What a difference a guitarist can make.
I was never really among the Freddy Koella bashers. The first time I saw him in Atlantic City a little over a year ago, I thought he held great promise. But that promise was never fulfilled, and ultimately I found him wildly inconsistent, sometimes on the same song, great one minute and apparently lost the next.
Tonight in Atlantic City at the Borgata Casino, none of that mattered. A great guitar player not only knows what to play, but equally important when to play, and when not to play. A great guitarist isn’t only about speedy licks, it’s about taking all the licks and guitar tricks you’ve learned and knowing when and where to use them. Like Larry Campbell, Stu Kimball is a walking catalog of great guitar licks. And like Larry Campbell, though they have very different style, Stu Kimball knows when and how to use those licks and use them with taste. Now reports from the first two shows of this tour basically had Kimball holding back. However, tonight he did anything but. He shined, bringing back to this band a feeling and a power that’s been missing for a long time. In fact, I’m going to go out on a limb and say Kimball can take his place as one of the top five guitar players to play on-stage with Bob Dylan – easily. There was no stumbling about looking for a groove, searching for that magic thing that might lead somewhere. Every time out he hit it. It fit, it was right, and it was soulful.
And in some crazy way, as if to make this point very clear, the setlist tonight was very similar, in fact extremely similar to the last show I saw at the Warner Theater two months ago. Not counting the non-version of “Cats In The Well” at the Warner, which was the instrumental outro, only four songs were different. But the difference between the two shows was astounding. Night and day. The moon and mars. Russia and China.
And the biggest difference other than what became obvious as the night went on was a much-needed change in guitar players, is that Bob Dylan is really singing again. The voice isn’t all the way and may never be all the way back, but it’s certainly on the way there – more than any time since 2002, with the possible exception of the last 3 shows in England last fall. What some people have called the “wolfman growl” is still there on occasion, but now it is used for effect on certain words or certain phrases. And more to the point, Dylan is phrasing again. He is paying attention to what he is singing, and singing for the most part with clarity and care. Stretching out words, pausing before key phrases, snarling out lines when necessary. Singing in that way, that only he can where you know the songs not only mean something to you, but to him. Even on the songs you may never want to hear again, he made them matter, he made them vital.
The show started out with “God Knows,” which was mainly interesting because he doesn’t do it all that much. Dylan stumbled on one of the first few lines and I had that feeling of “oh no,” but that turned out to be the only stumble. This was followed by “Forever Young,” and the feeling of déjà vu with the Warner show sort of returned, but changed as the song went on. Larry Campbell was on acoustic, with Kimball playing a Strat. On the first chorus, Dylan sang a short, almost clipped forever young. On the second chorus, it was a little longer. Then Kimball took a beautiful solo that in some ways was reminiscent of Robbie Robertson with a good bit of Memphis-soul type chording. By the third chorus Dylan was stretching out the younnnnng, sounding like… well, Bob Dylan.
The lights went down and the next thing you heard was a lone harmonica tentatively blowing a couple of notes, then some more notes, until the band kicked in for a not bad version of “Watching The River Flow.” But this was still pretty much a warm-up song. Then came the first real highlight, “Trying To Get To Heaven.” As with other recent versions, the song was back to the original melody and pretty much the original arrangement, except on the chorus, Dylan’s phrasing was much closer to the more jazzy arrangement of a few years ago. There was also a lyric change (and I’m not even sure what verse) where he sang, “I tried to give you everything that you’ve been longing for.” And while on many songs tonight, Dylan would close out with a harp solo, using the solo to cue Kimball to the end, on this song, they worked out a real ending that was surprisingly similar to the original ending of “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You.”
Then came “Memphis Blues Again,” which has never been a favorite of mine in concert because it’s never come close to the album version, but tonight the band was in the groove, and it made you want to listen, and Dylan was really singing especially on the last verse, with “You have to paaaaaaaayyyy to get out of going through all these things twice.
And the same thing happened “Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum” partially because of the guitars with Larry (who had this wonderful nasty sound, happening a good deal of the night) playing the main riff while Kimball did the kind of circular fills with a power that’s been missing since the departure of Charlie Sexton, and then on the break, the two of them got into this amazing call-and-response thing that got funkier each time around.
An excellent “Blind Willie McTell” followed and by now Dylan was totally warmed up and totally into it, making every word count: “McTELL,” “JeruuuusAL-LEMMM,” growling out, “rebels yellll.”
On “Highway 61 Revisited,” the guitarists again took over with Kimball laying down a John Lee Hooker-ish swamp boogie groove, and Campbell who was inspired through out the night answering with more wonderfully nasty guitar.
A stunningly beautiful “I Shall Be Released” came next with Kimball playing an almost chime-like lead recalling in its own way Robbie Robertson’s original guitar, with Dylan again singing with not only care but affection, and then on the last chorus, he sang from the east down to the west, and then followed that with an answer, but unfortunately I wasn’t able to make out what it was. He then repeated the chorus, but sang it the right way.
Then it was back to rocking with “High Water” followed by a sort of surprise, “Moonlight,” returned to its original arrangement with Kimball providing really nice jazz fills throughout, with a fine harp solo, followed by a somewhat renewed in spirit rendition of “Honest With Me.”
A drum fill kicked off “Lay Lady Lay” with Campbell providing angelic-sounding steel and Dylan having a lot of fun, while at the same time singing quite tenderly, yet letting loose with a “yeah” followed by a broad smile after “You can have your cake and eat it too,” then on the last verse singing “Stay lady stay so you can lay across by big brass bed.”
“Summer Days” came kind of close to its former glory with Campbell and Kimball trading licks like mad.
After what seemed like a longer than usual break, they returned for “Cats In The Well” which kicked right into “Like A Rolling Stone,” with Larry on steel filling out the sound nicely. Larry stayed on steel, adding a spooky touch to a fairly strong “Watchtower,” though I found the echo effect on Dylan’s voice to be unnecessary and cheesy – the song stands on its own.
This was easily the best Bob Dylan concert I’ve seen in more than a year-and-a-half. Dylan’s singing made the Willie Nelson thing that started the week an easily forgotten aberration and Stu Kimball made the Freddie Koella era seem like a dream gone wrong. For the first time in too long, I left tonight’s show feeling “yeah Bob Dylan has the best band happening” and much more to the point, I remembered why I go to see Bob Dylan.