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! !

He was BOB DYLAN in the biggest boldest letters you can imagine at Tramps.  It was easily, without a doubt the best show I’ve seen him do since the Supper Club.  At the beginning it could have been any of the shows on this tour, opening up with “Oh Babe It Ain’t No Lie,” followed by a stately “Times They Are A-Changin’,” but then he followed that up with a song from the 2nd side of that album, “Boots of Spanish Leather,” and then just as you’re starting to think “something’s going on here,” and he dips back from that same period and conjures up “John Brown” and then that most New York of Bob Dylan songs, “Visions of Johanna.”  And somewhere in the middle of the second verse I hear right behind me, “Well we cut of out of work on Tuesday and went to get in line,” and my brain starts boiling this is Visions of Johanna,” and I’m not sure if this has ever been sung in New York City and finally during the guitar break I have to turn around and say, “Do you have to have a conversation,” and the guy says, “I came here to see my friends and that’s part of the fun,” and I say, “Do you realize that it is totally impolite to talk while he is singing and other people are listening?”  He shut up.

And then boom, the electrics are on and it’s 20 years later into a hard charging “Seeing The Real You At Last” and then into “Thin Man,” and there’s times when I could care less if I ever hear that song live again except tonight he’s really singing it and visions of that very first time he performed it at Forest Hills with cops and kids chasing each other ’round the stage are running through my brain and bam he’s into “Most Likely Your Way and I Go Mine” and just as you’re getting over that into a majestic “Every Grain of Sand” and all of a sudden the people to my right are having a conversation about movies or maybe lunch or work or anything but the song which keeps building and building and finally I lean over and say “Could You Be Quiet,” and the guy who doesn’t seem to have the slightest clue who Bob Dylan is starts to say something and I’m thinking people waited in line to early hours of the morning and would have waited all night for these tickets on a work-night yet and I don’t understand – I don’t understand waiting in line for hours and hour to get tickets for a show and then waiting in line for more hours to get into the show and then not even paying attention to the show.  Something doesn’t compute there.  Something doesn’t make sense.  But the guy standing in between me and the talkers said “Thank you” to me and it was all forgotten as Bob was into a kick-ass “Tombstone Blues” with a nasty guitar riff running throughout the whole song and then another immaculate “Not Dark Yet” and Dylan is sailing through the lyrics pulling out all the stops so much so that there’s applause and cheers at the line “I can’t even remember what it was I came here to get away from,” and the guy behind me taps me and hands me a little white rolled up piece of paper with a flame at one end and Dylan finally speaks introducing the band and then they’re down “Highway 61” and the guitars are roaring, all three of them and they’re gone.

And then they’re back again for “Love Sick,” and somehow Larry’s making his guitar sound like an organ the way Bucky used to do with his steel and then one hell of a “Like A Rolling Stone” and I keep thinking I’m almost hearing an organ and Sexton is like the ghost of Michael Bloomfield revisited and Dylan’s playing around with the phrasing making a song he’s sung a thousand times sound new again and then back to acoustic for “It Ain’t Me Babe,” a song he’s performed a thousand different ways and he’s doing another way tonight, in the singing, in the guitar playing that took you melting back into the night and then picking up the harp for the second time that night he went on one of the wildest harp escapades I’d seen or heard in years.  He must’ve blown that harp for five minutes, maybe more (I was not looking at my watch) each note clear and strong, perhaps passing through every mood of every version he’s ever sang of that song from sad to defiant to wistful to angry and taking the band with him, changing rhythms soft to loud to soft to loud again.

And then “Not Fade Away,” and it was loud and it was powerful and the band was smokin’.  And they leave, but the lights stay down and the audience ain’t goin’ nowhere and the place is roaring and they’re back and the acoustics are on and I’m not quite sure what the song is as they run through the opening instrumental I realize it’s “Blowin’ In The Wind,” but slower than it was last winter and the rhythm guitars are heavy like Live ’66, except not the acoustic side except they’re playin’ acoustics and Dylan’s doing something with the melody, that thing only he does where he seems to find every beautiful space in the melody and make it more beautiful and it’s perfect.  And they’re gone again.

And just I as was thinking it has to be over, they’re back and ripping into “Alabama Getaway” and they’re on fire and they’re gone again, but no one leaves and he’s back again, and he goes to the mic and says, “A man who needs no introduction, Elvis Costello.”  And Elvis Costello comes out wearing a hat and straps on Bob’s acoustic and into “I Shall Be Released,” and it’s time for the singing to start and Bob sings the wrong line, the second one, “They say every distance is not near,” and instantly realizing what he did, and instead of mumbling something incoherent or not singing at all, he acknowledged it and sang, “And they say it again every distance is not near,” and then Elvis came in on the chorus and then Bob sang the second verse and Elvis did a soulful take on the last verse followed by an instrumental or two and another chorus and then it was over.

Back when Bob Dylan wasn’t touring and hadn’t played any concerts for years, Jonathan Cott (or maybe it was Ben Fong Torres) — it was a long time ago and I can’t remember – and I’m not at home with all my usual source material – wrote a great article for Rolling Stone about Dylan’s Bangla Desh appearance called “I Dreamed I Saw Bob Dylan.”  B O B  D Y L A N was at Tramps last night and in some ways it was just like a dream.

 

07/17/99 E-Centre, Camden, New Jersey

The show at the E-Centre was the first Dylan/Simon show I attended, and my first time at the E-Centre, a huge indoor/outdoor pavilion, built by Sony and Blockbuster in the unlikely city of Camden, N.J.    The day started eerily, waking up to the disappearance of JKF Jr’s. plane.  When it first opened the E-Centre was notorious for nasty security guards, but major concerts have since been taken over by Electric Factory Concerts and security for this event anyway seemed pretty mellow.  But the tickets weren’t the only thing overpriced at this show.  Five bucks for a coke is outrageous, and of course they do not let you bring in any drinks or food.

Paul Simon began the show with a fairly lackluster “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”  Following the song he talked about John Kennedy Jr., and how events like this show how precious life is or something to that effect and that life is to celebrate.  Simon was never more than okay despite his huge percussion-laden band.  Simon’s hand problems seem to have affected his guitar playing considerably because mostly he used the instrument as a prop and mainly just held it occasionally strumming and rarely playing, even though he switched guitars quite a few times.  This is a shame because Simon was at one time a great finger-picker.  While his band got a groove going during songs like “You Can Call Me Al” and “Late In the Evening,” ultimately they were just too slick and essentially soulless despite several top-notch players.

I can understand Simon’s exploration into various forms of world music, but it comes at the expense of his songs.  Once upon a time he could make his songs mean something, but there’s something about his music now and pretty much from “Graceland” onward that doesn’t really make me want to take the time to figure out what he’s singing about.

Easily for me, the most moving part of his set was when Dylan came out for “Sounds of Silence.”  Maybe it was the ghost of another Kennedy tragedy hanging over the proceedings, or maybe it was the arrangement, much slower than the original Simon & Garfunkel single (and pretty much the way Simon’s been doing the song for the last 15 years or so) with Simon playing the melody on electric (finally doing some picking) but a lot of it had to do with Dylan being on stage.  Dylan has presence and Simon for all his hand motions during his set just doesn’t — not at this show anyway.  Dylan was singing in one of his spookier voices and immediately you knew that he was singing strongly as well.

In any case the duet worked.  The other 3 songs they did together, “That’ll Be The Day”/”The Wanderer” and “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” can pretty much be written off.  There were fun parts, but nothing really to keep or hear again.  On “Heaven’s Door” both Dylan and Simon really went after the recently improvised “I hear you knockin’ but you can’t come in” and were obviously having fun, but as fellow RMD-er Dylan Orlando said to me, “Two of the greatest lyricists of all time and this is all they can come up with.”

Dylan came out for his set wearing a black suit, a red polkadot shirt with a black tie and snakeskin boots and launched into an uprousing “Somebody Touched Me” with Larry Campbell playing perfect Doc Watson-ish bluegrass runs on his acoustic.  If the recent change in the line-up has done anything, it has pushed Campbell in front which to me is a good thing.  He is a superb musician.  The new line-up has a leaner sound to it and while I dug Bucky while he was in the band (and also when he was with Steve Earle) I did not find myself missing him.

However Dylan was in excellent vocal form all night, singing much clearer than in recent memory (last winter) and enunciating, but not exaggerating, yet making certain words stand out.  “Tambourine Man” was a tiny bit faster than the last time I saw him do it, but for me still not fast enough.  The original tempo (meaning the Bringing It All Back Home) recording was perfect for this song and I wish he’d return to it.  It seemed like he only sang two verses, but I may be wrong, and ended the song with an okay but not great harp solo.  Now this is one of Dylan’s greatest harp songs and there’s a certain thing that’s hard to describe that he used to do but doesn’t any more where he really let the harp sing, sing almost the words that he did on the original recording, which was expanded on on the ’65 and ’66 versions and remembered years later at the Bangla Desh concert.  But it just ain’t gonna be that way no more.

A very strong “Masters of War” came next, and while it seems I’ve seen him do this song almost at every show for the past five years or something it was still effective.  On the guitar solo, instead of Dylan taking the whole thing he got into a night call and response with Campbell, Dylan playing a lick and Campbell answering him with another lick.  Quite effective.  A really pretty “Love Minus Zero” followed with Larry on pedal steel, easily displaying his mastery of the instrument.  “Tangled,” which Dylan introduced as “A love song that we love to play,” came next with the usual upbeat version, but it seemed more than a few verses were missing.  Dylan played harp again totally putting down the guitar and this solo was an improvement over his previous one.

Then it was into “Watchtower” with another cool Campbell solo.  Now the strange thing about the band now is that Charlie Sexton is known as a lead guitarist in his own right, but he rarely steps forward and mainly plays rhythm.  The main difference seems to be that when Dylan stops playing rhythm, the bottom no longer drops out of the sound and it also allows Campbell to play more effectively working his own lead runs around what Dylan is doing on the guitar, and for once Dylan didn’t hit any outrageously wrong notes either.  He may have been searching but he wasn’t destroying.

The level of the show took a dip with Dylan saying, “Here’s a song that was on the country charts thanks to my buddy Garth Brooks” or something like that, and then told the tennis joke again, saying “I wrote this for my ex-wife” twice.  The joke was silly but I couldn’t help but wonder what other songs from “Time Out Of Mind” he wrote for his ex-wife.  It was okay, probably better than the record, but no big deal.  “Memphis Blues Again” came next and was better than I expected with Dylan emphasizing certain words rather than entire lines.  Once upon a time in the years when he never played this song it was the one song I kept wanting to hear.  Once he started doing it, and I got over the initial excitement of he’s finally doing it, I really didn’t want to see it any more because he’s never come close to touching the insanity and more importantly, the humor of the original where the reverse order and mixed up events and images culminated in a usually hysterical punchline at the end of each verse.  But tonight, instead of mumbling through it which I’ve seen too many times, he sang it clearly and strongly and if the punchlines weren’t really there, overall he made it work.

“Not Dark Yet” was easily the song of the night.  He sang it strong, he sang it tenderly, and it was beautiful, with both Dylan and the band displaying an amazing sense of dynamics, bringing it up where it’s supposed to go up and bringing it down where it’s supposed to be soft.  It was perfect!

Dylan then introduced the band saying, “These are some of the best players in the country,” and kicked into “Highway 61” which featured two incredible and even brilliant slide solos from Larry.

Encores were “Rolling Stone,” not bad but not great, but strong.  Again he was really paying attention to making the words ring clearly, but interestingly enough on the 3rd line of the first verse, he just sang “People’d call, say ‘Beware doll’ “ and never sang “you’re bound to fall.”

An excellent “It Ain’t Me Babe” with more lush picking from Campbell came next along with a nice harp solo from Bob.  I think he’s sung this at every concert (not necessarily club dates) in Philly (and while this show took place in Camden, it was really the Philly show) for the past 11 years if not longer.  A cool  “Not Fade Away” ended the night.

While I wasn’t totally blown away by this show, Dylan absolutely put out, and he seemed to be energized and alive, especially after the last few shows I saw last fall and winter where he seemed to be in sort of doldrums, a having fun at time doldrums, but doldrums nonetheless.  Like the shows right after TOOM was released, he was paying attention to the music and particularly to his singing.  I left the show now awed, but feeling good and also feeling that if Dylan keeps singing and playing like he did tonight, things bode well for the future.