Category Archives: 2004

11/16/04 Stabler Arena, Bethlehem, PA

Maybe it was all those shows this summer in baseball stadiums, but Lehigh University’s Stabler Arena seemed a lot smaller than I remembered it being.  What was sadly evident waiting for the show to begin was the amount of empty seats.

Sometime after 8:15 pm Dylan and band took the stage and started with Bob in good voice on a reasonably strong “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat,” that was mainly notable for the harp solo.  This was followed by the evening’s biggest surprise “Absolutely Sweet Marie,” in the number two spot.  It was okay though I wish he’d return to singing the opening line as “railroad gate” instead of “railroad bridge” which he seems to prefer now.  Bob ended the song with an extended harp solo.

“Lonesome Day Blues” came next, though the song didn’t sound as fiery as the version I heard from Rochester and it was becoming apparent that something was missing from the sound at least where I was sitting, which was pretty much slightly above stage level namely the bottom.  It wasn’t that you couldn’t hear the bass, but the whole bottom end should have been booming and it wasn’t.

Dylan moved into semi-growling mode for “This Wheel’s On Fire” particularly on the memory served you well line at the end of each verse, and again played really good clear harp, but the punch that should have been driving the band just wasn’t there.  Now this happens to be one of my all-time favorite songs by anyone and I was lucky enough to witness the live debut.  But tonight’s version was slightly on fire and barely rolling down the road.

Things should have continued rocking or perhaps gone even higher with “Seeing The Real You At Last,” but the energy level stayed pretty much the same.  This was followed by a nice version of “Positively 4th Street” with Larry on acoustic.  This would’ve been okay for any other song, but this song is supposed to be nasty, not nice.

Reaching the midway point with a sing-songy “Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum” the show could go up, down, or stay the same.  The show stayed the same, which meant keeping things at a reasonably smooth competent level.  There was to be no lightning intensity, not a phrase that truly leaped out and grabbed you, just the occasional hot guitar lick, and a band, that tonight sounded more like a group of back-up musicians, which was a shame because this summer, at shows where I least expected it, they sounded like a band and a great one.

So despite doing a bunch of songs I really appreciate such as “Under The Red Sky” which had a not bad solo from Kimball and good harp from Bob, and a “Masters of War” which brought up the intensity meter a couple of degrees, and an okay “Girl From The North Country,” introduced as a request from the mysterious Aladdin (who has his own story to tell).  And then at the song’s end came the evening’s second surprise sort of when Dylan asked, “Anyone else wanna hear anything?” but before anyone could respond, he said “It’s Too Late,” before launching “Summer Days.”

Ultimately Bethlehem was a show where the harp solos were way more interesting than the vocals, where the band never really jelled and the energy level, which began on a fairly high level never went higher than the initial five songs.

08/12/04 Ripken Stadium, Aberdeen, Maryland

Five days less than a decade ago I went to a Bob Dylan Concert in Hershey, PA at the Hershey Park Stadium.  It started raining on the way there, a heavy, steady rain and it rained the entire show as the football field turned to mud.  The stadium was nowhere near full, and Dylan and the band put on a good show with quite a few rain references throughout, encoring with “Hard Rain.”  I spent a good deal of time at that show trying to figure out what secret they’d discovered to keep from getting electrocuted as the wind was blowing the rain onto the stage.

Two months later I saw the Rolling Stones at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia.  It was October and a lot colder and again the field turned to mud.  I swore never again.

I woke up this morning and the sky was a very strange gray, some combination of clouds and pollution and the day felt weird in general.  The weather reports were terrible.  This has been the rainiest summer I can remember in Philly with surrounding communities and Philly itself including my house and my block getting flooded.  Hurricanes were invading Florida and making their way up the East Coast.  I picked up my friend Seth and we headed South in I-95 straight into a couple of traffic jams.  Just as we were crossing from Delaware into Maryland as the Governor of New Jersey was announcing he was gay and had cheated on his wife with another man and resigning it started to pour.  The signs on I-95 in Maryland that are usually used to announce traffic delays all said: “To report suspicious activity, call some 800 number.”  It seemed like there was one every five minutes.  Fifteen minutes later the sun came out and maybe 15 minutes later after crossing the Susquehanna River we saw the stadium from the Interstate and the tour busses parked along side of it.  We made it past security who were checking every centimeter of every bag, and down onto the field.  I’d told Seth the field was the only place to see the show and he didn’t believe me until he saw where the stage was and saw where the stands were.  In some ways Ripken was the nicest of the stadiums I’d been to especially in design though Yale was much older, funkier and had more charm.  Ripken was also the smallest and the least prepared.  Whereas every other stadium had 20 or 30 portojohns or whatever the hell they’re called this year, Ripken had 8.  Like Cooperstown the only beverage you could buy on the field itself was beer.  We made it to about ten rows of people from the stage, right in the center.  Very ominous looking black storm clouds were moving North from Baltimore.  About 15 minutes before Hot Club of Cowtown took the stage, a single very scary lightning bolt somewhere to the south went all the way to the ground.

Hot Club took the stage and it started to drizzle, then it started to pour.  Then it started to rain the hardest rain I’d ever felt in my life.  The drops were huge and hurt when they hit your skin.  I can’t remember whether it was the second or third song, but all of a sudden the standup bass player jumps back and they stop playing, moving to the back of the stage as fast as they could.  Most people started running for the upper deck of the stands.  There wasn’t any room under the roof.  A bunch of people went into the various restrooms for the next half hour.  Everyone was completely soaked and most people including myself had raincoats.  They did little to help.  Finally the rain started to ease up and Willie Nelson took the stage at approximately the same time he usually does, opening with “Living In The Promised Land,” and following it up with “Pancho and Lefty,” and a bunch of other songs before going into the medley of his classic original country songs.  There were sound problems from the start.  At first Willie’s mic didn’t work, and his crew switched it fast.  Then later on, the sound went out of the main speakers completely and it seemed that they never really got it back.  I don’t know what the people in the stands heard, but the people near the stage were hearing the band through the band’s monitors.  And it was a shame, because Willie was doing a much different set than on the other shows I’ve seen on this tour, including “Milk Cow Blues,” and he let his son Lukas (already a good blues player) sing a verse of “Texas Flood,” and the kid can sing too.

But as Willie’s set went on, more ominous clouds were moving north.  He ended his set maybe five minutes early and there seemed to me more of a rush than usual to change the stage.  During this time the front got really crowded, so crowded you couldn’t move, you couldn’t lift your arms, and it was not a Bob Dylan crowd.  It was trailer park white trash.  Yes, it was the night of the morons in Aberdeen and you didn’t wanna even consider messing with them.  Big motorcycle guys with tattoos.  Women chatting on cell phones (even during Willie’s set), some weird guy complaining about cigarette smoke and bumming them every chance he could.  It was really weird.  Some girl standing next to me started yelling out “Bobby D” in a shrill shriek for no apparent reason every 30 seconds.  I doubt she could name the title of a single Bob Dylan album.

It started to drizzle and a hatless Bob took the stage and launched into “Drifter’s Escape.”  Once again he was on, the band sounded tight, but it wasn’t easy to pay attention to the music.  Much to my amazement, the one video screen was actually showing Dylan.  He then did a not bad “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight,” and the rain got a little harder, and on into “Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum,” and the band is really kicking.

By now it was really pouring and all of a sudden Bob’s at the center stage mic and talking and I’m trying to understand what he’s saying but the girl is still shrieking “Bobbeeee” in my ear and people are having conversations all over and then they wheel another guitar amp on the stage and Willie Nelson is there, with his sons Lucas (on guitar) and Michael (on tambourine) and Bob’s saying something like “I’d do anything for this guy and he’d do anything for me and we’d do anything for each other,” and he’s laughing and runs back to the keyboard and there into “Milkcow Blues,” which Willie had already done that night.  And they’re jamming and Bob is smiling big time and then he does a verse and it wasn’t from “Milk Cow Blues,” but I can’t quite make out what it is because this motorcycle guy is dancing into me and this girl is shrieking “Bobbeee.”  And I’m hoping that maybe just maybe they’ll do another song, like maybe “Heartland,” but Willie and song leave the stage and they’re into a fairly loose but smoking “Cold Iron Bounds” and all this time the rain is coming down fast and hard.  My pocket notebook is soaked, not that I could lift my hands to jot anything down, my cigarettes despite being inside my raincoat are crumbling bits of paper and tobacco and this moron is still shrieking.  I consider moving to the back, but they’re starting something that sounds sort of familiar, but not that familiar and it turns into the new arrangement of “Sugar Baby,” that has a kind of very light, swingy, jazz feel pushing it into something different than the studio version.  And this of course is one of those moments that you go to shows for but most of the people around me don’t know it and start conversations and Bobbeee is still being yelled into my right ear.  They tear into “Highway 61,” and somewhere around this time, some people leave and a new space appears.  I grab it immediately and then manage to move up further away from the shrieker.

The lights are down, but I can see Larry has his fiddle and they’re into (amazingly enough) “Floater” of all things, and it’s good too with Stu on acoustic and Bob emphasizing the line “Cold rain can give you the shivers.”

Larry puts down the fiddle and George kicks the drums into (finally) “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall,” and he’s really singing it, nailing every line and then it was into “Honest With Me,” with Bob again taking the front of the stage to do whatever it is that he does up there and then “Summer Days.”  I decided I was wet enough and we headed for the back.  They returned to the stage pretty fast and skipping the acoustic song went right into “Like A Rolling Stone.”  I looked at my watch and it wasn’t even 10 pm, and I figure Bob decided it was time for everyone to come in out of the rain and was ending the show early.  There were small lakes at the back of the field and my pants were so soaked (and I wore shorts thinking skin dries quicker than cloth) that they felt like a 30 pound weight around my waist.

Luckily traffic was moving on I-95 and there weren’t any flood, just an outrageous five-dollar toll for going maybe 15 miles on the Maryland Turnpike and finally the rain stopped at the Pennsylvania border.  With no show tomorrow, with the weather forecast even worse, the people further down South just might luck out, but there is that other hurricane moving into Florida.

08/10/04 Dutchess Stadium, Fishkill, NY

Sometimes magic comes in the strangest of places, and sometimes magic happens in surprising ways when you least expect it.

Who would have thought that in the somewhat sleepy burg of Fishkill, New York where Fishkill’s finest greeted concert-goers with dope-sniffing German Shepherds that magic could happen?  Then again this is somewhere in the territory where Heinrich Hudson used to bowl and headless horsemen roamed the land.

First, Willie Nelson took the stage with an extra band member, classical and all-around musician David Amram (who a long time ago jammed with Bob and Allen Ginsberg) who played among other things French horn, penny-whistle (two at once), flute and an exotic looking drum, and somehow made it all work.  Nelson also shook things up a bit adding “City Of New Orleans,” which found his band unable to keep up with him at the beginning in a rather grand collapse that I always felt they were capable of..  Willie nonchalantly said, “They’ll come around,” and eventually they did when he slowed down the beat after a couple of glances back that probably said “Get It Together.”  The best surprise of his set however (by request) was “Pancho and Lefty.”

Bob Dylan took the stage wearing a black suit with red piping and a bright red shirt.  From the minute he walked on he seemed quite animated, and immediately picked up a harp for “Rainy Day Women.”  “Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum” followed and for whatever reason worked quite well in the second spot, picking up the already energetic pace.  Looking around, I noticed for the first time this tour the band was wearing matching light gray suits  (I figured Stu Kimball’s tour wardrobe had finally been created).  “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue” still in its recent staccato arrangement came next and Bob was starting to toy with his vocals, stretching out the last word on key lines, “Look out now, the saints are marching throuuuuuuuugh,” and playing a fairly crazy harp solo that had brief echoes of 1966.

“Lonesome Day Blues” kicked things even higher, with Dylan growling out the vocal (“Lawd I never slept with her even once” and Larry and Stu flying on guitars.

After a brief conference with Tony, the band kicked into “Memphis Blues Again” with Larry on acoustic guitar.  This is not one of my favorite live songs – he’s never touched the original.  But on this version things started to happen.  On one of the choruses, he answered “Can this really be the end,” with his new favorite phrase, “I don’t know,” but then on Kimball’s guitar solo, which found Larry moving from straight rhythm to “Blonde On Blonde” style guitar fills, Dylan stood straight up and was just digging the sound coming from his band.  He just looked totally pleased and the expression on his face seemed to say, “I have one great band,” and he does.  The band on this tour has for the most part been impeccable and it’s not mechanical either.

“Lay Lady Lay” came next, and during the song Dylan found a bass piano riff he really liked and kept repeating it throughout the song, obviously enjoying himself.  But then on the harp solo, something remarkable happened, something I have never seen at a Dylan concert.  He played a little riff on the harp, looked at Stu and Stu answered him on guitar, then Bob answered back on harp and Stu answered back.  They kept up the call and response for a couple of measures before Bob took over the harp solo and ended the song.  Not even in the acoustic duets with G.E. Smith did this ever happen.  And considering the song was “Lay Lady Lay,” it was totally unexpected.

A cool version of “Bye and Bye” came next, Dylan placing emphasis on the last line “How loyal and true a man can be,” which went into a kicking “Highway 61” with excellent guitar all around, and Larry grinning broadly at Kimball’s lead solo.

Then came the high point of the show, a simply incredible version of “Not Dark Yet.”  It was slow, it was soulful, the guitars beautiful and perfect, with a great harp solo.  But it was the vocal, Dylan digging deep into the lyrics, seeming to find every possible level of meaning all at once, getting spookier with each verse, each line, using a tight staccato phrasing almost reminiscent of the Basement Tapes on “Every nerve in my body is so vacant and numb/I can’t even remember what it was I came here to get away from,” and then, you could almost see him deciding how to sing the next line, and he went for it, from somewhere deep inside came this soaring voice from long ago: “Don’t even hear the murmur of a prayer,” and he held the last word and that note and everyone in the crowd (around me anyway) was awestruck.  It was a completely remarkable, totally moving moment.

“Honest With Me” gave the crowd a chance to recover, but Bob was having none of it.  On the instrumental break he walked that crazy, almost goofy Dylan walk dance to the front center of the stage, his shirt partially unbuttoned (it was a hot and humid night) pointing his hands almost like pistols at the crowd, except he’s doing it exactly in time with the drum beats.  It was hysterical and great.

Larry went back to acoustic for an intense “Masters of War,” Dylan venomously spitting out the lyrics: “I hope that you DIE” and then repeating the first, stretching out the line “see through your mask,” except on mask, it wasn’t one note, he went up and down the scale so it came out kind of like “ma-ah-ah-ah-ask,” and it was nasty too.

The rest of the show stayed on the same level with “Tambourine Man” leading off the usual encores.  This was easily the best Dylan concert I’ve seen in at least two years.  It made the three hour ride home, after six days on the road totally enjoyable.

08/08/04 Campanelli Stadium. Brockton, MA

Brockton, Massachusetts is a community apparently of strip malls located a little less than 30 miles south of Boston. The best thing about Brockton was we found a motel immediately on exiting the highway that turned out to be right down the road, in fact walking distance from Campanelli Stadium.

The scene outside at Brockton was a bit different. Brockton police on carts kept coming by asking people to clear the sidewalk when all they were doing was standing and talking. Considering the walkway was right at the stadium not on a street where people had to get by, it was unnecessary. Occasionally people in line would complain to a cop about people who got in line in front of them. Unlike Cooperstown, which is high up in the mountains and was quite chilly and Yale which is kind of near the Long Island Sound and also chilly, the weather was warm. This time we didn’t stake out a place in line, and ended up walking about two blocks to get at the back of a line to a second entrance. It made no difference at all in respect to getting near the stage. This time however, the vibe down in front was strange. People crowded in close a lot earlier and they weren’t pleasant about it. Combine this with the people who think they are the center of the universe, not aware at all that anyone else, let alone a few thousand people are around them.

Willie Nelson changed things around slightly by opening with “Living In The Promised Land,” and introducing his guitarist son said, “Now that’s homeland security.” During Nelson’s set, some sixties burn-out acid casualty tried who’d been standing maybe five rows of people back from the stage tried to weasel his way up front, led by someone who turned out to be a cop. A bunch of people complained to security. Finally the burn out caught one of the baseball caps Nelson was constantly throwing from the stage and vanished. No one was sure whether the cop was working undercover or just there.

During the wait for Dylan, the security force decided to remove someone who made the mistake of accidentally tripping over (or almost tripping over to be more accurate) the one person who decided to sit down on the ground and couldn’t be seen considering he was in a huge crowd. But this guy, who was there from when the doors open and was  there with his son had done nothing wrong. The security guy just decided to focus on him and have him removed when there were other people being way more annoying.

Finally Dylan came on and rushed through “Rainy Day Women,” and then did a powerful “God Knows,” quite possibly the best version of this song I’ve seen in concert. Then it was a speedy “Tweedle Dum,” and you had the feeling both Dylan and the band wanted to get through this show as quickly as possible. “Forever Young,” led into a fast, somewhat snarling, “Things Have Changed” which went into “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You.” The best part of “Tonight,” was on the bridge when Dylan sang, “Is it really any wonder,” he answered himself with “I Don’t Know.” A super-fast “Highway 61” came next, and I had a feeling the one acoustic number would be something special and it was, a close to perfect rendition of “Po Boy” with both Larry and Stu on acoustics, and I realized it was the first show this year (and perhaps longer) where two acoustic guitars were used on a song.

“High Water” came next and I decided I’d had enough of being in the front. It just wasn’t fun and it seemed like a fight would break out any minute. So I made my way through the crowd to discover a precious commodity called air, and another one called room. The strange thing was the closer I got to the back of the stadium, the louder the sound was and it was extremely loud. There was a lot of room in the back, some people dancing, some people clumped in little groups, some people not paying attention at all.

It was then the second high point of the night happened, a truly beautiful “Saving Grace,” with Larry playing gorgeous pedal steel and Dylan really singing. For “Summer Days,” I decided to see what things were like from the grand stand.  With Dylan off to the side, it was almost impossible to make him out, the huge stage looked almost deserted though the music blasted.

Again the encores began with “Tambourine Man,” but the rest of the show didn’t really matter. I left the show feeling what I’d felt when the tour was announced.  Baseball stadiums are for baseball, not music.  And unless you have a good pair of binoculars (a telescope would be more like it) if you want to see what’s going on. If you want to see the interplay between the musicians, you have to get near the front.

08/07/04 Yale Field, West Haven, Connecticut

We arrived at the stadium about an hour before the doors opened. The circus atmosphere of Cooperstown was replaced by a more mellow crowd lounging around in line. Once again, it was pretty easy to get right up front. Hot Club of Cowtown did a similar set to the night before and everything seemed a bit looser. Willie Nelson came on a tiny bit later and did virtually the same set, except he played about 15 minutes longer, adding a couple of Hank Williams songs as well as “Living In The Promised Land.”

The scene at the front can be fun and interesting. You notice the same people in the same spots at “the rail” – both Nelson and Dylan fans.  But it can also be intense and claustrophobic, especially the closer it gets to Dylan taking the stage.

Dylan came on at about 8:50 and opened with “Maggie’s Farm,” rocking very hard and continued rocking with “Watching the River Flow” and “Tell Me That It Isn’t True,” which had more punch than usual, and a cool harp solo though he did mess up some of the lyrics. Hardly pausing between songs, he took things higher with “Sad and Lonesome Day,” then slowing down for an excellent “Just Like A Woman,” still in it’s Memphis soul arrangement at the beginning.  “Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee” kicked things back into motion and even though this song appears at every show (or so it seems) both Dylan and the band put something extra into it that made you notice.

An incredible version of “Love Sick” led into “Highway 61 Revisited,” and it was obvious both Dylan and the band were having a lot of fun – the guitars soared. Larry switched to cittern and an ominous chord followed, and for the first time in a long time, I wasn’t sure what was coming next. The ominous chord turned into a stunning “Hollis Brown,” with Dylan nailing the vocal, never missing a step, not only enunciating every word, but every syllable. It was the high point of the night, and not even the security force dealing with a drunk who was apparently falling into everyone around him could detract from it.

“Honest With Me,” led into “It Ain’t Me, Babe,” and while when I first heard the new arrangement, I felt that it was a new arrangement simply for the sake of a new arrangement, at Yale it not only built and built, but made total sense.

On “Summer Days,” they were obviously again having fun, with Stu throwing in a Count Basie riff that made Dylan crack up. “Tambourine Man,” replaced the previous night’s “Don’t Think Twice” as usual followed by “Like A Rolling Stone” and “Watchtower.”

It was simply one of those nights where everything worked and the energy never let up, the band totally on, and Dylan singing so forcefully that you had no doubt why you came to see him.

08/06/04 Doubleday Field, Cooperstown, NY

On the road leading into Cooperstown was a big wooden sign in front of a house proclaiming: “We love Bob and Willie.” Maybe a mile later a similar, more official sign: “The Cooperstown Fire Department welcomes Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson.” Things have changed in America. 30 years ago, even 20, this was unthinkable.

Cooperstown was in a festive mood, and the stadium was right in the center of town. Every house in town that wanted to was making lots of bucks parking cars on their lawns. The atmosphere outside the stadium where people were forming several lines was pretty mellow. Various vendors selling food and of course the official Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson souvenir stands. The security people even let you behind the barricades if you had to use the facilities and they even opened the gates an hour early surprising the first-in-liners who’d been there all day and had to rush their chairs and other provisions back to their cars.

The gates open and people are literally running to the stage way on the other side of the stadium from the stands and the two-hour wait begins. At exactly 6:30 and Hot Club of Cowtown, a western swing trio from Austin took the stage and started playing. And they were hot, the guitarist playing some amazing jazz runs and the bassist slapping out the rhythm like mad. If they were nervous – and who wouldn’t be, opening a highly promoted tour for two American music icons – they didn’t show it.  After a set that included a couple of Bob Wills tunes, some originals and ended with “Orange Blossom Special,” they ended their set precisely at 7 and Willie Nelson’s crew started making sure everything was working. While that was happening one of Willie’s crew comes on-stage and tosses some Willie Nelson for president posters into the crowd. 17 minutes later Willie Nelson and Family took the stage. For those who knew, the big question was would Willie play guitar. But after spending a couple of minutes waving to the crowd, something he would do continually throughout his set, Willie strapped on his ancient battered, early ’50s Martin gut string – the one on the verge of collapse with the big hole next to the sound hole, the wood worn away by decades of picking.

Willie’s been doing pretty much the same set for 30 years (with a couple of variations) opening with “Whiskey River” and then right into all the big hits he wrote, “Funny How Time Slips Away,” “Crazy” and “Nightlife.”  Then it’s tribute time to Lefty Frizzell, Ray Charles, Kristofferson, Hank Williams and Merle Haggard with stops along the way into gospel, pop and whatever else he might feel like singing. Basically, as the leader of America’s foremost Western swing band told me a long time ago, “Willie comes out and sings every song he knows.”  Well, make it the ones that fit into his set. And when he says family band, he’s not kidding. The same lineup has been with him for decades and includes his sister Bobbie on piano and this time around, two of his sons Lukas, a pretty hot blues guitar player who looked like he couldn’t have been more than 14, and Micah who was younger on percussion. It’s a pretty crazy band, who are both tight and ragged at the same time. At Cooperstown they were tight. Nelson, asides from being the most relaxed performer you’re ever going to see on a stage, rarely sings on the beat. He sings behind it, ahead of it, every which way around it and at times you think they’re going to lose it entirely, but somehow they always come together on the chorus.

Some may find Nelson’s little shenanigans, constantly waving to the crowd, throwing hats back and forth tedious, but it works. Unlike the other performer on the bill, he lets the crowd know that he knows they’re there, and he does it an almost beatific way, yet never loses sight of the song he’s singing and playing. At Cooperstown, Nelson played exactly an hour.

About 35 minutes later Bob Dylan took the stage to the usual fanfare and announcement and ripped into “Drifter’s Escape” spitting out the words with a vengeance. They then went into “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight.”  The band was incredibly tight, the song now more a country swing arrangement than the blues shuffle of previous incarnations. “Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee” provided a rocking interlude before it was back to the same territory with “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You,” making me wonder if this was the first time this and “Baby Tonight” were done on the same show. Then came a blistering “Seeing the Real You At Last”  with great guitar work by Stu Kimball followed by the current arrangement of “Girl From the North Country,” with Larry finger-picking and Kimball providing atmospheric country-tinged guitar fills obtained by turning the volume knob on his Fender Strat. Dylan was singing strong and well, and blowing lots of harp. “To Make You Feel My Love” came next and it occurred to me that this was the most middle-of-the-road set I’d ever seen Dylan do, which was verified by the next song “Forever Young.” The remainder of the show maintained the intensity level, though it was a somewhat mellow intensity level, with an acoustic “Don’t Think Twice,” going right into “Like A Rolling Stone.” On the latter song Dylan’s keyboard was quite audible and I started thinking he attacks the piano keys like a cat toying with a mouse. At exactly 10:30 the show ended, the major surprise being there were no duets of Dylan and Nelson.

06/08/04 Delaware Kahuna Summer Stage, Wilmington, Delaware

Kahuna Summer Stage is really a bar that looks like it used to be a warehouse or maybe a department store in some forlorn lot that looks like it used to either be some warehouse office park or a strip mall lying on the banks of some invisible river in South Wilmington, right across from the Wilmington Blue Rocks baseball stadium which Delaware’s number one rock and roll singer who once sang a Bob song at Bobfest has a lot to do with.  Looking at the stadium, I couldn’t help but wonder if Bob would return to this very spot in about two months.

There was a long line going into the Kahuna and another little walk till we found the stage which was a nice high height.  We didn’t arrive particularly early, but managed to find a spot to stand about eight rows of people back.

Behind us was a slightly raised covered bar area where you could see pretty well, but I suspected the noise in the bar would not diminish for the show.  The crowd behind us filled in pretty quickly and various people kept trying to maneuver through with big plates of fries and cheeseburgers.

At about 8 pm, I looked up at the stage and noticed Wilmington resident David Bromberg standing by the monitor mixing board.

At exactly 8:11, the band and Dylan took the stage, wearing a black suit with red trim and a tan cowboy hat and launched into a rocking but lyrically incomprehensible version of “To Be Alone To You.”  Bob kind of mixed all the verses into the first verse maybe and then kind of made up the rest as he went along.  It didn’t matter. Dylan was on.  At the end, my friend Earl, a rather longtime contributor to the oldest Dylan forum on the Internet, and who has probably gone to more Dylan shows with me than anyone said to me, “This is way better than Philly last March.”

Then came the new arrangement of “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue” which sounded a lot better in person than on any recording.  Dylan kind of fumbled the third verse but recovered to start stretching things out even if the lines were a little mixed up: “The carpet too is moooooving Ohver youuuuuuuuuu,” and delivered a fairly wild harp solo.

A menacing “Lonesome Day Blues” followed and then Larry played a lick that almost sounded like “Tight Connection” to kick into a reasonably cool “If Not For You.”

“It’s Alright Ma” followed by despite Dylan really putting out, the song seemed to drag.  The crowd went fairly crazy during the “president” line, and Larry kind of rescued things with a great cittern solo followed by a fairly interesting bass notes guitar solo from Stu Kimball, and Dylan intensified his vocal on the last verse holding out the last line, onlyyyyyy while the band closed the song around him.

Then came “It Ain’t Me Babe,” my first time seeing this arrangement, and again seeing it was better than hearing field recordings.  Dylan started out singing fairly regularly, but by the end of the first verse was hitting some real low notes.  This wasn’t a growl just low notes.  Then on the second verse he went even lower bringing the song a spookiness it never had before.  It was a great performance.

“Cold Irons Bound” came next and following this recent pattern of rocker, ballad, rocker, a not bad “Under The Red Sky” followed.

“Highway 61” wasn’t bad either but wasn’t as fierce as it was two nights before, but then they go into what has to be “Not Dark Yet.”  Some leftover acid casualty standing next to me starts singing along loudly.  Now this is basically sacrilegious in my book.  You don’t sing along to this song, not to mention that no one, not even Willie Nelson who’s sung with everyone can sing with Bob Dylan.  So I kind of motion him to be quiet which was the second time during the show I had to do this and he says, “Why don’t you sing?”  I said, “It’s not a Pete Seeger concert,” and then did what Tony Soprano would have done.

Amazingly enough they didn’t follow it with a rocker, but went into “Bye and Bye” which got interrupted by these Kahuna girls who kept wandering into the crowd all night with these trays of weird little red glass somethings, I don’t know what they were, but they were selling them.

A decent “Masters Of War” which seemed especially appropriate in America in this week of national something or other followed “Honest With Me,” which was followed by “Summer Days.”

The usual three-song encore followed, except right before “Watchtower” some guy standing two rows behind me collapsed and the Kahuna security team who’d been present all night took a while to appear.  This was a rather big distraction as everyone was turning around to see what was going on instead of watching the stage.  Bromberg who watched the entire show, never took the stage.

While this show, didn’t have quite the heights of Atlantic City, despite a quite interesting setlist, part of it may have been the venue, which had a fair amount of distractions.  However, the band played great, Stu Kimball easily handled everything that was thrown to him, and Larry Campbell is truly rocking out.  And most important of all, Dylan is obviously interested in singing on this tour.

06/06/04 Borgata Hotel Casino And Spa Event Center, Atlantic City, NJ

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.

04/04/04 Warner Theater, Washington D.C

Bob Dylan started off his show at the Warner Theater, an old-style Art Deco one-time movie palace with a strong, to the point and totally surprising “God Knows” which probably was the last thing anyone expected as an opener.  But then with Dylan, trying to guess or predict what he will do has pretty much always been an exercise in futility.  Following an arrangement not all that dissimilar from the original studio version, the song took off under its own steam, but was hardly the swing insisted upon by a noted music critic on the tour’s previous stop.  As with most Dylan concerts I’ve seen over the past couple of years, his voice was far stronger than I expected it to be, his singing clear, and this version quite concise with no extraneous jamming or soloing.  Just as surprising for the second spot was “Forever Young” starting off with Freddy following the song’s melody for an opening solo.  Bob brought out the harp for the first of many excellent solos.

For some reason where I was sitting allowed me to notice the position of Bob’s microphone, which seemed to be positioned lower that I remembered from the shows last summer (but maybe not) forcing Dylan to bend down and kind of turn looking at the audience every time he sang.  Since the mic was positioned for someone who would be sitting at the keys instead of standing it was kind of strange.

The show got quite a bit funkier with song number 3, “Lonesome Day Blues” with great slide work from Larry Campbell, but the song never took on the intensity of either the studio version or the live versions from 2001 where the power of Dylan’s vocal was nothing less than scary.

“Trying to Get To Heaven” following the song’s original arrangement (as opposed to the jazzy rearrangement) was a splendid surprise and easily one of the evening’s high points, again beginning with a full instrumental for one verse before Bob started singing.  Again the harp came out for a beautiful solo.

Larry Campbell then kicked off the familiar intro to “Tangled” which was somewhat abbreviated in terms of the number of verses, but for the first time of the night I found myself wondering just what Freddie Koella was playing on the Gibson hollow-body electric he used for that song.  His solos didn’t seem to go anywhere and clashed with what the rest of the band was playing more than anything else.  This was followed by a basically ho-hum “Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum.”

The lights went down and the intro to another of the evening’s highlights “Blind Willie McTell” began, with Larry on cittern.  The last time I saw this song was last May in Atlantic City where it was ruined by a drunk who was falling into everyone around him, so this was my chance to see Dylan do it on piano.  The lights slowly came up to reveal a a real drummer on-stage, in fact, one of the greatest drummers in all of rock and roll for the last three decades, the magnificent Richie Hayward.  Keeping his eyes on Dylan at all time, looking around at the rest of the band every so often like a driver using his rear and sideview mirrors, Hayward doesn’t beat the drums, he plays them, constantly creating interesting multi-rhythms that make you notice the drums for all the right reasons.  The other great part of the song was Larry’s mandolin-like solos on the cittern.

“Highway 61 Revisited” followed with Hayward restoring the song to its original beat, much the way David Kemper did, though what Hayward was playing was a bit more complicated.  Both Freddie and Larry took some wild solos on this one with Larry’s standing out.

A moving “I Shall Be Released” with Bob on harp came next and again Hayward showed his virtuosity with a multi-rhythmic pattern that gently propelled the song but never got in the way of Dylan’s vocal or the guitar solos.

The difference between the two drummers was clear when Recile returned for the Shot of Love arrangement of “High Water” bashing out the beat on two snare drums making the drums louder than the entire band combined.

Larry then played the Stax-Volt arpeggio intro to “Just Like A Woman” which kicks into pretty much of a regular “Just Like A Woman” by the time the song reaches the bridge.  The song featured a superb harp solo.

“Honest With Me” was a standard, nothing-special version, that was followed by another ballad, “I Believe In You”  that was okay, but mainly served to showcase how shot Dylan’s voice at this point is.  The emotion was there, but the voice was not conveying it.

On “Summer Days” about a quarter of the audience crowded the theater’s two center aisles.  It was fun, but “Summer Days” simply hasn’t reached the supersonic heights it once did since Charlie Sexton has left the band.

When the band took their places for the encore, they did a very strange thing: they played the outro to “Cats In The Well,” and immediately went into “Like A Rolling Stone.”  The arrangement has changed slightly with the guitars stopping and starting throughout on the verses leaving Recile to fill in the rest.  It doesn’t work.  This is a song that is built on a surging chord structure and especially with no organ (or Bucky Baxter steel) to fill out the sound it is dependent on the guitars not the drums for its power.  Despite the instrumental weirdness on the second verse, Dylan started singing the song as if he suddenly remembered what he wrote it about.  “All Along The Watchtower” served as a vehicle for the guitarists with one piercing, kind of strange, but at the same time amazing solo from Koella followed by one that went nowhere, and then a truly spectacular perfect solo from Larry Campbell.

As with most of the Dylan shows I’ve seen over the past two years, this one started out exciting with impressive performances from both Dylan and his band but somehow lost both steam and focus midway through never really regaining the momentum and intensity the songs deserve.  In a crazy way, it was as wildly inconsistent as Freddy Koella’s guitar playing where he can totally blow your mind one moment and then on the next solo seems to take it nowhere at all.  At the same time, the show was always highly professional and well executed.  But the mystic moments – and no performer can take you into the mystic like Bob Dylan – were in short supply.