11/21/02 First Union Center, Wilkes Barre, PA

The first time Bob Dylan played the once upon a coal mining town of Wilkes-Barre, PA was just a little over 10 years ago, November 1st to be exact, at a fairly small theater called the Kirby Center. That was back in the wondering what was going to happen days of the Never Ending Tour when he was just starting to get back whatever it was had seemingly vanished the previous year. Two songs that night stick out in my mind because of Dylan’s guitar playing, “Don’t Think Twice” and “Watching The River Flow.” Things have changed a lot since then.

An annoying rain was falling after an annoying ride through Philadelphia which for some undetermined reason seemed mired in traffic in the middle of the afternoon and just as we hit the Northeast Extension of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, one of the worst roads ever built, the rain started and it was the kind of rain that required constant switching of wiper speeds from slow to fast to intermittent and back again. And it was also the kind of rain that got the roads just wet enough for good hydroplaning action and never wet enough to get any real speed happening.

The First Union Center was right off the interstate so we never had to actually go into Wilkes-Barre proper and instead went on a wild goose chase in search of our restaurant meeting place passing endless malls, MacDonald’s and Home Depots. Of course the restaurant was where it was supposed to be right around the corner from the arena. We finally arrived at the arena minutes before the scheduled show time to find it nowhere near full though by the end of the night floor revealed few empty seats.

After the announcement, Dylan appeared in a grey suit that turned white as soon as the stage lights went on, and went right into a “Maggie’s Farm” that seemed every bit as strong as the one six days before in Philly. He seemed a bit looser than he had at the big city shows, New York and Philly, his left leg never touching the ground for most of the song, and on the last verse really emphasizing the line “I get bored.”

The second song, “I’ll Remember You,” was something of a surprise and this was probably the best version I’ve seen Dylan do, free of the extra excesses of the album. A charged up “Highway 61 Revisited” came next with superb guitar from Charlie Sexton, playing a blue Telecaster. For whatever reason, my seats were at the perfect angle to really watch what Sexton (who stood out all night) was doing, and his first solo was reminiscent of Robbie Robertson – not what Robertson played on the song on Tour ’74, but what Robertson might have played if the song were performed in ’65 or ’66. One of the things that makes Sexton particular interesting is the way he alternates between fingerpicking and using a flat pick in the same song, and sometimes during a solo. Larry Campbell took the second solo, which was a bit more refined, but just as exciting.

Then came the night’s transcendent moment, the one song I’d been hoping to see, “Accidentally Like Martyr,” and it was beautiful, Dylan singing with real care, watching his vocal and watching the band as well, and putting everything he had in him on the table when he sang the line, “time out of mind.”

“Things Have Changed” kept the momentum going, and again Dylan was really putting out, almost shouting out, “all hellllllllll to break loose,” then “jitterbug RAG” and then on the last verse, “I used to care, YESSS, but things have changed.”

“Brown Sugar” may have been the most fun version of the four shows I saw, and Dylan was clearly having fun especially on the line “How come you taste so good.”

Then came another sort of surprise, “Never Gonna Be The Same Again,” and I started wondering when was the last time Dylan did two songs from “Empire Burlesque” in the same night, and also wondering if he’d been told about the not-so-complimentary thread on the album on RMD. Every once in a while these things happen. In any case, it was the arrangement of the song he’s been pulling out ever since Worcester, but where the one in Worcester seemed constantly in danger of imminent collapse this one held together a bit better. There was one lyric change in the song (I think on the last verse) where he sang the line, “Your touch was like a baby/Your heart broke like the wind.”

Then it was back to the piano for an “It’s Alright Ma,” that was good but did not have the anger or the nastiness that was quite present in New York and Philly. In fact, the political implications and overtones of those shows were barely present in Wilkes-Barre.

A rather exquisite “Girl From the North Country Followed,” but unfortunately it served as a cue for the chatterers to start chattering and the beer drinkers to get up and get beer and food.

“Cold Irons Bound,” came next and again Sexton really stood out, this time playing a black Epiphone hollow body, and then it was back to acoustics for “Shelter From the Storm,” which started out pretty strongly. However Dylan sang the “Silver bracelets on your wrists” verse twice in a row, and totally flubbed his cue for the repeat of the first verse, but did play a rather awesome two verse harp solo, but he did make the line “if only I could TURN BACK THE CLOCK” stand out wonderfully.

From then on the rest of the show was, well, a show on this tour, which means pretty damn good.

Of the cover songs I’ve seen, “Old Man” just seems too much like a cover. “Just Like A Woman” cried out for a harp solo that didn’t happen, and Dylan’s two-verse guitar solo never found what he was looking for.

“High Water” was interesting because Dylan was putting more emphasis on the actual verses rather than the “rough out there,” “bad out there” parts, as in “Water pourin’ into Vicksburg, don’t know what I’m gonna doooooooo.”

“Mutineer” again was just beautiful, and if there’s one song on this tour, that seems to truly be the special moment and performed well consistently, this is it. Dylan has truly made it his own.

“Bye and Bye” on the other hand never really seemed to get going and it felt like it should have been done earlier in the set.

“Honest with Me” found Dylan rushing through the first part of each line, barely making it fit only to stretch it out at the end and considering he’s done this song every show, at one point he totally blew a verse, but ultimately it didn’t matter.

“Summer Days” didn’t seem to have the energy, particularly in Dylan’s vocal of the other versions I saw on this tour and only took off when they hit the guitar solo.

While Wilkes-Barre did not have the emotional intensity of New York and Philly, in some ways it was more of a fun show, and the energy level stayed higher for a longer period.

There is no doubt in my mind that Dylan made a smart move in revamping the show and switching to keyboards for many of the songs. And of course throughout this tour there have been surprises, big and small. Hopefully the rumors surrounding this tour are just that – rumors.

If there’s one change that’s needed, it’s that the pacing of the set lists with the switching from electric to acoustic to piano needs to be refined. At times, for all the shows I saw there were parts particularly later in the sets where things dragged when they shouldn’t have and songs that should have been high points were just okay.

Outside the arena, the rain had stopped, but started up the minute we hit the PA Turnpike for downhill ride to Philly. And in Philadelphia where today the mayor announced a projected a $612 million budget deficit and the loss of a couple of thousand city jobs, a hard rain was falling.


11/15/02 First Union Center, Philadelphia, PA

Bob Dylan’s debut at the mammoth First Union Center found him on from the first note singing “Maggie’s Farm” in a shockingly clear voice and rocking hard.  And this arrangement of the numerous arrangements of this song seemed closest in feel and spirit if not in the actual notes to the guy who took the stage at Newport in 1965.

This was followed by a rather astounding “In The Summertime,” with Larry on harmony (and mandolin) but the action was all in Dylan’s staccato-like vocal and he was having a hell of a great time singing it, almost charging the melody with the emphasis on lines and words: STRANGERS they MEDDLED in our affairs.  It was an amazing performance.

The charged quality of the vocals kept up for “Tombstone Blues,” and then yet another heartfelt “End of the Innocence,” and when he got the verse “Beautiful for spacious skies,” there was no doubt why Dylan was singing this song.  A menacing “Things Have Changed” came next with a fairly crazy piano solo in the middle and Dylan putting emphasis on the line “Feel like falling in love with the first woman I MEET” and then the audience rose for “Brown Sugar.”

The show then seemed to lose a little steam on “Positively Fourth Street, which seemed to drag slightly, with Dylan blowing a line in the second or third verse and didn’t have the intensity of the versions done early in the tour.  A few times during the song Dylan switched from his usual acoustic lead playing to actually strum a loud, old-style Dylan rhythm as if attempting to pick up the pace.

This was followed by “It’s Alright Ma,” on which Dylan sounded downright nasty and even angry, enunciating each line clearly before changing gears to the new bluegrassy “Shelter From The Storm” which gets better each time I hear it.  My friend Andrew had pointed out to me that that this arrangement is very close to the Band song, “The Weight,” and that observation was very true of the Philly performance.  Unlike the two previous versions in New York, Dylan sang the last verse twice instead of repeating the first verse.

The usual version of “Drifter’s Escape” and was followed by “Masters of War,” and this time around George Receli held back on the drums which seemed lower in the mix then at Madison Square Garden.  The sound for the show was excellent.  I had never been to the First Union Center which dwarfs the Spectrum right next to it and had hear mixed reports about the sound.  But at least where I was sitting, there were no echoes or other sound quality annoyances of most arena shows.

A good though not overwhelming version of “Don’t Think Twice” came next with Dylan playing search and find guitar, but then things really got back on track with “Honest With Me,” with Dylan’s vocal regaining the intensity it had at the start of the show, on the last verse singing “I still got their advice ooh, ooooooooozin’ out of my ears.”  “Times They Are A-Changin’” came next and once again Dylan was singing every word like he meant it.  This intensity stayed through “High Water,” and another truly moving “Mutineer: and then came the night’s big surprise, the second live version ever of “Po’ Boy” with Bob on piano.  And while it didn’t have the crazy exuberance of the Grand Rapids debut of year before, it was just perfect, with Dylan lining out each verse in a voice that was as sly as it could be.

As usual “Summer Days” ended the show and this time I was close enough to see what they were actually doing in guitars, especially when it got to the trading solos part which happens astoundingly fast but there is no doubt that Dylan does his part on guitar in making this song sound the way it does.

The show ended with the encore of “Blowin” followed by “Watchtower,” with Dylan singing the final line of the first verse, Any… any of it, any of it is worth.

If the show didn’t have the playfulness of the song selection and emotion of Madison Square Garden, what it did have was Dylan singing with amazing intensity (especially at the beginning) and not only that, but the confidence to make his voice do what he wanted it to do.

11/13/02 Madison Square Garden, New York

Photo of Bob Dylan, November 13, 2002 courtesy of Andrea Orlandi. © Andrea Orlandi.

It’s 1:20 AM, and I’m doing 80 on the Garden State Parkway and I got a hundred miles to go and it’s strange because I’m driving through all these towns where I used to live a long time ago, the towns where I first heard Bob Dylan, and followed him through all these changes from folk singer to rock and roller to some mysterious Catskill Mountain mystic and I’m wondering if any of those Bob Dylans was the guy I just saw at Madison Square Garden.  And I’m thinking that the guy who appeared on stage and launched into what was possibly the most rocking version ever of “Seeing The Real You At Last” with undeniable fire and maybe even vengeance could’ve been the guy I saw turn Forest Hills Tennis Stadium into a war zone, one chilly, windy night in August.  But that lasts until maybe the end of the first verse and I decide that the guy on stage is the kid who played the Hibbing High School piano so hard he reportedly broke a key, and the kid who brought a band in that was so loud, this quiet kid who probably sat scowling at his teachers in class, the weird kid in school, that the shut the power off.  And that kid was rocking hard tonight, wearing that crazy black and red suit that almost looks like bellhop or a doorman.  And just when you think he can’t rock any harder, he changes gears and is into a slow ballad, Van Morrison’s “Carrying A Torch” and it’s beautiful, and that kid who broke that piano key and blew out his high school talent show is gone and in his place paying tribute to another songwriter, from another land so far away, who traveled many of the same musical roads.  And then I have to turn around and give the look to the group of pea brains behind me who are talking about their best friend getting married or something, but back on stage, the guy in the black suit has switched gears again into “Tombstone Blues,” and he’s growling out the lines and the pea brains and still chattering about nothing that has to do with “Tombstone Blues” and it’s time to give them the I didn’t pay eighty dollars to hear you talk so you better shut the fuck up right now” which silences them for a truly wonderful, “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” and Larry Campbell is playing superb pedal steel, and the harmonies are perfect and they do the a cappella chorus and standing at the keyboard, he whips out his harp and blows this beautiful solo, the notes ringing clear, and the verse ends and you think he’s going to put it away, but he keeps going for another verse, and again you think he’s going to drop it, but he blows yet another verse and it is something.

And now I’m at the Union Tolls and right next to them is Rondo Music which has been there forever where some crazy reporter who knew the guy in the suit a long time ago, says he took the that guy to buy an electric guitar back before the world changed, but the guy on stage is snarling “I used to care, but things have channnnged,” but now he’s doing “Brown Sugar,” and it really doesn’t matter at all whether he does or doesn’t know the words or what the song may be about because he’s probably singing it because he always wanted to and he has the right band to play it and he’s having fun, and then he slows down again for “Forever Young,” and it’s nice, but it will probably never be as spooky as when he first sang it in ’74 before the album came out or maybe it’s just a set up for the Chicago blues song known as “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” and it is a blues song and it always was a blues song, but things have changed, but the words are same, and he’s not just singing, he’s delivering each line like he wrote it yesterday instead of almost 40 years ago and I think back to some friend of mine saying a long time ago in some Morningside Heights apartment how these songs “were his blues,” and the “even the President of the United States must stand naked” line comes and the arena erupts.  And now the singer has an acoustic guitar around his neck, and he’s into “One Too Many Mornings” and after the second verse, he starts playing this almost wacky, bluesy guitar solo, but now he’s toying around with the melody, and it’s almost like he’s stabbing the strings with his flat pick, but now it’s 30 years forward and “Cold Iron Bound,” a song that once was a blues and kind of still is but it’s also something else and he’s stretching out the last word so it’s cold iron boouuuuuuuuuuuund and then it’s back 20 years but not really into “Shelter From The Storm” and what didn’t really work two nights ago is working now and he’s barely done the repeat of “shelter from the storrrrrrrrrrrrrrrm” and the harmonies are still ringing and he’s into the next verse.

Photo of Bob Dylan, November 13, 2002 courtesy of Andrea Orlandi. © Andrea Orlandi.

And then as he sometimes does, though not too often, though it seems to happen in this town, he starts talking, and he says something like, “I was talking to my buddy Al Gore and we got interrupted by this talk show host, there’s so many of ’em” and I realize that what he is saying is the exact opposite of what that talk show host said on his show the night before, and then he’s into “Old Man” and then back to the piano for “Honest With Me,” and then back to the guitar and right away I know it’s “Times They Are A-Changin’” but he’s playing something on the guitar at the beginning that sounds like a slowed down Irish fiddle tune, but more than that, he’s really singing it, again stretching out the last word so it’s chaaaaaaaaaangiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiin’ and when he gets to the last verse he puts that special emphasis, and there’s no one better at special emphasis than this guy on “The first one now will later be last” and I realize that he’s still singing the news and this is followed with even more news on “High Water” and tonight the arrangement doesn’t matter, it’s the singing and the words that count, especially those last lines, “it’s bad out there,” “it’s rough out there.”

And by this time I’m long past the Garden State Parkway and even past the Trenton 30 miles sign which means I only have maybe an hour to go and this is the part where the exits come flying by one after the other and the guy on stage is singing “Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum” so gently, so soulfully, this sad song from a lost album hardly anyone paid attention to by a great songwriter and exit 7 flies by and now he’s singing about “all them rebel rivers” and “tobacco leaves” and strange people from some other place or maybe they’re not and the line “if you ever interfere with me or cross my path again, you do so at the peril of your life” seems to ring out over all the other lines (and I’m thinking how much I want to say exactly that to the chatterers behind me who started chattering big time again while cheering loudly at the end of all the songs they didn’t pay any attention to) and now it’s swing time everybody because those “Summer Days and Summer Nights are gone” and at times it’s almost like some huge band is on stage and the guitars go on the prowl faster and faster trading the licks back and forth and you think it’s never gonna end and then they’re done, and they’re all standing there in a line and then they’re gone and then they return and it’s news time again with “Blowin’ In The Wind” and the special emphasis is saved for “too many people have died” and then into Egypt land with the Exodus into “Watchtower”  and there’s a reason why he ends it now with “None of them along the line know what any of it is worth” and they’re gone, but the house lights don’t come up and most of the cheering crowd isn’t moving.  And all through this show I’ve been wondering is this just another show, or does this guy this master magician have something up his sleeve.

And by this time I’m lookin’ for this weird thing that looks like a battleship that the Navy stuck into some South Jersey cornfield because it means I’m almost home and lo and behold they’re back on stage and he’s talking again, this time about “his buddy George Harrison” and saying something about how he won’t be able to make the tribute so he’s going to do this song for George, and for the second time in a week it is I can’t believe this time because he is doing “Something,” (probably Harrison’s greatest song) and he is really doing it, singing clear, singing strong, singing with love and it’s enough to make you break down in tears right there, one of those once in a lifetime moments that cannot be repeated and you know you’re never going to hear it that way again.

And they stood in line again, except this time the singer’s head is bowed and then they were gone.

And then there was nothing to do but stand there and applaud, and then just stand there soaking up as much of the moment as possible, following the advice the singer once gave, “Take care of your memories for you shall not relive them.”

It’s 2:30 AM, I pay my toll and turn right towards the western skies.



11/11/02 Madison Square Garden, New York

Last year when Bob Dylan played Madison Square Garden, New York City was under siege and you could feel it.  Tonight New York was pretty much back to being New York and getting into the Garden, despite everyone being wanded was under definitely more relaxed circumstances.  There were plenty of empty seats visible when the lights finally went down about 20 minutes after 8 and by the time the new longer introduction was done, Dylan and band were already on stage, Dylan standing at his white Yamaha keyboard and they tore into “Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum.”  It was the opener I’d hoped for a year ago and it was perfect in every way, Dylan’s singing strong and confident.

The next song started off with a familiar riff yet it was hard to place, and almost kind of reggae sounding, until Dylan sang the first line crystal clear and it all fell into place, along with a collective gasp of “Oh my God, I can’t believe he’s doing this,” as he spoke/sang, “The comic book and me just us we caught the bus/The poor little chauffeur was back in bed/On the very next day with a nose full of pus/Yea heavy and a bottle of bread.”  It was a classic Dylan moment and an amazing one.  A song I was sure I would never ever see him sing and not only that, the harmonies of Larry and Charlie were perfect.  He didn’t sing every verse but it didn’t matter.  For some reason it never does while the show is happening.  At the end, Dylan says, “That was a request” followed by “shut up” though it wasn’t clear (from where I was sitting) to who.

This was followed by a hard and heavy “Tombstone Blues,” and Dylan, wearing a black suit with red piping is practically snarling out the lines, “The commander in chief answers him while chasing a fly,” and gets downright menacing on “the old folks home and the college.”  He is not messing around and the band is with him all the way.

All of a sudden the music takes a turn and the riff is not bluesy, but 80s pop, “The End of the Innocence,” and Dylan is deep into it, his voice sad, yet approaching almost mystical heights, and then it’s fast forward into “Things Have Changed” and the sadness is gone and the menace in the vocal has returned.

The lights go down, and someone is playing a guitar riff, sweet, pretty almost celestial but that quickly changes as the lights come back up and the band launches into “Brown Sugar” and the crowd stands up and they nail it and there’s no one thinking or even caring what the song’s about because it’s total rock and roll.

The lights go down again, and you hear an acoustic testing out a minor chord and I’m wondering if it’s gonna be “Thin Man,” but no “It’s Masters of War” and this time I’m thinking about all the things this song is about, but all of a sudden those thoughts are interrupted by some loud crackling noise interrupting and I realize it’s the drums.  They’re just not right.  They’re too loud and they’re interfering with the song.

Dylan goes back to the keyboard for new “It’s Alright Ma” which is more or less built around the riff of Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Help Me” and he’s really charging into the lyrics, but again George Receli shows he is the busiest drummer Dylan’s ever had, and not only that he’s missing.  Dylan shoots him a look and he sort of quiets down, but he’s doing way too much, playing the drums and not the song.

“Just Like A Woman” a standout of last year’s MSG show comes next, and despite nice pedal steel from Larry, it’s only okay and again the rhythm just ain’t right.  At last year’s show, David Kemper played Kenny Buttrey’s perfect fills from “Blonde On Blonde,” but Receli is all over the drums.

Then it was back to rocking on “Drifter’s Escape,” and then a strange new arrangement of “Shelter From The Storm,” that had Dylan repeating the last line of each verse with Larry on harmony.  This is one of Dylan’s greatest songs and one that he has tried innumerable ways in concert and for some reason rarely pulls it off, never capturing the spooky quality of the studio version, partly because he never sings the melody.

“Old Man” came next and for whatever reason, more than any of the other cover songs of the night, this truly felt like a cover version.  Dylan did little to make it his own.

Things took a definite turn for the better with “Honest With Me” which was followed by “Hattie Carroll” which I always like to hear, but this version went nowhere.

Then came the Shot of Love version of “High Water” which was far better than the debut of this arrangement I saw this summer in Worcester, but despite excellent picking by Larry at the end that recalled his original banjo solo, this arrangement turns one of Dylan’s recent stellar musical moments, a perfect blend of bluegrass and rock into another bluesy rock song.

“Mutineer” was beautiful, easily Dylan’s most heartfelt and sensitive vocal of the night, followed by a cool version of “Bye and Bye” on which the line “I’m making my last go round” seemed to resonate.

Then came a killer version of “Summer Days” with great guitar work by everyone involved, though Receli seemed to stick in every drum roll he knows, though the guitars were so amazing at times you could almost swear there was a horn section on stage.

“Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” and “Watchtower” were both fine, with great harmonies on the first song.

After a year of what seemed to be far too many disinterested performances, Dylan is once again sing with conviction and fire and in the best moments, his voice will go right through you.  More to the point he seems to care and be aware of what he’s doing.  On one line near the beginning of “Shelter,” he lapsed into the sing-song thing, but he didn’t let it happen again.

At MSG, he may have shown his hand a bit too early with the total surprise of “Yea Heavy” but it was a surprise I’ll never forget.