I’m really glad I got to see the Philly show (which was added late in the game) on this tour before seeing this concert. I went to this show thanks to a rather legendary Philly disc-jockey, who for decades every Sunday night, has done one of the greatest radio shows I’ve ever heard, playing the best R&B, soul, Motown and doo-wop artists. I mean this is someone who knows, understands, and has experienced the entire history of rock and roll. His show was so great that I always wondered if he was into Bob, though Dylan’s music didn’t fit the format of his show which originally was on Philly’s number one Soul station. That question was answered a few years ago when one day to my great delight, I received an email from him, telling me how much he liked my Bob concert reviews. So I wrote him back immediately saying, “Hey, I’ve listened to your show for years” and told him about a regular Sunday night ritual with my closest friends where we’d get together, get stoned, play cards and listen to his show.
So for the ride up he decided to rent a limo, which turned out to be a Lincoln Town Car, and I got to hear a lot of great stories about James Brown, Curtis Mayfield, seeing Elvis in 1956 and various shady practices of the music biz, in addition to discussing various Bob theories. It turned out our driver was well aware of whom he was driving and the reality of the current American economic situation hit hard when he revealed he’d previously been an IT exec for major corporation, but was laid off. Workingman’s Blues indeed.
Driving to New York City is always a major strategic operation, where you start checking the traffic reports a good 40 miles before you’re near the city so you can decide which tunnel or bridge has the worst backup. That doesn’t necessarily work out. As we approached the George Washington Bridge, what had been a 20 minute backup turned into a 40 minute backup. Anyway we arrived about 10 minutes before show time and discovered that the seats were way better than I thought from the seating chart about 12 rows back from the right side of the stage. There was just enough time to take a brief look at the ornate walls and ceiling which were to say the least impressive.
I was kind of excited to see Dion, who I’d seen about four or five times before. But the last time I saw him about ten years ago in Atlantic City, he was totally great, going through his entire history from his doo-wop beginnings all the way up, leading a great band, and playing some very funky lead guitar as well. At the Palace, he was just okay, and a little too casual, playing a lot of covers of old rock ‘n’ roll like “Summertime Blues.” He would have been far better if he had played his hits, more of his later originals, such as “King of the New York Streets,” and some songs from his blues album, because he really can play that stuff. He talked a little about going to Reverend Gary Davis’ house in that very neighborhood, to take guitar lessons. But what he played to demonstrate Gary Davis was in no way anything close to Gary Davis’s style by any means.
During the half-hour intermission I made the mistake of going to the one men’s room in the theater with the palace guards coming in checking for illicit smokers. Returning to my seat was a major ordeal as the too-small upper lobby was one of the most incredible cases of human gridlock I’ve ever encountered in my life, claustrophobia to the extreme. At about 8:35 the lights were down, the announcement made, and everyone stood up for the Bob entrance. He opened with a fierce, charged “Change My Way of Thinking,” with Charlie Sexton playing an Epiphone thin hollow body. It was in every way great. Bob’s collar had some kind of sparkling stuff on it. He then moved to the center mic for an equally good, “The Man In Me,” with Donnie on trumpet. It was about then that I noticed the six-foot, seven, two-foot wide human pillar a few rows in front of me. I could not see Charlie interacting with Bob, I could not see the drums. I could not see Sexton playing. I had to choose between Bob’s head on one side of the pillar, and Charlie’s head on the other. I looked to my left. The entire center section was sitting down. Farther left the very front section closest to the stage was standing, everyone behind them sitting down. It was the same on my side, except for the few rows right behind me.
Bob returned to the keyboard and Donnie stayed on trumpet for a still-charged “Beyond Here Lies Nothing.” “Most Likely You Go Your Way,” was next and I spent most of the song trying to see. Every time the human pillar or the guy in front of him would shift, I would have to shift.
Dylan then returned to center stage, playing guitar for the only time that night, on “My Wife’s Hometown,” definitely one of the high points. Sexton got right up next to Bob and they were definitely getting down trading licks, and Dylan was clearly having fun singing. “Desolation Row” was next. It wasn’t quite as insane as the Philly version, but there’s something about the current arrangement that definitely works and keeps building the song. Dylan employed a number of different vocal styles during the course of this song, growling one minute, singing astoundingly clearly the next. On the “They all play on the pennywhistle line,” he was singing so clearly it seemed the past 40 years had suddenly vanished. He seemed to be both concentrating and having fun at the same time, pausing before certain lines, maybe remembering why he wrote them, but also deciding how he was going to sing them.
“When the Deal Goes Down,” came next. Everyone in the theater sat down except the section in front of me, the section closest to Dylan. If there was a point when the show started to drag, this was it. Dylan’s organ dominating the mix was just a little too circus waltzy. Things weren’t helped by various interlopers deciding to take advantage of the wide aisle right in front me which resulted in constant comedy between whoever decided to stand there and the theater security force.
“Cold Irons Bound” revived the energy considerably and followed by another totally moving “Workingman’s Blues #2,” with Bob starting at the keyboard and moving center-stage for a great harp solo.
A not bad “Highway 61” was followed by a totally stark, verging on scary, “Ain’t Talking.” I kept my eyes focused on Bob’s head, but suddenly this woman appeared in front of me dancing. I couldn’t believe it. Dylan’s singing about slaughtering people where they lie, gardens without gardeners, and she’s dancing as if the flowers of spring were suddenly rising.
I escaped briefly during “Thunder on the Mountain,” and returned to see (well sort of) a truly remarkable “Ballad of a Thin Man.” Again Dylan was totally focused on how and what he was singing, making each image come alive, each line count. The way he barked out, “You’ve been with the professors, they all liked your looks,” was particularly enjoyable. After that, the rest of the show really didn’t matter, and outside it was pouring rain.