It takes a lot of guts to play a cavernous arena, ignore your hits, play songs from an album that wasn’t even released in the country you’re playing in, as well as other not well known songs and make the crowd listen. Sounds like something Bob Dylan’s been known to do. But Mark Knopfler and his superb seven-piece band which features more than a few heavy duty musicians did that tonight, and the music was not exactly rock and roll either.
Ever since the soundtrack to Local Hero, Knopfler had been delving more and more into Celtic sounds and themes and at the same time exploring more traditional based American music. The result is stunningly beautiful punctuated by Knopfler’s always stellar, seemingly effortless guitar playing. His band which included uilleann pipes, violin, flute, two keyboard players, various guitar players and bass and drums, with various members constantly switching instruments took this sound to celestial heights. Additional instruments included the bouzouki, sometimes two bouzoukis, and ukulele. There were several points in the night where the music crossed into bluegrass and back again while touching on several other genres.
Knopfler is not only a perfectionist as a guitarist, a songwriter, and record producer but as a bandleader. The dynamics and interplay throughout were excellent. I haven’t read all the fan reviews of the current tour, but there’s been a lot of talk lately about Dylan’s use of old melodies for new songs which he’s been doing his entire career, but I haven’t noticed any mention that the title track of Knopfler’s latest album Privateering is based on the same melody Dylan used for the song “John Brown,” which is based on the traditional songs, “900 Miles” and “Reuben’s Train,” one of the highlights of the show with Knopfler on acoustic guitar. The show did what it was supposed to do and made me want to pick up his new album.
Dylan’s show started with Stu Kimball appearing and playing blues riffs while the band moved onstage and took their places. Then it was into a spirited “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” with Dylan at the piano singing some of the verses from the Greatest Hits Volume II version with a couple of lines thrown in he might have made on the spot. A piano-based “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue” followed with Mark Knopfler on guitar. Dylan’s voice was rough, and while still in warm-up mode, he was clearly on.
He then left the piano for what has been one of the highlights of the current tour, “Things Have Changed,” with Dylan front and center and playing harp. He was clearly energized and also quite comical acting out the song and standing right next to, almost singing the song to Knopfler as well as reacting to Knopfler’s solos and guitar punctuations. The arrangement is the same faster almost train beat version that Dylan’s been doing for awhile, but he keeps adding this utterly hysterical comments to the lyrics with different lines each night. Tonight after the line, “Don’t get up gentleman,” it was “Why? I’ll tell ya,” and then continuing with the lyrics. Dylan stayed standing for “Tangled Up In Blue,” which also featured Knopfler, returning to the piano for the last verse. And it was at this point, the show turned into something special. As Knopfler departed the stage, Dylan said, “Thank you Mark.”
“Early Roman Kings” was next, and the band was smoking with Donnie Herron playing funky slide on the lap steel, eventually joined in a slide duet with Charlie Sexton playing a black Epiphone hollow body. It easily rivaled the album version.
“Chimes of Freedom” came next and with it the mood of the concert suddenly changed from that of an arena to one of the more intimate Dylan performances I’ve seen in a long time. Contrary to various reports all along this tour, he wasn’t ignoring the audience, he was singing directly to the audience, in fact always facing the audience while sitting at the piano. And the show had a feel of, I’m gonna sit at this piano and play you all some songs.
Then it was back to blues for a rearranged “Rollin’ and Tumblin’ ” with Donnie providing lead on slide on the lap steel in a version that simmered reaching a smoking point on the solos, and then back to simmer again before a smoking conclusion. All of this was bolstered by Dylan’s piano which is some sort of crazed combination of barrelhouse, Jerry Lee Lewis, a bit of gospel and Chico Marx throw in for good measure.
And this is the difference since Dylan returned to playing a regular piano at the beginning of last summer. A decade ago when Dylan switched to keyboards as his primary instrument, first using a piano sound, then switching to an organ sound for several years, the arrangements of the songs for the most part stayed the same with Dylan trying to fit the keyboard into the existing arrangements. With the change from keyboard to piano, slowly but surely the arrangements are changing to be based around what Dylan is playing on piano, something I’ve been hoping for, for then years. And he is really playing and certain riffs and runs he uses which never really worked with the organ sound now are working. This allows for call and response with the band, allows for a new spontaneity and allows for Dylan to get deeper into exploring the melodies behind his songs. And Donnie Herron, the key player in this band watches Dylan’s moves like a hawk. And on previous tours and arrangements where he used to transmit a riff to the band to pick up on, now it’s more to alert them a stop, a change or a response. And it can happen at any time, and they’re ready. So yeah, it’s no longer this heavy guitar based band, but when the guitars are needed to bring it up, they bring it up. This is easily one of the tightest bands Dylan’s ever had, because they have to be ready to respond at any time, and it can happen at any time.
And this was the case on every song for the remainder of the show. Dylan and his band made it all count, whether it was “Desolation Row,” “Highway 61 Revisited,” which has taken on new life under the current setup and a slightly rearranged “Mississippi” which saw something of the song’s original heights. “Thunder on the Mountain,” not one of my favorite songs simply soared. And the concluding songs, which I’ve seen played tons of times in various ways, “Like A Rolling Stone, “All Along The Watchtower,” and “Blowin’ In The Wind” all had their own special meaning.
So yeah, Dylan’s voice ain’t what it once was. But it ain’t been what it was for a long time. And the thing is he can still deliver when he wants to, and tonight he made a huge arena seem like club and that’s no easy trick. I hooked up with a bunch of friends at the show, and we all took the subway getting off at different stops. And my particular stop is not the safest to get off of at night alone. But as I was halfway down the block, all of a sudden I heard a bunch of voices talking about the concert and about ten people passed me carrying posters from the show. A nice end to a great evening.