04/04/04 Warner Theater, Washington D.C

Bob Dylan started off his show at the Warner Theater, an old-style Art Deco one-time movie palace with a strong, to the point and totally surprising “God Knows” which probably was the last thing anyone expected as an opener.  But then with Dylan, trying to guess or predict what he will do has pretty much always been an exercise in futility.  Following an arrangement not all that dissimilar from the original studio version, the song took off under its own steam, but was hardly the swing insisted upon by a noted music critic on the tour’s previous stop.  As with most Dylan concerts I’ve seen over the past couple of years, his voice was far stronger than I expected it to be, his singing clear, and this version quite concise with no extraneous jamming or soloing.  Just as surprising for the second spot was “Forever Young” starting off with Freddy following the song’s melody for an opening solo.  Bob brought out the harp for the first of many excellent solos.

For some reason where I was sitting allowed me to notice the position of Bob’s microphone, which seemed to be positioned lower that I remembered from the shows last summer (but maybe not) forcing Dylan to bend down and kind of turn looking at the audience every time he sang.  Since the mic was positioned for someone who would be sitting at the keys instead of standing it was kind of strange.

The show got quite a bit funkier with song number 3, “Lonesome Day Blues” with great slide work from Larry Campbell, but the song never took on the intensity of either the studio version or the live versions from 2001 where the power of Dylan’s vocal was nothing less than scary.

“Trying to Get To Heaven” following the song’s original arrangement (as opposed to the jazzy rearrangement) was a splendid surprise and easily one of the evening’s high points, again beginning with a full instrumental for one verse before Bob started singing.  Again the harp came out for a beautiful solo.

Larry Campbell then kicked off the familiar intro to “Tangled” which was somewhat abbreviated in terms of the number of verses, but for the first time of the night I found myself wondering just what Freddie Koella was playing on the Gibson hollow-body electric he used for that song.  His solos didn’t seem to go anywhere and clashed with what the rest of the band was playing more than anything else.  This was followed by a basically ho-hum “Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum.”

The lights went down and the intro to another of the evening’s highlights “Blind Willie McTell” began, with Larry on cittern.  The last time I saw this song was last May in Atlantic City where it was ruined by a drunk who was falling into everyone around him, so this was my chance to see Dylan do it on piano.  The lights slowly came up to reveal a a real drummer on-stage, in fact, one of the greatest drummers in all of rock and roll for the last three decades, the magnificent Richie Hayward.  Keeping his eyes on Dylan at all time, looking around at the rest of the band every so often like a driver using his rear and sideview mirrors, Hayward doesn’t beat the drums, he plays them, constantly creating interesting multi-rhythms that make you notice the drums for all the right reasons.  The other great part of the song was Larry’s mandolin-like solos on the cittern.

“Highway 61 Revisited” followed with Hayward restoring the song to its original beat, much the way David Kemper did, though what Hayward was playing was a bit more complicated.  Both Freddie and Larry took some wild solos on this one with Larry’s standing out.

A moving “I Shall Be Released” with Bob on harp came next and again Hayward showed his virtuosity with a multi-rhythmic pattern that gently propelled the song but never got in the way of Dylan’s vocal or the guitar solos.

The difference between the two drummers was clear when Recile returned for the Shot of Love arrangement of “High Water” bashing out the beat on two snare drums making the drums louder than the entire band combined.

Larry then played the Stax-Volt arpeggio intro to “Just Like A Woman” which kicks into pretty much of a regular “Just Like A Woman” by the time the song reaches the bridge.  The song featured a superb harp solo.

“Honest With Me” was a standard, nothing-special version, that was followed by another ballad, “I Believe In You”  that was okay, but mainly served to showcase how shot Dylan’s voice at this point is.  The emotion was there, but the voice was not conveying it.

On “Summer Days” about a quarter of the audience crowded the theater’s two center aisles.  It was fun, but “Summer Days” simply hasn’t reached the supersonic heights it once did since Charlie Sexton has left the band.

When the band took their places for the encore, they did a very strange thing: they played the outro to “Cats In The Well,” and immediately went into “Like A Rolling Stone.”  The arrangement has changed slightly with the guitars stopping and starting throughout on the verses leaving Recile to fill in the rest.  It doesn’t work.  This is a song that is built on a surging chord structure and especially with no organ (or Bucky Baxter steel) to fill out the sound it is dependent on the guitars not the drums for its power.  Despite the instrumental weirdness on the second verse, Dylan started singing the song as if he suddenly remembered what he wrote it about.  “All Along The Watchtower” served as a vehicle for the guitarists with one piercing, kind of strange, but at the same time amazing solo from Koella followed by one that went nowhere, and then a truly spectacular perfect solo from Larry Campbell.

As with most of the Dylan shows I’ve seen over the past two years, this one started out exciting with impressive performances from both Dylan and his band but somehow lost both steam and focus midway through never really regaining the momentum and intensity the songs deserve.  In a crazy way, it was as wildly inconsistent as Freddy Koella’s guitar playing where he can totally blow your mind one moment and then on the next solo seems to take it nowhere at all.  At the same time, the show was always highly professional and well executed.  But the mystic moments – and no performer can take you into the mystic like Bob Dylan – were in short supply.