11/23/14 Academy Of Music, Philadelphia

I have this really good friend who knew that the thought Bob Dylan playing a mile from my house and not being there would be a bit upsetting, so he got me a ticket. Actually, he got me the ticket, front row center, slightly to the right (looking at the stage) of Bob’s microphone or as the case may be on this tour microphones. And with the ticket came a backpack, well it’s not really a backpack, but it’s a shoulder pack with a whole lot of pockets and it might be really cool for carrying guitar cords and stuff like that and also this laminate in the shape of a really big tortoise shell guitar pick, so it’s hanging on this bulletin board that has a bunch of really ancient press passes, buttons from bands that no longer exist and Buck Owens’ autograph is on there somewhere.

Anyway having that front row seat had its advantages and disadvantages. The stage is really high and the seats are really low, so while I could see Bob at center stage just fine, I could only see the guys in the band from the waist up and couldn’t see Donnie at all, except when he played banjo for about 30 seconds because the piano was in the way. At the same time, I could hear the acoustic guitar and the piano without the sound system.

So tonight’s show was again different than the first two. Bob’s voice especially at the beginning was slightly rougher than the second show and not quite as animated.  The guy behind me decided to sing along with “Things Have Changed,” and then clap his hands to the beat.  He tried the stuff a couple of times and thankfully gave up.  The woman next to him was having a conversation with the person she was with, until I gave her my best Michael Corleone stare, the one he gives Al Neri while he’s embracing Fredo at their mother’s funeral.

Luckily that guy didn’t sing along on “She Belongs To Me” because Dylan was singing it great and Charlie Sexton who was particularly on tonight, was adding nice fills complementing Bob’s harp.

“Working Man’s Blues #2” again was very strong with Bob putting out on the last verse. On “Pay In Blood,” there was added emphasis on the line (not on the album): “But they’ll hang you in the morning and they’ll sing your song.”

“Tangled Up In Blue” may have been the best version of the three Philly nights. While the harp didn’t reach the 1966 craziness of the first show, being that close I could see he was actually treating the lyrics a lot more gently than it may have sounded elsewhere in the hall. And with his hat down close to his eyes, there were more than a few times during the song that I couldn’t help but think of the video version from Renaldo and Clara.

There were various other high points. “Forgetful Heart” was the strongest of all three shows, and “Long And Wasted Years” was by far the best version with Dylan acting out certain parts with broad arm gestures.

The thing about this tour is while the shows may have the same set list, there were differences every night. There were certain things the band did on Saturday night that didn’t happen tonight. Watching the show, I wasn’t even thinking about the set list or what song came next. Sometimes the little tuning and noodling thing the band does between each song would remind me or cue me in. Tonight Dylan seemed to give extra care to the two songs from Blood On the Tracks. But that doesn’t mean “Scarlet Town” or “Soon After Midnight” was any less beautiful. And speaking of that song, while the melody and the arrangement are beautiful, the line Dylan really emphasized tonight was “I’ll drag his corpse through the mud.”

The thing is these are some of the strongest shows Dylan’s given in the 2,000s. And for those who want to hear the old songs or for him to shake up the set list, well he did that for a really long time. The thing is this show is like a play. It’s theatrical without being overly theatrical. And if you ever acted in a play, well you go out and you perform the show and some nights you really hit it out of the park and the other nights it cruises along. Music is the same way, you go out and play the same set every night and after a few nights you’re really sailing, and everything’s second nature. They may be playing the same songs, but there’s little variations that happen each night. Ultimately, the current tour is about Bob Dylan giving consistently good and great performances every night, and that is what it’s about.

11/22/14 Academy Of Music, Philadelphia

I was fully and psychologically prepared to present the proletariat perspective from the highest balcony of the Academy of Music, but as I walked into the lobby, a mystical emissary appeared and asked, “Where are you sitting?” I pointed upward towards the heavens, and the mystical emissary said, “Here, take this,” and handed me a ticket for the orchestra. I was not about to turn it down. The ticket turned out to be the same seat I was sitting in the night before which was smack dab in the center directly in front of Bob’s microphone, but six rows closer.

This time Bob and the band were all dressed in black, but as the show started it was different in feel, looser, more energetic, but just as tight and Dylan was in much better voice. And instead of standing with his hand on his hip, like he did the night before, this time he was holding the mic stand.

On “She Belongs To Me,” the harp was more forceful and he started stretching out lines and playing with the phrasing. “Beyond Here Lies Nothing” was all about his piano with rolling bass notes.

Returning to the front for “Working Man’s Blues #2,” he started acting out the lyrics as he sang them, and after a particularly beautiful pedal steel solo, he put out his left hand in the direction of Donnie Herron. “Waiting For You” seemed to flow a bit smoother and Dylan threw a little extra emphasis on the line, “You don’t have to be rich or well to do.”

“Duquesne Whistle” is obviously one of the show stoppers on the tour, and tonight I was better able to notice some things the band and Dylan are doing. Every instrumental break is different, and there was a very cool section were Charlie Sexton and Donnie Herron were doubling their parts. (This happened on a couple of other songs as well.) But what made it interesting was they didn’t do it every time. And on one of the stops Dylan sudden stood for a second still playing piano, sitting back down right on the stop. The song ended with a hot solo from Charlie.

Then it was back up front for “Pay In Blood,” and he sang it like a gangster, and not a 21st century gangster, a 1930s gangster robbing a bank. And after every verse he did this half walk/half dance to the side of the mic, and at one point stopped, faced the crowd with his hands back and then walked back to the mic. “Tangled Up In Blue” was equally animated.

“Love Sick” again was a high point. Stu Kimball starts it with a hard almost ska beat, while Herron on electric mandolin is adding a different accent, and Recile’s drums are way out front, but again there were times where the guitars would double each other, and Dylan singing “I’m sick of it,” with a vengeance.

After what seemed like an extended intermission they returned with “High Water” with Sexton delivering menacing guitar throughout and Dylan emphasizing the everywhere at the end of each verse.

“Simple Twist of Fate” also seemed smoother than the night before, but again “Early Roman Kings” was all about high energy and the proficiency of this band with Sexton and Herron playing off each other and playing off Dylan’s piano, Sexton at one point totally in sync with what Dylan was playing, and meanwhile Dylan’s snarling out, “They destroyed your city/They’ll destroy you as well,” leaving little doubt who he’s singing about.”

During “Spirit On The Water,” amazingly enough the couple who had the vacant seats next to me finally decided to show up three quarters of the way through the show temporarily interrupting the flow of everything, of course talking while they were taking off their coats and sitting down. Luckily they shut up pretty fast when they realized the entire theater was quiet.

The big difference in this show was a higher energy level, with Dylan much more animated which ultimately made his deliver of every song even more effective.

 

11/21/14 Academy Of Music, Philadelphia

The Academy of Music in Philadelphia, the oldest opera hall in the country and home to the Philadelphia Orchestra for 101 years (until 2001) is sacred ground. It is world renowned for its acoustics. Bob Dylan and the Hawks played a two-night stand there almost 49 years ago, and tonight he returned for a three-night stand.

The show started in darkness with Stu Kimball strumming an acoustic while the rest of the band and Bob Dylan took the stage. The first thing you noticed was how low the volume of the band was, as Dylan in an off white suit and hat moved to the center of the three microphones at the front of the stage for “Things Have Changed,” his left hand on his hip. His voice was gruff, but I’ve heard much gruffer, but the song and “She Belongs To Me” which followed were just the warm-ups, though the latter song included three fine harp solos, especially the last two. Bob then moved to the piano for “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’” which he sang in a low voice as the band started kicking into gear with George Recile’s drums up front.

Bob went back to the front of the stage for a stunning “Workingman’s Blues” with beautiful pedal steel by Donnie Herron. Several of the lyrics have been rewritten and it was the first high point of the night, and Bob made several lines stand out. Then came the carnival waltz of “Waiting For You” which I ended up liking a lot better than I thought I would. The song serves another purpose which is providing a little rest before “Duquesne Whistle” which swung like mad, but also rocked. Tony Garnier’s string bass stood out throughout the song which ended with a cool solo by Charlie Sexton.

It was then back to center stage for “Pay In Blood,” and while it is still in a minor key unlike the studio version, the arrangement has changed since I saw it last year and is a full blown rocker. Dylan stayed up front for “Tangled Up In Blue” standing with his legs far apart. It was basically the version he’s been doing for the last few tours though a couple of lines have been changed and he skips the third and fourth verse, and sixth verse. He took a couple of wild harp breaks, one of which came close to 1966 craziness, and on the final line, he now sings “Depending on your point of view” with the emphasis on depending. It was around this point that I realized how each song in some strange way sets you up for the one following by change of mood, feel and dynamics. Then came a fantastic version of “Love Sick” which has been rearranged with the band doing all these very cool fills that constantly change on each verse. Dylan then spoke for the only time all night announcing the intermission.

The second half again started in darkness with Stu Kimball alone on electric, while the band took the stage launching into “High Water (For Charlie Patton)” with Donnie’s banjo out front. Dylan stayed at center stage for “Simple Twist of Fate” notable for Donnie’s pedal steel and Dylan’s second harp solo. His vocal was clear and tender and the lyrical changes were much smoother since the last time I saw it.

Then it was back to the piano for a fierce “Early Roman Kings” that was half Chicago blues and half swing. Dylan’s piano work was great. Then finally came my first “Forgetful Heart” which has been a major highlight of every show since Dylan started doing it. Then it was back to the piano for “Spirit On the Water” which as usual built up to the “You think I’m over the hill” line. Then it was back out front for “Scarlet Town” which tonight was a bit nastier than it is on the record. Again it was back to the piano for “Soon After Midnight” which was played perfectly. Dylan returned to the front of the stage for “Long and Wasted Years.” This was also my first time seeing this and the arrangement has been changed to add an extra stop at the end of each verse which seemed to get in the way more than enhance the song. They pulled it off flawlessly, but it’s not needed.

Dylan’s piano dominated “Blowin’ In The Wind,” but he sang it like he meant it and considering recent events in this country, he seemed to put extra emphasis on the line “How many years must some people exist before they’re allowed to be free?” Then came “Stay With Me” and it was as if the entire concert was building up to that point, Dylan singing clearly and strongly, and it was over too fast.

This was the most relaxed I’ve ever seen Dylan on stage. His band has never been tighter. This was not a show about hot solos, though when the occurred they were hot. When there were jams which happened only when Dylan was at the piano, they knew exactly what they were doing. There’s a reason Dylan has been doing this show this way with only a few changes to the set list for a little over a year. It is clear he wanted people to hear these songs, the best of his later songs done this way in a concert hall atmosphere. The lighting is low key throughout. There are no spotlights and there are subtle but effective changes in the backdrop. It’s a show that’s about the music. The audience, noticeably older than recent Dylan shows I’ve been too stood up when he took the stage, but quickly sat down and for the most part thankfully were quiet.

After the show, Donnie Herron was walking with friends up Locust Street alongside the Academy when a street hustler tried to sell him a Bob Dylan t-shirt. “No,” he said, “but thanks!” and then laughed and walked into the night.