11/26/10 Borgata Hotel Casino, Atlantic City

For whatever reason Bob Dylan’s last few shows in Atlantic City have been at the Borgata, which isn’t necessarily as much fun as some of the other casinos, but then again weird things have happened at other Casinos like shows getting interrupted by the Fire Department, drunk fans deciding to jump onstage and sing and all kinds of things.  The Borgata has its own set of weird things like getting in and getting out, and then once you’re in, you’re getting out to get out and parking lot exit system that was designed by a moron, though the Dylan fans leaving the lot decided to heed Jon Stewart’s you go then I’ll go maxim, which I can tell you from experience doesn’t happen in real life at the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel.

In any case not an empty seat was to be seen at the Borgata and after a rather speedy run-through of the usual announcement, Dylan and band ripped into a charge version of “Change My Way Of Thinking” with Charlie Sexton playing a bottleneck lead.

Bob quickly left the keyboard for guitar, and Stu Kimball started the intro to a not bad “Girl From The North Country,” with Donnie Herron’s pedal steel quite audible and intermingling with Bob’s lead guitar, weaving in and out of Bob’s guitar lines which again on this tour managed to stay on track.  Bob stayed on guitar, and Donnie moved to a loud and clear trumpet for a cool rendition of “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’.”  The show was starting to pick up steam as Bob returned to the keyboard for “Just Like A Woman.”  The band was tight, but on this song tonight Dylan’s voice just wasn’t up to the task of really singing the melody and he ended up sounding like a combination of Jimmy Durante and Popeye with a slight dose of Charlie Patton.  The was the usual stop for the audience to sing along on the chorus which they mostly didn’t, and during the last instrumental I was hoping Dylan would pick up the harp and really let loose but he didn’t.

Dylan’s voice more than returned for “The Levee’s Gonna Break,” in fact he sounded maybe 20 years younger.  Bob Dylan can sing in such a way that every word stands out when he wants to, but what he was singing half the time on this song tonight, I have no idea, though he appeared to be having quite a good time doing it.  The band was all high energy, with an extra long jam at the end before returning to the first verse to close things, with suddenly jumping into revival tent preacher mode on the last line, “Everybody saying this is a day, only the lord, only the lord, only the lord could make.”

Moving back to center stage, but no guitar, the band kicked into a not bad “Most Likely You Go Your Way” with Sexton playing a very cool lick straight from Stax-Volt Memphis.  The bridge had some very cool stops, the precision of which seemed to please Dylan immensely.  The judge (stop) he holds a grudge (stop) he’s gonna fall on you.  The songs then veered into some crazy direction as Dylan played a wild harp solo that ended up being back on the bridge.  Dylan stayed at center stage, strapped the guitar back on the band went to Chicago, for a slow but smoking, totally in the pocket “My Wife’s Home Town.”  A lot of the audience decided this was a good time to get a drink or whatever, but quite a few people in the audience also picked up on the groove that was happening onstage.

As Dylan walked back to the keyboard, Stu Kimball started the acoustic intro to “Desolation Row,” followed by Recili on drums, and after a couple of hits on the bongos, Dylan started his merry-go-round organ.  Unlike last year, the organ riff from “If You Ever Go To Houston,” wasn’t transplanted beneath the verses, with the guitars returning to the song’s original guitar riff.  And while that transplanted riff did take the song to certain heights, tonight it didn’t matter.  Suddenly, it wasn’t like you were sitting in the audience at some glitzy casino.  Instead you were on the midway of the last windy autumn carnival on the ledge of some lonesome town on the edge of nowhere.  And you’re walking down the midway going from left to right and right to left and each verse is like the next booth, or tent or ride.  And just like those different booths, each verse is sung in a different voice with different phrasing, sometimes into the staccato singing for a line or two and then out again.

“Cold Irons Bound” could have picked up in the same lot 20 miles out of town, except the carnival’s pack up and gone and all that’s left is the wind and it’s maybe four in the morning.  After that what could you do except seek “Shelter From The Storm, with Donnie Herron standing out on pedal steel, and Bob playing harp.

A fairly routine “Highway 61 Revisited” led into a “Nettie Moore” that was more playful than wistful.  In many of the versions I’ve seen before, what hit you was the beauty of the melody of the chorus but tonight Dylan was toying around with the phrasing of the verses, in a way that where there once was reverence, there now was absurdity, and where once the focus was on “I miss you Nettie Moore,” tonight he barked out, “The world has gone BLACK before my eyes.”

After a fairly hot “Thunder On The Mountain,” “Ballad of a Thin Man” at center stage closed the show.  It’s hard for Dylan to do wrong and this song, and him standing at the microphone, half acting it out, half dancing, half preacher, half comic, it’s hard to do wrong.  Tonight, I noticed on the screen behind, throughout the song they’d focus on the shadows of various band members in different sizes.  The shadows thing had been going on all night against various backgrounds, at times more evident than others.  On “Thin Man,” is was deliberately evident.

At this point, and from what I’ve seen (one other show) and heard of this tour, is how not good, but great this band is.  In terms of tightness, precision, doing what’s right for the song, and arrangements that work, this may well be the tightest band that Dylan’s had on the “Never Ending Tour.”  There may have been other bands that rocked harder at times, or took things to a certain crazy edge, but in terms of nailing it every time, pulling off intricate little runs and jams that actually go someplace, this band is way up there with the best of Dylan’s bands.

11/12/10 Stabler Arena, Bethlehem, PA

Bob Dylan once said in an interview not too long ago something along the lines of my stuff is based on mistakes. The Bob Dylan show that rolled into Bethlehem for his sixth performance at Stabler Arena in 29 years was like any good band that’s been out on the road night after night. They had it down in a show that was smooth and quick. Even Dylan’s few turns on guitar were search and find as opposed to search and destroy.

Dylan’s voice was in reasonably good form and at Stabler there was none of the staccato playfulness that depending on your point of view either made a song fun or a disaster that he employed a year ago. Everything was played fairly straight, and even new arrangements didn’t stray all that far from original versions.

It took Dylan and his band about five songs to get warmed up. Though he never really hit full steam, at times he came close. The first three songs, “Leopard Skin Pill-Box Hat,” “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” and “Things Have Changed” were quick run-throughs.  Dylan started to get a bit playful on a reasonably soulful “Just Like A Woman” with the band exceptionally tight and Charlie Sexton providing some nice Steve Cropper type fills on guitar. Over the past few years the chorus has turned into a sing-along, and typically Dylan never lets the audience sing their part right, always jumping in on top of them. While he definitely left a space for the crowd to jump in, in Bethlehem, those who sang weren’t all that loud. In fact the audience wasn’t loud at all. In fact, breaking the precedent of every other Bob Dylan review of written on the Internet, no one around me was talking. No one around me was playing with a cell phone or some other device. Everyone was watching and listening. This hasn’t happened in more than 30 years!

After a rather incomprehensible “Rollin’ And Tumblin'” where I could make out maybe every fourth line, though the band was starting to kick, Dylan went into the first highlight of the night, “Simple Twist of Fate.” This was followed by a powerful “Cold Iron Bounds” which featured some excellent harp playing. Dylan’s harp playing was superb the entire show.

The staging has changed this tour to include images behind Dylan on a huge screen where Dylan’s shadow would dominate over shadowy images, some almost recognizable. Images of cities, old buildings mixed with new, the inside of what looked like a trolley, things that looked familiar, but at the same time blurred just enough so you couldn’t be sure what they were.

“Spirit on the Water” which followed “Cold Irons Bound” brought the energy level down a notch just when it was starting to build, only to be brought up again on “Summer Days” where Dylan seemed to enjoy singing the line “Politician’s got on his jogging shoes” with particular relish.

Then came “Tangled Up In Blue.” I’d heard this latest arrangement from earlier shows on this tour, and thought, well better than some not as good as others. In this case, hearing it and seeing it are two different things. Dylan stands at the mic, with just a harp and suddenly the master story teller appears. Everything about the whole presentation was dramatic. However on the “Montague Street” verse, after he sang “revolution in the air,” with both a smile and gusto, instead of singing, “He started into dealing with slaves,” he sang the beginning line of what should have been the previous verse if he’d sung all the lyrics, “She lit a burner on the stove and offered me a pipe.” Whoops! But in a crazy way, it was kind of the high point of the night, because he had to find a way out of it which he sort of did humorously, though I’d have to hear a recording to hear what lines he sang, which I’m pretty sure weren’t in any previous version of the song. He followed that screw up with another great harp solo, but whatever happened seemed to open up the cell or the cartridge in Dylan’s brain where the song lines are kept because all of a sudden on the final verse out came a line he hasn’t sung (as far as I know) since 1984, “Some are ministers of the trade” and I’m not even sure it was sung where it was supposed to be sung. It just popped of nowhere. My friend and I instantly looked at each other with expressions of “What!?”

After a “Highway 61,” that featured some pretty good jamming – Dylan can actually play that organ when he wants to – the story teller returned for “Workingman’s Blues #2” with Dylan starting at the keyboard then moving mid-song to center stage and another good harp solo. There were times during this song where Dylan’s voice mysteriously lost the huskiness of the past few decades with lines and notes ringing out clearly. After an okay “Thunder On The Mountain,” that served to keep the energy going more than anything, Dylan returned to center stage for a “Ballad of a Thin Man,” where he could do no wrong, and with all his performing skills quite intact seemed to enjoy barking out lines such as “You’re been with the professors and they all like your looks.” Returning for “Jolene,” which really doesn’t deserve the next to last spot, he closed with a not bad “Like A Rolling Stone,” where somewhere down through the decades that seem like centuries, he sang it as if he remembered why he wrote it.