There was this Norwegian author, Sigrid Undset – a Nobel Prize winner, too, in 1928, most famous for her medieval literature. In one of her writings she speaks of the human heart, in about this way: “Though habits and customs change, as time passes, and people´s faith and what they think about many things will change. But the human heart never ever change.” Tonight I´m thinking about this, like I did walking through the fabulous Metropolitan Museum today. As Heraclitus reminds us that we can´t step twice into the same stream, we can´t step twice into the same Met either, I guess – I have changed and Met has changed since the last time we met, but my feeling is the same, it´s like diving into a delightful bath of history, beauty and art, and it reminded me of the truth in Sigrid´s words, as I walk through the beautiful rooms. I can hear the ancient footsteps like the motion of the sea. Love, war, beauty, ugliness, decay, death, decadence, power, greed, children, the sun, the sea, faith, flowers and the human heart in all shapes. The high and the low. Eyes looking at me, through the ages, and their face looks just like mine.
Bob Dylan enters the stage and states in his prologue, that “The human mind can only stand so much.” The I in the song also tells us that he used to care, but that things have changed. The fact that he is still here, betrays him, as do the intensity of his performance. He do still care. As he himself tells us in another song: “Heart burnin’, still yearnin’/In the last outback, at the world’s end”. The inspiration seems to be infinite, the word itself from the latin inspirare – “to breathe or blow into”. Life itself – our ability to breathe. To inspire someone, to help them breathe. To make them want to live. To make them want to create. Where does it come from? Dylan was already in his early years as an artist speaking about taking the songs from the air, just picking them down, not always really knowing from where they came. He has inspired many, and he has been a sponge for inspiration himself. Extending the lines and connecting the dots.
“It Ain´t Me, Babe” gets an immediate reaction from the audience, and the inspiration from the fabulous and almost frightening performer John Jacob Niles in the opening line makes the song even more interesting.
Tonight it´s in “Highway 61 Revisited” everything falls into place, Dylan just kills it with his phrasing, finding the perfect pitch on top of his own piano figures, his rockin´and reelin´, his feet under the piano doing the jitterbug rag. I remember the very beautiful shows in Rome in April, a completely different experience, and I noticed that Dylan´s energy by the piano wasn´t the same as earlier years. Maybe the age finally was kicking in. Well, on those shows on Beacon Theatre, youth has kicked back in. By the way, his reference to “Georgia Sam” is maybe his first tip of the hat to Blind Willie McTell, a man with many pseudonyms, as Dylan himself.
“Make You Feel My Love” is already an evergreen, the audience knows it by heart. The song was one of many early warnings about Dylan´s fondness for the American Songbook. He has been writing himself into it in many ways, but also with this one. Funny then, that he also refer to Stanley Brothers´“Highway of Regret” from a completely different genre. Not so strange. Dylan is connecting the dots and making the whole picture visible for us. Centuries, decades, genres, styles – it all goes into the same melting pot. Anything goes.
When I saw Dylan open his summer tour in Europe in Cork, Ireland, 2014, there was a new member of the band, this one standing at his piano in form of the bust “Poesia” by the italian sculptor Antonia Garella (1864-1919). This fall she obviously got company of her sisters, one on each side of the stage, herself close to Bob. Now, we all know that life is a bust – but then again, tonight there really is three of them. Three muses, I guess, the inspirational goddesses of arts and literature. Some think there were only three of them, but Homer thought it was nine. Well, he was blind, so how could he know? It seems like Bob settles for three. Could it be the Roman kind – Melete (Practise), Mneme (Memory) and Aoide (Song)? Bob only knows, but I know he has generously been blessed and inspired by all three of them. Three or nine, that´s not so important, but they symbolize something of great importance for all artists, whether the muse is earthly or heavenly bound. As Dylan concluded his Nobel Lecture: “I return once again to Homer, who says, “Sing in me, oh Muse, and through me tell the story.”” One interesting aspect of Dylan is this strange feeling, that his sense of time makes all of humanity and history contemporary – for him. As he says in one of his last interviews, speaking about his songs: “50 year old isn´t that old. Maybe to someone who´s in their twenties, but not to someone who is in their eighties. The song “Barbara Allen” is three or four hundred years old and we are still singing it.” It´s all a question about perspective. And yes, we are still singing “Barbara Allen”, but tonight Bob Dylan is singing and acting “Scarlet Town”, on of many songs where he has extended the lines from tradition, from “Barbara Allen”, and into his works, for our time and for future times. A highlight each night at the Beacon, so far. Since it´s the only song where he leaves the piano in these shows, the magical effect of him singing and slowly dancing with the microphone as his partner, is especially noticed by the audience, and tonight even more than the nights before. “Scarlet Town” is one of many songs packed with hyperlinks to history, art and song, not only to “Barbara Allen”, he is also tipping his hat to Vern Gosdin and Ernest Tubb. As he in “Like A Rolling Stone” got the links to both Muddy Waters, Hank Williams and Leon Payne, with a little touch of Richie Valens.
“Like A Rolling Stone”, until this fall he hasn´t played it the last five years, except once on the “Desert Trip” last year, then just once in 2013. You know that you got plenty of songs, when you can put a song like that aside for so long. Still, it´s one of his most played and treasured songs, and now he have found a completely new way of doing it, one he finds amusing himself. He is so amused that he struggles to hide it, throwing laughs back to Charlie after the call-response play with the audience. He even sing all four verses this year. It´s really a freshness to this version, and one of the finest moments tonight. The arrangement makes us listen to the words again, each of them, a wanted effect, obviously. Not just “that song again”, more like a new song.
Talk about contemporaries, come to think of Shakespeare, one that Dylan openly is fan of, but also speaks of like he is just one of the boys he met through the years. In “Pay In Blood” he tips his hat again, with a more powerful version tonight. With the line “I came to bury, not to praise” Dylan is connecting many dots, as he quotes Willy´s play “Julius Caesar” with Mark Antony´s words at Caesar´s funeral, also referring to Brutus who participated in the killing of his father – let´s throw in Freud here, too – and then we have a complete Jambalaya through the centuries, in one line.
“Early Roman Kings” was one of the highlights in 2017, with a raw energy both in the band and in Dylan´s vocal. Tonight I can feel some of the same vibes – the band is on fire, and Dylan loves to play the blues tonight. Just watch his foot-tappin´under the piano, and the unconscious smiles. Muddy Waters would have been proud.
“Don´t Think Twice, It´s All Right”. What can I say. Magic. Again. I saw one review talking about the bitterness of the song. That might be, but I don´t hear it that way, just maybe if the bitterness is pointing into the I of the song himself. Tonight I hear a song about a man trying to make himself feel better, a song related to “She Thinks I Still Care” or “Most of the Time”. It´s not all right. It´s the Professor of the Human Heart that is singing, the Professor who has specialized in Heartbreak. Beautiful. Heartbreaking. The fact that one in the audience was thrown out under this song, making a lot of noice, didn´t affect Dylan much. He didn´t miss a beat.
“Thunder on the Mountain” is really cookin´ tonight, and there is a lightness to Dylan´s chuckberryesque speak-sing-rapping rhythm in his delivery that flows just perfect, all made possible by the last year´s new arrangement of the song, an arrangement that really has lifted it´s potential to new heights. The same could be said of “Gotta Serve Somebody”. The slow train of the original is now picking up speed, with Charlie shoveling coal. More like a freight train this year.
The audience just loves “All Along The Watchtower” as reggae, even though some of them needs some time to recognize what song it really is. Then it´s to late, they already loved it. As they did with Blowing In The Wind. Great harmonica in the end. Blowing In The Wind. Breathing. A night of inspiration. Bob Dylan extending the lines and connecting the dots. Still.