11/19/00 Towson Center Arena, Towson, Maryland

So finally I’ve had enough sleep for the first time in days (must’ve been those strange cookies I ate in some casino hotel room the night before) and my friend Train and his friend Jody pile into my car for another trip down I-95 South to the college town of Towson, a tiny bit west of Baltimore, where I’m going for my all-time record of four shows in three days.  Train and I had made almost the exact same trip just a little over a year ago and after a bit of confusion finally find the arena and there are the busses and the semis all lined up and it being a college, once again are the separate lines for men and women to get in.  I have to meet the Mystery Man from Maryland who has my ticket and we’re supposed to meet at Will Call except they’re kicking everyone out of Will Call and there’s two lines on either side of the building to get in, and we didn’t know that when we made the arrangements.  But it was loose and I just kind of wandered up and down the lines looking for the Mystery Man and finally there he is by Will Call and everything’s cool.  And we’re ignoring the men/women division thing and everyone else is too, and Train wants to stand in line with Jody since she’s his fiancé but just as we get near the door the split up the sexes for the search and the security guy says to me, “I gotta make sure you ain’t bringin’ in no recording devices,” and it’s a college gym and we get up pretty close to the stage, and there’s all kinds of people, college kids, ancient hippies, all talking Dylan, and jostling for position and there’s lots of time because they let everyone in around 7:30 and the show doesn’t start till 8:30, and finally the roadies in their jumpsuits come out and do the final guitar check and then they’re on stage and then the announcement, and then “Oh Babe It Ain’t No Lie,” and it kind of makes sense because the Seeger family was living somewhere around these parts when Mike Seeger was floored when Elizabeth Cotton picked up one of his guitars turns it upside down and starts playing it.

And again Dylan is very much alive and very much on, so on he can barely stand in one place and then into “Mr. Tambourine Man,” with sort of a different opening than the last time, and then on the second verse, whatever it is that possesses Dylan took possession and he’s messing with the phrasing and the melody big time and there’s no real way to explain it on paper the way he sang “magic sailing ship” and “my senses have been stripped,” but it wasn’t like any “Tambourine Man” I’ve heard before and I’ve heard many different “Tambourine Man’s.”

Then it’s the thump thump beginning of “Desolation Row” and the once upon a time and maybe still hippie next to me explains to his uncomprehending companion “kind of a surrealist view of life” and the intensity is building with each line but Dylan is doing his comic thing on stage, constantly shifting position of the guitar, making a new face every second and it’s getting better every minute to lead to a sublime version of “One Too Many Mornings” and then “Tangled” which for some reason has been great at every show and then when you think it’s gonna end he picks up the harp and this time it’s none of that two-note stuff he likes to do to start a solo, he’s really blowing the harp and it’s great.

“Searching For A Soldier’s Grave” came next and for the past two nights I’ve been watching what Dylan does with his guitar, hitting this double rhythmic strum between the verses, but also answering his vocal with little licks sliding up the neck and it’s just perfect.

“Country Pie” again tonight is a blast, and it doesn’t matter at all if the song isn’t probing the lyrical depths because it’s so much fun watching Campbell and Sexton try to outdo each other playing superb string-bending licks taking Charlie Daniels’ original solo to new heights every time.

A near-perfect “Blind Willie McTell” came next followed by a killer “Seeing The Real You At Last” and Dylan is savoring every line and having one hell of a good time shouting out “Oh Yeah!” at the end of the two of the verses.  Throughout the show it’s obvious he’s having fun and unlike at Princeton, he’s not trying very hard to suppress his smiles.

“Trying to Get to Heaven” with Larry excelling on the jazz-flavored guitar fills, was also quite good, but keeping with his habit of mixing up all the verses, he didn’t (as usual) sing “Mary Jane’s got a house in Baltimore” which of course would’ve brought an easy cheer from the crowd.

They roared into “Wicked Messenger” and Dylan is pulling out all the stops on his phrasing and then getting almost on his knees for the harp solo.  Then after very quick band-member introductions, they kept the energy with a “Cats In The Well” that to put it mildly kicked ass.

“Things Have Changed” was a pretty standard version, but on “Like A Rolling Stone” also of a sudden Charlie Sexton lets loose with this truly stellar guitar solo, the kind that perhaps hasn’t been heard on that song since a certain legendary show in 1966.

And then once again “If Dogs Run Free,” and this time Dylan got the words all mixed up, but it was still great.  His delivery and the expressions he makes are simply a riot and at the end of the song he walked over to Sexton and as he turned from the audience you could see he was cracking up.

Dylan barely had his Strat back on when Sexton kicked off “Watchtower,” then back to acoustics for “Don’t Think Twice” which was followed by a “Highway 61” for the record books.  A few years from now when Dylan fans on the net are still arguing about what’s the best live “Highway 61,” someone’s gonna say. “Towson Maryland, November 19, 2000.”

“Blowin’ In The Wind” again featured Dylan ending each line on a high note, but on the final verse, what Columbia once called “the emotional wallop” in an early ad for “Freewheelin’” crept in, and at the end as Dylan went to stand in line, he actually took a quick bow.

11/18/00 Tropicana, Atlantic City, NJ Shows 1 & 2

Sometimes it seems there are nights when Bob Dylan decides he’s going to out and show everyone exactly why he is… well… Bob Dylan and the first show at the Tropicana was one of those times.  Dylan was on from the first note of  “Duncan & Brady,” followed by an astoundingly beautiful “To Ramona” with Larry Campbell on mandolin, and then, a “Desolation Row” that rocked with Dylan finding what he was looking for on guitar and not letting it go in two different solos that kept building in intensity.  But it was the singing that made the show.  There were times when he was sailing and it didn’t matter that the set list wasn’t all that exciting, even standard compared to some shows on this tour because he made both “Don’t Think Twice” and the ever-present “Tangled Up In Blue” come alive.

“Country Pie” again served as a vehicle for Sexton and Campbell to show their stuff.  Who ever would’ve thought an absurd song like “Country Pie” would be an opener for the electric set, but it works especially when Sexton and Campbell get into the call-and-response leads at the end.

Then came the show’s one surprise, a rearranged “The Man In Me” with Larry playing gorgeous steel followed by a reasonably strong, “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” with Dylan playing the lead—and he hit some funky crazy groove, but as good as it was I ended up wishing he’d let Sexton loose on this one.

The energy level was then brought down for “To Make You Feel My Love” which had into which made me thing it was going to be the superior “Simple Twist of Fate,” but this may have been part of Dylan’s plan, “playing the master arsonist” as Sam Shepherd said in order to make the blast of Cold Iron Bounds all the more effective and the guitars were cranked and they were loud and Dylan is clearly having a good time, but then the band introductions and triple sunburst Strat attack on “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat.”

The energy level stayed high for an excellent “Things Have Changed” and another great “If Dogs Run Free,” masterfully delivered with Dylan changing lyrics: “My ears hear a *reverie* of rhyme” and stretching out, If doggggggggggggggggggs run free.”

The set ended with a more straight-ahead “Like A Rolling Stone” than the previous night in Princeton before the rather hysterical formation lineup.

The songs and even this review don’t tell the story—Dylan’s singing tonight was on a spectacular level.

Now the Tropicana is one very crowed and claustrophobic casino and getting out of this theater was no easy task and once outside back in the casino you couldn’t even stop to talk to people because the security wanted the line to keep moving.  And everywhere you went in the casino whether it was on an elevator there were just tons of people.

For the second show the band appeared in matching sort of maroon suits with Dylan dressed in a black suit with a black shirt and a tie that matched the band’s suits.  He immediately changed things by opening with “I Am The Man Thomas,” and then “My Back Pages” with Larry on fiddle.  But halfway through, maybe less than halfway, there was a loud pop—the kind of sound when a very loud electric object is unplugged and Dylan’s mic went dead and he kept singing, hearing himself in the monitor apparently not realizing that the audience couldn’t hear him.  This was followed by a very long instrumental break and I kept wondering if anyone was doing anything about the sound and if Dylan knew something was really messed up but then he started singing again and no one could hear.  And then he started “It’s All Right Ma” but no one could hear and everyone started to wonder how long this was going to go on.  Then a stage hand said something to Tony and Tony said something to Bob and then finally the sound came back for the last verse.  But when something like this happens it’s kind of like letting the air out of balloon and it takes a while to get things back to where they were.  However Dylan is of the old school of performers, those who believe you do not stop the show for anything.

Like the first show (and just about every show on this tour), “Tangled,” “Soldier’s Grave” and “Country Pie” were next.  Then came “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight,” one song that I’ve never particularly cared for live.  On John Wesley Harding, the song is pure C&W going right back to Hank Williams, but in concert Dylan turns it into this bluesy shuffle.  Tonight they did a little more with it especially on the bridge, but the best moment came when Dylan finally brought out the harp—the first time I’ve seen him play harp on this that I can remember and it was a great solo.

“Tombstone Blues” brought the energy level a bit higher followed by “Trying To Get To Heaven,” and then instead of “Pill-Box Hat,” a very funky and rocking “Cats In The Well” to close the first set.

Then something really weird happened, perhaps the strangest thing I’ve ever seen at a Dylan concert.  While everyone was waiting for the band to return for the encores all of a sudden Tropicana people were on stage and made an announcement that all the people in the front of the stage had to clear out or the show would stop!  They said the fire marshals were there and would stop the show.  The house lights came about three quarters of the way up and we wondered if the show was going to continue or not.  This was really bizarre and totally unprecedented, but then Dylan shows in Atlantic City have built up a rather bizarre history no matter what casino he plays.

Finally the band and Dylan reappeared and Dylan rescued what was left of the show with an mighty “Things Have Changed” during which he kept smiling, prompting my friend Andrew to comment, “Only he would never crack a smile on “Country Pie,” and smile throughout “Things Have Changed.”

The remaining songs were good but standard, but despite a good performance by Dylan and his band, the sound problems at the beginning and the Tropicana people at the end kind of put a damper on this show.

11/18/00 Dillon Gym, Princeton, NJ

From the time I left my house till the time I finally arrived at Princeton, the temperature must’ve dropped at least 15 degrees.  Dillon Gym is somewhere in the middle of campus and one thing about Princeton University is that it looks like a college, and Dillon gym was no exception.  You wouldn’t know from the outside that it was a gym.  We arrived about 20 minutes before the doors were to open and then the fear set in—they’re only letting in students with the doors divided up between undergraduates, graduates and faculty or something like that.  And it kept getting colder and there was one Princeton student among us, but by the time the doors finally opened, we had all managed to pair off with students who simply showed their Ids and said, “He’s with me.”  We made it up to the stage no problem and stayed there, checking out the equipment, and noticing curiously enough that there were mics placed in front of the speakers on each side of the stage aimed towards the crowd.   Somewhere around 8:15, Al Santos made the announcement and they were on Dylan dressed in black, with his black and white cowboy boots and a gold shirt and a gold tie, opening with the now standard “Duncan & Brady” with Dylan emphasizing the “too long” in the chorus.  Then Larry picked up the fiddle for a strong version of “My Back Pages.”  Dylan was being very serious, all business, and then at the end he went for the harp, not bad for the second song.  There were some heavy duty Dylan fans in this crowd, Princeton students or not.  Standing in the freezing line, some kid next to me said, “He’s gonna do ‘Desolation Row,’ he does it every other night.”  The kid with him asked him how he knew that, and he said he had ways of finding out, and sure enough “Desolation Row” it was.   It was good, but didn’t have quite the punch it did the week before at Bethlehem.  At the song’s conclusion Dylan took off his guitar and conversed with the band for a second and then before he had his guitar back on, they were into “Frankie Lee and Judas Priest,” my first time seeing it since he did it with the Dead in ’87.  But this was one scrambled version with Frankie Lee saying Judas Priest’s lines and vice versa and the passing stranger who burst upon the scene got all tangled up in it too, and the only thing I’m sure of by the end was that the little neighbor boy did whisper underneath his breath, “Nothing Is Revealed.”  This led to an equally tangled and quite speedy “Tangled Up In Blue” with Dylan looking at everything but the audience, and when he got to the she lit a burner on the stove verse which might’ve been third but definitely wasn’t fifth he said the first line so fast that it jolted you with a kind of “what the hell was that” and all the time Dylan is doing his best not to crack a smile, and then on the guitar solo he find this one funky high note and kept hitting it and making those strange faces he makes while looking at Larry Campbell who seemed on the verge of cracking up.  Another huddle followed, but “Searching For A Soldier’s Grave” came next and Dylan appeared to be waking up.  This is a song he likes and on it he did this chameleon thing where all of a sudden he looks 30 years younger and he’s leaning back and wailing standing just like he did in ’63 or ’64, and then another huddle and into “Country Pie” with both Larry and Charlie on telecasters.

An okay “Blind Willie McTell” followed with more scrambled verses and at the end he called Charlie over to him and they blasted into “Tombstone Blues,” and suddenly Dylan was alive and digging it, and leaning into the mic, and no more is this the blues shuffle it had sometimes been in the past, but has the crisper beat of the original recording, and Charlie is getting the exact same tone out of his guitar that the Beatles used on “She’s A Woman,” and against his best efforts Dylan flashes a real smile, and Sexton is finally unleashed on guitar.

“Trying To Get To Heaven” came next, and Dylan was totally into singing it and also very into his rhythm guitar part, playing with more precision than he usually displays, and then came a truly amazing “Wicked Messenger” and now the famous phrasing is coming hard and heavy with particular emphasis on “opened up his heart.”

Then a fairly perfunctory introduction of the band, and into “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat,” which was “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat,” but on this night Dylan seemed to be enjoying the blues numbers and then the lineup though Dylan had a very hard time standing still and started joking with Tony.

“Things Have Changed” resumed the intensity and on “Rolling Stone” Dylan started playing around with the vocal singing the last word of each line on some absurd high note, kind of like “once upon a TIME/you dressed so FINE.”

“If Dogs Run Free” was great and tonight he got all the lyrics right – on the other versions I’ve seen or heard so far, he always seemed to mix up tapestry and symphony, but tonight it was exactly like on the record except for one change: “It can pay your bills/And cure your ills” instead of “It can cure the soul/And make it whole.

Then Charlie kicked off “Watchtower” with the rest of the band almost scrambling to join in and all of a sudden there’s a light show behind them, but Dylan sang it like it meant something, carefully phrasing each line.  A sad, moving “Times They Are A-Changin’” came next with the third harp solo of the night, and then into “Highway 61” with the “Georgia Sam” verse sung twice in a row.

There were times tonight when Dylan truly hit it, but the show didn’t seem to have the same power and urgency did that Bethlehem had the week before.

 

 

11/08/00 Stabler Arena, Bethlehem, PA

Could there have been a more surreal day/night to go see Bob Dylan?  The day after what is easily the weirdest presidential election in my lifetime.  Probably like a lot of other people I didn’t get enough sleep, first falling out waiting for Gore to deliver his concession speech and waking up 45 minutes later to his campaign manager announcing there would be no concession, and finally going to sleep for not long enough some time after that.  It seemed like the whole country was in a daze, the endless droning of commentators the uncertainty.  Hardly any messages on rec.music.Dylan, barely any email, the crazy realization of that long unanswered night sinking in, along with the realization that the country is divided almost exactly in two.

And so, I left early for Bethlehem wanting to beat the rush hour traffic out of Philly with the radio on.  This was the fourth concert that Bob Dylan has played at Stabler Arena, first appearing there in the fall of ’81 and every show in that place has been completely different.   Stabler Arena itself is a strange place in the middle of nowhere, down winding two-lane country roads just north of Bethlehem, PA, and coming from Philly, you don’t have to encounter Bethlehem at all.  I got there pretty early and immediately noticed the three busses and the three semis.  I was supposed to meet my friend Andrew in the parking lot and upon arrival it dawned on me there were at least three parking lots.  So I got out and walked around.  If you got close enough to the building you could hear the band soundchecking.  It was getting chilly and I was walking back to my car to get a jacket when Andrew appeared.   We went to check out the busses, trying to figure out if one was Bob’s though none looked like his usual bus.  Two were parked facing the building and the third, which had the motor running was backed towards the building for an easy exit.  Andrew kept daring me to go knock on the door.  Finally we walked around to the back to check out the license plate – Oregon.  A security guy appeared and told us to beat it or we’d be arrested for trespassing.  We walked around to the front of the building and stood near the stage door where we could hear the band checking “What Good Am I,” all instrumental, and then, “Somebody Touched Me.”  Someone, probably Larry was letting loose with great flat-picking bluegrass runs.

We split for dinner and came back everything going according to plan.  There was now a fourth bus parked behind the arena, also facing out, Dylan’s bus.   After passing through Stabler’s somewhat intense security was found are remarkable seats, first row above the floor right at stage level.  Roadies were checking guitars and putting out set lists.  The lights went down, the band appeared, and then Dylan, dressed in his black suit and yes, sporting a pencil-thin moustache.

They launched into “Duncan and Brady,” and just like the summer shows, he was on from the first note.   And then into one of the best versions of “Times They Are A-Changin’” that I’ve seen on the Never Ending Tour.   I was pretty sure he was going to sing it—the first song I ever saw him sing in concert, and tonight it seemed as relevant as it did in that November concert in New Jersey almost 37 years ago.  And then into “Desolation Row,” which also seemed scarily relevant, Dylan snarling out key lines like “The Circus is in town,” which it most definitely was.  Now I’d just seen him sing this only four months ago, but the arrangement had changed, with just the guitars starting out and the drums kicking in as he reaches “Desolation Row,” suddenly taking the song to a higher level and each verse he’s approaching differently and it doesn’t matter which verses he isn’t singing because he’s really singing and then he’s into the guitar solo and it’s building and building and all of a sudden he and Larry are doing this guitar thing together, perfectly meshing with each other right up the scale and we’re looking at each other and wondering, could they actually have worked out a guitar part?  And he’s driving the song home, every line making some sort of crazy connection with that other world outside and then into “Fourth Time Around” with Larry on bouzouki which I’d never seen him sing and it’s soft and sweet but still “Fourth Time Around,” and in those three songs it’s also sinking in that he’s showing just who he is, and becoming increasingly clear that on this night anyway, he’s remembered who he is and has decided he’s really going to do it.

And then it’s into “Tangled Up In Blue,” and no matter how many times he’s sung this song, by sheer will or maybe magic, he still finds a way to phrase “tangled” differently every chorus.  And as many times as I’ve seen him sing this song, and as many versions that I’ve heard that I haven’t seen, he still somehow can breathe new life into it, and then shifts gears back into old time bluegrassland for “Searching For A Soldier’s Grave.”

And into “Country Pie,” letting the guitar players break loose and almost sneering out the lines, “Raspberry, strawberry lemon and lime/What do I care?”   As it ends, my friend Jack says, “Only he could sing that song and never crack a smile.”

Out of nowhere came “Shelter From the Storm,” in a not like it was before arrangement, and midway through I started to imagine Van Morrison singing it this way, and again he’s really singing, and Andrew leans over and says, “The voice is back.”

But before “Shelter From the Storm is even sinking in, it’s time for a fairly nasty and funky romp on “Watching The River Flow,” which basically served as a lead-in warm-up for the all out assault of “Tombstone Blues,” which was the perfect choice for this night, and Dylan is singing it as if he suddenly remembered why he wrote it, almost summoning up the ghosts of Highway 61 and there’s no mistaking the venom in his voice when he sings (on this college campus), “The old folks home and the college” and “Your useless but pointless knowledge.”

But it’s time to shift gears again fast forwarding 30 years into the new “Trying To Get To Heaven,” which may as well be a different song.  This arrangement has totally blown my mind and I still don’t know to describe what it’s turned into.  It’s kind of like one of the jazz pop standards that Willie Nelson or Van Morrison would sing, but at the same time it’s not.  And I’m listening and I’m thinking that he is never finished writing his songs and whatever versions you here are just stops along the way, and I’m also thinking that maybe this is how he really wanted it to be, but he just didn’t know how to take it to this place when he wrote it.

Then it’s backwards and forwards at the same time with the revamped “Wicked Messenger” which rocks as hard as anything he ever did, and finally he picks up the harp and lets loose with a spectacular solo, and closes out the first portion with “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat.”

Returning, they blast into “Things Have Changed,” keep it going with “Like A Rolling Stone,” and then “If Dogs Run Free,” and somehow it all makes sense and there’s no let-up in the energy level, and Dylan is clearly having a good time and in total command at the same time, and just as the experience of seeing him do that song is sinking in, he’s roaring into “Watchtower,” all three guitars on fire as he emphasizes, “There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke,” and “Let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late.”  Then it was back to the acoustics for “I Shall Be Released” with Larry and Charlie answering Dylan’s lead with perfect harmony, and while the guitar may have been acoustic the arrangement was somewhere out of soul music, and you could almost imagine Al Green singing it.

And then the inevitable closers, “Highway 61” and “Blowin’ In The Wind,” with Dylan jumping right into the lyrics on the latter.

Tonight was my 75th Bob Dylan concert and in many ways it was as powerful as any I’ve seen going all the way back to that very first one in not very full concert hall in Newark, New Jersey eight days after JFK was shot.  Back then you used to go to see Bob Dylan in part to see what he had to say.  And tonight, even though in many ways the setlist wasn’t all that different than any other night on this tour, somehow, on this night, at might well be a turning point for this country, in the once industrial town of Bethlehem, PA., those songs – some of the most brilliant and powerful of his career – spoke out once again.