It was night of the living morons at Clipper Magazine Stadium in Lancaster. And I had trepidations about going for many reasons. Not the least of those reasons was the Camden show was so good and so much fun. But someone made me an offer I couldn't refuse and so it was off to Lancaster to this stadium buried somewhere in the middle of this Pennsylvania city. And everything went smooth, the ride out, finding the place, finding the people we were looking for, it all worked out. Well, it all worked out until I went to get inside. This was one of those places were the women went in one side of the entrance and the men went in another. Well, the security guy looks at me and says, "No pens." "No pens? You must be kidding." Nope, no pens. Well that was almost enough to make me turn around right there. Now keep in mind the previous show was in Camden, New Jersey. Camden, New Jersey is not a nice place. You basically don't want to get out of your car in most parts of Camden. You don't even want to be in Camden. Camden's a good place to be if you like to get shot. But at Campbell's Stadium in Camden, there was no boy's and girl's line. There was no search or pat down. In fact, you were actually greeted by very friendly people who told you to have a good time. But I went inside and someone else had a pen. I'd heard of no binoculars, and all kinds of no's to bring to concerts, but no pens took the cake. Well we finally found some stairs that actually led down to the field and there in the middle of the crowd was some guy with an easel and paints - and I couldn't bring in a ball point pen. So we started the trek to find some sort of vantage point to the right of the stage and it quickly became apparent we were in the middle of the loudest, most drunken, annoying and downright stupid group of people I've ever encountered anytime anywhere. I started thinking about how some people say, "Well, Pennsylvania, there's Philly and there's Pittsburgh and then there's the hellhole of your choice in between and suddenly it became quite clear why Rick Santorum and Arlen Single Bullet Theory Spector are the senators and why this country is in the shape it's in. There were the tumblers and the rumblers and the prancers and the dancers, and then there was the 21st Century Acid Casualty who probably wasn't 20 and had a huge knapsack on his back complete with one of those foam things sticking out that you put a sleeping bag on, and I couldn't bring in a pen. The acid casualty would scream every so often at the top of his lungs while jumping up and down, and when he wasn't doing that, would mumble loudly to no one in particular things like "cell phones, radiation" and other pleasantries, while also jumping up and down. We managed to get away from him. But it didn't matter because there were hundreds more just like him and I started remembering that Lancaster ain't all that far from where 3 Mile Island went down and you know that stuff gets in the air, and there were those three-headed goats and stuff. The Greencards came on and said the exact same things they said in Camden about how good looking the crowd was. I decided they were annoying, and it didn't make any difference because you couldn't hear them anyway. Willie Nelson's announcer came on promoting Willie's book "that he wrote himself," Willie's two or three latest albums that aren't out yet and Willie's "Dukes of Hazard" movie, and threw some CDs into the crowd. Some woman kept picking up beer bottles and tossing them over to where the security guys were supposed to be, but they weren't there. I guess they were in the crowd looking for ball point pens. The announcer came on and introduced Willie Nelson and just like in Camden, no one took the stage. Ten or 15 minutes later, Willie's band came on followed by Willie, with sister Bobbie back on piano, which I already figured out because there was a grand piano onstage, but more importantly no kids. No Lucas, no Micah, which may have been why Lucas got to jam with Bob Dylan three nights before. But it didn't make any difference to the crowd that Willie Nelson was onstage except that they could talk louder and hoop 'n' holler, and push and shove some more and climb on people's shoulders. They barely knew what song he was singin' except for to answer the god awful "Beer For My Horses" thing he keeps including in his shows and oh yeah, this girl behind found it necessary to shout "Georgia" at the top of her lungs when Willie did "Georgia On My Mind." Basically he did the same set he did in Camden, though it wasn't anywhere near as good, the main difference being that the instrumental, "Down Yonder" was back so sister Bobbie could show off her piano style which basically reminds me of grade school assemblies where whatever teacher could play piano did on the hymns or patriotic tunes or whatever they forced you to sing in assemblies in grade school. So finally Bob Dylan and his band come out and this time he's wearing a white cowboy hat with the sides of the brim rolled up so it kind of looks like a hot dog in a roll on his head and he's into "Tombstone Blues." And he's kind of snarling and growing it out, and I was hoping he'd kind of do what some people refer to as "the wolfman" so like maybe some of these people would just leave and Dylan fans would emerge and all of a sudden it's the John the Baptist and Commander in Chief verse and Bob is nailing it and there's no doubting the sneer in his voice when he sings, "The commander in chief answers him while chasing a fly." "Lay Lady Lay" came next and it was okay and Donnie Herron is not taking his eyes off Bob while he's playing the all important steel part and Bob's voice is starting to hint at the wolfman and I think somewhere in there he laughed at something and Denny Freeman is kind sticking in these rhythmic jazz fills near the end that maybe sort of work, and then it's into "God Knows" which was okay. And then came what should have been a highlight, "Visions of Johanna" with Donnie on electric mandolin but this audience doesn't know what "Visions of Johanna is." Not only that, it doesn't know what visions means and it never heard of no Johanna. And Dylan's up there singing about the all night ladies and escapades on the D Train and people are talking and talking and looking at their cell phones and somewhere in there the upsinging has begun, and then Donnie takes this solo on the electric mandolin and he's got something turned up somewhere because there's a lot of sustain and a bit of distortion and it's definitely on the way to be being sort of Hendrixian mandolin and then Dylan comes center stage for a harp solo and the song ends. They then tried to get things moving with "Most Likely You Go Your Way" and Kimball's got a cool sound happening on his Strat but when they go into the bridge, something somewhere isn't quite right and then Denny takes a solo and they're back into the bridge and something ain't quite right again and Bob comes to center stage for a harp solo. They then went into "Million Miles" in sort of half jazz/half blues arrangement that's been happening for the last whatever and the band is nailing it and it would have been great in some smokey jazz club but not in a baseball stadium with a field full of morons who insist on being so close to each other that you don't have room to lift your arms to clap. This led into "Memphis Blues Again" and Dylan is in full speed ahead growl mode and the band is kind of doing this semi bossa nova beat and Denny's doing these jazz fills and he takes this solo that just had nothing to do with anything, but the pay to get out of going through all these things twice really rings clear in my brain along with that this song just has never come close to the studio version ever. "Trying To Get To Heaven" came next and one guy who was right at the front, who I've seen at a few other shows knows what song it is, but this version is upsinging supreme with whip cream and cherries and nuts and chocolate syrup on top. The only line that is sung, well the way the melody kind of usually goes is before they close the door at least for the first couple of verses, but then suddenly it's before they close the DOOR. And this idea comes into my mind that maybe this starts to happen when Dylan thinks the audience isn't paying attention or he just doesn't like them, because he started this show laughing and smiling and he's not exactly doing that now. "Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum" came next and one of the best things about it was Stu Kimball started doing these Robbie Robertson 1966 guitar breaks. This led to a positively dismal "Positively 4th Street" and well, it was kind of like Dylan's voice was like a seesaw and every time the end of the line appeared that ol' seesaw went up, "You've got a lot of NERVE, to say you are my FRIEND and so on throughout the whole song. Then came this piano thing that I should have recognized except the woman behind me decided to forget totally how to act in public, but the person with me said, "New Morning" and sure enough it was and it rescued the night briefly, with Herron playing what once was the Al Kooper French horn part on lap steel, and Dylan is deciding to really sing and suddenly he's really there for the line "this must be the day that all of my dreams come true." And then they started "Summer Days" and I have to find the other person I'm giving a ride to, and my car is way in the back of some hideous parking lot that appeared to have one tiny exit and we kind of hear the beginnings of "The Times They Are A-Changin'" as we exit the stadium and even though it was a pretty long walk to the car, we were gone thankfully before "Watchtower" started. I sure was glad to get out of there alive.
Campbell’s Field sits on the Delaware Waterfront right next to the Ben Franklin Bridge in the shadow of what was once the RCA Tower where Little Nipper listening to the Gramophone is still visible on all sides of the tower and where both Jimmie Rodgers and The Carter Family among many other artists once recorded.
Inside the rather nice stadium with a wall blocking the Philadelphia skyline, the crowd was sparse at first when the Greencards, and Austin-based band of three Australians and one Englishman came out and did an okay set of bluegrassy tunes. Instrumentally they were fine, particularly the fiddler though they broke one of the cardinal rules of the great bluegrass bands by smiling before the played a note. In a tradition probably started by Bill Monroe, the original bluegrass bands were stoic throughout. Willie Nelson’s harp player, Mickey Raphael joined them on their last song.
Willie Nelson then came out and played a typical Willie Nelson set. Sister Bobbie was missing from the band and at this show anyway the hat and bandanna throwing were cut down quite a bit from last year, though Willie’s guitar playing was back in full force.
At approximately 9:03 the lights went down and about two minutes after that Bob Dylan’s band took the stage, followed by Dylan dressed in black with an apparently new flat-brimmed black hat slightly tilted to one side and the band in matching black short-sleeved shirts with a great stripe in front on the sides.
Opening with “Drifter’s Escape” with Don Herron on electric mandolin, both they and Dylan were on from the first note. Stu Kimball took the first solo with some Robbie Robertson-styled leads, with Donnie taking the second break followed by Dylan on harp. The sound in the stadium was excellent and clearly heard in the mix was Dylan’s keyboard.
“I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” was next and Dylan was quite animated stretching out the last word on the chorus so it was tooooo night, and watching his phrasing, smiling at Stu after “bring that bottle over here,” and coming out for a center-stage harp solo.
A not bad “Tweedle Dee” and “Tweedle Dum” was followed by a stellar “Love Minus Zero” with Stu on acoustic and Dylan singing the song as if he remembered why he wrote it.
Dylan then introduced Willie Nelson’s son Lukas for what has to be the craziest and longest version of “Down Along The Cove” ever. At first Lukas was understandably nervous, and he’s looking at Dylan the whole time he’s playing waiting for the nod to take a solo, but then after Lukas’ second solo which was actually quite good and worthy of a bit of applause which someone finally started, something cracked Dylan up and he could not stop laughing, and he kept adding verses and Lukas would take a solo and by the sixth verse which was something about “words you never heard” it was obvious he was making them up on the spot and then Donnie took a slide solo and back to Lukas and it was just one of those great spontaneous moments, with Bob walking out to shake the kid’s hand.
Then came a shimmering “Girl From The North Country” with Stu on acoustic and Dylan again truly singing and phrasing lines like remember HER best, topping it off with a great harp solo. Lukas Nelson again came out for “Highway 61 Revisited” which was followed by Kimball again picking up acoustic and playing a little Carter Family lick to kick into a tremendous version of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” Dylan skipped a line somewhere in the second verse, but it didn’t matter, each line, grew in impact and each verse became stronger and strong the last verse bringing the song to a stunning climax.
A superb “Floater” followed with Herron playing the violin part perfectly, the band nailing the right groove and Dylan having a great time spitting out the lyrics toying with the phrasing at the same time, and answering each line with little bass note riffs on the piano, heightened by a jazzy guitar solo from Denny Freeman who then tossed it back to Heron. At the end of the song Dylan said something like, “Not a bad little story, that.”
“Honest With Me” came next with Herron reaching for but not really getting the wild high notes I heard at the Beacon, but Dylan reminded me of the song’s original power and humor.
Next came “Forever Young” with Bob blowing the may you build a ladder to the stars line, and what I thought was going to be imminent disaster never happened with Kimball playing a perfect solo and then Dylan ending the song with an extended harp solo which started off as one of those two note harp things where it seems like he’s almost testing the instrument, but then on the second go-round he went into this rhythmic thing and he turned around to the band and go them to follow the rhythm and it went to a whole other plane.
A stellar “High Water” came next with Don Herron’s jazz-grass banjo stealing the show and on the instrumental break he was so into it that when the stop came, he kept on going for a couple of beats and again Dylan cracked up into a broad smile and 40 years left his face and it was one of those great moments, and they left the stage.
Coming back out, I swear he said something like, “Doesn’t everybody just love this piano player?” And then came “It Ain’t Me Babe,” basically in the arrangement from last year, but not quite as rhythmically harsh, but building to a grand chorus and it wasn’t the “No No No’s” that hit it you but the way he sang “It ain’t me you’re looking babe” in beautiful descending pattern that sailed perfectly.
And while I was waiting and speculating on what the next song would be I suddenly remembered it was the 40th anniversary of the recording of “Like A Rolling Stone” and sure enough and again he sang it as if he remembered why he wrote it and enhanced it with little keyboard runs and Kimball playing the original Mike Bloomfield fills on the chorus and he was on and he knew it and the band was on and he knew that too and what had started out as a show threatened by rain had turned into some kind of magnificent victory and as they got into the formation Dylan tried at first to keep his usual straight face, but that smile just wouldn’t leave and he kind of turned around to hide it and you could see he was laughing and the crowd actually started chanting “Dylan, Dylan” hoping he’d come back out, but it wasn’t to be.
Last night I watched the show from the steam bath environs of the Beacon Theater’s loge, though people in the orchestra said it was stifling as well.
Again the curtain rose on Merle Haggard and the Strangers with Haggard showing he could change things around just as much as the person closing the show. I like seeing shows from several vantage points and from the loge you could see what was going on on the entire stage easily.
Haggard doesn’t necessarily focus on his hits or even his own songs. At this point in time he seems more interested in playing what he wants to play and having fun though plenty of his classics song were included usually right up front to get things going. Tonight however, he received standing ovations on quite a few songs including “Mule Skinner Blues.”
The interesting thing was even after two months on the road he didn’t seem quite sure which songs would work. For the two shows I saw he ignored his 2003 quite good album “Haggard Like Never Before,” which included Woody Guthrie’s “Philadelphia Lawyer” and a quite interesting swing song co-written with his keyboard player, called “Lonesome Day” which includes the lyrics, “Who’s gonna sing the songs of freedom when freedom goes away and “When the big boys with the microphones get stuck and back away and they’re afraid to say the things they know they ought to say.”
Now for Bob Dylan’s portion of the evening, Friday night was better in terms of energy, song flow and consistency of performance. It was Saturday so “Maggie’s Farm” was the opener followed by “To Ramona” with Stu Kimball setting the mood on acoustic with Don Herron on electric mandolin, and Dylan coming to center stage for the first of several quite good harp solos throughout the evening.
For a week of shows that saw few night-to-night repeats of songs, I was somewhat surprised “Cry A While” came next and I almost suspected they wanted to see if they could pull of the dead stops of the night before which they did.
A so-so “Bye and Bye” came next followed by one of the high points of the show “Hollis Brown.” This song showed what this band is capable of in providing arrangements with Denny Freeman playing slide on acoustic, Kimball playing the original lick of the song on electric, Don Herron on banjo and Tony on standup bass, they created the perfect tension and stark background for this song.
“If You See Her, Say Hello” was in pretty much the arrangement Dylan’s been using for years, complete with the apparently now official lyrics from the latest lyrics book. Why this song is done this way will probably remain one of the great Dylan mysteries. However the harp solo was a lot of fun.
Vocal-wise, “Lenny Bruce” was the song of the night which might be the weirdest thing I’ve ever said in a Bob Dylan concert review. He sang clearly, with obvious care making each word count. There was a sadness about this performance that went beyond the lyrics, beyond the subject matter. If Dylan’s present vocal limitations prevent a song from truly cutting to the bone the way they once did, he is still quite capable of letting you know when he cares about something.
A rearranged “Honest With Me” found he key slide lick to the song now played in very different form by Herron on lap steel way up on the neck giving the song both a different feel and sound. This band can rock hard and the sound was loud and nasty.
A close to acoustic jazz arrangement of “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” came next. With Stu on acoustic again this band showed their mastery of dynamics, playing quietly, letting the words be the focus. This arrangement could work in time, but the sadness of the melody was absent.
Things returned to extreme rocking mode with “High Water.” With Herron setting the tone on banjo with a quite a few dissonant jazz-grass excursions, what the current version of this song does is combine the feel of the original album version with the hard blues rock arrangement Dylan has been playing since 2002. The sound was nothing less than ferocious.
A not bad “I Shall Be Released” was highlighted by an extended harp solo.
The encores, “Po Boy” (which was interrupted by a loud conversation behind me) which caused me to miss many of lyrical mistakes) and a quite typical “Watchtower” were basically inconsequential.
Based on various recordings I’ve heard all along this tour, and the two final shows I was able to see in New York, it seems obvious that the tide for this group of musicians was turned in Boston and they are just starting gel, and find out what they can do. If the same crew goes is on the next tour, things should start to get interesting a few weeks from now.
At exactly 8:15 the curtain rose at the Beacon Theater on Merle Haggard & the Strangers doing “Big City.” And for the next hour, Haggard led his excellent band through a set that not only touched on his hits and classic songs such as “White Line Fever” and “Silver Wings,” but also was a tour through several styles of American roots-based music, not only country, but blues, swing and dixieland, somtimes hitting all of the above on one song.
For close to 40 years Haggard has had the best road band in country music, and he still does, despite the fact that the only original members are drummer Biff Adams and steel player Norman Hamlet.
While the intensity of the late Roy Nichols is missed, the Strangers remain top-notch, and Haggard’s vocal skills have not diminished one bit.
Sometime after 9:30 the curtain rose on a hatless Bob Dylan and his new band tearing it up on “To Belone With You” with Don Herron leading the way on fiddle.
This was followed by “Hazel” with a great harp solo and then a killer version of “Cry Awhile” with brand new stops added on the time change.
A careful and gorgeous “Shelter From the Storm” followed with all members playing quietly letting the words be the focus.
This was followed by “Cold Irons Bound” with Denny Freeman adding a slide down on the bass notes of his guitar. Stu Kimball picked up an acoustic afterwards and began strumming in what once was referred to as a Dylan strum a few centuries ago. Herron came in on steel and the song turned into “Chimes of Freedom.” The tempo was perfect, and when Dylan confused a couple of lines on one of the later verses it didn’t matter. It was a truly moving performance.
Dylan put on his hat for one of the best versions of “Highway 61” I’ve seen in years came next with great work from all guitar players followed by “Love Sick.”
At first “Watching The River Flow” seemed like a letdown, but there were surprises in store, started by a wake up guitar solo by Kimball, how handed it over to Freeman, who handed it to Herron and then surprise of surprises, a piano solo by Dylan!
The curtain behind the players took on a starlit background for an ethereal “Not Dark Yet,” which pointed out one of the interesting things about this tour. On the last few tours it was almost as if Dylan didn’t want to touch his slow songs or let them be slow. This time he is treating them with the respect they deserve.
This led into a jumping Summer Days, with Herron playing a Driftin’ Cowboys lap steel and by the end the song was up there with the best of the Sexton/Campbell years.
The new “Tambourine Man” closed the show, with Herron playing heavenly pedal steel that reminded me of Buddy Emmons’ version of “Wild Mountain Thyme.” The arrangement of this song has grown since the tour began, and while I prefer the original, it’s a lot better seeing it than hearing it.
They returned for a terrific “Things Have Changed” with led into a great jam that went on and on with call and response between Dylan and Herron, followed by a not bad at all “Like A Rolling Stone.”
This was easily the best Dylan show I’ve seen in years.