Let´s take a step back.
Of course there is no such thing as a “Never-Ending Tour”. All things come to an end. Still, if the label should be allowed in use for only one artist, Bob Dylan´s constantly touring after meeting some guy at the crossroads in the late eighties, should be the best candidate by far. Since his decision of a new way of touring, in 1988, a new starting point was established, and a new counting of shows. This makes 2018 the 30th Anniversary of the “Never-Ending Tour”, and the show tonight about the 2983rd since the start in the summer of 1988, about 50 countries, more than 800 places, cities and towns all over the world, an average of almost 100 shows a year. Of course, there is no celebration or advertising about a jubilee or something like that (after all – this is Bob Dylan) – but the facts about this “endless” project is overwhelming in more ways than one, not only in numbers, but also in the endless moving between and exploration of genres, the digging through hundreds of both his own songs and cover versions, both known and obscure, the developing of the bands and arrangements, to name some.
The year of 1988 was also the year of Dylan´s induction into the Rock´n Roll Hall of Fame, and in 1991 he accepted the “death kiss” of a Grammy, the Lifetime Achievement Award. Don´t let me be misunderstood, the recognition and honor was both heartfelt and well deserved, but might also be read as an expectation of a career approaching the end. The truth was far from that. He hadn´t even started yet.
The same year was only twenty-six years after his album debut in 1962, while we this year, in 2018, are looking back on a career more than twice as long, and still going. In itself it´s not always that impressive to survive, or to continue touring as an cover artist of your own songs from early glory days. There is nothing wrong with that, but Bob Dylan chose another road, one he impossibly could know would succeed, not at all focusing on a “Greatest Hits” approach, cashing in on nostalgia, he was not even focusing on familiar arrangements of songs, not focusing on crowd-pleasing and small talk, but openly risking that people mistakes his shyness for aloofness and his silence for snobbery. On this road his role as a performing artist has by far been the dominating ingredient, more than both the role as songwriter and recording artist. Of course, he continued to write and record, in his own tempo, with great results, but life on the road would be the name of the game each year, the albums came when he really felt for it, when he had an idea that he would take to a studio. This phase he has been a Columbia Performing Artist. In interviews he is commenting the life on the road himself:
“A lot of people don’t like the road, but it’s as natural to me as breathing. I do it because I’m driven to do it, and I either hate it or love it. I’m mortified to be on the stage, but then again, it’s the only place where I’m happy. It’s the only place you can be who you want to be. You can’t be who you want to be in daily life. I don’t care who you are, you’re going to be disappointed in daily life. But the cure-all for all that is to get on the stage, and that’s why performers do it. But in saying that, I don’t want to put on the mask of celebrity. I’d rather just do my work and see it as a trade.”
So there it is. It´s a trade. For us, in the audience, it´s a lot more than that. We can see a man with a mission – a mission to perform, to stand in front of an audience, a man with an incredibly strong urge to convey something more than words on a paper, to channel a vision beyond the words, beyond the albums and far into the depths of truth he found and we can find in the deep ocean of music. That´s one point of view, of course. That´s this writers view. Still, none of this words and facts above is a guarantee for neither the quality nor the relevance of tonights show. It´s more like a back drop.
Meanwhile, back at the Beacon Theatre, the curtain now is rising on a new show, i.e. specifically not the same show as yesterday. Back to zero. For the 2983rd time at the Never Ending Tour, and for the fourth show in a row in this beautiful room. Dylan is dressed in black but with purple stripes. Looking good! The audience responds immediately when he sings “Things Have Changed” and even more “It Ain´t Me, Babe” and “Highway 61 Revisited”. For me, that also has seen the previous shows, the performance is fine, but it feels like something is lacking, whether it is the energy of yesterday´s show or if it is one ingredient that I don´t really can put my finger on. “When I Paint My Masterpiece” is great, but still I´m not wholly convinced. But then, suddenly, in the midst of “Honest With Me”, it´s like the coin finally finds the right lane and the higher gear kicks in. Dylan sways from left to right by the piano, with a demonic Cheshire cat grin, like he is reminding us that it´s exactly the same where we´re going, if we don´t know where we want to end up. But he himself means business, and takes totally control from here and to the last note on “Blowing In The Wind”. Before that he makes some excellent phrasing on “Trying To Get To Heaven” and a beautiful “Make You Feel My Love”, continuing with the most magnificent version of “Scarlet Town” so far, with a deep and warm tone in his vocal all through the song, his hands drawing beautiful pictures in the air. The new version of “Like A Rolling Stone” has now interestingly developed into a call and response session between Dylan and the audience, Dylan smiling, the people are yelling, before they sing the chorus together. He shouts out “When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose” as a possible contrast or comment to what he told us a few songs earlier: “When you think that you have lost everything, you find out you can alway lose a little more.” Both sentiments can be true, of course. The band is just killing “Early Roman Kings”, before Bob once more uses his fantastic hymn-filter on “Don´t Think Twice, It´s All Right”, like he has done with “Girl From The North Country” and “Shelter From The Storm” a few years ago, making us feel, not that he sits in our living room, but that we are invited into his. The harmonica solo in the end makes the instrument transcend into a full-blown church organ – just incredibly beautiful. Wow!
Bob Dylan´s greatest song about heartbreak, “Love Sick”, is just plain fabulous tonight, always stating the perfect summary of the diagnosis in question:
I’m sick of love; I wish I’d never met you
I’m sick of love; I’m trying to forget you
Just don’t know what to do
I’d give anything to be with you
Love is a burning fire. Always. Lost love even more.
Both “Thunder On The Mountain” and “Gotta Serve Somebody” are coming on like fast trains, the last opens for a more than willing Bob to shout out “Yeah!” and “One of these days!” several times through the chorus, proud of his band, proud of Charlie playing his guitar like ringing a bell, The Gods of Rhythm, Tony & George, and the ubiquitous Donnie, always in the right place with the right instrument in hand.
I met people that saw Dylan for the first time tonight with tears in their eyes after the show. What I saw as unevenness in the start was more than repaid in the last half. The audience is great and many wants to dance to “All Along The Watchtower”. Standing ovations. Another great show at the Beacon. Three more to go. Lucky us.
p.s. To day we also learned that the guitarist from the first show of the Never-Ending Tour in 1988, and Bob, will have a double-date in Hyde Park next July. The guitarist was Neil Young. Rust never sleeps. d.s.