“There was a boy
A very strange enchanted boy
They say he wandered very far, very far
Over land and sea
A little shy and sad of eye
But very wise was he
And then one day
A magic day he passed my way
And while we spoke of many things
Fools and kings
This he said to me
The greatest thing you’ll ever learn
Is just to love and be loved in return”
I hate the expression “fake news”, and I hate that it’s sneaking into our language as a legitime maxim, when it’s, most of all, the ultimate hate speaking, hate of truths you don’t like, facts you don’t like, people you don’t like, making lies the truth – always reminding me that sometimes Satan come as a Man of Piss. All this, well knowing that truth isn’t an easy theme at all. Is it even possible that a man in a mask, known under different names, is hinting at truth when he tell us that “All the truths in the world add up to one big lie”. Or is it a lie? “Epimenides, The Cretan, says that all the Cretans are liars.” Is he telling the truth or not? There is this poet saying “the truth was obscure, too profound and too pure, to live it you’ll have to explode”. Maybe he is right?
I’m not sure if this really is the true story of what happened when Bob Dylan visited Norway and Sweden in the year of 2019, but here are some of my observations and impressions, a few days after the shows. After reading some of the reviews, it makes you wonder: What’s real, and what is not?
21st of June – Bergen, Norway.
It was a rainy day. The stage was dressed in black, the cloud was black, the baby grand piano was black, the band was dressed in black, Bob Dylan was dressed in black, wearing his black hat, and he has even changed his white boots for a new pair in black. The Norwegian summer night kills the stage lights attempt to create an intimate frame for the show. Then again, if you know the artist, it’s one thing, if you don’t it’s something else. This special artist always will be an acquired taste.
From where I stood, the sound was terrible from the start, I heard only the piano, the vocal far behind it, and almost nothing of the guitars. Heeeelp! The world has gone black before my eyes. The sound improved already in the next song, “It Ain’t Me, Babe”, and got better throughout the show, but Bob wasn’t really satsified from the start, commanding the musicians and maybe the sound technicians, something was happening, and I didn’t quite know what it was. After awhile the sound was just fine. Still, this wasn’t the best venue for a Dylan concert these days. “Grieghallen” in Bergen, named after the great composer, would have been a much better choice, I guess. Bob´s performance and focus improved through the first half of the show, and after a rainy day, he got the sun in his eyes, making them two slits that would make a snake proud. He was grinning. It was beautiful. “Simple Twist of Fate” was beautiful.
From “Early Roman Kings” on everything was perfect. The sound was warm and powerful, as was Dylan’s piano playing and vocals. He was totally in charge and looked happy. Looking around me, the audience seemed happy, too, also many of the ones that hadn’t seen him before. Getting to understand what this was about, a different artist, taking them on a journey even he didn’t know, as he created it moment by moment, solo by solo.
We got one more take of the fabulous new and most intense version of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” ever, Dylan leaning into it with all his 78 years, a song drenched in sadness and sorrow, marinated in lost love and sweet memories of times and people that never will return. One of the highlights of the night. Beautiful.
Dylan really rocked on “Thunder On The Mountain”, and “Gotta Serve Somebody” came on like a slow train that was picking up speed with Dylan as the singing brakeman, yelling out an extra “Oh Yeah! or “M-hmmm!!”. Most of the audience recognized “Blowin’ In The Wind” and swayed with the swing of the song, all agreeing that too many people have died.
Even if the hard rain started to fall right after the band left the stage, I saw and heard an uplifted and happy audience quietly leave the venue.
After the show there was this discussion in the press and social media about the show – was it great, bad or mediocre? The headlines mostly were more negative than the content of the reviews, a bit confusing, but not so unusual – the journalists not always so sure of to what they should compare a Bob Dylan show. Elton John, Sting, Kiss, Metallica? The best comments came from the ones that knew this was something else and has to be judged by different criteria than the light entertainment framework that usually would be a fine tool. Dylan is something else. You don’t have to think he is good or great, but he is something else. Let’s start there. Dylan isn’t here to entertain you or to connect with you in a very direct way. Still, I think Dylan loves his audience, that’s why he tours the world, year after year, night after night, unstoppable. He needs the connection, but not in a way that isn’t all about the music, the songs, the lyrics, the phrasings, the feelings and the moments of this special show, he is letting you in to take part in his search for the holy grail of the groove and the mystery of the spur of the moments. It was not a perfect show, it never was. Dylan has given up any attempt of perfection. Perfection isn’t at the end of the rainbow as Dylan sees it, the gold lies in creating something new and different each night, a strategy with high risk involved, not leaving you with friends only. Attempts of perfection stands in the way of what Dylan is trying to achieve. He is after something more than that. Something more than a polished show, repeating himself night after night. That wouldn’t be Dylan, that wouldn’t be, sometimes, magic, in an artistic way.
26th of June – Stockholm, Sweden.
Where Bergen were black, the inside of the Stockholm Globe was red, the hard rain stayed on the outside of the venue. The seats were red, the walls were red, and even if the arena is an incredible large and impersonal room, the instant impression tonight is much more of an intimate venue than Bergen, the darkness made possible just by being inside, the stage lights and spotlights and the backdrop in dark brown from the start. The sound is crystal clear, including the dramatic fanfares and classical music, (reminding us that we’ll see one of the classics) coming through the speakers as George finds his drums, Charlie and Tony their guitars, Don sits down at his pedal steel, and finally Bob finds his place at the piano, as the classical music fades away and “Things Have Changed” starts. “Things Have Changed” has ironically not changed. It might be the perfect prologue when it comes to the lyrics, and a great warm up for the band and for Bob’s vocal, in my opinion it still isn’t a song that differs much from night to night in a way that most of the others do.
The dark gives us a more focused band, and a more focused audience. Sitting in the middle of the third row, I could see every move on stage.
“It Ain’t Me, Babe” brings a whisper through the whole room, Dylan sitting in the spotlight at the piano, throwing his lasso around the entire audience, singing the song for the zillionth time, contradicting himself by singing the words of the song and at the same time making us all feel that he is the real deal. Still, the song contains one truth and one mask of love and contradictions. As it is when the “I” in one song a bit later in the show sings quite the opposite, that it is nothing he wouldn’t do, to make you feel his love. True. Love. It’s complicated. Then he sings “Love Sick” a few songs later, every bit as truthful. The “I” in the song is wearing a cloak of sorrow and sadness, he enters a deep ocean of heartbreak and loss, where he is bringing us into another camera angle of the “I”, walking the streets that are dead, both wishing that he never met her, trying to forget her and that there ain’t nothing that he wouldn’t do to be with her again. True. Love. Lovesickness.
Playing the role of Shakespeare of the Modern Times, he leans heavily into “Highway 61 Revisited”, revisiting human nature from Abraham to the Roving Gambler, taking no prisoners down the highway. No pussy-footing around. Rock´n roll!
“Simple Twist of Fate” – it´s so beautiful, everybody feels they know the song, even if they don’t, the harmonicas play and the words – even if Dylan has rewritten the song again and again, in several stanzas this time, even the majestic last verse has been under the knife, and with a simple twist of Jack Fate, it now includes the story of a “new date, a date that couldn’t wait, blame it on a simple twist of fate”. Easy to see that nothing much is really sacred. Everything is a work in progress. It’s life, and life only – the only thing we can change is the past, and he does it all the time – the color of the notes, the taste of the words, the sound of the metaphors – everything is a work in progress, everything is poetry in motion, in Scarlet Town, where he was born.
In the dark I can see the singer talking to the band, a little more than to be polite, often the signal of a possible change, and this time it is. In stead of the familiar Link Wray-groove of “Rumble” introducing “Cry A While”, something completely different is happening – Dylan growls the words “I can’t wait” followed by Good Time Charlie’s funky guitar, resembling Wendy to her Prince in a fabulous funky firework of a new version of the song. I hear my own inarticulate scream of the heart before Dylan continues, my neighbors looking a bit sceptically my way, but I don’t care – one of my favorite songs, not played since 2012 is rolling my way, and what a great version. Wow! Dylan seems to think the same, starting the song at the piano, but you can see he is eager to get to the open floor by the microphone. He starts walking, but realizes that he won’t reach it in time, and stops – continues with the song, but then he just has to move, even though he knows that time is too short – he runs towards the microphone, begins to sing “I’m your man, I’ve tried to recover” somewhere between the piano and the place where his voice again will be heard, not missing a beat; “the sweet love that we knew”. A trapeze artist in motion. The song continues under funky fire, when the genius suddenly has decided to weave the croon and the funk together in one whole cloth, the music stops and Dylan brilliantly sings with dramatic effect: “I’m doomed to love you/I’ve been rollin’ through stormy weather/I’m thinkin’ of you/And all the places we could roam together”, with a voice and a cry taken directly from his American Songbook project, and more than this, the sentiments of the songs are linked together in clear sight, the meteorological metaphors, the words, the gloom and misery in “Can’t Wait” and “Stormy Weather”, demonstrating the deep connections, the deep emotions that tie it all together. “So weary all of the time.” We can’t be sure that Dylan always saw this connections as clear, but in the end, he surely did. And in his last three albums he tried to show us. Now he is doing it the other way around.
In January 2018 Echo Helstrom died, the girl who supposedly was the inspiration for the beautiful ballad “Girl From The North Country”. Dylan wrote in her high school yearbook: “Let me tell you that your beauty is second to none. Love to the most beautiful girl in school.” Echo’s father was Swedish. This might be one of the possible reasons the song this time is introduced in the set in all three of the Swedish shows, first time in Stockholm this night, with sprinkling piano playing binding the verses together, reminding me of an old hymn, together with the deep base notes from Tony underlining the sorrow and loss with the depths of all the fifty-six years passed since the song was first recorded.
The show ends with the deep and sharp blues of “It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry”. The “I” in the song is riding on the last train he was waiting for in “Things Have Changed”, the show going full circle, now contemplating death, Dylan getting the song across with great intensity, like waves of music covering us, like the motion of the sea, making it sound as a matter of life and death. Dylan and the band takes a bow, without smiles, but still grateful and respectful to the Stockholm audience. A great show.
Gothenburg, 28th of June.
What made the show in Gothenburg really special, was the the particular and immediate responsiveness from the audience, not just from the start, but throughout the show, often throughout one song, it was like the whole collective seemed to hang on to Dylan’s lips, clapping, screaming and whistling after a beautiful solo on the harmonica or the piano, after a strong line of phrasing, after a great verse and so on. This made me feel a special connection between the artist and the people attending this night. It moved Bob, too, I think.
Dylan was well prepared when we came to the fifth song of the third night, eagerly standing mid stage when the funk of “Can’t Wait” started. A strong and lively version, with the effective stop-and-start by the band, Dylan’s little dance, the band letting Dylan’s rhythm be the steering wheel for all that happened in the performance. Great stuff!
The harmonica solo in “When I Paint My Masterpiece” and the piano solo in “Trying To Get To Heaven” wasn’t top notch this night, Dylan searching after something he didn’t find. Sometimes it’s like that.
Dylan was also dancing mid stage, slowly, to the mystic gypsylike tango of Scarlet Town, with a slightly Eastern twist. The audience were hollering from the intro of the song, to the majestic rhythm, Don’s effective banjo playing, Tony’s base line, everything made the people sway, like in some magic ritual, even making people that didn’t know the song, that never listened to “Tempest”, feel like something great and familiar was about to happen. And it was. A highlight in Gothenburg, as it was in each of the five shows, maybe Dylan’s greatest new song of this decade. Bob Dylan, the wiseman and the storyteller, drawing us all into his world of song.
“Girl From The North Country” also this night, the piano playing stronger, the singing tender, beautiful – the swedish audience feeling this as a special treat, which it really was.
Oslo, 29th of June.
Oslo has a different setup than Stockholm and Gothenburg, a couple of thousands standing on the floor in front of the stage, the rest seated. Makes it all more of a club feeling tonight. It has often been my experience that Dylan likes a moving crowd in front of him, and this is certainly the case tonight. This is the show where I see him smile the most, it’s like he can feel the love from the Norwegian crowd, and he returns it with glances and smiles, sometimes of the inward kind, sometimes pointed to the audience. An inspired show throughout.
The new version of “Like A Rolling Stone” is the closest Dylan gets to some crowd-pleasing, even if he changed it – the audience responds with a roar after the opening line and the familiar chord changes, then gets a bit bewildered when the band stops playing and Dylan is reciting the lines:
“Now you don’t talk so loud
Now you don’t seem so proud
About having to be scrounging around
For your next meal”
before the refrain, the audience understands the drill and happily sings along. For the next verses the audience is prepared, and the Oslo Choir tunes in exactly when they should, Dylan playing the world’s greatest rock song for the first time in Oslo in ten years, again finding a way to sing it that makes it interesting both for him and for us, not just an endless repetition. He even sings all four verses these days.
After a fabulous blues man version of “Early Roman Kings” we can again see Dylan talking to the band in the dark, preparing another shock treatment for some of us, as he starts singing the familiar words of “Boots of Spanish Leather”:
“Oh, I’m sailin’ away, my own true love
I’m sailin’ away in the morning
Is there something I can send you from across the sea
From the place that I’ll be landing?”
He is giving it the “Girl From The North Country” treatment, also with a touch of what he learnt from his masterful crooning of standards, starting at the piano, but in the middle of song he leaves it for the microphone mid stage. He sings it with his deepest and warmest voice and its a breathtakingly beautiful rendition of a song he himself has mentioned as his one true example of ballad writing in the the classic British ballad tradition. He caresses each word in the last verse, as everyone in the audience know they’ve been witnessing something very unique:
“So take heed, take heed of the western winds
Take heed of the stormy weather
And yes, there’s something you can send back to me
Spanish boots of Spanish leather”
He is singing both roles of the song with great conviction, the one who is leaving and the one who is left – two perspectives in the same song, seeing the situation quite different – then, what is the true story of this song, or any song or any film? What is truth? The truth is that Dylan is singing what might be the most beautiful performance of all the five shows, this night in Oslo, we saw Dylan painting a masterpiece.
A killer version of “It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry” ends the show. After the show I meet a lot of happy people that attended only this show, raving about how great the show was. And they were all right.
Karlstad, 30th of June.
The venue in Karlstad is perfectly placed by the river bank, and is also the most beautiful and intimate concert hall of all the five shows, the audience capacity just about 1600 seats. I’m on the balcony this night, with a perfect view to the stage, this time the band are using a minimum of the stage. “Poesia” stands alone with “Oscar” at the right side of the stage, Dylan’s piano is brought closer to the rest of the band, from Stockholm on Charlie has taken Stu’s old spot to the left of the stage. From where I sit, the setup is like the band are placed inside Bob’s living room, now making it tight in every meaning of the word.
Another great show, maybe with an audience a bit more reserved than in Gothenburg and Oslo, but still warm and responsive throughout the show.
What was most remarkable in Karlstad might have been the piano playing, easily the consistently best of all nights. Dylan is searching for new piano phrases every night, sometimes he finds them and sometimes he don’t, but this night in Karlstad he was really finding gold at the piano in unique ways, both in uptempo songs as “Thunder On The Mountain” and “Gotta Serve Somebody”, the band giving him all the space in the world to embroider his solos. Even in “Blowin’ In The Wind” he gets into a great new piano figure, supported by Don’s violin, strengthening the effect of Dylan’s solo, in this classic song that can be both a song of hope and a song of resignation and despair, or of both, this time a few days before the naked President of the United States celebrates 4th of July with the use of military power in the streets of the same Washington where Dylan 56 years ago stood on the same podium as Martin Luther King Jr. The song is always an a wakeup call for us all, reminding us that we always should hope for the better, just because we’re human.
“It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry” was always a good song, in this version it becomes heavier and better than ever – a great song, and Dylan sings it with great intensity: “If I don’t make it, I know my baby wiiiiiiiilllllll!” The “I” in the song is a link in a long chain of singers and poets and thinkers, and he knows it.
The Spirit of Rolling Thunder Revue is in the air these days, at least for me and certainly for many of us watching, the pictures of a happy young Bob rehearsing, the magnetic visuals and performances, the intensity, the energy, the power, the freedom. He can do other things now, adjusting to both the times, the age, and to his inner drum. He got new eyes now, but his bell still rings.
So there it is, the Rolling Thunder Revue, Season 31, there it is, “Bob Dylan’s 116th Fever Dream, the “Never-Ending” Tour that sadly has to end sometimes, one of his greatest achievements of them all, Dylan generously enriching us year after year, night after night in his jambalaya of all aspects of human nature, never turning a blind eye to it, beautifully carved out in King James’ English, and he is inviting the ones who can hear him on to his magic carpet, woven with threads of silver and blue, colors of love and hate, sorrow and happiness, weltschmertz and joy, ideals and violence, hope and despair, faith and doubt, beauty and sin, kindness and empathy in an eternal circle. “It’s all right there for ya in Scarlet Town.”
A terribly sophisticated performer in motion.
Ain’t talkin’, just walkin’
Up the road, around the bend
Heart burnin’, still yearnin’
In the last outback at the world’s end