«Well, God is in His heaven
And we all want what’s his
But power and greed and corruptible seed
Seem to be all that there is
I’m gazing out the window
Of the St. James Hotel
And I know no one can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell»
If we look out our window in any hotel tonight, nothing much has changed, I guess. There is a chilly wind blowing.
Bob Dylan´s last stop before tonight´s concert in Porto was his show in Santiago Di Compostela, the famous center of pilgrimage in Spain, where the story tell us that we can find the shrine of St James, one of the twelve apostles of Jesus, the martyr who was killed in the year of 44. St James, or Santiago in Spanish, was, they say, the brother of John, and the first apostle to be martyred. The name Compostela may have different origins, one is the meaning «the field of the star», a suiting name for a city most known for the wandering pilgrims.
In Dylan´s poetry we met him first at St James Street in «Don´t Fall Apart on Me Tonight», but more known in the St James Hotel of «Blind Willie McTell», where the singer is gazing out the window, and where «power and greed and corruptible seed, seem to be all that there is”. Of course, the connection to the classic blues song, «St James Infirmary Blues», is an important link in the chain of references to Santiago, St James.
When I see Dylan tonight, I can´t help thinking of the spirit of pilgrimage, still touring restlessly around the world, still trying to get to heaven before they close the door, still trying to find the field of the star. As most of us do, I guess, trying to find our way – poets or not, religious or not. «Someone had to reach for the risin’ star, I guess it was up to me», Dylan sings in one of his songs.
Even if the set on this leg of the tour are pretty much the same from night to night, and mostly the same as the US shows in fall, there has been some important changes made since last time in Europe. The songs from The American Songbook are all replaced by Dylan´s own songs, and the set is know a well-crafted overview of Dylan´s own Songbook, with songs from both the sixties, the seventies, the eighties, the nineties, the 00-s, and the 2010s. They are richly spread both in genres and in themes. He is taking us a tour-de-Bob through his deep well of songs, again making us remember that he was never just a shooting star himself. Neither is this a sentimental trip of nostalgia, it´s not a «greatest hits»-set, and even the most known songs are remade, re-written and renewed, not just this year, but through the years. He not busy being born, is busy dying. Dylan is living that line. Still.
Change it is. Still is. If I pick a setlist from 1979, he repeats just one of the songs this year, if I pick the last show in 1989, he repeats two, the last in 1999 seven and in 2009 three. Long lines. It may look like I´m movin´, but I´m standing still, he sings in «Not Dark Yet». That might be true. The only stable is change. This is certainly one of the reasons Dylan has been able to produce more than 3000 concerts since 1988, on the so-called «Never-ending Tour», keeping the show fresh, for himself, and for his audience.
The band is entering the stage as a team that means serious business, to the tones of dramatic classical music, with fanfares of trumpets and drums. Dylan is quickly finding his place behind the piano – no hat, the silhouette from the sixties, dark embroidered suit, purple bow-tie and his white boots. «Things Have Changed» is the prologue, as it has been the last years. The sound is magnificent and crispy clear from the start, as Dylan´s voice is. And what a show it is. He got the audience in the palm of his hands from start to finish, he seemed happy, smiled and occasionally laughed after especially successful phrasings or solos. Stu Kimball left the band last fall, and there is still just the quartet of guilty undertakers behind the boss, Charlie Sexton with much room to show what a great guitarist he is. And Dylan gives us the grand tour – here comes Miss Lucy, Miss Mary Jane, Miss Lonely, Charlotte The Harlot, Alicia Keys and the flat-chested junkie-whore, here comes Mr Jinx, God, Abraham and Two-Timin´ Slim, here comes Napoleon in rags and Nero with the fiddle. Dylan leads us to Hell´s Kitchen, Missouri, Rome and Brussels, to Detroit and to Scarlet Town, under the hill. He shows us the lonesome valley, makes us revisit the highways of regret. He sings of love minus zero, with no limit, in «Make You Feel My Love», and he sings of heartbreak minus zero, with no limit, in «Love Sick». In the song latest introduced in the set, he smiles when he delivers the line «Dignity´s never been photographed», hinting to his own battle with the audience in Wien, asking them whether they would like him to play or to pose. The version is just perfect, Dylan´s phrasing impeccable, he is rolling his eyes, and moves behind the piano like he was the coolest cat in town on his skateboard. He is really rocking on Highway 61 Revisited, on Thunder On The Mountain and Gotta Serve Somebody, he is crooning When I Paint My Masterpiece and the most beautiful version of Don´t Think Twice, Its All Right, ever, closed with a crying harmonica solo and standing ovations. He delivers the most tender version of Love Sick that I ever heard, the closing lines are delivered in almost a whisper. Simple Twist of Fate is beautiful balladry. Between most of the songs Dylan leaves the piano and come jogging to the front of the stage, in his Pinocchioesque way, with no strings, waving or bowing to the audience, before jogging back to the piano. The one song performed outside the piano, is the great swaying Scarlet Town, the audience applauding each verse. He grabs one of the three microphones at the front of the stage, the only one used this night. One of the absolute highlights of the night is Like A Rolling Stone with the surprising new arrangement for people seeing just one show, where the playing stops behind the last lines before the refrain, Dylan intensely reciting the words that leads to the classic refrain. Dylan is so happy and full of joy after the reception that he can´t hide it when he breaks into Early Roman Kings, smiling as a Cheshire-cat the whole song. There is love, much love, there is loneliness, there is anger, there is violence, as in Pay In Blood, there is hope, as in Blowing In The Wind, and in the last song of the evening, he sings: «Well, if I die on top of the hill, and I don´t make it, you know my baby will.» Words that might have another meaning for the almost 78 year old, than it had when he wrote the song as 24, and after losing many of his friends and comrades the last years. «Wintertime is coming, the windows are filled with frost,» he sings, possibly not related to Game of Thrones. Nevertheless, if the North was supported by the powers of Bob Dylan demonstrated in Porto tonight, they´d probably win the war.
Poesia, the muse bust near Dylan, has turned away from the singer, know looking directly at the Oscar replica. Waiting for the Netflix film from Rolling Thunder? Disappointed with Bob´s writing? Who knows. She know stands on a marble-like pedestal, looking more important than ever, even got her own spotlight.
From 2013 Dylan spent two years heavily leaning on his songs from 1997 to 2012, then he spent two years mixing this set with The American Songbook songs, before he last fall chose to give us the rolling thunder revue of him finger-picking from his own catalogue. What will be the next?
It was a fabulous show tonight, a show I wish you all could see. Dylan throws kisses to the audience, waving gratefully before he leaves us in the dark, heading for another show, continuing the pilgrimage, still searching for the star.