05/17/03 Jubilee Jam, Jackson, Mississippi

It was raining in Memphis all day and some said that a tornado had touched down the night before on Union Avenue, and there were tornado warnings on the TV when my friend Link picked me up and we headed south to Jackson.  This was my first time in Mississippi and every Mississippi fantasy I’d ever had was running through my mind as the rain poured down in torrents.  We passed Jerry Lee Lewis’ town and I kept expecting the ghost of Howlin’ Wolf to emerge from behind a tree, but instead I saw lots of Mississippi cops and lots of fender benders as we passed something back and forth below window level.

Jackson was a couple of hundred miles south of Memphis almost in a straight line, but I didn’t see any cotton fields or we were on Nissan Boulevard passing a Nissan plant that seemed to stretch for a mile and then found ourselves in the center of Jackson, parking by the state capitol.

The main stage of the Cellular South Jubilee Jam was situated at the end of some downtown mall in the shade of the Bell South building and the Southern Trust Band, while a yellow Pearl River Resorts blimp hovered overhead with “PearlRiverResorts.com” painted on the bottom.  What would’ve been a nice corporate park under non-tornado circumstances to catch a cigarette during coffee breaks was instead a field of mud, deep soggy mud.  A “Cellular South” banner hung at the back of the stage onto which stepped Bob Dylan who launched into a blistering “Maggie’s Farm” which I thought was pretty funny considering the completely corporate setting minus the mud.  The band sounded amazing.  Rocking hard, totally together.  Dylan followed up with “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You” which featured a great harp solo and then it was into a totally kick-ass version of “Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum.”

He stayed at the piano for “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” while some loud drunk started complaining about the songs, so I moved away and sank into even deeper mud that had a quicksand consistency.  At first it seemed like Dylan kept coming in too early to start each verse, but by the third verse the song seemed to settle down and out came the harp for a strong lengthy solo.

Then it was back to rocking for “Drifter’s Escape” and Dylan picks up the harp and it’s the wrong one, but he made up for it quickly with an exceptional solo and the band is loud and ferocious.

Given the setting, and since there was apparently no chance of Dylan actually singing “Mississippi,” “Floater” seemed like an appropriate choice, at least lyrically.  However it seemed to go right over the crowd’s head, and it should be noted that the crowd was not exactly a typical Dylan crowd, whatever that is, being an outside, downtown show and all.  The one good thing about outside shows is if someone is obnoxious, you just move somewhere else, except in this case each step meant sinking further into mud.

Whatever energy had been lost on “Floater” was resurrected by a stunning “Highway 61 Revisited” and Dylan was having a great time boppin’ and rockin’ behind his keyboard.  He never stopped moving once and the guitars were smoking.  He slowed it down for “To Make You Feel My Love” with the beginning instrumental making me hope beyond hope that it would turn out to be a slow majestic “Simple Twist of Fate,” but no such luck, though Dylan brought out the harp again for another way better than decent solo.

He closed the abbreviated set with high energy versions of “Honest With Me’ and “Summer Days,”  and of course returned for “Like A Rolling Stone” which featured a terrific solo from Freddie and “Watchtower.”

Whatever problems this band may have had making things click earlier on this tour seem to be gone and they were one, very tight, very rocking unit.  Whatever the show didn’t have on the Dylan mystical intensity meter, it compensated for in energy and I wasn’t expecting any great revelations in this situation.  I decided as we slogged out through the mud onto Mississippi concrete that this is Dylan’s “I’m gonna have fun tour,” and there’s no doubt that that’s what he was doing.

A couple of hours and hits later we were crossing “Elvis Presley Boulevard” in a Tennessee fog and I couldn’t help but think the show I’d just seen and this tour had a lot more to do with Elvis Presley than it did with Arthur Rimbaud.

 

05/10/03 Hilton Hotel Grand Theater, Atlantic City, NJ

Something weird seems to happen every time Bob Dylan plays Atlantic City.  Tonight it didn’t matter at all.  The difference between Friday’s show and Saturday’s was like night and day with the energy level rising like “High Water.”   The show was inspired on all fronts.

Starting again with a rocking “Maggie’s Farm,” they then went into “I Don’t Believe You,” and with the opening songs both having shades of 1965, I wondered where the show would lead.  When it came time for the guitar solos the difference in the band became apparent.  Larry Campbell and Freddie Koella had obviously worked out parts and I began to wonder whether they’d spent the afternoon playing.  And Dylan was on playing a fine harp solo.

“Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum” brought things back to the present in a perfect version with the guitars really ripping and then it was a perfect “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You” with Larry on steel and Dylan playing not one, but two harp solos and since the arrangement was so close to the original, like the night before on “Lay Lady Lay,” I couldn’t help but think if he had played these harp solos on the original record, it was would have been a whole other experience.

“Things Have Changed” was nothing short of amazing, Dylan tearing through the vocals with unbelievable intensity.  It may well have been the best live version I’ve seen of this song.  Then unlike the night before, Dylan put on his Strat for “Drifter’s Escape,” and again the guitars are happening, and Dylan’s into his guitar solo and Freddie does something I’ve seen no Dylan guitar player do, he goes right up to him and plays with him, playing around and with what Dylan is doing on guitar and then Dylan has the harp and he is playing to the crowd and the level of the show went up another few notches.

The lights go down and in the darkness you heard the unmistakable strum of Dylan’s Gibson J-45 and it’s “Don’t Think Twice,” and again it’s time for Dylan’s solo and again Freddie goes right up to him and starts playing with him, and Bob shoots him a glance, but it’s a glance of “hey we’re playing guitars,” and Dylan finds this groove and Freddie goes right along with him and Dylan sings another verse and then it’s back into the guitars again with Dylan finding the same groove and you knew something special was happening.  And the lights go down again and you wonder what’s going to be next and then there’s prolonged silence, and then a voice announces, “Ladies and Gentleman, the fire marshal has determined that the show cannot continue until the aisles are cleared and people return to their assigned seats.  The lights go up.  Plot of the eternal bring down.  But after about 10 minutes they go down again and Dylan and the band came out and rip into a “Highway 61 Revisited” that made you forget what just happened.  The song is soaring.

Then there’s deep, dark ominous piano chords and a swamp groove appears that turns out to be an incredible version of “High Water (For Charley Patton) and Dylan is laying out each line ferociously, and maybe it was after the second verse he comes out from behind the keyboards and does this strange little Dylan shuffle dance moving his hands around, kind of pointing them and then goes back to the piano to repeat the same thing a couple of verses later.  But it was the singing, the voice, almost coming from somewhere else, that thing that makes music be a magical experience, and that thing that Dylan – when he wants to and the stars are aligned – does better than anyone else.

The energy stayed for “Honest With Me,” and then they shifted gears into “Bye and Bye” which was both lounge jazzy and extremely funny with Dylan actually cracking up on stage when he sang the line, “I’m not even acquainted with my own desires.”  Now I’ve seen Dylan laugh when he tells a joke or something to a band member away from the audience, and there’s been a couple of times I’ve seen him where it seemed like he was trying his best to keep a straight face for most of the show and not exactly winning, but the last time I remember him actually cracking up into laughter during a song was at Philharmonic Hall in 1964.

This was followed by an excellent “Summer Days” that more than made up for the one the previous night, with both Freddie and Larry going down on their knees at one point!  And then it was encore time, with a fairly average “Like A Rolling Stone” followed by a standard but at the same time quite good “All Along The Watchtower.”

Now while Dylan was on from the first note singing with not only true conviction, but fire, the difference was in the band.  Tonight, they seemed like a band and jelled like a band and they were having fun.  There were no missed cues, no glaring mistakes.  It is obvious that Campbell and Koella are working out parts where they both trade off each other and play together.  They are onto something, something that could take the sound of this band to a whole other level.  Freddie Koella can play in a variety of styles and he’s not afraid to step out and let loose.  And perhaps at the same time he is challenging Larry, long the backbone of this band to some of his most inspired recent playing.

From talking to people who were there who’ve seen other shows on the current tour, tonight’s show quite possibly may have been the best one yet.

05/09/03 Hilton Hotel Grand Theater, Atlantic City, NJ

It was kind of this miserable raining and not raining and raining again day in Philly, the kind of rain that wets the roads just enough to make them slippery and traffic everywhere was crawling.  I’m pretty sure this was Dylan’s fifth time in Atlantic City, not counting the times he did two shows in one night.  It was also his first time at the Hilton.  I’d been the Hilton a few times before to see the Everly Brothers and Dion and maybe somebody else somewhere along the way.  Usually they have tables, though they don’t serve drinks which makes the table kind of useless anyway.  The Waifs were already on by the time we actually got into the theater (shows run on time in Atlantic City) and we took our seats about midway from the stage to end up behind what appeared to be the only true drunken moron in the place who didn’t shut up once during the Waifs and had a mullet besides.  The Waifs are actually pretty good, playing some sort of Australian/American roots rock.  Good player singers, good songs and one of them plays a pretty mean harmonica.  They played exactly 35 minutes.  At one minute after 9. Dylan took the stage and opened with “Maggie’s Farm”

On this tour, Dylan has perhaps the weirdest stage setup ever.  He’s all the way over the left of the stage instead of being in the center.  But he is Bob Dylan, so who’s going to tell him what part of the stage he should be singing from?  Anyway the reason for this setup quickly became clear.  It’s so Dylan can lead and cue the band, and perhaps keep an eye on his sometimes wayward drummer.

Dylan seemed to be in good spirits and having fun.  New guitar player Freddie Koella came right out (unlike previous new Dylan guitarists) and played a fairly funky lead.  Next came “Tell Me That It Isn’t True” in an arrangement that was pretty close to the original with Larry Campbell on steel.  Larry played a fine steel solo and it was Freddie’s turn to jump right in, but he didn’t seem to find whatever he was looking for at it took a while for him to get it.  It wasn’t a big deal, but he should have been right on it and he wasn’t.

Next came “Tweedle Dee” and “Tweedle Dum,” which was just fine, the band maintaining the groove.   However on the second verse, Dylan went into what some people call the “singsong” mode, which when he goes high on the last word of a line.  Unlike the fall tour, where he’d do it once and then stop, he kept it going kind of, but was also doing that thing he does where he’s looking for the groove to make the song happen, laying into stretching out some lines, breaking off others.

It was back to “Nashville Skyline” for a decent “Lay Lady Lay” with Dylan singing strongly as well as convincingly with Recile staying reasonably close the original Kenny Buttrey drum part.  Dylan concluded the song with a not bad harp solo that was just starting to approach the cosmic phase when he ended the song.

Then it was back to rocking with “Things Have Changed,” and a not bad at all “Watching the River Flow” with Larry playing the slide part.  An equally good “Blind Willie McTell” followed though it was kind of diminished by the mullet drunk who was dancing the entire show and started falling into the chairs behind him.  A fairly run of the mill “Highway 61 Revisited” followed, and then came the sort of rearranged “Standing in the Doorway.”  However this version was far better than the couple of mp3s I’d heard earlier in the tour.  The double-time guitar part, which I thought was played by Koella is actually played by Larry and at Atlantic City, it wasn’t a lead at all, but a guitar part in the arrangement of the song and instead of dominating was in the background.  As a guitar part it worked fine, as a lead part it doesn’t.  Koella and Campbell had some really nice interplay going on in this song.

Next came the high point of the show for me, a rather stellar rendition of “Dignity.”  Though he kind of mumbled the opening line, the rest of the song was close to perfect.  And this was followed by more than competent versions of “Just Like A Woman,” with a good harp solo, “Honest With Me” and a more than decent “Moonlight.”

Now last fall, “Summer Days” was the perfect song to close the show.  With three guitars going crazy, the song reached stratospheric heights – there were times I could’ve sworn I heard horns on it, though of course I really didn’t.   At Atlantic City, it didn’t come close.  Something I don’t know what, threw Dylan off early in the song and he started blowing lines.  It took him a while to recover.  Just as he did, Recili came out of a drum roll and kind of lost the beat.  The guitars players tried to save it, but it never really took off.  “Like A Rolling Stone and “Watchtower” were fairly predictable.

After last fall’s Philly show (perhaps because I had very good seats) I kind of felt like the guy on stage was the closest we were going to see to the kid who rocked the talent show at Hibbing High School.  I feel even more that way now.  Dylan is clearly having a good time on stage.  Every once in a while he comes out from the piano and does his Dylan walk shuffle and then goes back to the piano and leads his band.  However his band is in a transitional phase.  Some arrangements are the same, some are slightly different.  There’s no doubt that Koella can play, and he can be both funky and tasty when he wants to be.  He doesn’t seem to have a handle on the songs yet.  And while he apparently has no problem stepping out, he does not have the edge and the fire that Charlie Sexton had  not yet anyway.

Gone at least for the moment are the harmonies, and also gone for the moment is the feeling of a band that had been together for years and knew exactly what it was doing.

At the same time, it wasn’t a bad show by any means.  It just wasn’t a truly great one.  It was a great singer having fun with his songs and his band.  That that singer is one of the greatest and probably the most influential songwriter of the last century, along with being on of the truly brilliant vocal stylists of the last 40 years is another story.  Dylan did enough to let you know he can still do it.  One last thing.  Bob Dylan did not touch a guitar the entire night.