11/18/06 The Spectrum, Philadelphia

For those who have eyes and those who have ears Bob Dylan and his band conquered the Spectrum tonight in a show that never let up for a second from start to finish.  The introductory music started at 8:59 and Dylan and band took the darkened stage and shook it with the debut of “The Levee’s Gonna Break.  In a rendition that made the album version tame by comparison with Donnie Herron on electric mandolin, Dylan just nailed it.  There was no getting the voice in shape warm up, he was roaring, and at the song’s end on the final few notes the keyboard sound was that of a piano.  With barely a break the band then jumped right into “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” and it seemed that Dylan didn’t even wait for the intro to end before he started signing.  It was a version startling in its urgency and its energy topped for by an extended harp solo.

Donnie Herron and just enough to pick up the banjo and they were into a fierce “Highwater,” that featured both a lyric change, “I’m preachin’ the word of God/ I’ll open up your eyes,” and this amazing jam interlude where Herron, Dylan and Freeman found this one groove and this one riff and were totally in sync playing together and taking it as far as it could go.

This was followed by a simply gorgeous version of “To Ramona,” where not a note was out of place.  “Rollin’ and Tumblin’ ”  followed with Denny playing slide on a blue Denny with Stu Kimball on a black Strat and Donnie again on electric mandolin and Dylan totally focused on how and what he was singing.

For the next song Kimball picked up his acoustic and started strumming alone with Dylan on harp.  Dylan played a few bars and started walking back to an anvil case which held the harps and the Oscar statue, switched harps, Kimball kept strumming a sixties style Dylan rhythm with Dylan playing harp and thus began a version of “Desolation Row” that was amazing.  Not only was Dylan again nailing the vocal with fierce intensity — the way he sang, “The good Samaritan, he’s dressing, he’s getting ready for the SHOW,” seemed to summon all the deep and dark evil spirits lurking in the crevices and cabinets of the songs landscape – the interplay between the musicians was intense.  Donnie Herron had been coloring the song with subtle yet intricate mandolin riffs, but on this sing his role in this band became very apparent.  His focus is totally on Dylan what Dylan is playing.  His job is to pick up whatever riff Dylan might come across on the keys, then start duplicating it and transmit it to the rest of the band.  And when it works as it was the entire night, he and Dylan are totally in sync with each other.  Denny Freeman who’d been playing brilliantly all night contributed a with a Steve Cropper-esque guitar solo followed by another great harp solo.

A very funky version of “Most Likely You Go Your Way came next,” with Denny sounding like a combination of Roy Nichols and Robbie Robertson, while Dylan toyed with the lyrics.  At one point I could swear he sang, “You say you’re tired and you’re always wired, but you know sometimes you lie.”

Then came an incredibly spooky version of “Hollis Brown,” which was the very first song Dylan performed in this venue when he returned to touring almost 33 years ago.  While that version rocked hard, this version was all about sustained tension, with the two guitars acoustic, with Denny playing slide.  Just as you thought the song was about to end, Dylan reprised the final line followed by a final few chords that even though the guitars were acoustic were as hard and heavy as anything played the entire night.

Then it was back into overdrive for “Highway 61 Revisited,” followed by a “Spirit on the Water” that was at once loose, and slyly sharp with Dylan have talking, having singing, almost deadpanning the vocal, giving the song a new meaning.  When it came to the do you think I’m over the hill, the line, the audience shouted back, “No!”

“Tangled Up In Blue” was perfect with more excellent guitar from Freeman and led into another exquisite version of “Nettie Moore.”  This song truly displays the strengths of this band because the structure of the song is so precise.  Mainly based around Kimball’s finger picking colored by Herron’s viola, Freeman, Garnier and Receli, and Receli actually is playing a far more intricate pattern, on top of the incessant thumping of the kick drum.  On top of this Dylan sang beyond the bounds of passion and as he did at the Meadowlands, almost sang a harmony part on the chorus  It was stunning.

The band and Dylan pulled out all the stops on “Summer Days” and simply had a blast.  There were broad smiles all around especially on the instrumentals, especially near the end where they again found one riff to work off and took it as far as they could.

“Thunder On The Mountain” picked up where “Summer Days left off, in a perfect version and again Dylan sang both “Like A Rolling Stone” and “All Along The Watchtower” with energy and commitment and both featured superb solos by Freeman and final jam where the sound seemed larger than the instruments being played onstage.

Meeting up with friends who sat elsewhere during the show, everyone asked the same question, “Was that as great as I thought it was?”  The answer was yes.

11/16/06 Continental Airlines Arena, East Rutherford, NJ

Flood and Tornado and flood warnings pervaded all news radio as a skating rink destroying storm barreled up the old East Coast as I headed for New Jersey’s largest skating rink, currently known as the Continental Airlines Arena.  While a nice little wind gust on the Ben Franklin bridge did my heart and nervous system wonders.  Somehow I managed to stay ahead of the storm and made it safely to the last forgotten diner deep in the heart of Tony Soprano country.  While in the diner, a whole other drama ensued as an ex-confederate refugee from the Land of Lincoln got lost in the twilight zone fog of the Lincoln tunnel to learn that a what should be 30 minute trip can easily take four times that.  This was combined with two other waiting dramas, while the clock was ticking and somehow I made it to the Meadowlands complex in time to see Bob Dylan.

Once inside the keyboard was a whole lot closer to the center of the stage than it had been during the summer and the band’s setup didn’t seem as far back on the stage either.  The beginning of “Cats In the Well” found Dylan in craggy, rough voice mode but he managed to sing his way out of it.  Craggy or not, that certain thing he has when he means business was very much in evidence.  A couple of minor chords on the keyboard kicked off a reasonably intense version of “Senor.”  The song had barely ended when they kicked into a speedy “Rollin’ And Tumblin,’ ” with Denny playing the slide part and Bob roaring out certain lines, especially  “I did all I know just to keep you off my mind.”

“Positively 4th Street” followed.  I saw Bob Dylan sing this song at the time it was a hit in Newark, New Jersey, so any live version after that has had something pretty difficult to live up to.  For whatever reason tonight he sang it like he remembered why he wrote it, spitting out the, I know the reason you talked behind my back,” and  “You know what a drag it is see you” lines with venom.  There was one point where he sang a line out of order, which could have thrown the song into chaos, but after fumbling the next line, he got the song back on track.  The under-rated Denny Freeman played two excellent solos.

Then it was into the current arrangement of “It’s Alright Ma.”  This is of course one of Dylan’s greatest songs, and while I prefer it solo on guitar, with the “Wake Up Little Susie” riff, turned into something like a lightning strike, there’s something incredibly menacing and low down about this version, set to the Sonny Boy Williamson II “Help Me” riff, but in some murky muddy swamp of the mind that it just builds and builds and ends up overwhelming.  Dylan’s voice tattered voice at times in shards, yet singing with full force only enhanced the contempt in lines such as “Old lady judges watch people in pairs/limited in sex they dare to push fake morals, insult and stare.”

A close to perfect “When The Deal Goes Down” led to “Things Have Changed,” but my concentration was broken by someone near me deciding to have a conversation.  However one of the true highlights of the night, a stunning version of “Simple Twist of Fate” followed.  Starting off slowly with a gorgeous pedal steel intro by Donnie Herron, this song showed this band’s excellent use of dynamics and imagination.  Each verse was treated differently with subtle changes to illustrate each scene, sometimes by Dylan himself, who was not above slipping in a quick joke on the last verse when after singing “People say that it’s a sin,” he quickly added, “How do they know?”  While the studio version of this song will never be topped, this was easily one of the best live renditions I’ve seen, aided by two excellent solos from Denny Freeman.

A revised “Highway 61,” with a couple of new stops and licks thrown in led into “Spirit On The Water,” with Dylan emphasizing the “You think I’m over the hill” line.

Dylan was clearly having some fun on “Tangled Up In Blue,” alternating singing high and low almost answering each line like a conversation and finding new meanings in doing so.  While the arrangement is based around the acoustic guitar, the use of power chords turns it into something else.

The standout of the night came next, a splendid, “Nettie Moore.”  Donnie Herron’s viola and Stu Kimball’s finger-picked acoustic set the tone, and Dylan responded by singing tenderly, and sweetly, the incessant heartbeat of the drums, bass and lead guitar barely audible.  On the choruses, Dylan took the song someplace else entirely, almost as if he was singing a high harmony to the melody, one of those little vocal things that only he does and that he is still clearly capable of doing.  Nothing else really mattered after that.

A speedy “Summer Days” followed and Dylan was clearly having a good time, at one point either fumbling a line or singing it incomprehensibly.  I looked around and way up at the top of the arena on the very last row was a bunch of dancers apparently having a great time, blocking the vision of no one.  When I saw this song a few months ago in Reading, all three guitar players took solos, sometimes doing a call on response that echoed the work of the best Western Swing bands, past and present.  This time all the solos were handled by Denny, but at the very least it was more fun in the previous arrangement.

“Thunder on the Mountain” in opening the encore makes the connection between swing and rock and roll and in this set list, in opening the encore it echoed both musically and lyrically the opening song of the night.  Sometimes Dylan can go into automatic pilot on the encores.  Not so tonight, in what was originally the New York metropolitan area show of the tour and Dylan treated this show as such.  It was a night with no filler where each song was treated as something of value.