And so the 2015 Bob Dylan tour of the South, the Southwest and Midwest starts in Atlantic City, New Jersey, a city that would be below the Mason Dixon line if it extended into New Jersey. And for those who carefully watch Dylan’s set lists, this is the same tour that started in Oslo, Norway, October 10, 2013, and will continue with this format that includes an intermission like the Dylan concerts of the ’60s and ’70s and the set list that has changed very little over that time with one or two exceptions. And it is quite clear that this is a specific show in every way from the song selection to the lighting to the ensemble playing of Dylan’s band to the lighting, the backdrops and the sound and show volume. It is a show designed to put the songs first before the musicians. It’s not about guitar solos, it’s not about flash, it’s totally about the music.
Most of the shows on this tour have taken place in theaters and the great music halls around the world and the staging is designed for that. The ambiance of the Borgata Event Center clashed with the theatrical elements of the show.
The first gong sounded at 9:01, and an acoustic guitar was strummed once, but the lights didn’t dim and it turned out to be a false start. Within a few minutes, the gong sounded again three times and Stu Kimball took the stage playing what sounded like a minor key mountain ballad that I couldn’t quite put my finger on as the rest of the band and Bob Dylan took the stage starting with the song that has set the tone for this tour, “Things Have Changed.”
I was sitting on an aisle seat and the people in the same row right across the aisle were engaged in a conversation that showed no signs of stopping. Keeping in mind Peter Clemenza’s instructions to Michael Corleone that “they should have stopped Hitler in Munich and never let him get away with that,” I knew this conversation had to be nipped in the bud or it would pervade through the entire concert. And being an old hand at this after decades of attending concerts with audiences that have no qualms about spending hundreds of dollars to see someone they pay utterly no attention to, I had a brand new line to try out. I leaned across the aisle and said, “Excuse me, is Bob Dylan interrupting your conversation?” As it turned out, it worked a lot better than say “Shut the fuck up” because the guy actually had to stop and think about what I just said, before admitting that Bob Dylan was interrupting his conversation. Luckily, I didn’t have to take it further than that. Other than that, the crowd was reasonably attentive with the security flashlight shining brigade present in a big way on the hunt for mobile device users, and even with that, people would still hold their mobile filming apparatus high above their heads.
In the meantime Bob Dylan wearing a cool gray suit had begun “She Belongs To Me” which received a big roar of applause on the opening line and the song included a couple of nice harp solos, especially the second one. I couldn’t help but note that the Egyptian ring this time around is no longer red and back to being a plain old Egyptian ring the way it was in the flip side of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” as well as on Bringing It All Back Home.
Dylan then moved to the piano, playing with force and pretty much dominating the sound of “Beyond Here Lies Nothing,” before going into one of the first set’s high points, “Working Man’s Blues #2” placing special emphasis on the lines, “Some people never worked a day in their life/They Don’t Know What Work Even Means.”
“Duquesne Whistle” had kind of a strange opening where I wasn’t quite sure what was going on and wasn’t close enough to the stage to really see, but it may have been because it took the spot usually reserved for “Waiting For You.” Once it got going though, it was another high point. Then it was waltz time with “Waiting For You,” where Dylan seemed to be enjoying his piano solo, but also served to make “Pay In Blood” once of the few rockers in this show even more effective. “Tangled Up In Blue” followed with the version Dylan’s been singing for a couple of years and of course received a roar of recognition and while Dylan was making sure very verse was clear, this time around the verses not sung were noticeable. Simply put, it was too damn short. Just as it was last fall, “Love Sick” was a strong closer to the first set, and for whatever reason, maybe the cool additions this band has added to the arrangement, this song is stronger now than at any previous point.
“High Water (For Charlie Patton)” kicked off the second set into high gear followed by “Simple Twist Of Fate” with Dylan going real low emphasizing the word fate each time around. Then came a slight change as Stu Kimball put down his guitar and picked up maracas for “Early Roman Kings” in a slightly different arrangement with the emphasis on rhythm with George Recile using timpani sticks to beat the drums, while Charlie Sexton kept hitting this one high note all the way up the neck near the body of his Les Paul Gibson at the end of each line basically leaving the solos to Donnie Herron’s slide and Dylan’s piano, and along with the rhythmic changes, it was the piano which dominated the song.
“Forgetful Heart,” remains a song that can’t miss and led off the closing portion of the concert. “Scarlet Town” seemed almost dreamlike and “Soon After Midnight” seemed a little looser than usual, and maybe I didn’t notice it, but “Long And Wasted Years” seemed to be missing the extra stop that was added last fall.
Again, the true high point of the night, after a not bad but nothing really special “Blowin’ In The Wind,” came an emotional and very strong “Stay With Me,” with Dylan making every word count. Of all the songs performed, it seemed that this was the one he really wanted to sing.
Opening night of a tour by any artist is usually not the best concert to attend because by nature, especially after a few months off the road, because by default it ends up being warmup night with few surprises. Dylan was in excellent voice, singing sort of softly the way he does on his latest album but effectively. I think by the time this tour hits Memphis if not before, they should be in full gear the way they were in Chicago, Philly and New York last fall.