And so what is apparently the last Bob Dylan concert of the 20th Century took place in the unlikely town of Newark, Delaware at the Bob Carpenter Center, a not so big concrete arena, where Dylan played in October ’92. Asides from being home to the University of Delaware, Newark was once home to George Thorogood & The Destroyers who once did what they called the 50/50 tour playing all 50 states in 50 days, traveling to most of them in a Checker automobile, best known for manufacturing taxicabs.
This show was actually a make-up date for a concert canceled due to Dylan’s 1998 Grammy appearance, and there were times when this show almost seemed to travel back in time.
The audience was extremely enthusiastic and after “I Am The Man Thomas,” Dylan went into a slow beautiful “My Back Pages” with Larry on violin. I’ve seen him do this song a few times over the last decade, but tonight’s version was easily one of the best if not the best. He sang it carefully, enunciating each word with great emotion.
An equally strong “It’s Alright Ma” followed and this arrangement gets better every time I see it with Larry playing intricate guitar around Dylan’s guitar punctuations while Charlie keeps the rhythm happening strumming a dobro. Dylan flubbed a couple of lines but it didn’t matter.
“Tangled” did its usual job of rousing the audience, but the real surprise of the night was a previously unheard by Dylan country cover, “This World Can’t Stand Long,” which I’m pretty sure is a Roy Acuff song (though I may be wrong) and somewhere in the back of my mind a distant memory of Dolly Parton singing it is bouncing around. Whoever wrote it or did it, it was truly great and one of those special Dylan moments and particularly memorable for the last line of the chorus: “We should know it can’t stand long because it’s too full of hate.” Larry and Charlie joined Bob on the choruses.
A gentle “One Too Many Mornings” preceded the switch to electrics with “Memphis Blues Again” with Larry on pedal steel starting the set, followed by an okay and sometimes slightly bluesy “Make You Feel My Love.”
Dylan then brought on opening act Susan Tedeschi to jam with the band on “It Takes A Lot To Laugh.” This was one of the real fun moments of the night. She is a very good and hot guitar player and she was just ecstatic to be invited on stage with Bob Dylan and Dylan was enjoying having her on-stage and absolutely getting off on her guitar playing. A true jam with Bob kind of as the encouraging overseer.
Next came “Joey,” but the version was much different than the other two I’ve seen on this tour. Larry played guitar instead of pedal steel and it rocked hard, with a choppier rhythm that was much more reminiscent of versions of this song from earlier in the ‘90s.
An exquisite “Not Dark Yet” followed with featured an ethereal guitar break from Larry that earned him well-deserved applause. It was easily the high point of the electric set. Dylan again introduced Tedeschi and said, “We’re gonna burn this one up,” as Kemper kicked off the rhythm to “Highway 61,” and burn it up they did. That road is going to need some repaving after this version. Dylan was having a lot of fun letting everyone take solos starting out with Larry on lap steel followed by Tedeschi and then Dylan nodded to Charlie who exploded with a piercing flurry of blazing notes. His solo was over fast, but it was absolutely amazing and inspiring.
And then it was into a fairly typical set of encores, “Love Sick,” “Rolling Stone,” “Don’t Think Twice,” and Blowin’ In The Wind,” followed by “Not Fade Away” with Tedeschi again appearing to sing on the choruses.
The lights went down and the crowd stayed put and they came back one more time for “Rainy Day Women.
Dylan didn’t touch his harp the entire night.
So this final show of this remarkable tour wasn’t as adventuresome set list-wise as some of the others and perhaps didn’t have those truly transcendent peaks. But the energy was there throughout and the songs were played and sung with conviction. And in the end you can’t ask for more than that. And once again, like every other show I’ve seen in the last two weeks, this one was completely different in every way. I can’t think of any other performer that I’ve seen who can pull that little trick off.
Atlantic City to put it quite simply a bizarre place and here was Bob Dylan appearing there for the fourth time at a place he already played earlier this year, the Copa Room in the Sands Casino. I left Philly in the middle or rush hour, miraculously didn’t hit any traffic jams and made it to A.C. in the usual time: one hour flat. I strolled past the gamblers in the one arm bandits easily found the line to the Copa Room and wandered down it till I found my friends the Double-D couple just where they said they would be. Now the Copa Room is pretty small with lots of tables and chairs and these booth-like lounge things which they keep reserved for the heavy gamblers who get comped to the show. They have some sort of seating chart and it takes a while for everyone to get in. Sometimes it helps to tip the Maitre d’ to get a better spot. We got a pretty good table a little to the left of the center of the stage and had a good 45 minutes to kill before show time. I spent it getting something to eat in the Casino (they give you passes out), and wandering the Copa Room in search of various RMD-ers though I didn’t know what they looked like, and found the one who did give me a description, Kevin Reilly who as it happened was sitting at the table next to mine.
So right around 8 PM the curtain came up and there were the roadies tuning the guitars. About 8 minutes after, Dylan and band appeared and launched into a spirited “Roving Gambler,” a totally appropriate song for the setting. Dylan seemed very loose and in good spirits smiling broadly. An okay “Mr. Tambourine Man,” followed and then Dylan said hello to someone in the audience whose name I already forget and said he was the president of the International Bob Dylan fan club, and then went into the Stanley Brother’s “Cold Walls and Steel Bars” and it was good too. The thumping rhythm he uses these days for “Desolation Row” came next and it was he was singing strongly and clearly and this was followed by the now familiar, clean picking of Larry Campbell introducing “Mama You Been On My Mind.” A powerful “It’s Alright Ma” came next followed by a nice gentle “Tomorrow Is A Long Time.” And about this time we started looking at each other. Six songs and not an electric guitar in sight. Could it be?
Now let’s backtrack a bit. When Dylan played the Copa Room at the end of his tour last February and people found it was a small 700-seat room, speculation ran high. Would he make it special? Would it be another Supper Club? As it turned out those shows ended up being typical tour shows, though a little shorter and fairly lackluster ones at that. Was this the night he would make up for it?
“Masters of War” came next. And then they started something unfamiliar, something I couldn’t place, something almost jazzy. And Dylan said something encouraging to the band like “you got it” or something like that and stepped to the mike and the words didn’t come. And the band kept jamming with Larry on steel and Dylan stood there still in a good mood, but whatever song it was, the words didn’t come and it sort of collapsed, and he said, “Well here’s my version of it,” and went into a delicate “One Too Many Mornings.” This was followed by a fairly roaring “Tangled,” and they took off their guitars and left the stage, returning for a quick “Blowin’ In The Wind.” There were no band introductions in this show.
Now at some point in the show, (I forget between which songs) a woman jumped on stage to talk to Bob, and then she motioned to some other guy who came up and then they left. I don’t know what it is about this particular room that makes people think they can jump on stage.
Anyway, “Blowin’” didn’t have its usual long introduction where the band runs through and entire verse and chorus before Dylan starts singing, just a tiny little intro and he was into it. At some point during this song Bob’s guitar tech snuck on stage and grabbed Bob’s Strat from behind the drums. The lights went down after “Blowin’,” and there they were back on stage again but in the shadows you could see this time they had electric guitars, and wam! into “Not Fade Away,” and then real deja vu time, as all of a sudden there’s one, there’s two, no there’s 50 people on stage just like last February’s late show at the Sands. And Dylan is surrounded and you can’t see him. But unlike last time, he didn’t stay on stage and very quickly you saw a roadie take his guitar and lead him off stage and the song collapsed. End of show. Again.
Now who knows whether they would have done another song? But given the things that have been happening on this tour, especially in the last two weeks, it wasn’t out of the question. While “Not Fade Away” has been the show closer for most of this year, in Philly he came back after it. So anything is possible, and given that this time around he was attempting to make the show something unique and special by doing the whole thing (except for NFA) acoustic anything was possible. But we’ll never know.
Copa Room 2nd Show
It was out of show number one and back in line for show number two, this time with Kevin Reilly while my other friends went off in search of food and gambling having decided that getting in line was a waste of time. The line moved somewhat faster and we were joined by some other friends of mine. Once inside we had a choice of tables and chose one a little closer to the stage, but also because Kevin had shared his table with the two guys seated there and said they weren’t talkers. So we had a table of no talkers which was something of a problem at the first show.
Just as the lights went down, a human wall in the next row in front of us decided to stand up. “SIT DOWN!” came the shout from not one but at least two tables. He ignored it. “SIT DOWN” came the collective shout again. (I loved it.) Finally on about the third or fourth shout he realized he had no choice.
Dylan and the band came out and were into “Oh Babe It Ain’t No Lie.” There was a force to it, and a tightness that wasn’t there on the first show. What could have been the intro to either “Girl From the North Country” or “Boots of Spanish Leather” came next. I wrote down “North Country,” then said to my friend, “No it’s ‘Boots.’ “ It was a beautifully played and sung “North Country,” followed by a splendid “Visions of Johanna.” Then came a nice surprise, “Rock of Ages,” the hymn done more or less in a haunting bluegrass version that was truly beautiful.
Then what sounded like the typical Never Ending Tour intro to “Times They Are A-Changin’” followed, except it wasn’t, it was “Hard Rain,” and a truly excellent “Hard Rain” with Dylan getting more and more into it with each line digging in really deep on “the song of a poet who died in the gutter.”
And then out came the electrics and into a blues riff and both Kevin and I wrote down “Tombstone Blues,” but it was “Maggie’s Farm.” But playing around with intros weren’t the only tricks Dylan had up his sleeve, the next song was a total surprise, “The Man In Me.” And it was just a gorgeous version, particularly the bridge which he did twice, changing the line from the original to “From my toes right up to my hair.” On the rest of the song, Dylan echoed each line he sang with a guitar line, almost like a blues singer, though this isn’t exactly a blues song. And then came a killer rendition of “Tombstone Blues,” with Charlie Sexton stepping out on lead guitar.
A better than the record version of “To Make You Feel My Love” came next, followed by band intros and a typically rocking “Leopard Skin Pill-Box Hat.
“Love Sick” as usual was the first encore featuring a tough guitar solo from Dylan and then “Like A Rolling Stone.” And again with each line it became clear that this was one hell of a version, especially on the second verse with Dylan really leaning into “You say you never compromise with the mystery tramp but now you realize” and then after the chorus a woman walked on-stage and then another woman. And the first woman actually went up to the mike and sang off-key and out of time “How does it feel,” and then the sound guys turned the mike down. And one of the roadies led away the second woman and there was another roadie crouched behind the drums ready to pounce into action, and this woman just stood there and Bob’s standing there playing making those crazy faces that he makes and the band keeps playing and she doesn’t leave and finally she’s led out of the way but still stays on stage dancing to the crowd and finally Dylan sings the last verse and she’s still up there pumping her arms and Dylan sings, “You’re invisible now.” looking right at her and then adds “Oh yeah” and everyone seemed to get it but her, but what might’ve been one of the most amazing recent versions of the song was ruined. The lights went down and the band left the stage.
They returned a few minutes later with Dylan wearing a cowboy hat and blasted out “Not Fade Away” uninterrupted.
A friend of mine had the best analogy. “You don’t lean out from the stands and catch the ball during a no-hitter. You get ejected from the game and banned from ballparks. This was fan interference. You don’t interfere with the show.”
I can’t put it any better than that. And so it seems to go with Bob Dylan and the Copa Room. But until that point, that late show was one hell of a show.
On October 17, 1981, Bob Dylan played his first concert at what was then known as the Brendan Byrne Arena which was close to brand new at the time which the out-going governor of New Jersey in an act that appalled and nauseated just about everybody named after himself. No one called it the Byrne Arena and now at the end of the 20th Century where everything is named after a corporation, it is the Continental Airlines Arena (I believe its second corporate name) which is only slightly better than the Pepsi Arena or the National Car Rental Center which doesn’t even sound like an arena but a parking lot. I am convinced that in the next century we will soon see cities and third world countries taking on corporate monikers as well and soon the only way anyone will know where they are is by what zip-code or area code which will probably be corporate as well. Either way, that particular arena will always be the Meadowlands to me.
The huge Meadowlands sports complex is built on a murky swampy bit of Jersey desolation, a sort of non-place rising out of nothing a bit North of the Mordor flames beneath the Pulaski skyway between Newark and Jersey City and between the more or less upscale North Jersey suburbs on the road that leads to the Lincoln Tunnel. The whole area has long been rumored to be a Mafia burial ground and some people insist that Jimmy Hoffa is part of the Meadowland’s foundation.
Bob Dylan’s 1981 concert at the Meadowlands was a monumental occasion, and I still consider it and probably always will in the top five Bob Dylan concerts I’ve seen. A 28-song show that found him fully resurrecting his older songs after two years of doing exclusively “gospel” material. He had one of his greatest and most professional bands featuring the stellar rhythm team of Tim Drummond and Jim Keltner and for the fall leg of the tour, none other than Al Kooper himself on keyboards who was only too happy to revisit his original organ parts on “Like A Rolling Stone” and “I Want You.”
Dylan was animated and in great humor that October night. Starting to introduce the band he said, “I wanna say hello to Mr. & Mrs. Kooper out there tonight. This is uh, their son.” Kooper who was I believe wearing a football or hockey helmet acknowledged the applause. Dylan, wearing his famous Wayfarer shades the entire show had lots more to say: “I’ve never seen no place like this before,” as 20,000 people cracked up. “I went into the dressing room and my mirror was black.” “There’s a lot of famous people here tonight. I just want you to know that you may be sitting next to somebody (in his most classic Dylan inflection) famous.” “There’s a lot of people from Rolling Stone here tonight. After the show, they’re gonna come backstage and interview me, then I’m gonna interview *them.* And before “Gambling Man,” which the trio of back-up singers sang, “Isn’t there a gambling town around here somewhere? What’s the name of that place? Atlantic City?”
But of course it was the music that night that was the most important. Dylan was into singing real high on that tour (the previous June he was into singing real low). Sitting in the farthest corner of the highest balcony, literally a dot on a stage that seemed a mile away he’d cut right through you with an achingly beautiful “Girl From The North Country,” and putting such intensity into the bridge on “I Want You” that every nerve in your body reacted. A slowed-down, spooky solid-rock that could stir Blind Willie Johnson in his grave and a solo till the last verse when the bass and drums kicked in “Times They Are A-Changin’” that instead of being its original call to arms seemed to summon up everything that had happened in the almost two decades since he wrote it–the war, the assassinations, the hopes and dreams lost, capped by a harmonica solo as eerie and lonesome as he’s ever played.
And so I couldn’t help but think of that concert long ago as Seth Kulick and I hiked across the parking lot next to Giant Stadium going to what must be around our 30th show together at least. We were sitting in different places but not far apart. Seth with his brother and I was with longtime RMD contributor Arnie and his wife whom we just visited. Arnie’s been listening to Bob just about as long as I have and he grew up in New York and I grew up outside of New York, and through e-mail we’ve discovered a shared history of listening not only to Dylan, but listening to same late-night radio shows and the same concerts and being in the same room at the same time and here we were after all this time attending a Dylan show together and I kind of felt like I’d known him all my life.
And again we were sitting in the back of the hall directly opposite the stage though not in the highest balcony pretty much surrounded by morons who talked through Phil Lesh and who talked through Dylan and I couldn’t figure out why they spent the thirty bucks plus for tickets not to mention another ten to park to go to a show they evidently had no interest in whatsoever since they weren’t listening and were barely watching and were talking about everything but the music. I just don’t get it, considering there were probably plenty of people who would have done anything to get a ticket to this show.
Bob Dylan’s second appearance at the Meadowlands seemed to be a summation of this tour where he has pretty much consistently surprised and delighted his fans by pulling out all kinds of songs, not just once a night but several. It could be called the “Anything Can Happen” tour or more accurately the “Holy Shit!” tour because judging by the net that seems to be most people’s reactions upon seeing the setlists. And so at this show at a place that is fairly centrally located on the East Coast that say people in Washington or in Philly or in New England would not think twice about going to, not to mention all the people in Jersey and New York, at the largest venue on the tour, he really did seem to have his fans in mind. And once again I wondered as have others during this tour particularly is someone keeping an eye on what’s going on on RMD? Because, at this concert he seemed to be saying, you heard about “Hoochie Coochie Man?” Here it is. You heard about “Song to Woody” and “Ring Them Bells?” Here it is. Of course I could be completely wrong about this and no one will ever know.
There is a difference to the acoustic set on this tour. Nothing is being casually thrown out there. Yes, he may forget lines–but I still prefer him messing up to using a teleprompter–he way skip verses (which he’s been doing for years), but he seems to be treating these songs as something to be cherished. The performances and understated and almost delicate. There is thought behind the singing and the arrangements and not just on Dylan’s part, but on the part of his excellent musicians, even on the songs where all three guitarists are doing little more than strumming. “Song To Woody” was so quietly and subtly performed that at first I felt this place is way too big for this to be appreciated. And I had to doubly concentrate having to block out the talkers around me.
There was a force and fire to “It’s Alright Ma,” which started out with just guitars, then the bass than the drums in the best ensemble arrangement I’ve seen of this song with the borrowed from “Wake Up Little Susie” riff of course being in emphasized, but not in the totally overblown way it was in ’78. I saw the very first live performance of this song in 1964 and it is one that I always want to hear, one that has great personal meaning for me and one that I consider one of Bob Dylan’s all-time greatest works. His own “Howl” set to music. He flubbed the lyrics (and laughed) at that first performance in New York City what seems both like centuries ago and yesterday, and he flubbed them last night and I didn’t care then and I didn’t care last night. Last night’s version, the version he did at Meadowlands in ’81 and that very first version were all great and all for different reasons. And the version last night was not the speedy let me get this over with as fast as possible version that I’ve seen at other shows.
And then the slow steel majestic intro to “Ring Them Bells,” started and I was happy, not only to hear it again, but happy that my friends Arnie and Seth and Dylan and Daniela could hear what I heard in Baltimore. “I’m in heaven,” Arnie said to me as it ended. And so into “Tangled,” but then another surprise, another acoustic song, “Visions of Johanna,” which worked much better than it did in the number three slot in Baltimore, where perhaps Dylan wasn’t quite warmed up enough to sing it quite the way he wanted to.
And then “Hoochie Coochie Man,” written by Willie Dixon, but as every Chicago blues fan knows, Muddy Waters’ signature song. And the band was tough with Charlie Sexton obviously into it and lovingly showing that he’s undoubtedly spent countless hours listening to and mastering the sound of who knows how many great Chicago blues guitarists and Dylan did Muddy proud, singing it straight, singing it true, lining out those images that stretch from the Delta all the way up Highway 61 to Chicago, that poetry of the blues, as musicologist Sam Charters once called it. The only thing that might’ve taken it higher was if Dylan had played the harp, and while the last thing I would every try to do is guess what goes on in Bob Dylan’s mind, maybe he just felt (he is a musician after all) that he could never do Little Walter justice (even though he came fairly close to getting the Little Walter sound in a few fleeting moments at the end of “Are You Ready.”
And then even deeper into the blues, all the way down to Georgia for “Blind Willie McTell,” one of his most remarkable songs. At once, a tribute to that remarkable blues singer, but at the same time a history of the South and a history of the world, all the way from New Orleans to Jerusalem indeed. And I thought of Seth a few sections away finally after two years of trying and missing seeing this song at last and next to me Arnie just couldn’t believe it was happening.
And then, even more blues. “Tombstone Blues,” with Sexton again stepping out, raw mean and nasty, Dylan’s own “Hootchie Cootchie Man” updated with John the Conqueroo updated becoming a dreamlike John the Baptist talking to the Commander-in Chief, where the delta has been replaced by the old folks home and the college. And hearing it, I remembered way back when Highway 61 Revisited was still pretty new and Muddy and Wolf and Little Walter were also on the turntable, listening to that song in some long lost NYC apartment and a friend of mine saying in reference to the Chicago guys, that stuff is great, but this (“Tombstone Blues”) that’s our blues.
From there it was into a shortened version of “Joey” a New York City song if ever there was one. No, not one of his greatest though one of his most controversial. Maybe he had the rumors of who’s supposed to be underneath the Meadowlands in mind. At one point he totally spaced on the lyrics. It didn’t matter. And yet another blues capped the night, a joyous rocking “Leopard-Skin Pill Box Hat.”
The encores were, well…. the encores. Phil Lesh came out for “Alabama Getaway,” (time to hit the bathroom) followed by “Rainy Day Women,” (I thought to myself two parking-lot songs in a row) and the last was the only song all night where the talkers finally shut up and yet they came back for “Blowin’” and “Not Fade Away.” And the houselights went down and stayed down for a long time and we wondered whether he would actually come back, but it was almost midnight and he’d played for two hours.
And so, did this match that previous time at the Meadowlands 18 years ago? It doesn’t matter. It’s another time and in a way another place. Will this show stay in my mind for almost two decades the way that concert did? I have no idea. I do know this much: Bob Dylan was being very generous to his fans last night.
Bob Dylan kind of has a history of playing a lot of standards when he comes to Philadelphia, especially at the bigger venues. Back in ’97 when he was pulling out the likes of “Blind Willie McTell,” “Wheels on Fire,” and the occasional “One of Us Must Know” and “Seven Days” in other parts of the country Philly got “Maggie’s Farm” and “Thin Man” and so it was tonight, but don’t let that part of the set list fool you.
For his only show actually in Philly in the year of ’99 Dylan made sure to bring his ever-changing tour with him.
The show was completely different in mood, texture and feel than the previous night’s show 90 miles to the South in Baltimore. And if some of the set list seemed to recall the days when “Maggie’s Farm” and “Thin Man” were regular parts of the set list, the performance tonight was nothing short of excellent and its own way once again full of surprises.
Instead of opening the acoustic set with “I Am The Man, Thomas,” he pulled out “Hallelujah I’m Ready” which worked just as well.
Then he pulls out the song I was hoping to here in Baltimore, “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” and it was brilliantly intense from the start. In fact the whole acoustic set was perfect! It seemed kind of lowkey, but there was a quiet unified force in the band tonight and each song had a subtle burning power. At Carrol’s conclusion, he reached two songs back from the same album, his 3rd, Times They Are A-Changin’, the album that totally sold me on Dylan a few centuries ago for a masterful “Boots of Spanish Leather.”
And then came one of the best surprises of the night, “A Satisfied Mind,” the old Porter Wagoner country hit that serves as the intro to Saved. And tonight Bob did it the way it’s usually done, country style with fantastic harmonies from Larry and Charlie in one truly glorious rendition. (And for those who pay attention to such things, it should be noted that Ian & Sylvia also covered this song on their album Play One More, the same album that includes a song Dylan has tried on a few occasions, “The French Girl.”)
An equally superb “Mama You Been On My Mind” came next followed by “Tangled Up In Blue.” Now I realize a lot of people are tired of seeing this song in the set list and sometimes I get tired of it myself. But there’s one thing about this song, other than being an incredible song (and one which I know from personal experience is a lot fun to play), Dylan never sings this song the same way. I just saw three shows in a row and every night he found a new angle, a new mood, something else to search for.
Dylan was obviously in good spirits (and looking great too–for the first time this tour I had seats that were as close to the stage as you could get) and at some point during the acoustic set he said, (referring to Temple University), “I always wanted to play here. My buddy, Bill Cosby went to school here. We used to play the clubs.” Or something like that, the last sentence sounded mumbled from where I was sitting.
Big surprise number 2 came with the opening song of the electric segment, another Johnny Cash classic, “Folsom Prison Blues,” again excellently done with Charlie playing the famous Luther Perkins guitar lead. And of course this begs the question, is Dylan going to pull out a different Johnny Cash tune in this part of the show every night for the rest of the remaining shows, and if he does, that will be something.
The lights went down and somebody (I’m pretty sure it was Bob) played the opening lick to “Thin Man” while the huddle was going on–since the lights were down you couldn’t see, and then there was a pause and sure enough it was “Thin Man,” and though this was a song I was really tired of seeing a year or so ago, tonight it was just fine and the perfect lead in to surprise number 3, “Man of Peace.” And a lowdown rocking version it was too, followed by “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight,” featuring an extended gorgeous pedal steel solo from Larry, followed by a simply stunning “Shooting Star.”
And while another past staple, “Maggie’s Farm” closed the set, it had a funky rhythmic groove that could not be denied.
“Love Sick” as usual was the first encore and “Don’t Think Twice” as many times as I’ve heard it, it was exquisite with Larry’s finger-picking setting the tone, followed by a typically fun but powerhouse version of “Not Fade Away.” Dylan bowed, the band left the stage the lights went down.
And then they came back! “Blowin’ In The Wind.” And while some people may complain about this song, the song that initially made Dylan famous, there’s something about those harmonies on “Wiiiiiinnnnnnnnnnnnndddddddd” that hit me every time and tonight they were as moving and powerful as any of this arrangement I’ve witnessed.
But neither the audience nor Dylan was going anywhere and the band kicked into what might be the most spectacularly rocking version of “Highway 61 Revisited” ever done anywhere. It didn’t just kick ass. It FUCKING KICKED ASS. And it seemed to go on forever and everyone in the band was into it and obviously having one hell of a time. On the last verse Dylan really stretched it out into “down on highway sixteeeeeeeeeee one” in one blazingly nasty voice, then Charlie Sexton tore into this supersonic but totally funky guitar solo that wass just beyond any beyond any of the usual words used to describe guitar solos and then Larry answered him with a solo that was equally awesome and then back to Charlie and back to Larry and Bob might’ve gotten in a few licks there too, but mostly he seemed more than happy to play rhythm and Tony is jumping up on the drum riser and driving the rhythm with Kemper and Dylan’s bopping around just digging it and looking as pleased as I’ve ever seen him look if you can imagine Bob Dylan looking pleased and it just kept going on and on, higher and higher and then it was over.
And once again a set list on paper is not the show. And if the Philly show was not as wildly adventurous as the previous four or five shows (especially Baltimore), the musicianship was evident throughout and this band was as tight, perhaps the most tight I’ve ever seen them. They were in the pocket from the first note to the last.
Baltimore’s a nice town and I’m starting to like it. You can park for free not far from the venue if you try and at the venue itself the ticket-takers are friendly telling you to enjoy the show, leading you right to your seat and even letting you go outside for a cigarette without any hassle whatsoever. I was amazed.
But not as amazed as I was when Larry Campbell started playing the intro to “Ring Them Bells” on his pedal steel. My mind was saying could it really be, and as the band picked up the tune I knew it couldn’t be anything else. The other songs, even “Visions of Johanna” seemed like just warm-ups in comparison. (And like some other people here so I’ve heard for I have yet to check out RMD today, the thought crossed my mind that Dylan or someone very close to him is reading this group.) Dylan sang it carefully, clearly and caringly, totally into it, totally shining that special Dylan light that just cuts right through you and into you, into your heart, your body, your soul.
But little did I know that was just the beginning of a rocking, reeling, rolling ride that in surprise factor alone would equal perhaps any Bob Dylan show I’ve seen.
And in Baltimore Bob Dylan was full of surprises, one after the other like the master magician he truly is. The next surprise came right after “Tangled Up In Blue,” when the band started this very funky bluesy riff that sounded awfully familiar. And I’m saying to myself, what is this, but I’m thinking Bob Dylan songs, not all songs, and given Dylan’s penchant for playing with his material it could’ve turned into any number of his blues based songs and so when he sang is just about as strong a voice I’ve seen at any ’90s show, “I taught the weeping willow how to cry cry cry,” and it turned into “Big River,” probably my favorite Johnny Cash song of all time that I even play myself, my mind was echoing one huge blasting Holy Shit!
And then the band played the intro–though sounding new and different probably because of Larry’s input–to “Joey” which at times was a little hard to concentrate on due the couple who was doing some kind of waltz on the walkway in front of me, that was not a typical Dead dance. I contemplated leaning over and saying, “Are you aware you’re waltzing to a song about a mobster getting his head blown off in a clam bar, but didn’t.
Again the band was into a familiar blues riff I couldn’t quite place and again Dylan blew my mind when he started singing “Down Along The Cove,” and Lord Have Mercy Mama what a version it was with killer solos all along the song.
And then from out of nowhere “Man In The Long Black Coat” appeared, spooky as can be, marching to the crickets chirping in the shadows that may not really be all that far from the cove.
And then yet another nasty blues riff and wham you’re transported to a whole other place a whole other time of bald wigs and reincarnated horses sounding a warning all mixed up in some insane historical funhouse mirror with Charle Sexton scorching and searching, summoning the original Mike Bloomfield licks.
And what song could Dylan possibly do after that but “Like A Rolling Stone?” Was there anything left to say?
So at last he brought out Phil Lesh and unified this crazy anything can happen tour that’s sadly been laden with rumors.
In one monumental, too-quick set that went by like some roller coaster dream, he touched on every decade of his career, almost all of his greatest albums and left me both happy and amazed.
There must be some way out of here I thought to myself as downtown Philadelphia was completely gridlocked and every road heading West was a parking lot. “Big trouble on Philly highways,” said the guy on the traffic report. For some reason on a preposterously warm November Saturday afternoon, a bunch of different people in various key locations decided to crash into each other. 10 minutes later the traffic guy said, “What is going on today?” And I tried all the roads and every shortcut and no matter where I went I ended up sitting taking almost an hour to drive what should take 20 minutes. Finally I made it to the meeting place in Valley Forge and picked up my friends the double-D couple who had come from even farther from somewhere in the middle of New Jersey. We hopped on the Pennsylvania Turnpike which prides itself on being the oldest such road in the nation. About the only thing that’s changed since it was built sometime in the beginning of this century is the price of the tolls and occasionally the speed limit. This year in the annual trucker’s poll Pennsylvania came in third for worst roads in the country only because Arkansas and Louisiana roads have apparently deteriorated over the past year. The turnpike was miraculously free of traffic and for the most part state troopers and my car was in the mood to go a good 15 miles above the speed limit. Stopping at the last rest area we exited the car where we were playing my more or less “Dylan Country” tape which is Self Portrait and Dylan along with other stuff thrown in in a different order to notice the temperature had dropped a good ten degrees. Then off the turnpike for a short hop on I-83 to the gravel, up-hill wonders of US 322 West, a mostly two-lane road made out of some sort of gravel material so every 10 feet the wheels go bumpety bump. By this time Dylan-in-Nashville had been replaced by live Otis Redding and I was never able to get the bumps to synchronize rhythmically with the music. 75 miles of this. But it was a nice day and we were in good spirits. Soon we were met by the hundred mile Winnebago caravan coming from the Penn State football game. “Serious tailgating,” said Mr. D.
And then the caravan ended, but as we got closer there were Winnebagos everywhere in fields in ditches, thousands of them and finally there we were in line for the lot with plenty of time to scope out a space for the all-important quick exit. We chose the Winnebago lot. We got out of the car to find the temperature had dropped again, about 20 degrees, maybe more. It was freezing. Time to pull out the hooded sweatshirts. “The hood is up, don’t talk to me,” said Mr. D. In the distance loomed the Bryce Jordan Center like some great Spielbergian spaceship landed in a cornfield in the Pennsylvania blue mountains.
“Never seen no place like this before,” I said quoting a rambling gambling evangelistical song traveler, who said the same thing when centuries ago he played a similar edifice also located next to a giant football stadium located in the middle of what everyone knows is the Mafia burial ground of the state where anything is legal as long as you don’t get caught. Hoods up and not talking we were more or less blown towards the spaceship box office as some wicked Canadian wind appeared to make things even colder. Obtaining the tickets with lots of time we headed for the congregation in the parking lot to secretly partake of the sacred plant. “Are we there yet?” someone might have said. “If you have to ask, you’re there,” came an answer. We stood up and all of a sudden we were back in 1968. Someone had gathered all the Volkswagen busses that had been in hiding for the past two decades and plop them all down together in the Bryce Jordan Center. Bongos were bonging and drums were drumming and all sorts of items grey flannel dwarfs would prefer to see banished were in display in decorated cases like treasures from pyramids embedded in ice. There were people everywhere. Music in all directions. Lots of hair. Dreadlocks, too-long floppy flappy jeans, a circus-meeting of the tribes. There must be some way out of here I found myself thinking for the second time that day, as from out of nowhere some authority loudspeaker boomed, “keep the passageways clear.”
It wasn’t getting any warmer, so we headed for the great looming spaceship arena, check out the souvenir stand, hamburgers for only 3 bucks and into our seats. The floor is maybe almost half full, the soundboards enclosed by a fence. Warren Haynes comes out to check his gear to huge applause. Finally the lights come down and the band comes out, “Viola Lee Blues,” and Derek Trucks is immediately noticeable on guitar and Haynes echoing him and off into some more or less blues-based jam and it’s really okay and somewhere in the middle they find “My Favorite Things” and leave that and come back again and Phil is right there digging in and I suddenly realize I’m really hungry and go out to wander up and down the lonesome town of the spaceship perimeter ’cause I can’t see a thing anyway because the people in the next section are standing up especially this 7 foot tall guy who’s not even paying attention to the show and I don’t understand why when there’s a whole half a dance floor not being used these people have chosen to get seats. Something just doesn’t add up here.
Out in the perimeter it’s gotten very strange. Barefoot guys in skirts are dancing. I get a burger and a no-coke pepsi and wander around. Every ten feet there’s someone with their eyes closed moving around in some sort of trance-like circle. It seems the same people are passing me over and over again and I can’t figure out how they got around the entire spaceship so fast. Security guards are chasing some girl who is totally ignoring them wandering right back into the seats after they just got her out. I suddenly realize I’m back where I started and go back to my seat. “He just sat down 10 seconds ago,” Mr. D. says and wow, I can actually see the whole stage where the band will soon be arriving at Terrapin Station and back into Viola Lee Blues and Mr. D. says, “It’s called a sandwich.”
And they actually stop playing and start “Box of Rain,” and Phil can’t exactly find the melody but he means it so it doesn’t really matter and they leave and come back and do something else or maybe they did something else before, but now the lights are up though they’re still on stage. And soon they are rolling away the equipment and rolling the Bob equipment on.
And soon they take the stage and there he is looking damn fine in his best riverboat gambler clothes with a Lester Flatt or Colonel Sanders tie depending on whether you’re coming from a bluegrass or chicken perspective and they’re into “I Am The Man Thomas,” and it’s a fine upbeat bluegrass/gospel thing and Larry especially sounds a little stronger on it than Bob does and the lights go down and they’re taking their time before going into the Mexican cantina rendition of “To Ramona” that’s almost a little too cantina-ish but still okay and the nights go down and apparently another huddle and before the song starts I hear Bob play this tiny 3-note blues lick that could mean “It’s Alright Ma,” but they decide to do something else and the rhythm starts and it could be “Desolation Row” or it could be “Visions of Johanna” and Dylan or someone is pushing the rhythm and he’s alternately singing it great and okay searching for that indefinable place where he can really drive it home and sometimes finding it, singing maybe half the verses and I wonder if he picks and chooses from different verses each time he does it, but I’m not that much of a statistician. They’re right into “Mama You Been On My Mind,” with Larry picking out crystal clear like water running Doc Watson-ish leads until Bob takes over after the 2nd verse and he kind of seems more into playing it than he is in singing it and another verse and he goes back and picks up a harmonica and actually looks at it to make sure it’s the right one and goes into a really great but two short solo where instead of playing the usual two note thing he’s been doing lately to start (like check out the harp on “Trying To Get To Heaven” on TOOM for an example), he’s playing some really crazy up and down stuff, but it’s over too fast and he gave just enough to let you know he can still do it. Then into Tangled and again he’s searching for that thing singing one verse or maybe even a line high and the next one low and on the “She lit a burner on the stove” verse he hits it and it’s that moment where he just nails the song right through you in the that way that only he can do and the show is going by really fast and it’s into Watchtower with Larry on lapsteel and it’s okay but nothing really special and another lights-down huddle and the intro to Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues appears and this one of those songs that he really cares about and sings every verse except “up on housing project hill,” getting in his best electric solo of the night. And then Shelter with yet another arrangement, kind of moderately paced which leads to a burning “Real You At Last,” with great nasty guitar from Sexton followed by the night’s show-stopper, “Tears of Rage,” carefully done with beautiful back-up vocals from Larry and Charlie with Larry reaching way back summoning the spirit of those Basement recordings and especially Richard Manuel.
And then after another huddle, and a fairly crazy intro, they bounced into a rolling roller coaster of “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat.” And at the end, Bob lingered on-stage after the rest of the band had split and turned around to deliver a classic Bob Dylan-styled bow.
They returned to launch into “Love Sick” notable for “take to the road and plunder” being changed to “Feel like I’m being plowed under,” and into an okay “Rolling Stone,” and then “Blowin’ In The Wind,” and we looked at each other and with 200 miles for me to drive and another 75 or so for my companions made a quick exit into the even chillier Pennsylvania mountains night for the steep downhill drive discussing whether Charlie’s being under-utilized or not as we cruised by the run-away truck ramps.
It wasn’t that easy to go to Madison Square Garden with the Tramps show still in my mind, figuring that Dylan would resume the typical Simon tour setlist. At 8:30 most of the crowd had settled in and the lights dimmed and Dylan and the band started off with a pretty strong “Cocaine” with Larry playing slide on his acoustic. Unlike Tramps, I could see everybody at once on stage. The one downside of Tramps was trying to find a comfortable line of sight between various heads and shoulders and of course the minute you found one, someone would move and you’d have to start all over again.
“Tambourine Man” followed with the crowd going nuts when Dylan picked up the harp and then a more than masterful “Hard Rain” with Larry and Charlie singing harmony on the chorus. On the second chorus Dylan all of a sudden became really alive and started leaning into it and continued that way through the night.
A more than fine “Love Minus Zero” came next with Larry on steel, but I started feeling ok, this is what I thought it was gonna, be a good Bob Dylan concert. Throughout this song and just about all the others Dylan’s left leg seemed to have a mind of its own, bringing to mind early Nat Hentoff and Shelton articles where they’d talk about how he couldn’t sit still talking and his leg would always be moving.
“Tangled” took things up a notch with Dylan starting to play around with the phrasing and repeating lines somehow almost getting two lines into the space of one. When he turned around to get his harp doing a little Dylan dance over to where his harps were on the amps behind him, the audience sitting behind the stage erupted and Dylan acknowledged them with more of his dance and played the first few bars of the solo to them.
The lights went down and when they came up Dylan’s acoustic was replaced with his Strat, and Charlie still had his cherry red Gibson J-200 and Larry had a mandolin. They started playing something unfamiliar and strange and I was trying to figure out what it was. Dylan kind of mumbled the first line but I caught the second and Oh My God, it’s “Highlands!” Once I got over the shock of him actually doing it, I quickly followed along. As various people reported about the Chula Vista version, he did the whole thing, making little changes here and there. Hardboiled egg became soft boiled eggs and stuff like that. Without the “Charlie Patton guitar riff” that haunts the studio version, the song had a different feel. (But what Dylan song performed by him live doesn’t have a different feel than the studio version?) Larry’s mandolin was in the territory of Sleepy John Estes when the great blues mandolin player Yank Rachell accompanied him — Tennessee blues instead of Delta blues. I’m not sure how much of the audience knew what was going on. Many did. The Neil Young line received a burst of applause and seemed to draw a lot of people into it. The guy in front of me appeared to be checking his answering machine on his cell phone. And there was a certain tension in seeing if he’d make it through the whole song, but he did, and then wondering if he’d take a guitar solo, and for once I almost wanted him to take a solo but after the last line he signaled the band and brought it to a quick conclusion.
There wasn’t much he could to follow that, but rock and rock they did into a blistering “Watchtower” with Dylan resuming his thing of repeating lines, “And the wind/And the wind began to howl.”
“Just Like A Woman” with Larry on steel came next with a pretty good harp solo at the end which ended with a trick ending, where after the between verse riff you almost thought he was going to play a whole other solo, but he just blew a few more notes and they ended it.
Sylvio followed with Charlie singing strong gutsy harmony and they left the stage. There were no band introductions and there were no jokes.
“Like A Rolling Stone” with Charlie stepping out on lead, and “Blowin’ In the Wind” were the encores. Then Dylan said, “I’d like to bring on someone who I hate to say it has been around as long as I have,” (or something like that) Paul Simon. And Simon came out to a big round of hometown applause and into “Sounds of Silence.”
Having seen both bands back the duets, Dylan’s band was easily the more sympathetic one, and once again “Sounds of Silence” was the standout of the duets, with Tony bowing the string bass and the band paying attention to the dynamics. The “I Walk The Line”/”Blue Moon of Kentucky” medley was easily superior to the “That’ll Be The Day”/”The Wanderer,” but not by all that much, though Larry played killer fiddle on “Blue Moon.” While a lot of people have commented that Dylan is restrained on the duets (and he does let Simon pretty much take the leads), I had the feeling at this concert that for whatever reason he is just being really careful with his singing, almost to the point that he seems uncomfortable. While Larry and Charlie provided really nice falsetto oohs for “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door,” this version remains pretty much of a joke stripping it of whatever spooky feeling it originally had.
The duets kind of brought things down a notch, but otherwise a very good concert and obviously, “Highlands” made the night.
New York is not the place you want to go in July, but there’s something about Bob Dylan and New York City, something special. Something that goes way back. It’s where he went to make it and where he did make it and it’s part of his songs and it’s part of him. It’s where some of his most legendary concerts took place and where he returned to form the Rolling Thunder Revue. I was lucky enough to see those legendary concerts and the New York area if not New York itself is where I first saw Bob Dylan and so I keep returning there, even in this July of endless heatwaves.
At Tramps tonight, Bob Dylan made it special. Now some people may look at the set lists and groan, “Oh, all ’60s stuff,” and others might say, “What, nothing from Blood On The Tracks? But sometimes there are shows where set lists do not matter, or how many verses he didn’t sing, or even what line he changed. There are some shows that are so amazing
that you don’t even think or care about what he didn’t do, because the only thing that matters is what he did do. See, there’s some shows where he’s bob dylan and then there’s the shows when he’s Bob Dylan and then there’s the shows where he’s BOB DYLAN and every so often there’s the ones where he’s B O B D Y L A N ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! !
He was BOB DYLAN in the biggest boldest letters you can imagine at Tramps. It was easily, without a doubt the best show I’ve seen him do since the Supper Club. At the beginning it could have been any of the shows on this tour, opening up with “Oh Babe It Ain’t No Lie,” followed by a stately “Times They Are A-Changin’,” but then he followed that up with a song from the 2nd side of that album, “Boots of Spanish Leather,” and then just as you’re starting to think “something’s going on here,” and he dips back from that same period and conjures up “John Brown” and then that most New York of Bob Dylan songs, “Visions of Johanna.” And somewhere in the middle of the second verse I hear right behind me, “Well we cut of out of work on Tuesday and went to get in line,” and my brain starts boiling this is Visions of Johanna,” and I’m not sure if this has ever been sung in New York City and finally during the guitar break I have to turn around and say, “Do you have to have a conversation,” and the guy says, “I came here to see my friends and that’s part of the fun,” and I say, “Do you realize that it is totally impolite to talk while he is singing and other people are listening?” He shut up.
And then boom, the electrics are on and it’s 20 years later into a hard charging “Seeing The Real You At Last” and then into “Thin Man,” and there’s times when I could care less if I ever hear that song live again except tonight he’s really singing it and visions of that very first time he performed it at Forest Hills with cops and kids chasing each other ’round the stage are running through my brain and bam he’s into “Most Likely Your Way and I Go Mine” and just as you’re getting over that into a majestic “Every Grain of Sand” and all of a sudden the people to my right are having a conversation about movies or maybe lunch or work or anything but the song which keeps building and building and finally I lean over and say “Could You Be Quiet,” and the guy who doesn’t seem to have the slightest clue who Bob Dylan is starts to say something and I’m thinking people waited in line to early hours of the morning and would have waited all night for these tickets on a work-night yet and I don’t understand – I don’t understand waiting in line for hours and hour to get tickets for a show and then waiting in line for more hours to get into the show and then not even paying attention to the show. Something doesn’t compute there. Something doesn’t make sense. But the guy standing in between me and the talkers said “Thank you” to me and it was all forgotten as Bob was into a kick-ass “Tombstone Blues” with a nasty guitar riff running throughout the whole song and then another immaculate “Not Dark Yet” and Dylan is sailing through the lyrics pulling out all the stops so much so that there’s applause and cheers at the line “I can’t even remember what it was I came here to get away from,” and the guy behind me taps me and hands me a little white rolled up piece of paper with a flame at one end and Dylan finally speaks introducing the band and then they’re down “Highway 61” and the guitars are roaring, all three of them and they’re gone.
And then they’re back again for “Love Sick,” and somehow Larry’s making his guitar sound like an organ the way Bucky used to do with his steel and then one hell of a “Like A Rolling Stone” and I keep thinking I’m almost hearing an organ and Sexton is like the ghost of Michael Bloomfield revisited and Dylan’s playing around with the phrasing making a song he’s sung a thousand times sound new again and then back to acoustic for “It Ain’t Me Babe,” a song he’s performed a thousand different ways and he’s doing another way tonight, in the singing, in the guitar playing that took you melting back into the night and then picking up the harp for the second time that night he went on one of the wildest harp escapades I’d seen or heard in years. He must’ve blown that harp for five minutes, maybe more (I was not looking at my watch) each note clear and strong, perhaps passing through every mood of every version he’s ever sang of that song from sad to defiant to wistful to angry and taking the band with him, changing rhythms soft to loud to soft to loud again.
And then “Not Fade Away,” and it was loud and it was powerful and the band was smokin’. And they leave, but the lights stay down and the audience ain’t goin’ nowhere and the place is roaring and they’re back and the acoustics are on and I’m not quite sure what the song is as they run through the opening instrumental I realize it’s “Blowin’ In The Wind,” but slower than it was last winter and the rhythm guitars are heavy like Live ’66, except not the acoustic side except they’re playin’ acoustics and Dylan’s doing something with the melody, that thing only he does where he seems to find every beautiful space in the melody and make it more beautiful and it’s perfect. And they’re gone again.
And just I as was thinking it has to be over, they’re back and ripping into “Alabama Getaway” and they’re on fire and they’re gone again, but no one leaves and he’s back again, and he goes to the mic and says, “A man who needs no introduction, Elvis Costello.” And Elvis Costello comes out wearing a hat and straps on Bob’s acoustic and into “I Shall Be Released,” and it’s time for the singing to start and Bob sings the wrong line, the second one, “They say every distance is not near,” and instantly realizing what he did, and instead of mumbling something incoherent or not singing at all, he acknowledged it and sang, “And they say it again every distance is not near,” and then Elvis came in on the chorus and then Bob sang the second verse and Elvis did a soulful take on the last verse followed by an instrumental or two and another chorus and then it was over.
Back when Bob Dylan wasn’t touring and hadn’t played any concerts for years, Jonathan Cott (or maybe it was Ben Fong Torres) — it was a long time ago and I can’t remember – and I’m not at home with all my usual source material – wrote a great article for Rolling Stone about Dylan’s Bangla Desh appearance called “I Dreamed I Saw Bob Dylan.” B O B D Y L A N was at Tramps last night and in some ways it was just like a dream.
The show at the E-Centre was the first Dylan/Simon show I attended, and my first time at the E-Centre, a huge indoor/outdoor pavilion, built by Sony and Blockbuster in the unlikely city of Camden, N.J. The day started eerily, waking up to the disappearance of JKF Jr’s. plane. When it first opened the E-Centre was notorious for nasty security guards, but major concerts have since been taken over by Electric Factory Concerts and security for this event anyway seemed pretty mellow. But the tickets weren’t the only thing overpriced at this show. Five bucks for a coke is outrageous, and of course they do not let you bring in any drinks or food.
Paul Simon began the show with a fairly lackluster “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” Following the song he talked about John Kennedy Jr., and how events like this show how precious life is or something to that effect and that life is to celebrate. Simon was never more than okay despite his huge percussion-laden band. Simon’s hand problems seem to have affected his guitar playing considerably because mostly he used the instrument as a prop and mainly just held it occasionally strumming and rarely playing, even though he switched guitars quite a few times. This is a shame because Simon was at one time a great finger-picker. While his band got a groove going during songs like “You Can Call Me Al” and “Late In the Evening,” ultimately they were just too slick and essentially soulless despite several top-notch players.
I can understand Simon’s exploration into various forms of world music, but it comes at the expense of his songs. Once upon a time he could make his songs mean something, but there’s something about his music now and pretty much from “Graceland” onward that doesn’t really make me want to take the time to figure out what he’s singing about.
Easily for me, the most moving part of his set was when Dylan came out for “Sounds of Silence.” Maybe it was the ghost of another Kennedy tragedy hanging over the proceedings, or maybe it was the arrangement, much slower than the original Simon & Garfunkel single (and pretty much the way Simon’s been doing the song for the last 15 years or so) with Simon playing the melody on electric (finally doing some picking) but a lot of it had to do with Dylan being on stage. Dylan has presence and Simon for all his hand motions during his set just doesn’t — not at this show anyway. Dylan was singing in one of his spookier voices and immediately you knew that he was singing strongly as well.
In any case the duet worked. The other 3 songs they did together, “That’ll Be The Day”/”The Wanderer” and “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” can pretty much be written off. There were fun parts, but nothing really to keep or hear again. On “Heaven’s Door” both Dylan and Simon really went after the recently improvised “I hear you knockin’ but you can’t come in” and were obviously having fun, but as fellow RMD-er Dylan Orlando said to me, “Two of the greatest lyricists of all time and this is all they can come up with.”
Dylan came out for his set wearing a black suit, a red polkadot shirt with a black tie and snakeskin boots and launched into an uprousing “Somebody Touched Me” with Larry Campbell playing perfect Doc Watson-ish bluegrass runs on his acoustic. If the recent change in the line-up has done anything, it has pushed Campbell in front which to me is a good thing. He is a superb musician. The new line-up has a leaner sound to it and while I dug Bucky while he was in the band (and also when he was with Steve Earle) I did not find myself missing him.
However Dylan was in excellent vocal form all night, singing much clearer than in recent memory (last winter) and enunciating, but not exaggerating, yet making certain words stand out. “Tambourine Man” was a tiny bit faster than the last time I saw him do it, but for me still not fast enough. The original tempo (meaning the Bringing It All Back Home) recording was perfect for this song and I wish he’d return to it. It seemed like he only sang two verses, but I may be wrong, and ended the song with an okay but not great harp solo. Now this is one of Dylan’s greatest harp songs and there’s a certain thing that’s hard to describe that he used to do but doesn’t any more where he really let the harp sing, sing almost the words that he did on the original recording, which was expanded on on the ’65 and ’66 versions and remembered years later at the Bangla Desh concert. But it just ain’t gonna be that way no more.
A very strong “Masters of War” came next, and while it seems I’ve seen him do this song almost at every show for the past five years or something it was still effective. On the guitar solo, instead of Dylan taking the whole thing he got into a night call and response with Campbell, Dylan playing a lick and Campbell answering him with another lick. Quite effective. A really pretty “Love Minus Zero” followed with Larry on pedal steel, easily displaying his mastery of the instrument. “Tangled,” which Dylan introduced as “A love song that we love to play,” came next with the usual upbeat version, but it seemed more than a few verses were missing. Dylan played harp again totally putting down the guitar and this solo was an improvement over his previous one.
Then it was into “Watchtower” with another cool Campbell solo. Now the strange thing about the band now is that Charlie Sexton is known as a lead guitarist in his own right, but he rarely steps forward and mainly plays rhythm. The main difference seems to be that when Dylan stops playing rhythm, the bottom no longer drops out of the sound and it also allows Campbell to play more effectively working his own lead runs around what Dylan is doing on the guitar, and for once Dylan didn’t hit any outrageously wrong notes either. He may have been searching but he wasn’t destroying.
The level of the show took a dip with Dylan saying, “Here’s a song that was on the country charts thanks to my buddy Garth Brooks” or something like that, and then told the tennis joke again, saying “I wrote this for my ex-wife” twice. The joke was silly but I couldn’t help but wonder what other songs from “Time Out Of Mind” he wrote for his ex-wife. It was okay, probably better than the record, but no big deal. “Memphis Blues Again” came next and was better than I expected with Dylan emphasizing certain words rather than entire lines. Once upon a time in the years when he never played this song it was the one song I kept wanting to hear. Once he started doing it, and I got over the initial excitement of he’s finally doing it, I really didn’t want to see it any more because he’s never come close to touching the insanity and more importantly, the humor of the original where the reverse order and mixed up events and images culminated in a usually hysterical punchline at the end of each verse. But tonight, instead of mumbling through it which I’ve seen too many times, he sang it clearly and strongly and if the punchlines weren’t really there, overall he made it work.
“Not Dark Yet” was easily the song of the night. He sang it strong, he sang it tenderly, and it was beautiful, with both Dylan and the band displaying an amazing sense of dynamics, bringing it up where it’s supposed to go up and bringing it down where it’s supposed to be soft. It was perfect!
Dylan then introduced the band saying, “These are some of the best players in the country,” and kicked into “Highway 61” which featured two incredible and even brilliant slide solos from Larry.
Encores were “Rolling Stone,” not bad but not great, but strong. Again he was really paying attention to making the words ring clearly, but interestingly enough on the 3rd line of the first verse, he just sang “People’d call, say ‘Beware doll’ “ and never sang “you’re bound to fall.”
An excellent “It Ain’t Me Babe” with more lush picking from Campbell came next along with a nice harp solo from Bob. I think he’s sung this at every concert (not necessarily club dates) in Philly (and while this show took place in Camden, it was really the Philly show) for the past 11 years if not longer. A cool “Not Fade Away” ended the night.
While I wasn’t totally blown away by this show, Dylan absolutely put out, and he seemed to be energized and alive, especially after the last few shows I saw last fall and winter where he seemed to be in sort of doldrums, a having fun at time doldrums, but doldrums nonetheless. Like the shows right after TOOM was released, he was paying attention to the music and particularly to his singing. I left the show now awed, but feeling good and also feeling that if Dylan keeps singing and playing like he did tonight, things bode well for the future.
Once upon a time in New Jersey, Bob Dylan let his backup singers do a song about a gambling town. “There’s a gambling town around here somewhere,” he said. “What’s the name? Reno?” Dylan was being pretty funny that night as he played a massive arena dead smack in the middle of the mafia burying ground. Why some people even say that Jimmy Hoffa or part of him is somewhere in that arena’s foundation. Well it wasn’t ten years later that Bob Dylan himself was playing that gambling town. Well the first show was outside, so you couldn’t quite say it was really a casino show. Now it took a while for him to come back, but he did to a different place and that was sort of an arena in a casino, but you couldn’t really say that was a casino show either. But this Sands place, and this Copa room, now this was a casino show. All the way. The tickets cost a lot of money and you couldn’t avoid the slot machines and the card tables and the ring ring ringing of money dropping and yes the Sands is one intense place to see a Bob Dylan show. Kind of like walking right into a verse from Highway 61 Revisited itself.
Now this was a show with a lot of potential. For one thing there wasn’t gonna be no Natalie Merchant dancing barefoot or with combat boots and doing no David Bowie songs no how. She wasn’t gonna be having no cold nor wearing layers of upstate New York Jamestown clothing nor whirling like a politically correct poetress nor none of that stuff and that was a good thing too, ‘cause the only person on a Bob Dylan show doing a David Bowie song should be Mick Ronson but that ain’t gonna happen no more no how, not on this planet anyways. Now the Copa Room was all red kinda like the red room at the White House but maybe even redder and there were these guys you were supposed to tip to get a good seat and if they liked the tip it worked and you needed a pass to go to the bathroom like it was high school or something. And since it was like a nightclub there were lots of tables crowded together like they have in nightclubs. Now there were some people at the show who don’t understand the concept of nightclub ’cause it’s like the ’90s and kids don’t even eat lunch in high school anymore ’cause achieving is much more important than developing social skills so they eat standing up between classes and most clubs where they have music aren’t places you’d wanna see in anything close to daylight and anyway these days in clubs everybody just like slams into each other and all kindsa other weird things and it’s what’s happenin’ down on the floor that’s important and the music is really just kind kind of a sideshow to what’s happening on the floor and so what if like the songs or even the music is like moving or even meaningful because it’s much more important that I wave my arms and dance and you see me doing it because what I want now is what I want now and that’s all that’s important is me. And so since that’s the way it is today it’s quite possible that a lot of people inside the Copa Room just had never seen no place like that before and didn’t know what it was unless they’d seen it on television or something but even if they had they probably didn’t notice ’cause television is something that you have on while you’re doing something else like talking even if it’s a good movie or something because talking is one of those things like dancing, you do it no matter what the situation. You do it in the movies, you do it at a poetry reading, you probably do it while the preacher’s talking in church and you do it while someone’s on stage singing a song because hey, you can go home and hear the song on the record even when you’re seeing the one guy, the guy whose thing (in live appearances anyway) is not to do the song like the record or even like he did it the night before, well some of the time anyway. But hey someone will always tape and it and you can hear that.
Well anyway, Bob Dylan finally took the stage after an hour of drinks, waiters and bathroom passes, and he was wearing the same grey suit (or one very similar) to the one he wore at the Grammys and he was in his energetic comic mode and it was pretty funny watching him do his moves which were half rock star and half Charlie Chaplin and the band was tight and it was happening and the song was “To Be Alone With You,” and he went right from that into a song about no longer being alone with you, “You’re A Big Girl Now,” which probably should never be the number two song because the number two song is still kind of a warm up song, but he was leaning into hard and heavy, and on into a kicking “Can’t Wait,” and the thing is he’s letting Larry Campbell play, and play is just what Campbell’s doing making that Paul Reed Smith whatever guitar sound just like a Stratocaster and tearing out a solo not unlike what Mark Knopfler might have played if he’d been there. And then into a “She Belongs To Me” that wasn’t all that dissimilar from other ’90s versions, but then again it had this other thing about it to make this version more than a little bit special with Campbell providing gorgeous guitar fills with Dylan playing his own lead, but managing to keep it underneath what Campbell is doing and not interfering with it and into “Memphis Blues Again.” That is the way he does it now and into the acoustic set leading off with a sensitive rendering of “It Ain’t Me Babe,” but halfway through the first verse I realize there’s a conversation going on. Someone has been talking through the entire song and I can hear it from two tables away and not only that, the conversation has been going on since “Memphis Blues Again,” but “It Ain’t Me Babe” is quieter and I go into my best Michael Corleone stare which scares the shit out of the guy from North Carolina at the table next to me, but the conversationalist is too busy talking to notice so I have to get up and make him an offer to shut up that he can’t refuse and get back in my seat in time for the last chorus, in time to calm down for a way too slow version of “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Now if there’s one song that shouldn’t be messed with this is it, and I’ve seen him mess with it quite successfully especially in the fall of ’81, but for some reason in the ’90s he’s slowed it down, not as slow as the hand-held microphone version he did at TLA whenever that was, but slow enough that it should be faster. This is a song that can sing itself, but not at this speed. “Friend of the Devil” was done at about the same pace, but it’s only “Friend of the Devil.” Then they soared into “Highway 61” with Campbell again shining on guitar and there was one point when he and Dylan were standing right next to each other the way guitar players should and Campbell pulled out some riff and you could see that even Dylan was impressed.
“Lovesick” started off the encores and was okay, but nothing special and “Blowin’ In The Wind” is the way they do it now with the cool harmonies on the last line, but I was gearing up to hear that totally strange arrangement of “Not Fade Away” ’cause Dylan sings it higher than anything he’s done in years, and they’re getting through the intro and it’s kicking into 2nd then 3rd, when this blonde walks across the stage and then this other woman jumps up and wham bam no thank you maam there’s 60 or 70 people onstage and some kid flashes his soy bomb stomach which was the only semi-humorous thing about it because the song had gone completely out the window and Bob Dylan was nowhere in sight and neither was his band and just a bunch of people I didn’t pay to see on stage doing nothing except flashing hey look at me, I’m on stage with Bob Dylan grins and it was really too bad, because this show had the potential to be something different because it was this small room and everything, but it wasn’t, it was just another show with an annoying ending. So we beat it on out of there and I walked in my door in time to see Steve Earle do a few songs with the Del McCoury Band that was more satisfying than anything that happened in Atlantic City that night.