It was raining all day in Philadelphia, sometimes in torrents – which was not the original forecast – finally stopping about 90 minutes before the show. But since people in the City of Brotherly Love have never learned to drive in the rain and didn’t pay attention to things like braking distances and hydroplaning when they learned how to drive, there was a serious crash that closed a key road for getting to the Mann Music Center, which left us sitting in parking lot traffic and missing the opening of Mavis Staples’ set.
Now in its 40th year, the Mann Center for the Performing Arts has never been a great venue. Built on the best sledding hill in the city, the acoustics are great if you’re in the first 20 rows, but after that, a lot of the sound can get lost and jumbled depending on various factors from what kind of band playing to how noisy the crowd is, and how large the crowd is.
The audience was pretty noisy for Mavis Staples with many people still arriving and looking for their seats. There an ongoing conversation happening a few rows behind me for a good deal of her set and people already seated leaving them for whatever reason. At 77, Mavis Staples has her vocal skills intact and more energy than a lot of people a third of her age. Backed by guitar, bass, drums, and two backup singers, one of whom added percussion, Staples was at her best the deeper she got into gospel with the high point being “Freedom Highway” which went right into “For What It’s Worth.” She closed with the hit, “I’ll Take You There.”
Dylan’s set started with Stu Kimball alone on acoustic while the other band members and Dylan took the stage, as usual starting with “Things Have Changed” which had a slightly different arrangement, that was not quite the rockabilly train beat of the last few years. Dylan seemed in good spirits and was throwing emphasis on the final word of various lines, like jitterbug RAG and DRAG. “She Belongs To Me” had similar phrasing on alternate lines, and there was a cool harp solo while Donnie Herron played organ licks on the pedal steel. Dylan then went to the piano for “Beyond Here Lies Nothing,” where Herron’s electric mandolin was high in the mix.
The first Sinatra song of the night, “Full Moon and Empty Arms” highlighted by the interplay between Herron’s steel and Tony Garnier’s string bass, which was followed by the most rocking song of the night, “Pay In Blood.” Amazingly, following that with “Melancholy Mood” made sense, as did the next song, “Duquesne Whistle” which featured a cool twin solo by Charlie Sexton and Herron. Dylan then returned to center stage for one of the more moving songs of the night, “How Deep Is The Ocean,” which was followed by “Tangled Up In Blue,” which had a quickly abandoned false start. Dylan sang it very well though I’m not thrilled by the lyric changes in the version that he’s been doing for the past few years. He delivered a fairly wild harp solo before ending the song at the piano and breaking for intermission.
Returning to the stage for a set where Tony Garnier never touched an electric bass, Donnie’s banjo dominated “High Water (for Charlie Patton),” and while what he was playing was great, the arrangement missed the power chords of previous arrangements that were totally effective in emphasizing the lyrics. A fine “Why Try To Change Me Now” was followed by a fairly dramatic “Early Roman Kings” with Sexton playing a Les Paul Gibson, and Stu Kimball a Stratocaster with everyone including Bob on piano and Herron on steel taking it out on the solos. It was easily the funkiest romp of the night.
“I Could Have Told You” came next and at this point the show started to drag a little. “Scarlet Town” was not as spooky as it could have been, and while Bob appeared to be having fun on “Spirit On The Water,” clearly enjoying his quite good piano solo, the best part of the song was the instrumental work by everyone involved.
The high point of the rest of the set was easily the closer, “Autumn Leaves.” Returning for the usual encore of “Blowin’ In The Wind,” Dylan then pulled a surprise ending replacing “Love Sick” with the always moving “Stay With Me.”
Dylan shows these days are about showing how good his band is, and at this point they can play pretty much anything, and also about singing. In the interview in AARP magazine before Shadows In The Night came out, Dylan said he is not so much “covering the songs as uncovering them.” It is clear he enjoys the challenge of singing these pop standards, and at times the way he sings clearly shows his appreciation of the wordplay in that type of lyric writing.
However, as well planned and performed as these concerts are, there’s another indefinable thing that only Bob Dylan can deliver that is not happening on this tour or perhaps it’s being channeled in a different direction. If there’s one thing that 53 years of listening to Bob Dylan has taught me, it’s that nothing stays the same for long. He may yet have a couple of more tricks up his sleeve.