11/19/01 Madison Square Garden, New York

On November 19th 1961, Bob Dylan was probably sitting at a table in his apartment, guitar on his knee, pen in hand deciding what songs he was going to sing at his very first recording session the next day.  Forty years later he returned to what really is his hometown to conquer a sold out Madison Square Garden.  Bob Zimmerman may have grown up in Hibbing Minnesota, and maybe Bob Dylan was born there or in Minneapolis, but Bob Dylan grew up in New York City. It’s the place he left his home for, the place where there was music in the cafes at night and revolution in the air, the place where his head was split open wide, and has been for more than 40 years the place he returns to for inspiration.  It’s where he “made it,” where his first fans were, and for all his claims of not remembering, New York City is one thing Bob Dylan has not forgotten.

And so he returned in this scariest of times when there is a new fear every day, to this city that is like no other place in the world, to this city that has been wounded and forever changed, to this city that is trying its best to survive and heal, but will not forget what is missing from its skyline.

Riding into the city last night and standing outside the Garden on 8th Avenue, I couldn’t help but steal a few very quick furtive glances south.  The cloud of smoke seemed lost in the haze of city lights, but I knew the fires were still burning.

Inside the Garden, you had to open your coat and spread your arms while some guy ran an electric wand over you and told you what you had in your pockets.  This is the way it is now to see a music concert.  You didn’t like it, but you moved on.  Our seats were right at the stage, close enough to read the addresses painted on the anvil guitar cases, close enough to ask the guitar tech about those new black and white Martins, and it took a long time for the house to fill up, for all those thousands of people to be wanded.

And some time after 8 pm, long after the scheduled show time, the band in matching dark gray suits took the stage, followed by Dylan in what at first looked like a light gray suit, then a white suit, then a pink suit, and tore into “Wait For The Light To Shine,” and the ghost of Hank Williams hovered around that man in the gray pink suit, and the ghost of Bill Monroe and the music he invented flew out of Larry Campbell’s mandolin and you could almost see ancient funky tour busses on the midnight highways next to all them rebel rivers and a lonesome Cadillac on their way to Ohio and all that music that came out of somewhere from the South to the North and back again and it was about the music.  But it wasn’t.  Because this singer, whether he admits it or not, always has a message to deliver, and on this night, “Keep lookin’ for a sign,” came out of that craggy, but still strong voice that has seen too many cigarettes, that has traveled to too many joints, that has lived the profound truth that exploded, and on every chorus, every time it came around, that voice that somehow knows every mile of every road its walked down made sure that was the line you noticed, “Keep lookin’ for a sign.”

And then it was time for the trip backwards and forwards.  “It Ain’t Me Babe,” a song performed on almost every tour, a song that’s been performed innumerable ways, the ultimate I’m not what you think I am or think you want song, a song defiant, angry, mocking, sad, tender, that’s been rocked and socked, and crooned and shouted, and tonight it was handled with care, almost caressed, and then he stepped back towards the top of his tan Fender Bassman, where the harmonicas lay, and as someone once wrote about Bob Dylan’s very first performance at Madison Square Garden, it’s not Bob Dylan till the harp comes out, and as he picked up the harp, he noticed, realized there were all these people sitting behind him and he put to the harp to microphone and blew those first notes right at them and the hundreds of people sitting there knew he was doing it for them, and this is where the singer turns into magician and master performer and he turned back to face the main crowd, with that crazy almost funny way he was of moving forward, knees bent, the notes ringing clear danced around the melody, up and down like a clown on the circus sands, twisting and turning, to a magnificent conclusion.

And then it was time for the masterpiece, the song like no other that came before, the song that held all the songs he didn’t think he’d have time to write, the song that announced there’s a new Poet in town, a song that was terrifying then and perhaps more terrifying now, and even though he’s been singing it at other stops on this tour and has been singing it across the world and back for four decades, you knew he had to sing it tonight in the city that’s been ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard.

And then it was back to a different graveyard, another time, another place, where bluegrass harmonies came through on ancient wooden radios that looked like Cathedrals on a parlor table on a Sunday afternoon, the words of a drunken cowboy poet who would sell his songs for another shot of whiskey, that had been all but forgotten till Bob Dylan started singing his songs again.  This song about another war, from another place, but maybe it’s the same war.  Maybe it’s all the same war.

And suddenly we’re back in the present, but maybe not.  One time a King spoke in a most meaningful way, “Mr. Dylan has come out with a new record.  This record of course features none but his own songs… ”  And the tribal almost voodoo beat of “Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum” began making its spooky voyage to the sun, the guitars echoing songs from long ago, recorded in midnight studios a few blocks away, when the words came in chains of flashing images, like they do on this song recorded in a studio probably a few blocks away where the words came again all the way from New Orleans to Jerusalem, from somewhere down a rabbit hole to a brick and tile company, trusting their fate in police permits and the hand of God.

And now we’re back inside the rain of “Just Like A Woman,” and I think of how I heard Bob Dylan from a few feet a way tell a reporter in a hotel ballroom a few blocks north how this was his favorite song, and that even though it was recorded in Nashville the music was sort of from that other Tennessee city to the west, but the rain, the fog, the amphetamine the pearls and Queen Mary couldn’t have been anywhere else but Manhattan, and then I notice that he’s answering each line with little licks on that custom-made cream-colored Fender Strat, and there are no throw-away guitar licks, and guitar tone is just right and he doesn’t stop and it keeps building and then he’s doing that backwards sort of dance and turns around to get the harp and again the crowd behind him goes nuts and again the first few notes for them and he turns around and crouching down he just goes crazy, the Isis harp dance, 30 years later and crowd is going nuts and he knows exactly what he’s doing, and then the intro to “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” and you know why he’s singing it and it’s a special gift and everyone who realizes is just waiting for that one line.  And I think back to the time I first heard it, the first time it was performed on a freezing August night in a tennis stadium somewhere off the E train as a cold wind blew and cops chased teenage boys in and around the musicians on stage who never stopped playing and how that was the song that night that really hit me and then the line came and you had to cheer, but it’s time for more blues.  “Lonesome Day Blues,” that starts off so simply you think it’s gonna be nothing except it’s the way he sings it.  It’s always the way he sings that really makes a song matters, and the verses keep coming and suddenly it’s “My captain he’s decorated, he’s well-schooled and he’s SKI-ILLED, and there’s no mistaking the snarling sarcasm, the total menace in his voice and suddenly the man on stage is filled with the spirit of every blues singer that journeyed on Highway 61, got cut in bar fights and sang on street corners.  And then it’s deeper into the blues, the song for the blues man who might’ve been the scariest of them all, Charlie Patton, “High Water,” but it’s not only the blues, there’s that banjo in there and maybe half a dozen other old mountain tunes, and maybe it’s about a flood, but then maybe it’s the just a flood, because the words ring out a warning, and maybe in a sense this is the ultimate American roots song but again this is a singer who always brought the news: “Things are breakin’ up out there.”

Then Larry’s fingerpicking takes us back to another time, an album cover of snowy streets, when a chain store or a MacDonald’s in that part of New York was unimaginable, before the Disneyization of America, and I thought of another time, another concert, my first time seeing him in New York City, in a then pretty new concert hall, where no folksinger had played before, and how he shouted this song as loudly as he could into the mic, and brought that very shiny Nick Lucas Gibson right up to the mic between the verses and it was funny and great and new, and then let loose with a harmonica solo that chugged like a train and could only be described as crazy and now for the third time he’s going back for the harp as I hoped he would but didn’t at shows the week before and picked up that harp and let loose a solo that went all the way back to that chilly October night, that last solo New York concert where people felt free enough to shout out requests and he’d actually answer them and there was no doubt in my mind that that harp solo was his little gift to New York, but then we’re standing on the highway with that kid on his way, with dreams and tales of carnivals he’d been to only his mind and blues singers he never played with, but someday would, and he’s in high gear, a raging Mustang Ford, and the delivery is staccato syncopated charging against the rhythm, and suddenly we’re on a battlefield alone, the soldier who didn’t know what he was getting into, the mother in for the wrong surprise, the hall is hushed and it’s all about the words and there’s no doubting what this song is about.

Then just as the mother is leaving the station with the medals in her hand, the scene shifts entirely and we’re into a super-charged “Summer Days” except the summer days are gone.  And as he has been all night, Dylan is really singing, nailing each song and the nails are going down hit hard by the three guitar assault and all is quiet for “Sugar Baby,” done slowly, carefully, eloquently, and just as you’re recovering, wham, into a more than hard rocking “Drifter’s Escape,” and in the middle out of nowhere comes this very funky guitar solo that takes the song even higher, and it’s not noodling and it’s not searching, it’s just going and going and it’s not Charlie Sexton and it’s not Larry Campbell, it’s Bob Dylan and he’s riding it for all it’s worth and he is absolutely determined to show everyone that yes he can take that Stratocaster and make it lift up its glass and sing.

The familiar intro to “Rainy Day Women” lets you know the show’s almost over and you don’t want it to be over and the band seems to be jamming on this one more than they did in DC and Philly and it’s time for the band introductions, and just like on every other show on this tour, Dylan starts, “Ladies and Gentleman, I wanna introduce my band, the best band in the land,” and then he paused for just a second and he said, “Most of the songs we’re playin’ tonight were written here and those that weren’t were recorded here.  So no one has to ask me how I feel about this town.”  And then he went on to introduce David Kemper as the only drummer who’s better than no drummer at all.  Make no mistake, it was a highly emotional moment.

On the way off the stage, Dylan paused for the people in the back, reached up started shaking hands and autographed a CD or two.

The encores were just icing on a very rich cake.  “Rolling Stone” was notable for the way he sang “everything everything everything he can steal,” “Blowin’ In The Wind” and “Forever Young” were packed with emotion and, “Thing Have Changed,” “Watchtower” and “Honest With Me” all rocked hard.  Donning a black hat as he left the stage, he again stopped to give autographs and acknowledge the people who watched the show from the rear.

Bob Dylan came home last night, and while the set list might look very much like every other set list on this tour, in everything he did, every word he sang, every little gesture, let the audience know how much New York means to him.

11/17/01 The Spectrum, Philadelphia, PA

Tonight was Bob Dylan’s seventh show at the Spectrum in 27 years and his first show there without any kind of supporting act since 1981.  Of the three shows I’ve seen this tour, the Spectrum was the most packed and also one of the most appreciative.  The crowd was pumped.

Again “Wait For the Light to Shine,” kicked things off in high gear, followed by an “It Ain’t Me Babe,” that was incredible featuring a subtle guitar solo from Dylan that took the song somewhere else and at the end he went back for the harmonica and delivered a somewhat astounding solo that just built and built.

“Hard Rain” was every bit as strong as it was in Washington, with Dylan’s left leg constantly, twitching, shaking almost contorting—it never stopped moving, reminding me of ancient articles by Bob Shelton and Nat Hentoff, where they talked about how ever, while sitting at a table, Dylan’s left leg was constantly going.

“Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum” rocked, but there was something in Dylan’s phrasing that took the song somewhere else to an almost spooky place.

Dylan then bounced back to ’69 with “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You,” and then came the night’s first surprise.  Instead of staying with the pattern of the previous shows (that I saw) where he then dipped further back into his catalogue, he pulled out an astounding “Lonesome Day Blues,” that featured a startling good guitar solo by Bob.  And this solo pointed out what made the Philly show special.  While consistently singing with impact and intensity, Dylan seemed focused on the getting the music and his playing right.  His guitar solos, whether acoustic or electric took each song higher.

“High Water” which has consistently been a high point of the night, came next followed by “Don’t Think Twice” and an excellent “Tangled Up In Blue” with Dylan emphasizing the “written in my soul” line.  “John Brown” was stripped and stark with Larry’s bouzouki providing an eerie drone.  “Summer Days” was simply superb with the three-guitar attack.  At one point Dylan realized he muffed the “my back’s been to the wall line,” and quickly sang it again somehow squeezing it in.  This led to a slow, almost delicate “Sugar Baby” that seemed to silence the arena.  It seemed as if everyone was actually listening.  A ferocious “Cold Iron Bounds” came next leading into “Rainy Day Women.”

On the encores “Things Have Changed,” and “Honest With Me” were the standouts.  At the end of “Blowin’ In The Wind,” something happened that I haven’t seen at a show in years.  Suddenly there were a few thousand lit cigarette lighters flickering through the entire arena.

Dylan and the Band returned for “Exodus” into a searing “Watchtower.”  The band came together to soak into the applause with Dylan shuffling, smiling and pointing to various members of the audience. They left the stage for the last time and the applause continued for several minutes till the lights went up.  This is easily one of the GREAT Dylan tours.

 

 

 

11/15/01 MCI Center, Washington D.C

Bob Dylan was totally on from the second he started playing tonight at the cavernous MCI Center.  Dressed in black, with the band in matching gray suits, they tore into “Wait For the Light to Shine,” with Larry standing out on mandolin.  This was no warm up song with Dylan trying to find his voice.  He and the band were right there from the first note.  This was followed by an exquisite “Girl From the North Country,” which led into a surging version of “Hard Rain,” with Dylan trying a new attack on each verse, sometimes rushing, the lyrics cascading, and then laying back, almost letting each line sing itself.  The band was magnificent carrying the song like an ocean in waves that would glide and then pound at the shore, as Dylan sang each “hard” differently, sometimes adding, “Yes it’s a hard…”

A standard, but strong renditon of “Searching For a Soldier’s Grave,” brought the energy level back a tiny bit, but only to maximize the impact of the first electric song, “Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum.”  The band had the groove right in the pocket with all kinds of crazy guitar stuff going on, with Dylan playing a search but not destroy lead, and finding what he was looking for, and when he found it, you wanted him to keep going but he pulled back and let Charlie take over.  It was everything you wanted this song to be live.

Then it was back in time for a perfectly played “Tell Me That It Isn’t True,” with Larry Campbell shining on pedal steel.  Larry remained at the steel for “Just Like A Woman,” which was heightened by David Kemper playing something very close to the original Kenny Buttrey drum fills.   Near the conclusion, Dylan went back to his amp picked up the right harp the first time for a more than decent solo.  Both songs were a little laid back after the blast of “Tweedle Dee,” but it turned out to be perfect pacing for the maximum impact of “High Water,” and where I was Larry’s banjo was strong and clear, while Charlie’s guitar was the perfect counterpoint providing an ominous sound throughout as the song kept building and building in intensity with Dylan delivering a spectacular vocal.

The lights went down and there was a tiny break between songs and what seemed like a slightly different intro emerged into “Floater,” and it was obvious that everyone was trying to make sure it was right with a deliberate almost banjo like rhythm throughout, and the instrumental break between the verses turning into something else entirely.

Then it was back to acoustics for a charged “Tangled Up In Blue” with the spotlight just on Dylan and Larry until the band kicked in at the end of the first verse.  Dylan might have skipped some verses but it didn’t matter at all, and did sing the “she lit a burner” verse.  He played a good solo in the middle, and then dropped it and let the band take over and from where I was it seemed like he was point with each hand to Larry and Charlie.  Then after the last verse again picked up the harp, slowly finding his way into the solo and hitting it, and you were hoping he’d keep the solo going for another verse, and low and behold he did getting a little wilder this time around and bring the song to a strong conclusion.

A totally stripped down and powerful “John Brown” followed, which was just about as close as you’re going to get these days to seeing Dylan totally solo.  The band was there but providing the most subtle accompaniment, all rhythm letting the story totally be the focus, the words, the images hit you as it ended right at the last line, no instrumentals, just the song.  A cool “Don’t Think Twice” came next and I was hoping Dylan would again pick up the harp but it wasn’t to be.

However it didn’t matter at all because a super-charged, totally amazing “Summer Days” took the already high energy level up a few hundred notches.  It kicked off in high gear and never let up with Dylan’s vocal incredibly powerful, funny, biting, snarling all at once, making sure he had the room to get in the “Whaddaya mean you can’t, of course you can line” at maximum impact.  And then there were the guitar solos, with Charlie holding back at first waiting to see what Dylan would do and then playing around what he was doing and it kept getting higher and higher and then Larry stopped playing rhythm and joined in the fun and you had all three guitar players playing lead in one manic, glorious swing, jump, blues pure rock and roll moment of sheer joyous mania, never once colliding or getting in each other’s way driving it home to a phenomenal conclusion.

Now that in itself would have been enough, but then came a gorgeous and majestic version of Mississippi that simply soared.   Now throughout the concert Dylan’s vocals had been strong, defined, emotional and to the point, but somewhere in the middle of this song on the second part of one of the verses, he just pulled out all the stops and started singing higher in that way that cuts right through you where his voice sails way above the band and takes you somewhere else entirely.  It was completely magnificent.

Then wham!  They were into a totally rocking “Wicked Messenger,” and again when Dylan goes for the harp on this tune, he’s right on it, no pausing, blowing a couple of notes first, he knows exactly what he’s gonna do and does it.

“Rainy Day Women” closed the initial set and for whatever crazy reason, Dylan is really singing this song on this tour as opposed to a few years ago where he’d maybe sing a couple of verses and have it basically serve as a jam.  In fact, except for one changed line, he is actually singing the original lyrics from the album and not making them up as he goes along.

The encores started with a strong “Things Have Changed,” a fairly standard “Like A Rolling Stone,” a nice, moving “Forever Young,” and then kicked back into high gear for “Honest With Me,” bringing the level down a bit for  “Blowin’ In The Wind,” and then returning for a searing “All Along The Watchtower.”

What was known as the formation appears to have blown away in the wind, as Dylan no longer just stands there and stares back at the audience.  On this night, he (and the band) took several bows.

There was absolutely no doubt, though he let the songs do the talking that Dylan was totally aware of where he was and what went down.  But interestingly enough while the cops decided to search our car going into the venue lot looking under the car with mirrors on sticks and popping the trunk  — we considered it longhaired profiling when considering who the act was maybe the should have been looking for someone who looked more like Timothy McVeigh – there was no search (that I saw) entering the venue itself.  Hopefully this show was captured my more than a few people.  DC was a brilliant concert in every way.  Madison Square Garden should be spectacular.

11/11/01 Bryce Jordan Arena, State College, PA

Playing music is kind of a magical thing, almost like your conjuring up something and sometimes it happens and sometimes it doesn’t and sometimes you have to do some extra special things to make it happen, and sometimes even that extra special thing doesn’t always work.

I try not to have any expectations for Bob Dylan shows.  They usually work better that way.  But there was no doubt in my mind from the very first listen that “Love and Theft” was easily Bob Dylan’s best and most brilliant album in a couple of decades in every way.  And then there were the almost unanimously great reviews of the current tour by both fans and the working press.

So despite my inclination not to, I did have high hopes for my first show of the tour at the Bryce Jordan Arena at Penn State University.  The air was let out of the balloon almost immediately when Dylan took the stage and opened the show not with “Wait For the Light to Shine,” or even “Hummingbird,” but (ho-hum) “Rovin’ Gambler.”  It was okay, but I was kind of brought back to the summer of ’97 when Dylan was playing (for the first time) “Blind Willie McTell,” and also such songs as “Seven Days” and “One Of Us Must Know.”  He came to Philly and did a pretty generic set list that he could have performed at just about any point during the previous 20 years.

Anyway, “Girl From the North Country” followed, and it was perhaps the most lackluster version of this song I’ve ever seen or heard started by him totally blowing the opening line (maybe he couldn’t decide whether he was gonna sing this song or “Boots of Spanish Leather,” and it was capped by one of his famous search and destroy guitar solos—only this one was completely in destroy mode finishing up with a jumble of incredibly wrong notes.

“It’s Alright Ma,” one of my all-time favorite Dylan songs followed and during the song all of a sudden the sound started bouncing from the opposite end of the arena so you were hearing everything twice: “As some warn victory, some downfall, as some warn victory some downfall.”  This continued throughout the night on every song.

Things kind of picked up but only slightly with “This World Can’t Stand,” but it was nothing special.  Then for whatever reason Dylan launched into “Cry A While.”  It was sluggish, had none of the intensity of the album, and was probably done too early in the set though the guitar playing by Campbell and Sexton and especially the sound of their guitars was totally on.

The band started a beautiful intro to “I Want You,” but then slowed down the beat to a moderate pace and again Dylan blew the first line.  “The gyp/guil undertaker cries.”  Actually I don’t know what he sang.  At the end he went for the harps, blew a couple of notes on one, picked up another one and delivered an all-too brief solo that went nowhere.

“Floater” came next.  It doesn’t really work without the violin.  It was okay, but nothing special.  At one point Charlie started to play this great jazzy stuff on the guitar, but a few bars into his solo came the intrusion of a three-note search and destroy lead totally obliterating what Charlie was doing.  It was one of those moments where I just stared at Dylan and wondered what is he thinking?

Then a roadie handed Larry the banjo and they were into “Highwater.”  It was great.  Finally Dylan and band were all together with a single purpose.  Everything you could’ve hoped for except the sound echoing off the rear wall of the arena.

But then it was back the acoustics.  I couldn’t figure out what the song was from the intro, but it turned out to be “Visions of Johanna.”  But none of the song’s beauty, mystery, descriptiveness or tension was present in this version, not to mention that he mixed up two of the verses.  It was as if he couldn’t remember who or what he even wrote it about.

“John Brown” in a different arrangement than I’d heard previously came next.  The band started “Love Minus Zero,” and Dylan was back by his amp looking at and picking up various harps.  He put them down.  It was a nice version, with Dylan starting low and ending high on various lines.

Some in the audience shouted, “Freebird,” and Dylan was into a beautiful “Sugar Baby.”  It was sad, it was beautiful.  Perfect.  A bunch of people on the floor went crazy at the “Some of these bootleggers, they make pretty good stuff line.”

A fairly decent “Wicked Messenger” came next with Dylan play a too-short harp solo at the conclusion.  The energy was there but the show simply never found a groove.  Amazingly enough “Rainy Day Women,” a song I could basically care less about was one of the high points of the night with some new verses and Dylan accenting the stone.  They’ll sttttttttoooooooone you when……

The encores which started off curiously with “Country Pie” were ok.  “Rolling Stone” had a pointless harp (hard to call it a solo) bit at the end.  “Honest with Me” was good, but did not have the intensity of the album.  “Watchtower” started with a brief passage from “Theme From Exodus,” but the song had a new beat that had none of the raw power of the last versions I saw and I found the repeat of the first verse interesting but unnecessary.

Maybe playing four shows in a row, each hundreds of miles apart was just too tiring.  But the set list just didn’t seem thought out in a way to build momentum and take things higher.  But whatever it was, there is no way I can say that the Penn State show was a happening concert.