The first time Bob Dylan played the once upon a coal mining town of Wilkes-Barre, PA was just a little over 10 years ago, November 1st to be exact, at a fairly small theater called the Kirby Center. That was back in the wondering what was going to happen days of the Never Ending Tour when he was just starting to get back whatever it was had seemingly vanished the previous year. Two songs that night stick out in my mind because of Dylan’s guitar playing, “Don’t Think Twice” and “Watching The River Flow.” Things have changed a lot since then.
An annoying rain was falling after an annoying ride through Philadelphia which for some undetermined reason seemed mired in traffic in the middle of the afternoon and just as we hit the Northeast Extension of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, one of the worst roads ever built, the rain started and it was the kind of rain that required constant switching of wiper speeds from slow to fast to intermittent and back again. And it was also the kind of rain that got the roads just wet enough for good hydroplaning action and never wet enough to get any real speed happening.
The First Union Center was right off the interstate so we never had to actually go into Wilkes-Barre proper and instead went on a wild goose chase in search of our restaurant meeting place passing endless malls, MacDonald’s and Home Depots. Of course the restaurant was where it was supposed to be right around the corner from the arena. We finally arrived at the arena minutes before the scheduled show time to find it nowhere near full though by the end of the night floor revealed few empty seats.
After the announcement, Dylan appeared in a grey suit that turned white as soon as the stage lights went on, and went right into a “Maggie’s Farm” that seemed every bit as strong as the one six days before in Philly. He seemed a bit looser than he had at the big city shows, New York and Philly, his left leg never touching the ground for most of the song, and on the last verse really emphasizing the line “I get bored.”
The second song, “I’ll Remember You,” was something of a surprise and this was probably the best version I’ve seen Dylan do, free of the extra excesses of the album. A charged up “Highway 61 Revisited” came next with superb guitar from Charlie Sexton, playing a blue Telecaster. For whatever reason, my seats were at the perfect angle to really watch what Sexton (who stood out all night) was doing, and his first solo was reminiscent of Robbie Robertson – not what Robertson played on the song on Tour ’74, but what Robertson might have played if the song were performed in ’65 or ’66. One of the things that makes Sexton particular interesting is the way he alternates between fingerpicking and using a flat pick in the same song, and sometimes during a solo. Larry Campbell took the second solo, which was a bit more refined, but just as exciting.
Then came the night’s transcendent moment, the one song I’d been hoping to see, “Accidentally Like Martyr,” and it was beautiful, Dylan singing with real care, watching his vocal and watching the band as well, and putting everything he had in him on the table when he sang the line, “time out of mind.”
“Things Have Changed” kept the momentum going, and again Dylan was really putting out, almost shouting out, “all hellllllllll to break loose,” then “jitterbug RAG” and then on the last verse, “I used to care, YESSS, but things have changed.”
“Brown Sugar” may have been the most fun version of the four shows I saw, and Dylan was clearly having fun especially on the line “How come you taste so good.”
Then came another sort of surprise, “Never Gonna Be The Same Again,” and I started wondering when was the last time Dylan did two songs from “Empire Burlesque” in the same night, and also wondering if he’d been told about the not-so-complimentary thread on the album on RMD. Every once in a while these things happen. In any case, it was the arrangement of the song he’s been pulling out ever since Worcester, but where the one in Worcester seemed constantly in danger of imminent collapse this one held together a bit better. There was one lyric change in the song (I think on the last verse) where he sang the line, “Your touch was like a baby/Your heart broke like the wind.”
Then it was back to the piano for an “It’s Alright Ma,” that was good but did not have the anger or the nastiness that was quite present in New York and Philly. In fact, the political implications and overtones of those shows were barely present in Wilkes-Barre.
A rather exquisite “Girl From the North Country Followed,” but unfortunately it served as a cue for the chatterers to start chattering and the beer drinkers to get up and get beer and food.
“Cold Irons Bound,” came next and again Sexton really stood out, this time playing a black Epiphone hollow body, and then it was back to acoustics for “Shelter From the Storm,” which started out pretty strongly. However Dylan sang the “Silver bracelets on your wrists” verse twice in a row, and totally flubbed his cue for the repeat of the first verse, but did play a rather awesome two verse harp solo, but he did make the line “if only I could TURN BACK THE CLOCK” stand out wonderfully.
From then on the rest of the show was, well, a show on this tour, which means pretty damn good.
Of the cover songs I’ve seen, “Old Man” just seems too much like a cover. “Just Like A Woman” cried out for a harp solo that didn’t happen, and Dylan’s two-verse guitar solo never found what he was looking for.
“High Water” was interesting because Dylan was putting more emphasis on the actual verses rather than the “rough out there,” “bad out there” parts, as in “Water pourin’ into Vicksburg, don’t know what I’m gonna doooooooo.”
“Mutineer” again was just beautiful, and if there’s one song on this tour, that seems to truly be the special moment and performed well consistently, this is it. Dylan has truly made it his own.
“Bye and Bye” on the other hand never really seemed to get going and it felt like it should have been done earlier in the set.
“Honest with Me” found Dylan rushing through the first part of each line, barely making it fit only to stretch it out at the end and considering he’s done this song every show, at one point he totally blew a verse, but ultimately it didn’t matter.
“Summer Days” didn’t seem to have the energy, particularly in Dylan’s vocal of the other versions I saw on this tour and only took off when they hit the guitar solo.
While Wilkes-Barre did not have the emotional intensity of New York and Philly, in some ways it was more of a fun show, and the energy level stayed higher for a longer period.
There is no doubt in my mind that Dylan made a smart move in revamping the show and switching to keyboards for many of the songs. And of course throughout this tour there have been surprises, big and small. Hopefully the rumors surrounding this tour are just that – rumors.
If there’s one change that’s needed, it’s that the pacing of the set lists with the switching from electric to acoustic to piano needs to be refined. At times, for all the shows I saw there were parts particularly later in the sets where things dragged when they shouldn’t have and songs that should have been high points were just okay.
Outside the arena, the rain had stopped, but started up the minute we hit the PA Turnpike for downhill ride to Philly. And in Philadelphia where today the mayor announced a projected a $612 million budget deficit and the loss of a couple of thousand city jobs, a hard rain was falling.