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.

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