04/30/05 Beacon Theater, New York

Last night I watched the show from the steam bath environs of the Beacon Theater’s loge, though people in the orchestra said it was stifling as well.

Again the curtain rose on Merle Haggard and the Strangers with Haggard showing he could change things around just as much as the person closing the show.  I like seeing shows from several vantage points and from the loge you could see what was going on on the entire stage easily.

Haggard doesn’t necessarily focus on his hits or even his own songs.  At this point in time he seems more interested in playing what he wants to play and having fun though plenty of his classics song were included usually right up front to get things going.  Tonight however, he received standing ovations on quite a few songs including “Mule Skinner Blues.”

The interesting thing was even after two months on the road he didn’t seem quite sure which songs would work.  For the two shows I saw he ignored his 2003 quite good album “Haggard Like Never Before,” which included Woody Guthrie’s “Philadelphia Lawyer” and a quite interesting swing song co-written with his keyboard player, called “Lonesome Day” which includes the lyrics, “Who’s gonna sing the songs of freedom when freedom goes away and “When the big boys with the microphones get stuck and back away and they’re afraid to say the things they know they ought to say.”

Now for Bob Dylan’s portion of the evening, Friday night was better in terms of energy, song flow and consistency of performance.  It was Saturday so “Maggie’s Farm” was the opener followed by “To Ramona” with Stu Kimball setting the mood on acoustic with Don Herron on electric mandolin, and Dylan coming to center stage for the first of several quite good harp solos throughout the evening.

For a week of shows that saw few night-to-night repeats of songs, I was somewhat surprised “Cry A While” came next and I almost suspected they wanted to see if they could pull of the dead stops of the night before which they did.

A so-so “Bye and Bye” came next followed by one of the high points of the show “Hollis Brown.”  This song showed what this band is capable of in providing arrangements with Denny Freeman playing slide on acoustic, Kimball playing the original lick of the song on electric, Don Herron on banjo and Tony on standup bass, they created the perfect tension and stark background for this song.

“If You See Her, Say Hello” was in pretty much the arrangement Dylan’s been using for years, complete with the apparently now official lyrics from the latest lyrics book.  Why this song is done this way will probably remain one of the great Dylan mysteries.  However the harp solo was a lot of fun.

Vocal-wise, “Lenny Bruce” was the song of the night which might be the weirdest thing I’ve ever said in a Bob Dylan concert review.  He sang clearly, with obvious care making each word count.  There was a sadness about this performance that went beyond the lyrics, beyond the subject matter.  If Dylan’s present vocal limitations prevent a song from truly cutting to the bone the way they once did, he is still quite capable of letting you know when he cares about something.

A rearranged “Honest With Me”  found he key slide lick to the song now played in very different form by Herron on lap steel way up on the neck giving the song both a different feel and sound.  This band can rock hard and the sound was loud and nasty.

A close to acoustic jazz arrangement of “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” came next.  With Stu on acoustic again this band showed their mastery of dynamics, playing quietly, letting the words be the focus.  This arrangement could work in time, but the sadness of the melody was absent.

Things returned to extreme rocking mode with “High Water.”  With Herron setting the tone on banjo with a quite a few dissonant jazz-grass excursions, what the current version of this song does is combine the feel of the original album version with the hard blues rock arrangement Dylan has been playing since 2002.  The sound was nothing less than ferocious.

A not bad “I Shall Be Released” was highlighted by an extended harp solo.

The encores, “Po Boy” (which was interrupted by a loud conversation behind me) which caused me to miss many of lyrical mistakes) and a quite typical “Watchtower” were basically inconsequential.

Based on various recordings I’ve heard all along this tour, and the two final shows I was able to see in New York, it seems obvious that the tide for this group of musicians was turned in Boston and they are just starting gel, and find out what they can do.  If the same crew goes is on the next tour, things should start to get interesting a few weeks from now.

04/29/05 Beacon Theater, New York

At exactly 8:15 the curtain rose at the Beacon Theater on Merle Haggard & the Strangers doing “Big City.” And for the next hour, Haggard led his excellent band through a set that not only touched on his hits and classic songs such as “White Line Fever” and “Silver Wings,” but also was a tour through several styles of American roots-based music, not only country, but blues, swing and dixieland, somtimes hitting all of the above on one song.

For close to 40 years Haggard has had the best road band in country music, and he still does, despite the fact that the only original members are drummer Biff Adams and steel player Norman Hamlet.

While the intensity of the late Roy Nichols is missed, the Strangers remain top-notch, and Haggard’s vocal skills have not diminished one bit.

Sometime after 9:30 the curtain rose on a hatless Bob Dylan and his new band tearing it up on “To Belone With You” with Don Herron leading the way on fiddle.

This was followed by “Hazel” with a great harp solo and then a killer version of “Cry Awhile” with brand new stops added on the time change.

A careful and gorgeous “Shelter From the Storm” followed with all members playing quietly letting the words be the focus.

This was followed by “Cold Irons Bound” with Denny Freeman adding a slide down on the bass notes of his guitar. Stu Kimball picked up an acoustic afterwards and began strumming in what once was referred to as a Dylan strum a few centuries ago.  Herron came in on steel and the song turned into “Chimes of Freedom.” The tempo was perfect, and when Dylan confused a couple of lines on one of the later verses it didn’t matter. It was a truly moving performance.

Dylan put on his hat for one of the best versions of “Highway 61” I’ve seen in years came next with great work from all guitar players followed by “Love Sick.”

At first “Watching The River Flow” seemed like a letdown, but there were surprises in store, started by a wake up guitar solo by Kimball, how handed it over to Freeman, who handed it to Herron and then surprise of surprises, a piano solo by Dylan!

The curtain behind the players took on a starlit background for an ethereal “Not Dark Yet,” which pointed out one of the interesting things about this tour. On the last few tours it was almost as if Dylan didn’t want to touch his slow songs or let them be slow. This time he is treating them with the respect they deserve.

This led into a jumping Summer Days, with Herron playing a Driftin’ Cowboys lap steel and by the end the song was up there with the best of the Sexton/Campbell years.

The new “Tambourine Man” closed the show, with Herron playing heavenly pedal steel that reminded me of Buddy Emmons’ version of “Wild Mountain Thyme.” The arrangement of this song has grown since the tour began, and while I prefer the original, it’s a lot better seeing it than hearing it.

They returned for a terrific “Things Have Changed” with led into a great jam that went on and on with call and response between Dylan and Herron, followed by a not bad at all “Like A Rolling Stone.”

This was easily the best Dylan show I’ve seen in years.