06/08/04 Delaware Kahuna Summer Stage, Wilmington, Delaware

Kahuna Summer Stage is really a bar that looks like it used to be a warehouse or maybe a department store in some forlorn lot that looks like it used to either be some warehouse office park or a strip mall lying on the banks of some invisible river in South Wilmington, right across from the Wilmington Blue Rocks baseball stadium which Delaware’s number one rock and roll singer who once sang a Bob song at Bobfest has a lot to do with.  Looking at the stadium, I couldn’t help but wonder if Bob would return to this very spot in about two months.

There was a long line going into the Kahuna and another little walk till we found the stage which was a nice high height.  We didn’t arrive particularly early, but managed to find a spot to stand about eight rows of people back.

Behind us was a slightly raised covered bar area where you could see pretty well, but I suspected the noise in the bar would not diminish for the show.  The crowd behind us filled in pretty quickly and various people kept trying to maneuver through with big plates of fries and cheeseburgers.

At about 8 pm, I looked up at the stage and noticed Wilmington resident David Bromberg standing by the monitor mixing board.

At exactly 8:11, the band and Dylan took the stage, wearing a black suit with red trim and a tan cowboy hat and launched into a rocking but lyrically incomprehensible version of “To Be Alone To You.”  Bob kind of mixed all the verses into the first verse maybe and then kind of made up the rest as he went along.  It didn’t matter. Dylan was on.  At the end, my friend Earl, a rather longtime contributor to the oldest Dylan forum on the Internet, and who has probably gone to more Dylan shows with me than anyone said to me, “This is way better than Philly last March.”

Then came the new arrangement of “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue” which sounded a lot better in person than on any recording.  Dylan kind of fumbled the third verse but recovered to start stretching things out even if the lines were a little mixed up: “The carpet too is moooooving Ohver youuuuuuuuuu,” and delivered a fairly wild harp solo.

A menacing “Lonesome Day Blues” followed and then Larry played a lick that almost sounded like “Tight Connection” to kick into a reasonably cool “If Not For You.”

“It’s Alright Ma” followed by despite Dylan really putting out, the song seemed to drag.  The crowd went fairly crazy during the “president” line, and Larry kind of rescued things with a great cittern solo followed by a fairly interesting bass notes guitar solo from Stu Kimball, and Dylan intensified his vocal on the last verse holding out the last line, onlyyyyyy while the band closed the song around him.

Then came “It Ain’t Me Babe,” my first time seeing this arrangement, and again seeing it was better than hearing field recordings.  Dylan started out singing fairly regularly, but by the end of the first verse was hitting some real low notes.  This wasn’t a growl just low notes.  Then on the second verse he went even lower bringing the song a spookiness it never had before.  It was a great performance.

“Cold Irons Bound” came next and following this recent pattern of rocker, ballad, rocker, a not bad “Under The Red Sky” followed.

“Highway 61” wasn’t bad either but wasn’t as fierce as it was two nights before, but then they go into what has to be “Not Dark Yet.”  Some leftover acid casualty standing next to me starts singing along loudly.  Now this is basically sacrilegious in my book.  You don’t sing along to this song, not to mention that no one, not even Willie Nelson who’s sung with everyone can sing with Bob Dylan.  So I kind of motion him to be quiet which was the second time during the show I had to do this and he says, “Why don’t you sing?”  I said, “It’s not a Pete Seeger concert,” and then did what Tony Soprano would have done.

Amazingly enough they didn’t follow it with a rocker, but went into “Bye and Bye” which got interrupted by these Kahuna girls who kept wandering into the crowd all night with these trays of weird little red glass somethings, I don’t know what they were, but they were selling them.

A decent “Masters Of War” which seemed especially appropriate in America in this week of national something or other followed “Honest With Me,” which was followed by “Summer Days.”

The usual three-song encore followed, except right before “Watchtower” some guy standing two rows behind me collapsed and the Kahuna security team who’d been present all night took a while to appear.  This was a rather big distraction as everyone was turning around to see what was going on instead of watching the stage.  Bromberg who watched the entire show, never took the stage.

While this show, didn’t have quite the heights of Atlantic City, despite a quite interesting setlist, part of it may have been the venue, which had a fair amount of distractions.  However, the band played great, Stu Kimball easily handled everything that was thrown to him, and Larry Campbell is truly rocking out.  And most important of all, Dylan is obviously interested in singing on this tour.

06/06/04 Borgata Hotel Casino And Spa Event Center, Atlantic City, NJ

What a difference a guitarist can make.

I was never really among the Freddy Koella bashers.  The first time I saw him in Atlantic City a little over a year ago, I thought he held great promise.  But that promise was never fulfilled, and ultimately I found him wildly inconsistent, sometimes on the same song, great one minute and apparently lost the next.

Tonight in Atlantic City at the Borgata Casino, none of that mattered.  A great guitar player not only knows what to play, but equally important when to play, and when not to play.  A great guitarist isn’t only about speedy licks, it’s about taking all the licks and guitar tricks you’ve learned and knowing when and where to use them.  Like Larry Campbell, Stu Kimball is a walking catalog of great guitar licks.  And like Larry Campbell, though they have very different style, Stu Kimball knows when and how to use those licks and use them with taste.  Now reports from the first two shows of this tour basically had Kimball holding back.  However, tonight he did anything but.  He shined, bringing back to this band a feeling and a power that’s been missing for a long time.  In fact, I’m going to go out on a limb and say Kimball can take his place as one of the top five guitar players to play on-stage with Bob Dylan – easily.  There was no stumbling about looking for a groove, searching for that magic thing that might lead somewhere.  Every time out he hit it.  It fit, it was right, and it was soulful.

And in some crazy way, as if to make this point very clear, the setlist tonight was very similar, in fact extremely similar to the last show I saw at the Warner Theater two months ago.  Not counting the non-version of “Cats In The Well” at the Warner, which was the instrumental outro, only four songs were different.  But the difference between the two shows was astounding.  Night and day.  The moon and mars.  Russia and China.

And the biggest difference other than what became obvious as the night went on was a much-needed change in guitar players, is that Bob Dylan is really singing again.  The voice isn’t all the way and may never be all the way back, but it’s certainly on the way there – more than any time since 2002, with the possible exception of the last 3 shows in England last fall.  What some people have called the “wolfman growl” is still there on occasion, but now it is used for effect on certain words or certain phrases.  And more to the point, Dylan is phrasing again.  He is paying attention to what he is singing, and singing for the most part with clarity and care.  Stretching out words, pausing before key phrases, snarling out lines when necessary.  Singing in that way, that only he can where you know the songs not only mean something to you, but to him.  Even on the songs you may never want to hear again, he made them matter, he made them vital.

The show started out with “God Knows,” which was mainly interesting because he doesn’t do it all that much.  Dylan stumbled on one of the first few lines and I had that feeling of “oh no,” but that turned out to be the only stumble.  This was followed by “Forever Young,” and the feeling of déjà vu with the Warner show sort of returned, but changed as the song went on.  Larry Campbell was on acoustic, with Kimball playing a Strat.  On the first chorus, Dylan sang a short, almost clipped forever young.  On the second chorus, it was a little longer.  Then Kimball took a beautiful solo that in some ways was reminiscent of Robbie Robertson with a good bit of Memphis-soul type chording.  By the third chorus Dylan was stretching out the younnnnng, sounding like… well, Bob Dylan.

The lights went down and the next thing you heard was a lone harmonica tentatively blowing a couple of notes, then some more notes, until the band kicked in for a not bad version of “Watching The River Flow.”  But this was still pretty much a warm-up song.  Then came the first real highlight, “Trying To Get To Heaven.”  As with other recent versions, the song was back to the original melody and pretty much the original arrangement, except on the chorus, Dylan’s phrasing was much closer to the more jazzy arrangement of a few years ago.  There was also a lyric change (and I’m not even sure what verse) where he sang, “I tried to give you everything that you’ve been longing for.” And while on many songs tonight, Dylan would close out with a harp solo, using the solo to cue Kimball to the end, on this song, they worked out a real ending that was surprisingly similar to the original ending of “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You.”

Then came “Memphis Blues Again,” which has never been a favorite of mine in concert because it’s never come close to the album version, but tonight the band was in the groove, and it made you want to listen, and Dylan was really singing especially on the last verse, with “You have to paaaaaaaayyyy to get out of going through all these things twice.

And the same thing happened “Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum” partially because of the guitars with Larry (who had this wonderful nasty sound, happening a good deal of the night) playing the main riff while Kimball did the kind of circular fills with a power that’s been missing since the departure of Charlie Sexton, and then on the break, the two of them got into this amazing call-and-response thing that got funkier each time around.

An excellent “Blind Willie McTell” followed and by now Dylan was totally warmed up and totally into it, making every word count: “McTELL,” “JeruuuusAL-LEMMM,” growling out, “rebels yellll.”

On “Highway 61 Revisited,” the guitarists again took over with Kimball laying down a John Lee Hooker-ish swamp boogie groove, and Campbell who was inspired through out the night answering with more wonderfully nasty guitar.

A stunningly beautiful “I Shall Be Released” came next with Kimball playing an almost chime-like lead recalling in its own way Robbie Robertson’s original guitar, with Dylan again singing with not only care but affection, and then on the last chorus, he sang from the east down to the west, and then followed that with an answer, but unfortunately I wasn’t able to make out what it was.  He then repeated the chorus, but sang it the right way.

Then it was back to rocking with “High Water” followed by a sort of surprise, “Moonlight,” returned to its original arrangement with Kimball providing really nice jazz fills throughout, with a fine harp solo, followed by a somewhat renewed in spirit rendition of “Honest With Me.”

A drum fill kicked off “Lay Lady Lay” with Campbell providing angelic-sounding steel and Dylan having a lot of fun, while at the same time singing quite tenderly, yet letting loose with a “yeah” followed by a broad smile after “You can have your cake and eat it too,” then on the last verse singing “Stay lady stay so you can lay across by big brass bed.”

“Summer Days” came kind of close to its former glory with Campbell and Kimball trading licks like mad.

After what seemed like a longer than usual break, they returned for “Cats In The Well” which kicked right into “Like A Rolling Stone,” with Larry on steel filling out the sound nicely.  Larry stayed on steel, adding a spooky touch to a fairly strong “Watchtower,” though I found the echo effect on Dylan’s voice to be unnecessary and cheesy – the song stands on its own.

This was easily the best Bob Dylan concert I’ve seen in more than a year-and-a-half.  Dylan’s singing made the Willie Nelson thing that started the week an easily forgotten aberration and Stu Kimball made the Freddie Koella era seem like a dream gone wrong. For the first time in too long, I left tonight’s show feeling “yeah Bob Dylan has the best band happening” and much more to the point, I remembered why I go to see Bob Dylan.