11/19/12 Wells Fargo Center Philadelphia

It takes a lot of guts to play a cavernous arena, ignore your hits, play songs from an album that wasn’t even released in the country you’re playing in, as well as other not well known songs and make the crowd listen.  Sounds like something Bob Dylan’s been known to do.  But Mark Knopfler and his superb seven-piece band which features more than a few heavy duty musicians did that tonight, and the music was not exactly rock and roll either.

Ever since the soundtrack to Local Hero, Knopfler had been delving more and more into Celtic sounds and themes and at the same time exploring more traditional based American music.  The result is stunningly beautiful punctuated by Knopfler’s always stellar, seemingly effortless guitar playing.  His band which included uilleann pipes, violin, flute, two keyboard players, various guitar players and bass and drums, with various members constantly switching instruments took this sound to celestial heights.  Additional instruments included the bouzouki, sometimes two bouzoukis, and ukulele.  There were several points in the night where the music crossed into bluegrass and back again while touching on several other genres.

Knopfler is not only a perfectionist as a guitarist, a songwriter, and record producer but as a bandleader.  The dynamics and interplay throughout were excellent.  I haven’t read all the fan reviews of the current tour, but there’s been a lot of talk lately about Dylan’s use of old melodies for new songs which he’s been doing his entire career, but I haven’t noticed any mention that the title track of Knopfler’s latest album Privateering is based on the same melody Dylan used for the song “John Brown,” which is based on the traditional songs, “900 Miles” and “Reuben’s Train,” one of the highlights of the show with Knopfler on acoustic guitar.  The show did what it was supposed to do and made me want to pick up his new album.

Dylan’s show started with Stu Kimball appearing and playing blues riffs while the band moved onstage and took their places.  Then it was into a spirited “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” with Dylan at the piano singing some of the verses from the Greatest Hits Volume II version with a couple of lines thrown in he might have made on the spot.  A piano-based “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue” followed with Mark Knopfler on guitar.  Dylan’s voice was rough, and while still in warm-up mode, he was clearly on.

He then left the piano for what has been one of the highlights of the current tour, “Things Have Changed,” with Dylan front and center and playing harp.  He was clearly energized and also quite comical acting out the song and standing right next to, almost singing the song to Knopfler as well as reacting to Knopfler’s solos and guitar punctuations.  The arrangement is the same faster almost train beat version that Dylan’s been doing for awhile, but he keeps adding this utterly hysterical comments to the lyrics with different lines each night.  Tonight after the line, “Don’t get up gentleman,” it was “Why?  I’ll tell ya,” and then continuing with the lyrics.  Dylan stayed standing for “Tangled Up In Blue,” which also featured Knopfler, returning to the piano for the last verse.  And it was at this point, the show turned into something special.  As Knopfler departed the stage, Dylan said, “Thank you Mark.”

“Early Roman Kings” was next, and the band was smoking with Donnie Herron playing funky slide on the lap steel, eventually joined in a slide duet with Charlie Sexton playing a black Epiphone hollow body.  It easily rivaled the album version.

“Chimes of Freedom” came next and with it the mood of the concert suddenly changed from that of an arena to one of the more intimate Dylan performances I’ve seen in a long time.  Contrary to various reports all along this tour, he wasn’t ignoring the audience, he was singing directly to the audience, in fact always facing the audience while sitting at the piano.  And the show had a feel of, I’m gonna sit at this piano and play you all some songs.

Then it was back to blues for a rearranged “Rollin’ and Tumblin’ ” with Donnie providing lead on slide on the lap steel in a version that simmered reaching a smoking point on the solos, and then back to simmer again before a smoking conclusion.  All of this was bolstered by Dylan’s piano which is some sort of crazed combination of barrelhouse, Jerry Lee Lewis, a bit of gospel and Chico Marx throw in for good measure.

And this is the difference since Dylan returned to playing a regular piano at the beginning of last summer.  A decade ago when Dylan switched to keyboards as his primary instrument, first using a piano sound, then switching to an organ sound for several years, the arrangements of the songs for the most part stayed the same with Dylan trying to fit the keyboard into the existing arrangements.  With the change from keyboard to piano, slowly but surely the arrangements are changing to be based around what Dylan is playing on piano, something I’ve been hoping for, for then years.  And he is really playing and certain riffs and runs he uses which never really worked with the organ sound now are working.  This allows for call and response with the band, allows for a new spontaneity and allows for Dylan to get deeper into exploring the melodies behind his songs.  And Donnie Herron, the key player in this band watches Dylan’s moves like a hawk.  And on previous tours and arrangements where he used to transmit a riff to the band to pick up on, now it’s more to alert them a stop, a change or a response.  And it can happen at any time, and they’re ready.  So yeah, it’s no longer this heavy guitar based band, but when the guitars are needed to bring it up, they bring it up.  This is easily one of the tightest bands Dylan’s ever had, because they have to be ready to respond at any time, and it can happen at any time.

And this was the case on every song for the remainder of the show.  Dylan and his band made it all count, whether it was “Desolation Row,” “Highway 61 Revisited,” which has taken on new life under the current setup and a slightly rearranged “Mississippi” which saw something of the song’s original heights.  “Thunder on the Mountain,” not one of my favorite songs simply soared.  And the concluding songs, which I’ve seen played tons of times in various ways, “Like A Rolling Stone, “All Along The Watchtower,” and “Blowin’ In The Wind” all had their own special meaning.

So yeah, Dylan’s voice ain’t what it once was.  But it ain’t been what it was for a long time.   And the thing is he can still deliver when he wants to, and tonight he made a huge arena seem like club and that’s no easy trick.  I hooked up with a bunch of friends at the show, and we all took the subway getting off at different stops.  And my particular stop is not the safest to get off of at night alone.  But as I was halfway down the block, all of a sudden I heard a bunch of voices talking about the concert and about ten people passed me carrying posters from the show.  A nice end to a great evening.

08/14/11 Asbury Park Convention Hall, Asbury Park, NJ

It started raining sometime the night before.  Sometimes there was thunder.  Sometimes there wasn’t.  Sometimes huge torrents, loud enough to wake you up.  It was still raining the next morning and into the afternoon.  It would stop or slow down, briefly then start up again, full force hard rain.  I left my house and got completely soaked just walking to the car.   And it was that way the entire drive to Asbury Park.  Every once in a while you’d see light up ahead and just as you reached the light, these insane bursts of heavy rain would pound again, the windshield wipers could barely keep up.  We finally reached Asbury Park, and as we were trying to figure out whether we had to pay to park, another burst.  And then walking to Convention Hall on the boardwalk another burst.  Luckily, the fairly slow, long line to get into the hall itself was under cover.  And of course what the ticket said was show time turned out to be doors opening time.

I saw Bob Dylan at Asbury Park Convention Hall exactly three years and one day before this show.  It was a show to remember for bad sound and cell phone talkers.  But some good friends in briefly from California made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.

Leon Russell opened the show.  Once upon a time Leon Russell was a pretty big rock star.  He’d been a session player for awhile, but gained a lot of notice when he appeared on Delaney & Bonnie and Friends’ first album, Accept No Substitute, which had a lot of great players like Jim Keltner, and Bobby Whitlock and Bobby Keys.  It turned out as it often does that that album wasn’t really Delaney & Bonnie’s first album, but that’s another story.  Russell pretty much took that band and moved them over to become Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen which is another story.  In the early ’70s, he produced and played on a couple of Bob Dylan songs such as “Watching The River Flow,” and then backed Dylan up playing bass with him at the Bangla Desh concert.

Russell started out alright, but for some reason his voice was mixed at the same level as his band which was a bit disconcerting.  He did a mix of his best originals such as “Hummingbird” and “A Song For You,” mixed with a bunch of covers like “I’ve Just Seen A Face.”  Sitting behind his keyboard way on the right side of the stage, he looked like Gandalf the White wearing a cowboy hat.  While his band was tight and more than competent, occasionally delivering nice harmonies, the show quickly grew tiresome and the covers of well known songs and hits by other artists made it seem like a few steps above a hotel lounge band.  It wasn’t hard to leave, go up to the outside balcony and watch the storm over the ocean.

After a reasonably quick stage change, Dylan and his band came on and opened with “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat,” followed by a waltzy “To Ramona” with Bob at the keyboard.  Neither was high on the intensity meter, and I started mentally preparing for just an okay show.  When Bob moved to center stage, harp in hand for “Things Have Changed,” that thought was immediately erased from my mind.  It was like bam!  The energy level went way way up into high gear.  The new train beat arrangement with Stu Kimball playing a rollicking guitar part straight out of Memphis in 1956 revitalized the song along with Donnie Herron’s terrific pedal steel fills, and Dylan was on fire, ending it with a tough harp solo.

Dylan stayed center stage for “Tangled Up In Blue.”  It didn’t matter that he left out half the verses, though he did sing the “She lit a burner on the stove and offered me a pipe,” verse, and unlike the last time I saw him didn’t mix it up with another verse.  He was literally acting out the song as he sang.  Standing to the left of the stage, there was times when Dylan’s profile with his white hat eerily brought me back to the ’75 Rolling Thunder tour and the video clip of the song from Renaldo & Clara.  And once again he was putting emphasis on key lines, really singing, not just barking out the words, and fiercely playing the harp.

Dylan then picked up a guitar for “Beyond Here Lies Nothing,” with Donnie Heron on mandolin instead of trumpet.  The band was smoking and even Dylan’s guitar solo was no longer search and destroy, but right on target.

Dylan then returned to the keyboard for “Mississippi” and the energy level went down slightly, mainly because of the arrangement, which is one of those Dylan arrangements I’ll never quite understand.  It’s not quite the arrangement of a few years ago, and it’s none of the arrangements on record.  He sang it great given the constraints of the beat, but it was almost as if he doesn’t want the song to have the effect it could have or reach its full potential.  Make no mistake, this is one of greatest, maybe the greatest of his later period songs and may well be one of his greatest songs period.  And while I love the acoustic version on Tell Tale Signs, and the one on “Love And Theft,” and if he would just stop messing around and do something closer to the latter, this song could be devastating.

On “High Water” returned to center stage and the show returned to full steam ahead energy.  It was the closest Dylan came to acknowledging what was going on outside the hall, but probably was going to be in the set list anyway.  I’ve been to shows in the past usually outside ones where Dylan’s done more than a few rain songs and he has a lot of them.  Still there was something in the way he emphasized “High water rising, six inches above my head that added extra depth.  Donnie Herron’s jazz grass banjo was clear and high in the mix.

“Summer Days” wasn’t at breakneck speed in a hopped up Mustang Ford, but more like a 48 Mercury convertible cruising down the boulevard with the band alternating really turning it on (and this band knows how to really turn it on) with laying back.  Dylan seemed to take an evil glee when he snarled out the line, “Politician got on his jogging shoes.”

Dylan then returned to center stage for the supreme high point of the night, “Blind Willie McTell.”  The arrangement was somewhere between the speedier version of a couple of years ago and the original beat.  With Donnie on banjo, it sounded like early jazz and at other times like early blues.  Standing at the mic, Dylan was almost acting out the song as he sang, but it wasn’t any forced pre-planned motion, it was just the way he moved, once again reminiscent of Chaplin, but also WC Fields, but also Three Penny Opera, and while there was no trumpet, you could almost feel the ghost of Louis Armstrong hanging around.  Dylan was playing a lot harp at the show, and I noted one solo, but then the solo he took to close the show was amazing.  He was just wailing, and then be brought it and the band to a stop, and then picked it up again.  It was something.

“Highway 61 Revisited” was as usual about the jam with Dylan returning to the guitar for “Simple Twist of Fate,” with another well executed solo.

“Thunder on the Mountain” had the energy that formerly belonged to “Summer Days,” and the band was positively kicking.  Dylan seemed to be alternating between giving a warning and joking around.  There were a couple of lines I don’t think were in the English language or any other language known to man.

Once again Dylan took center stage for “Ballad of a Thin Man,” which at times was positively scary.  When he sang the bridge, “You’ve got many contacts/Among the lumberjacks/To get you facts/When someone attacks your imagination,” he sang it, imaginaaaaaaaaaaaaSHUN, it was with such a rumbling force, that no one would want to face down this guy in a room ever.

The encores were well the encores, though the new arrangement of “All Along The Watchtower” is a nice twist.

Asbury Park showed (as the field recordings of this tour have indicated) that something is happening and things have changed on this tour.  In 2010, it was easy to say, okay, nothing special, a couple of moments.  Last night, there were a lot of moments, in fact more than moments.  Bob Dylan is really singing again.  It’s as if he’s finally figured out how to make his voice the way it is now do what he really wants it to do.  The phrasing, the emphasizing of lines is back, and it’s revitalizing the songs and giving them meaning again, both new and old.  And it might be a different line every night meaning a different thing in that particular point in time.  It might be that the drums seem lower in the mix, allowing both the other instruments in the band and Dylan’s voice to be heard more clearly or might be subtle shift in band dynamics.  There’s a certain thing that Bob Dylan can do when he wants to, that only he can do.  It’s not something that can be defined and never named.  It comes from some other place.  But when it happens, you know it, and it was happening at Asbury Park on a rainy night in August.

11/26/10 Borgata Hotel Casino, Atlantic City

For whatever reason Bob Dylan’s last few shows in Atlantic City have been at the Borgata, which isn’t necessarily as much fun as some of the other casinos, but then again weird things have happened at other Casinos like shows getting interrupted by the Fire Department, drunk fans deciding to jump onstage and sing and all kinds of things.  The Borgata has its own set of weird things like getting in and getting out, and then once you’re in, you’re getting out to get out and parking lot exit system that was designed by a moron, though the Dylan fans leaving the lot decided to heed Jon Stewart’s you go then I’ll go maxim, which I can tell you from experience doesn’t happen in real life at the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel.

In any case not an empty seat was to be seen at the Borgata and after a rather speedy run-through of the usual announcement, Dylan and band ripped into a charge version of “Change My Way Of Thinking” with Charlie Sexton playing a bottleneck lead.

Bob quickly left the keyboard for guitar, and Stu Kimball started the intro to a not bad “Girl From The North Country,” with Donnie Herron’s pedal steel quite audible and intermingling with Bob’s lead guitar, weaving in and out of Bob’s guitar lines which again on this tour managed to stay on track.  Bob stayed on guitar, and Donnie moved to a loud and clear trumpet for a cool rendition of “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’.”  The show was starting to pick up steam as Bob returned to the keyboard for “Just Like A Woman.”  The band was tight, but on this song tonight Dylan’s voice just wasn’t up to the task of really singing the melody and he ended up sounding like a combination of Jimmy Durante and Popeye with a slight dose of Charlie Patton.  The was the usual stop for the audience to sing along on the chorus which they mostly didn’t, and during the last instrumental I was hoping Dylan would pick up the harp and really let loose but he didn’t.

Dylan’s voice more than returned for “The Levee’s Gonna Break,” in fact he sounded maybe 20 years younger.  Bob Dylan can sing in such a way that every word stands out when he wants to, but what he was singing half the time on this song tonight, I have no idea, though he appeared to be having quite a good time doing it.  The band was all high energy, with an extra long jam at the end before returning to the first verse to close things, with suddenly jumping into revival tent preacher mode on the last line, “Everybody saying this is a day, only the lord, only the lord, only the lord could make.”

Moving back to center stage, but no guitar, the band kicked into a not bad “Most Likely You Go Your Way” with Sexton playing a very cool lick straight from Stax-Volt Memphis.  The bridge had some very cool stops, the precision of which seemed to please Dylan immensely.  The judge (stop) he holds a grudge (stop) he’s gonna fall on you.  The songs then veered into some crazy direction as Dylan played a wild harp solo that ended up being back on the bridge.  Dylan stayed at center stage, strapped the guitar back on the band went to Chicago, for a slow but smoking, totally in the pocket “My Wife’s Home Town.”  A lot of the audience decided this was a good time to get a drink or whatever, but quite a few people in the audience also picked up on the groove that was happening onstage.

As Dylan walked back to the keyboard, Stu Kimball started the acoustic intro to “Desolation Row,” followed by Recili on drums, and after a couple of hits on the bongos, Dylan started his merry-go-round organ.  Unlike last year, the organ riff from “If You Ever Go To Houston,” wasn’t transplanted beneath the verses, with the guitars returning to the song’s original guitar riff.  And while that transplanted riff did take the song to certain heights, tonight it didn’t matter.  Suddenly, it wasn’t like you were sitting in the audience at some glitzy casino.  Instead you were on the midway of the last windy autumn carnival on the ledge of some lonesome town on the edge of nowhere.  And you’re walking down the midway going from left to right and right to left and each verse is like the next booth, or tent or ride.  And just like those different booths, each verse is sung in a different voice with different phrasing, sometimes into the staccato singing for a line or two and then out again.

“Cold Irons Bound” could have picked up in the same lot 20 miles out of town, except the carnival’s pack up and gone and all that’s left is the wind and it’s maybe four in the morning.  After that what could you do except seek “Shelter From The Storm, with Donnie Herron standing out on pedal steel, and Bob playing harp.

A fairly routine “Highway 61 Revisited” led into a “Nettie Moore” that was more playful than wistful.  In many of the versions I’ve seen before, what hit you was the beauty of the melody of the chorus but tonight Dylan was toying around with the phrasing of the verses, in a way that where there once was reverence, there now was absurdity, and where once the focus was on “I miss you Nettie Moore,” tonight he barked out, “The world has gone BLACK before my eyes.”

After a fairly hot “Thunder On The Mountain,” “Ballad of a Thin Man” at center stage closed the show.  It’s hard for Dylan to do wrong and this song, and him standing at the microphone, half acting it out, half dancing, half preacher, half comic, it’s hard to do wrong.  Tonight, I noticed on the screen behind, throughout the song they’d focus on the shadows of various band members in different sizes.  The shadows thing had been going on all night against various backgrounds, at times more evident than others.  On “Thin Man,” is was deliberately evident.

At this point, and from what I’ve seen (one other show) and heard of this tour, is how not good, but great this band is.  In terms of tightness, precision, doing what’s right for the song, and arrangements that work, this may well be the tightest band that Dylan’s had on the “Never Ending Tour.”  There may have been other bands that rocked harder at times, or took things to a certain crazy edge, but in terms of nailing it every time, pulling off intricate little runs and jams that actually go someplace, this band is way up there with the best of Dylan’s bands.

11/12/10 Stabler Arena, Bethlehem, PA

Bob Dylan once said in an interview not too long ago something along the lines of my stuff is based on mistakes. The Bob Dylan show that rolled into Bethlehem for his sixth performance at Stabler Arena in 29 years was like any good band that’s been out on the road night after night. They had it down in a show that was smooth and quick. Even Dylan’s few turns on guitar were search and find as opposed to search and destroy.

Dylan’s voice was in reasonably good form and at Stabler there was none of the staccato playfulness that depending on your point of view either made a song fun or a disaster that he employed a year ago. Everything was played fairly straight, and even new arrangements didn’t stray all that far from original versions.

It took Dylan and his band about five songs to get warmed up. Though he never really hit full steam, at times he came close. The first three songs, “Leopard Skin Pill-Box Hat,” “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” and “Things Have Changed” were quick run-throughs.  Dylan started to get a bit playful on a reasonably soulful “Just Like A Woman” with the band exceptionally tight and Charlie Sexton providing some nice Steve Cropper type fills on guitar. Over the past few years the chorus has turned into a sing-along, and typically Dylan never lets the audience sing their part right, always jumping in on top of them. While he definitely left a space for the crowd to jump in, in Bethlehem, those who sang weren’t all that loud. In fact the audience wasn’t loud at all. In fact, breaking the precedent of every other Bob Dylan review of written on the Internet, no one around me was talking. No one around me was playing with a cell phone or some other device. Everyone was watching and listening. This hasn’t happened in more than 30 years!

After a rather incomprehensible “Rollin’ And Tumblin'” where I could make out maybe every fourth line, though the band was starting to kick, Dylan went into the first highlight of the night, “Simple Twist of Fate.” This was followed by a powerful “Cold Iron Bounds” which featured some excellent harp playing. Dylan’s harp playing was superb the entire show.

The staging has changed this tour to include images behind Dylan on a huge screen where Dylan’s shadow would dominate over shadowy images, some almost recognizable. Images of cities, old buildings mixed with new, the inside of what looked like a trolley, things that looked familiar, but at the same time blurred just enough so you couldn’t be sure what they were.

“Spirit on the Water” which followed “Cold Irons Bound” brought the energy level down a notch just when it was starting to build, only to be brought up again on “Summer Days” where Dylan seemed to enjoy singing the line “Politician’s got on his jogging shoes” with particular relish.

Then came “Tangled Up In Blue.” I’d heard this latest arrangement from earlier shows on this tour, and thought, well better than some not as good as others. In this case, hearing it and seeing it are two different things. Dylan stands at the mic, with just a harp and suddenly the master story teller appears. Everything about the whole presentation was dramatic. However on the “Montague Street” verse, after he sang “revolution in the air,” with both a smile and gusto, instead of singing, “He started into dealing with slaves,” he sang the beginning line of what should have been the previous verse if he’d sung all the lyrics, “She lit a burner on the stove and offered me a pipe.” Whoops! But in a crazy way, it was kind of the high point of the night, because he had to find a way out of it which he sort of did humorously, though I’d have to hear a recording to hear what lines he sang, which I’m pretty sure weren’t in any previous version of the song. He followed that screw up with another great harp solo, but whatever happened seemed to open up the cell or the cartridge in Dylan’s brain where the song lines are kept because all of a sudden on the final verse out came a line he hasn’t sung (as far as I know) since 1984, “Some are ministers of the trade” and I’m not even sure it was sung where it was supposed to be sung. It just popped of nowhere. My friend and I instantly looked at each other with expressions of “What!?”

After a “Highway 61,” that featured some pretty good jamming – Dylan can actually play that organ when he wants to – the story teller returned for “Workingman’s Blues #2” with Dylan starting at the keyboard then moving mid-song to center stage and another good harp solo. There were times during this song where Dylan’s voice mysteriously lost the huskiness of the past few decades with lines and notes ringing out clearly. After an okay “Thunder On The Mountain,” that served to keep the energy going more than anything, Dylan returned to center stage for a “Ballad of a Thin Man,” where he could do no wrong, and with all his performing skills quite intact seemed to enjoy barking out lines such as “You’re been with the professors and they all like your looks.” Returning for “Jolene,” which really doesn’t deserve the next to last spot, he closed with a not bad “Like A Rolling Stone,” where somewhere down through the decades that seem like centuries, he sang it as if he remembered why he wrote it.

11/19/09 United Palace Theater, NYC

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.

 

11/09/09 Liacouras Center, Philadelphia, PA

Ten years ago, on this exact date, Bob Dylan played this venue, really a basketball gym at Temple University, though back then it was called the Temple Apollo. That was on one of the best legs ever of what his fans are always going to refer to as the “Never Ending Tour,” whether Bob Dylan likes it or not, even though he was the one who coined the term. One of the reasons the fall ’99 tour remains somewhat legendary, is there were surprises every night, often in cover songs, but also that feeling of anything can happen, and because anything can happen, that means catch as many shows as you possibly can – and on that tour I did, mainly because Dylan played a bunch of shows in a two week period all within two hours driving distance. Among the surprises that night were what remains the only live performance of Dylan singing “A Satisfied Mind,” not in the arrangement that appears on Saved, but in the original country arrangement, a hit for Porter Wagoner. Among the other surprises that night were Bob talking about Bill Cosby, perhaps Temple’s most famous graduate, and an extra, in other words a real encore after the encores.

Tonight, the Liacouras Center was not as crowded as it was back then. Let’s just say it would’ve been pretty easy to get a ticket, and in one sense that was a shame, because it was probably in a lot of ways quite possibly the best concert Bob Dylan’s played in Philly since that night ten years ago and for entirely different reasons. But of course different is what Bob Dylan’s all about. It’s one of the primary reasons to go see him because it’s not gonna be the same as the last time you saw him, even if the last time you saw him was the night before. And so I left this show wishing I was seeing a lot more shows, because from this show, it was quite evident that that indefinable thing, that magic thing that can’t be forced, that has to happen by itself is happening on this tour.

Now the buzz started early on this tour, in fact even before the tour was announced, when the news leaked that Charlie Sexton was back in the band replacing Denny Freeman on lead guitar. Now, I was never among the Denny Freeman bashers. I thought Denny Freeman was on often brilliant guitarist, whose style was more influenced by West Coast and Texas blues and also West Coast and Texas Jazz and swing. He was definitely creative, he never played the same solo twice. But in a lot of ways his playing was also cerebral, and while at times he was outstanding, playing as tough and hard as anyone, he wasn’t necessarily always the right guitarist for Bob Dylan.

Charlie Sexton on the other hand is the right guitarist for Bob Dylan. He has an inherent understanding not only of what Bob Dylan’s music is about, but what the songs are about. It was obvious his first time around with Dylan that those songs were ingrained deep inside and that hasn’t changed, and perhaps now it’s even more so. Like the two greatest guitarists ever to work with Dylan, Michael Bloomfield and Robbie Robertson, he plays off not only what the lyrics are saying, but how Dylan is singing them at that particular moment, punctuating phrases with quick jabs like a boxer. Like Mike Bloomfield, he can play fast, often dazzling runs, and like Robbie Robertson he knows when not to play, and when to come in with energized bursts of sound that are more about emotion and intensity than showing off, and crackle like a live wire on the ground and snap like a bullwhip.

Bob Dylan’s first surprise tonight was opening the show with “Memphis Blues Again.” If he’s opened with this before, I don’t remember it. But from the first note the all important energy was there and it totally works as an opener. In fact I felt it worked better as an opener than anywhere else in the show. Actually, I’ve never been a big fan of this song done live, and I waited years to hear it live. The original studio version on Blonde On Blonde is so incredible and also so funny, that it’s been hard to match it live. The humor on the original just never translated to the stage. Tonight however, it was special, and while maybe the humor wasn’t quite all the way there, it did have that light moving feel of the original.

Dylan then moved from keyboard to guitar and went right into the more upbeat arrangement of “Man In the Long Black Coat,” that he debuted in Europe early this year. Powerful stuff, and Dylan even took a really not bad guitar solo, that had none of the search and destroy aspects of other guitar playing I’ve heard from the tour this year. In other words he nailed it. Unfortunately during the song the plot of the eternal bring down appeared in the form of a row of latecomers who of course had to sit right in front of me and decided to continue whatever conversation they apparently were already having. Then all too soon, Charlie Sexton signaled the end of the song. Unlike a lot of past tours, one thing quite noticeable tonight was there are no more long, drawn out endings. All the endings are clear, defined and fast, and all are signaled by Sexton.

The conversation continued right through a not bad “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight,” where Bob’s solo was, well, it wasn’t anywhere near what he played on “Man In The Long Black Coat.” At this point my friend Max, whose been going to Bob concerts with me for 21 years said, “I want to kill these people.” So I said, as politely and nicely as I could, “Could you guys please not talk during the songs?” One guy was cool with it but the other one turned around and said, “Man, people come to concerts to talk.” At this point I had to restrain every James Gandolfini walking out of a clothing store and seeing a photographer instinct I had in me. In the book, The Godfather, there’s this story about when Al Neri was a cop and how he didn’t need a gun, ’cause he’d just use his flashlight instead, and I had this incredible urge to bring my binoculars crashing down on this guy’s skull, but I then I remembered I wasn’t in a movie, even if I’d been through this movie before.

My hit man fantasies were quickly interrupted by Bob returning to the keyboard and the band blasting into a fierce “Beyond Here Lies Nothing,” followed by a fairly upbeat “Spirit On The Water.” From that point on, the energy level never lagged, and was taken higher by “High Water (For Charlie Patton) with Donnie on banjo, during which Bob left the keyboard and moved to center stage for a harp solo.

An almost 66-ish style harp solo started off what turned out to be a truly gorgeous and moving version of “Tryin’ To Get To Heaven.” It was quite possibly the best version I’ve ever seen of this song. Dylan was singing from way down deep. Of course in the middle of it, almost the entire row of talkers left to get beer. This was followed by an equally amazing “Cold Irons Bound” with Dylan singing at center stage and playing harp, with searing guitar work from both Sexton, who got down on his knees, a position he would return to often and Donnie Herron on steel. This arrangement may not have the dramatic show stopping effects of the previous arrangements, but it’s no less, in fact probably more powerful.

Next came an also upbeat “Desolation Row,” that was interesting for a couple of reasons, the first was Dylan borrowed the organ riff from “If You Ever Go To Houston,” and then Dylan went into what some refer to as his sing-song voice. It’s really not sing-song, it’s almost as if you were reading poetry to little kids or something. In the case of “Desolation Row,” it was basically hysterical and took it to new heights of absurdity. At the beginning of the song the chief talker, who had returned from the beer run by himself, to my utter astonishment, turned around and had the audacity to ask me if he could borrow my binoculars. After a moment of Obama-like contemplation, in the spirit of Obama diplomacy, I handed them to him, and he handed them back after a verse or two. However, unlike Obama with the Republicans, it worked, and he pretty much shut up for the rest of the night. A lot of Dylan fans wonder why Donnie Herron watches Bob like a hawk during the shows. This version of “Desolation Row” had the perfect example. During the song, Dylan found some organ riff he liked, and Herron immediately picked it up and echoed it on the mandolin and it took over as the dominant riff for the rest of the song.

Returning to the pedal steel, Herron then kicked off a rearranged “Po Boy” with a country flavored riff. Like every song at this show, this too was done in upbeat fashion. Not speedy to get it over with, but just with energy and cool harp from Dylan.

Next came the high point, the most moving part of an already quite moving show, a stunningly beautiful, “Workingman’s Blues #2,” with Dylan starting at keyboard then moving to center stage and playing harp. In a city that just went through a short but bitter transit strike, a city where jobs are few and far between, a city where it was announced that very day that the city itself had less money than thought, and hundreds if not thousands of city workers would be laid off, in a city where a murder a day, if not more than that has become the norm, this song resonated, and Dylan was powerful especially on the line, “I find it hard to believe, someone would kick me when I’m down.” These solo turns out front by the microphone are something special, just in the way Dylan stands, his hand gestures, the way he moves. It’s been said many times during his career, but what comes to mind is Charlie Chaplin, particularly at the end of Modern Times. Dylan didn’t have a cane, he wasn’t walking down the road, his hat was tilted more like W.C. Fields in It’s A Gift, the lone, sad, poet clown singing about what was going on.

After that, the rest of the show really didn’t matter, but it was all good. Dylan again returned to center stage for “Ballad Of A Thin Man,” “Like A Rolling Stone” resonated reborn, and “All Along The Watchtower,” which ends Bob Dylan concerts for a reason, sounded a warning, with the band pulling off a very cool stop during the repeat of the first verse on the line, “I can’t get no relief.”

The thing about Bob Dylan is that every time you’re maybe thinking he can’t, he shows, always in a new way, that he still can. Like the best magicians, he always has a few more tricks up his sleeve. And that is why this tour, now in its last two weeks is the tour to see.

08/13/08 Asbury Park Convention Hall, Asbury Park, NJ

Asbury Park, New Jersey is kind of a strange place, as if it’s in another zone of the universe. And if Bruce Springsteen hadn’t sung about it, it would be relegated to being some lost, once grand town of the Jersey Shore. It’s easy to see why Tony Soprano dreamed about it, and I wanted to find the probably non-existent Boardwalk fish market where Big Pussy turned into a talking fish and offered his confession but that didn’t happen.

On the not-so-long drive down I-195, the radio was blasting the news with all the criminals in their coats and ties, or maybe not ties,and probably not coats either talking about how Russia had the audacity to invade another country. I kept thinkin’ it might be fun if Bob suddenly resurrected “Talkin’ World War III Blues,” or whipped up a swing instrumental version of “Marching Through Georgia,” kind of like when he opened some shows a long time ago with “The Marine Hymn.” But I knew none of those things were gonna happen.

Anyway, I found a reasonably close free parking space in some of some depressed bowling alley and got hustled by some old street hustler who promised he’d make sure my 14 year old car was safe and wanted to know who Bob Dylan was and I headed up the street to Madame Marie’s and ended up in some too classy restaurant and never bothered to find the ghost of Big Pussy’s fish head.

Now I’d actually been to the Asbury Park Convention Hall before, a few centuries ago to see The Band – and even then it was kind of a strange place for them to play. But I remember Asbury Park being a lot more lively.  This was back in the years of no live Dylan and The Band were the next best thing.  Anyway after hanging out on the Boardwalk chatting with this guy I met years ago at Hammerstein Ballroom and have run into at various Bob shows ever since, we decided to go in the hall which meant getting in line to get a totally useless wristband.  The security guys shouted out the usual no cameras, no recording equipment, but they didn’t search anyone and so we proceeded to the balcony. Convention Hall really isn’t that big and has pretty cool Art Deco chandeliers.

Our seats were on the side of the stage where you could see Bob and the guitar tech was tuning up some not to be used Fender Telecaster with an F-hole, which he laid on top of two amps in front of the drum kit.

Not long after we sat down, a row of never ending talkers sat down right behind us.

At 8:25, the lights went down and Dylan and his band took the stage to a rather blurry, indecipherable introductory announcement.  I knew what it said anyway, but it was a sign of things to come.  Dylan kicked into a not bad “Rainy Day Women,” with the audience shouting out “Everybody must get stoned,” but to put it simply, the sound sucked.  It was just a blur of noise, with the drumbeats echoing off the walls, so you’d hear each drumbeat at least twice.

It wasn’t much better for what seemed like a cool version of “It Ain’t Me Babe,” and Dylan seemed to be really singing, but all kinds of noise was reverberating along with the never ending talkers chatting away about whatever and the other people in our row deciding to finally show up.

The sound got a tad bit better for “Rollin’ And Tumblin’ ” and “Spirit In The Water” and sometime during this, all the people who had just taken their seats decided  to go out and get drinks.

Donnie put on his banjo and they started into a pretty charged “High Water” with Bob changing his phrasing a bit.  Under better circumstances it would have been intense.  Next came “Tryin’ To Get To Heaven,” which was also good, and this point the people who left for drinks decided to return.  Once upon a time people knew to wait until the end of the song to go back to their seat, but those days are long gone with the general erosion of society.  And of course the never ending talkers who also went out and came back continued talking as if they were in their living rooms. Actually they were talking louder than in their living rooms, and  telling them nicely to shut up didn’t work.  There are some songs that you really shouldn’t talk during and “Tryin’ To Get To Heaven” is one of them. It wasn’t too long ago that Bruce Springsteen did a tour, a solo acoustic tour, his fans refer to as the “Shut The Fuck Up Tour” where you could not enter during a song and he even said from the stage, “If someone next to you is talking, you can tell them to shut the fuck up.”

Meanwhile, Dylan was playing “Honest With Me,” and the sound while a little better was still bouncing all over the room. Then Stu started the acoustic intro to “Tangled Up In Blue” and Dylan early in the song got into that chanting whatever the hell it is he does on this song now, and took it to extreme levels.  On one hand, it’s kind of funny, but on the other, it gets ridiculous especially when it goes on for several verses.

The banjo reappeared, and a blistering version of “It’s Alright Ma” came next with Dylan totally leaning into the song, clearly making every word count, and Denny delivering an excellent solo. The talkers, tired of talking with each other pulled out cell phones and started calling people to talk to them.  At this point the scene from ” The Godfather” where Michael Corleone’s hit-men burst into Phillip Tattaglia’s hotel room with machine guns kept entering my mind as the rest of the audience was cheering the “even the president of the United States” line.

“Beyond The Horizon” which might have been appropriate if this was an outside show with the ocean behind the stage came next, and while the sound of Bob’s organ echoed the carousel at the opposite end of the boardwalk, it just didn’t work.  For whatever reason, more often than not, this song just does not come together onstage.

“Highway 61” came next and one of the talkers decided to bellow out some of the lyrics, so at least one of them sort of had some sort of an inkling of why they were there.

A very strong rendition of “Nettie Moore” came next, during which a whole lot of people decided it was time to get drinks again.  This was followed by a fairly typical “Summer Days,” where most of the vocal tricks Dylan had tried on the song in Philly were lost in the non-acoustic haze of the building.

The main part of show ended with a truly stunning, perfectly delivered “Ain’t Talkin’,” with every chilling aspect of that song totally intact. Of course all the people who went out for drinks during “Nettie Moore” decided to return in the middle of it.

After the usual wait, Dylan returned for a not bad “Like A Rolling Stone,” with the audience chanting out the chorus, followed by an insanely speedy “Thunder On The Mountain,” and a reasonably good “Blowin’ In The Wind.”

Of course at this point, since everyone was clapping, the never ending talkers, conditioned to clap at the end of the show, clapped too, at which point my friend Max said, “Why are you clapping? You didn’t listen to a single song.”  This caused one of the non-listening husbands to follow Max down the stairs, but some local hero intervened.

Asides from having a hard time believing some people were ever alive, I have a hard time understanding why people will pay a lot of money to see a show and not pay attention to any of it.  They could’ve stayed home and watched a home renovation reality TV show or something, and probably would’ve paid a lot more attention to a designer talking about polished nickel plated faucets or something.  But such is life in modern times.

Outside on the boardwalk, fireworks were going off over the ocean and people were talking about how Bruce Springsteen was watching the show from the floor behind a black curtain and made his escape at show’s end.  We made it back to the depressed bowling alley where the same street hustler again tried to hustle us, and in the murky at times foggy night, away we did drive. Sure was glad to get out of there alive.

08/08/08 Electric Factory, Philadelphia, PA

It doesn’t seem like all that long ago, that every night when the set lists would appear, a good friend of mine would inevitably complain how the sets were weighted with songs from the ’60s.  Well, for the opening show in the cradle of liberty, the majority of songs were written from 1990 on. The show was over maybe an hour before the complaints from people who weren’t there were already posted. Now if history has taught us anything, especially on the Never Ending Tour, opening shows of a tour are rarely the shows were un-played songs are introduced or other surprises happen. There are exceptions of course such as 1996, when Dylan began his spring tour in the little town of Madison, New Jersey, and started the show playing only harp and debuted “Wheels On Fire.”  Or a little more recently and more dramatically, the fall 2002 tour where Dylan started the show playing keyboards, pulling out “Solid Rock” for the first time in ages, and played three Warren Zevon songs, as well as “Brown Sugar.” But generally such shows to open a tour are fairly rare.

The pre-show music set the tone for this one with lots of Bob Wills intermingled with Howlin’ Wolf, Hank Snow and various other artists.

Dylan and band took the stage at 8:05 by my watch, starting with “Cats In The Well.” Dylan’s was singing low volume-wise and his voice was low in the mix as well. Things picked up with a not bad “Lay Lady Lay,” with Dylan increasingly leaning into the vocals as the song progressed and maybe on purpose/maybe not mixing up some lines such as “You can eat your cake and have it too,” which he did twice.

An insistent “The Levee’s Gonna Break” followed with the energy moving up a few notches and the band getting into an extremely funky mode, Chicago blues kind of funky, without it really being Chicago blues. But it had the feel of Chicago blues, crazy wild Chicago blues with the dual electric guitars getting nasty, but never flashy with the rhythms accented, and propelling the song at the same time.

“Moonlight,” in the stop/start arrangement came next, with Bob starting to play around with his phrasing and bringing out the harp for the first time for a cool solo.

“Tangled Up In Blue,” in the arrangement debuted earlier this year came next. While the boot recordings of this arrangement didn’t thrill me, seeing it in person is a whole other story. Starting off with Stu Kimball on solo acoustic, with a kind of choppy rhythm, with just bass and drums, the full band doesn’t come in until the first chorus, and by the second verse you’re totally drawn in, essentially forgetting it’s a different arrangement. Dylan, who by now, had warmed up vocally, started really playing around with his phrasing, on the last two verses getting into a half staccato, half sing-songy emphasis, something he’d return to occasionally during the night. Sometimes it was to emphasize key words or key lines, but there’s also quite a bit of humor that goes along with it, and it was one of several vocal styles that would be revealed during the night.

“Things Have Changed” came next followed by “Spirit On The Water,” and then the rearranged “Honest With Me,” with both guitarists getting down and dirty. Again it wasn’t about flash, it was about sound and rhythm, combined with subtle interplay, and a band that is one of Dylan’s tightest. Then it was back to swing for “Beyond The Horizon.” At previous shows, I’ve seen this song walk on the edge of disaster, but tonight it was on the mark.

Next was a truly devastating “It’s Alright, Ma.” I was really happy when Dylan finally dropped the slow swampy version of this, and returned the song to something approximating its original arrangement and beat. Then he changed it again. Unlike some of the European shows, Denny Freeman was on electric, with Donnie Herron still playing jazz-grass banjo. The song built and built with Dylan thundering out each line, and then on a song that doesn’t need a guitar solo, Denny Freeman took a great one bringing the song up even further and then repeated it. The political mood of the audience was quite evident following the “Even the president of the United States sometimes must have to stand naked line,” equaling in volume audiences more than six times the size of the crowd at the factory. Whatever the indefinable magic thing is that happens, it happened during that song changing the feel of the show totally.

A truly beautiful “Tryin’ To Get To Heaven” came next, echoing the recent versions from Europe. While Dylan may have messed around vocally with some of the other songs during the night, on this song he was really singing in a clear voice from that place deep within.

Then it was back to the blues for “Highway 61 Revisited” with Stu Kimball taking a more pronounced role on guitar. By this time Dylan was quite animated, back to having fun with the phrasing, rushing some lines, drawing out others. On the golden gambler verse, he sang it: …”trying to create the next [long pause] world war.” It was quite effective.

“Nettie Moore,” was good, though not as powerful as some other versions I’ve seen. But on “Summer Days,” a quite interesting thing happened. Dylan had been trying out various phrasing throughout the songs, then about halfway through, he started each verse real low and moving to real high. I am not talking about what some people refer to as up singing. This was jazz influenced vocalizing, with a definite rhythm to each word, and there’s a lot of words in that song, moving right up the scale. Each time he’d get a little closer to what he was after and then on the last two verses, he totally nailed it. At the song’s end, as the lights went down, Donnie Herron stood up and applauded.

A very cool “Ballad Of A Thin Man” closed the main set. Dylan had become increasingly more alive during the night and on this song he became Bob Dylan the performer, playing to and acknowledging the audience. He’d sing a line, or play a riff and in the Chaplin-esque way he’s had from the beginning of his career, kind of step back from the keyboard, face the crowd, go back to singing or playing, and doing it again. Finally having the keyboard sound he wants, he even took an organ solo, much to my amazement and complemented it a verse later with a harp solo that ended the song.

As usual “Thunder On The Mountain” led off the encore, with a great solo by Denny Freeman, then Dylan moving into intensity mode for the line: “Shame on your greed, shame on your wicked schemes/I’ll say this, I don’t give a damn about your dreams.”

“Blowin’ In The Wind” closed the show, in the arrangement debuted last year. When I first heard this version, I was kind of skeptical, but now they have it down, and as a result it’s moved closer and closer towards Memphis soul, with the chorus building up in a way it wasn’t a year ago. Was this among the top Dylan shows I’ve seen? Probably not, but I’ve seen a lot of shows, some legendary. What it was, was a damn good start to a new tour.

09/28/07 Merriweather Post Pavilion, Columbia, Maryland

The first time I saw Bob Dylan play Merriweather Post Pavilion was in June of 1981.  That show was the last time I saw Dylan play new unreleased original songs from the forthcoming Shot Of Love.  Almost 20 years later he returned to Merriweather in the summer of 2000 for a fully charged show.  This time around was marked by a 30 minute (at least) wait to get into the parking lot, arriving in time to hear a terrific intense, highly political and emotional set by Elvis Costello. I didn’t get all of the song titles so I’m not going to go into it in detail, but he brought the crowd to their feet several times.  He was great.

To new music behind the usual intro Bob Dylan and band took the stage and launched into a not bad “Rainy Day Women” which was immediately followed by a very good “Senor.”  Dylan’s voice was undoubtedly rough but strong. Then came one of the songs I was hoping to see, the new speeded-up but it works arrangement of “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” with Bob taking a couple of well, Bob Dylan guitar solos.  During the song he found some riff he obviously liked and stayed with it and also handed a solo over to Denny Freeman.  From where our seats were it was hard to see the entire band at one time.

Dylan then moved to the keyboards for “Simple Twist of Fate.”  The arrangement was good, but the feel didn’t come close to the one at Continental Airlines Arena last November.  During the song it became evident that his voice was just not in great shape. Every now and then a line would ring out, but overall I felt the song lost steam.

The energy returned big time however with a very hot “Rollin’ And Tumblin” with very funky slide by Denny on his Les Paul Gibson.

Then came what was for me the highlight of the evening, an exquisite “Workingman’s Blues #2” with Donnie Herron on electric mandolin.  There was no doubt Dylan and the band were treating this song with extra special care.  Not a note was misplaced, and Dylan not only sang, but almost read the lines like a poet in a way that made each word stand out. It was perfect.

Almost immediately they went into a very strong “Desolation Row,” with new very nice Mexican flavored solos by Denny Freeman.  Though the song started with the usual rhythm, by the end it had taken on a distinctly Latin feel.

Next came another song I had yet to see, “Beyond the Horizon.”  But something just wasn’t happening.  After an intro that left me unsure what song it was going to be, they went into a kind of “Don’t Fence Me In” rhythm – the same rhythm the Who use on “Soon Be Gone,” but it seemed to be abandoned pretty fast for something approximating the rhythm on the album.  It was almost as if they couldn’t hear each other.  Whatever it was they didn’t seem to be in sync, sort of coming together when Denny would solo.  Bob kind of saved it at the end with a harp solo.

A hard rocking “Honest With Me” came next with George Recili playing very loud drums.  This led into “When The Deal Goes Down” where the waltz rhythm at times was a little too prominent, with beautiful guitar work from Denny.

A hard grooving “Highway 61” led into another high point, “Ain’t Talkin” with Donnie on viola.  Dylan’s singing was great and intense letting certain lines (“walkin’ through the cities of the plague”) truly stand out but stumbled almost comically on superfluous, but then quickly got it right.

A western swing meets rockabilly “Summer Days” led into a very powerful “Masters of War,” and for all his claims of what the song is supposed to be about when he sang, “The young people’s blood flows out of their bodies and is buried in the mud,” you couldn’t help but think of Iraq.

After a fairly long break, they returned for “Thunder on the Mountain,” and “Blowin’ In the Wind.”  When I saw this arrangement of “Blowin'” in Atlantic City in June, it seemed like they were trying for sort of the Stevie Wonder arrangement meets Fats Domino, but this time around it settled down into a sweeter, softer and way more soulful groove with Stu Kimball doing a cool descending riff before the last line. Dylan was truly singing like he meant it, with extra effort and definitely on the last chorus, the old voice, the one that could effortlessly send chills down your spine emerged, and then for one last time he reached for the harp for one last very cool solo to end the night.

6/30/07 Bethel Woods Center For The Arts, Bethel, NY

Back in 1969, you couldn’t get Bob Dylan anywhere near the Woodstock Music & Arts Festival which was held in the little village of Bethel, some 60 miles from Woodstock, New York. Hippies, pilgrims and vagrants were climbing on his roof, so he moved his family to some hidden mountain on the other side of Woodstock and while the festival in Bethel was happening went as far away as he could get to the Isle of Wight.  Unbeknownst to most, there actually was a music festival in the town of Woodstock that summer where a little-known Irish refugee named Van Morrison performed who had moved into a house just down the road from Dylan’s, but that’s another story.

And so 38 years later Bob Dylan finally came to Bethel, to perform at the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, a sort of impressive summer shed built on what once was Yasgur’s Farm, the site of Woodstock on some tiny country road.

On the ride in we tried to figure out if the ponds were the ponds. What once were fields now were parking lots, lots of ’em and since we arrived very close to show time, apparently the latecomers were able to park closer to the venue. Still you had to walk endlessly to the venue toll gate and then even further past souvenir stands and tons of food stands and lots and lots of picnic benches before you even saw what appeared to be a concert venue.  At the entrance there was a long list of rules and troopers with big black German shepherds, but you were allowed to bring in your own bottled water and even better, you could even keep the cap on the bottle, which is illegal in similar venues in the neighboring states of Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

At 8:35 more or less, Bob Dylan and his band took to the stage and launched into a reasonably upbeat “Leopard-Skin Pillbox Hat,” that seemed a bit more energized than the version played a couple of days before. This was followed by a delicately arranged “The Times They Are A-Changin'” and a not bad “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” leading up to a fiercely delivered “It’s Alright Ma” with Dylan nailing every line.  His voice was strong but rough, resorting to an occasional growl, but at the same time his singing was clear.

Dylan then moved to keyboard for a quickly intro’d “Just Like A Woman,” with several audience members attempting to sing along on the chorus. Dylan typically and comically would either delay or rush his lines making the sing along impossible.  He also left out the introduced as friends line on the last verse, and then capped the song with a cool extended harp solo.

They then jumped right into “The Levee’s Gonna Break” with standout instrumental work from guitarist Denny Freeman and Donnie Herron on electric mandolin with Dylan putting particular emphasis on the key lines, “Everybody say that this is the day only the Lord could make;” “Some people on the road carryin’ everything that they own.” The performance was relentless.

This was followed by a tightly arranged “Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.” The band quietly played an intricate almost waltz figure, with Stu Kimball’s acoustic weaving out of the tightly interlocked lines of Herron’s mandolin and Freeman’s low volume electric, with Dylan’s keyboard riding underneath. This allowed Dylan, his voice rough in contrast to what was happening instrumentally to deliver a superbly effective and hard-hitting reading of the song, his contempt for the justice system clearly intact. The audience, at least where I was sat quietly throughout.

A wildly charged “High Water” changed the mood immediately. With Donnie Herron’s jazz-grass banjo dancing in and out, and Tony Garnier’s string bass high in the mix, Dylan found some crazy rhythmic riff early in the song, the entire band soon picked up on it taking the song to a new place.

A fairly flowing “Spirit on the Water” came next and was followed by “Tangled Up In Blue” and then a near-perfect “Blind Willie McTell” with Herron on banjo. Then came a nice surprise, a rearranged moderately rocking “I Don’t Believe You.” This may have been Dylan’s best vocal of the night, as the roughness in his voice seemed to evaporate and he let the notes soar.

“When The Deal Goes Down” was the only time the concert seemed to lose steam. At the end of the first verse Dylan used his hand to count out the waltz rhythm he wanted, the band fell in line, but the song, one of the best on “Modern Times” wasn’t as effective as it could have been.

“Highway 61” revived the energy and “Blowin’ In The Wind” was far more meaningful than it was in Atlantic City.

At the end of “Thunder On The Mountain,” Dylan (possibly for the first time this tour) introduced the band, and then said something like, “It’s good to be back. Last time we played here, it was in the mud and the rain at six in the morning.” I thought it was hysterical myself and possibly in reference to an article in a local paper the day before about local residents bitching that he didn’t play the original festival.  They then went into a fine version of “All Along the Watchtower,” which now resolves on a major chord.

On the way out of the venue, the full moon was clouded over and a sudden chilly rainstorm erupted and the temperature dropped several degrees. It lasted exactly as long as it took to reach the car, for the endless crawl back to the main road. Luckily at that main road, we were headed for the back mountain roads of Pennsylvania, and didn’t have to join what appeared to be an extremely long line of cars inching towards the New York State Thruway.

And so, almost four decades later, Bob Dylan finally made it to the site of Yasgur’s farm. I don’t know whether he got back to the garden, but he delivered the goods.