8/17/11 Mann Music Center, Philadelphia

Bob Dylan returned to the Mann Music Center for the first time in 14 years for his third show at the venue in Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park, the largest city park in the world. When Dylan played there in ’97, earlier in the tour he added a few songs to the set list he had rarely performed such as “One Of Us Must Know” and “Seven Days,” and one he had never performed, “Blind Willie McTell.” But for whatever reason, Philadelphia got none of those songs that night, though he did do “Tears of Rage.” I had to see “Blind Willie McTell,” so four days later I found myself driving to Wolf Trap where I finally saw it.

Foregoing the outrageous 15 bucks parking charge – my motto is real Philadelphians do not pay to park when you can park for free – we arrived at the venue while Leon Russell’s set was already in progress. The line to get a drink was so outrageously long, we entered the theater just as he finished. No big deal.

Dylan started with “Leopard-Skin Pillbox Hat” in a version that was a bit stronger than the one two days earlier in Asbury Park, and followed it with a pretty decent “Don’t Think Twice.”

Moving to center stage for “Things Have Changed,” the energy didn’t quite kick in, though Dylan seemed to be having a lot of fun onstage. That changed with “Tangled Up In Blue” which was sung and played full force with stellar harp, though I wish he’d sing at least another verse. But again, standing at the mic, harp in hand, he acted out the song and the phrasing and emphasis came into play on, “She opened up a book of poems and read it aloud to me,” and then on the final verse with special attention to and a brief pause before “Some are trucker’s wives.”

Bob stayed center stage for “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’ ” more than nailing his guitar solo. Returning to the keyboard, “Mississippi” seemed a bit looser than the version in Asbury Park and his vocal was incredibly strong. With a better view of the stage, and the full band, I noticed they very subtly use the “Love and Theft” intro and go back to it midway through the song, and thre seemed to be a bit more emphasis on the rhythm. Or maybe it was just Dylan’s vocal was so on, that the arrangement mattered less.

An excellent “Desolation Row” came next that included most of the verses with Dylan slightly playing around staccato singing near the end of the song, trying it for a line or two and returning to singing it a bit more straight. This was followed by a fairly rocking “The Levee’s Gonna Break” that was as much about the groove as anything else.

Dylan returned to center stage for “Blind Willie McTell. Donnie Herron’s banjo was an important part of the arrangement which may be the best one for this song yet, giving if the feel of a New Orleans street band. The closing harp solo was exceptional with two false stops.

As usual “Highway 61” was all about the jam, with not bad organ from Dylan.

The high point of the night was a beautiful “Simple Twist of Fate,” tenderly sung and played. The tone on Dylan’s guitar seemed a bit softer, more in keeping with the feel of the song and he played two well thought out guitar solos, the one at the end getting softer and softer as he brought the song to a close.

“Thunder on the Mountain” rocked hard with Dylan singing every word loud and clear saving special relish for the line, “Shame on your greed/shame on your wicked schemes.” “Ballad of a Thin Man” was equally good and again the best vocal parts were on the bridge with the emphasis this time on “tax deductible charity organizations.”

People started leaving before the encore probably to beat the parking lot chaos. But tonight “Like A Rolling Stone” was simply really good. He sang it as if he remembered why he wrote it.

Dylan these days is as much about the music, the band and the interplay between the musicians as it is about the songs and the lyrics. And this band at this point in time is one of his best in terms of backing and also in terms of him playing with them. They’ve mastered the dynamics of holding it back, bring it down then turning it on at the right moment.

While tonight didn’t have the hit you in the gut intensity of Asbury Park, it was a solid satisfying show.

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