Sometimes it snows in December. Today is one such sad and lonesome day. It’s cold and wet and dark as people gather at “The Beacon”, some trying to get warm, some trying to get enlightened. The late great James Baldwin, who died the 1st of December in 1987, said that “The precise role of the artist is to illuminate that darkness, blaze roads through vast forests, so that we will not, in all our doing, lose sight of its purpose, which is, after all, to make the world a more human dwelling place.” Words of a wise man, a good man, a brave man. “To make the world a more human dwelling place.” Simple words. Important words. Still, there is something about the world today making it hard to believe that this quote is common ground. “People are crazy and times are strange”, sings Dylan – insisting on opening his set with “Things Have Changed” for the zillionth time. “If the Bible is right, the world will explode” and “All the truth in the world adds up to one big lie.” That’s more like it. That’s how it feels. That’s how it is. Truth isn’t what it used to be, and the importance of it has been devaluated several times, and Bob Dylan has been illuminating that darkness for many years and in many ways. Still do. Never more important.
Last time I saw “Bob Dylan And His Band” was this summer. Fabulous shows in Scandinavia. I guess we all loved George Recile, and I guess many was a bit skeptical to a replacement for good ol’ George. Why, and what’s the reason for? And when we thought the idea of one guitarist actually worked well, here comes Bobby Britt. And then it’s the two mannequins, making it crowded at the back of the stage – one of them looking like a groom still waiting at the altar, the other like a white-skinned woman drinking champagne – or is it Mr Jinx and Miss Lucy? The stage has become a collage like in Dylan’s iron studio, Poesia still looking away from the artist, Oscar still standing. The baby grand is changed for an old time upright piano. And this isn’t all – Dylan himself starts the show, as he has this fall, with guitar, and it’s just great to see him enjoy his own classic silhouette with the ax.
What comes to me through the show tonight is that this leg of the tour is more of a rock show than anything since 2012, this is in-your-face-Dylan, walking the stage with microphone and/or harmonica in seven songs, and then on two more with guitar – he even introduces the band, laughing, soon after “Soon After Midnight”. Many of the piano songs are also more rock-oriented in their arrangements, “It Ain’t Me, Babe” has a close resemblance to the version from Rolling Thunder, even “Simple Twist of Fate” is roughened up a bit, before Dylan, almost like the butler in “Dinner For One”, grabs the harmonica on the go from piano to front stage, and delivers the first highlight of the show with the two last verses of the song, and two beautiful harmonica solos.
“Can’t Wait” was a funk show in it’s own this summer, but now it’s pure rock, a heavy version, Dylan with microphone in front, bending his knees, pointing and signaling with his hands. He is on fire on this one. “When I Paint My Masterpiece” and “Girl From The North Country” are still the most quiet ballads, but this also goes for a beautiful and rewritten version of “Lenny Bruce”, a touching tribute to free speech and to standing up for the truth. All three of them are greeted with lots of applause and ovations. Just to hear Dylan sing the word “beauuuuutiful” in “When I Paint My Masterpiece” is a highlight in itself.
Even if many songs are repeated from the summer tour, there has been changes that affects the effect of the songs. Both “Make You Feel My Love”, “Pay In Blood” and “Early Roman Kings” are performed with microphone up front – the first with beautiful harmonica, the last with raging glory in a thunderous version without piano. Even “Pay In Blood”, one of the songs I think has been of the weakest in the set, awakens to new life in this version. Matt Chamberlain does a great job as a drummer, more straight rock drumming than George, but exactly what Dylan needs in this show. Bob Britt gets to shine in solos on “Make You Feel My Love” and “Early Roman Kings”, and blends nicely with the other strings the rest of the show. All in all the set-up, without the baby grand, and with the moving Dylan, makes it all come together as a much more intimate atmosphere than the shows of last fall and this summer. Dylan and band has gotten even closer, and so has Dylan and the audience.
And then there is “Not Dark Yet”, maybe the greatest highlight of the evening – the new arrangement makes the song more naked and more deep than ever, more merciless. It’s a fabulous performance, Dylan starting it totally in front of the stage. And that’s what makes this show so very special, it’s like Dylan really wants to connect with the audience much more than in a long time. We’ve seen lots of wonderful shows the last years, but Dylan has at times been a bit removed from the audience, behind four microphones or behind the baby grand, or standing at the back of the stage. Tonight it is different, Dylan is in front in all kind of ways, connecting with the audience almost physical. It’s great to see it happen, because both he and the audience loves it. He points his finger at us all after “Gotta Serve Somebody”, the last song before the extras. And when he at the ending again grabs the guitar in “Ballad of a Thin Man”, and this time makes it the lead guitar, complete with classic Dylan solos, it was just another very happy moment, both for me and for the rest of the audience, maybe also for Dylan himself. I think so.
There has been some discussion over whether the new line in “Masterpiece”, where the “I” in the song sings that he sometimes feels his cup is running over, whether it’s better than the gondola-line. It might not be a better line, but I’m sure it’s a line that better reflects the gratitude Dylan is feeling towards life these days, even maybe towards his everlasting audience. Then again it’s “Not Dark Yet”, with the line: “Sometimes my burden is more than I can bear/It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there” – and it might be in this crossroad between weltschmerz and gratitude, between “memento mori” and being busy born again and again, we can find the magic in the shows of this fall. It’s not dark yet, let us dance and let us sing as long as we can. In this way Dylan still illuminates the darkness, he blaze roads through vast forests, and he is helping us to not lose sight of life’s purpose, to make the world a more human dwelling place.