Why do we need “Lenny Bruce” today? Maybe because the question really is: Why do we need Lenny Bruce today? Surely one of the highlights of every show this fall, and indeed of those three shows I’ve seen this week, “Lenny Bruce” rings true like never before, Dylan fully integrates the three brothers Ethos, Pathos, Logos and their big brother Gravitas, in this nights touching performance, singing the eulogy to Lenny Bruce, but also singing a tribute to the true Artist, per se, always challenging power, prejudice and lies, the one who doesn’t turn a blind eye to human nature. The rewrite “Never did make it to the Promised Land/Never made it out of Babylon” reminding us of the existential wasteland of life, where we all are trying to get to heaven, before they close the door, believers and non-believers. There is surely no coincidence that Dylan makes this nice little song from “Shot of Love” in 1981 to an outstanding performance in 2019, not played since 2008, when it now is a perfect fit to a well-crafted set, even if “Like A Rolling Stone” had to give way for “Lenny Bruce”. It fits in the set, but also in our time of darkness. It means something. It might be a warning, or maybe just a reminder to us all about the value of free speech and of questioning the people in high places, a reminder of the weight of responsibility that comes with life – and with art, who might not guarantee our sanity, but it might help a little bit. If there is an original thought out there, we could use it right now.
Bob’s in black tonight, and also his band, “The Guilty Undertakers”, when they hastily arrives in the dark, to the thundering sound of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring”, reminding us all that we’ve not arrived to a night of light entertainment, as we can hear the band members improvising with the fading Stravinsky, the musical chaos blending into “Things Have Changed”. This is serious business.
Dylan got his beautiful black jacket, Hank Williams-style, with golden embroidery of leaves, black western shirt, too, sparkling. I never get tired of seeing him with his guitar again, and his linkwrayish way of playing it. This night “Things Have Changed” is more than a warm-up, always a good sign for a show, Dylan determined and focused from the start.
A concert will almost always have it’s ups and downs, it’s about the dynamics of the band, about the vocals, about the focus, about the arrangements, about the song itself, and about all the above, and the audience, too. That’s only natural. Then it’s the outstanding concerts, the night where everything seem to click from start to finish, where even the weakest songs are shining bright. This night at Beacon Theatre was such an occasion, Dylan riding at the top of the wave all through the night, standing strong and wide-legged in the center of the soul of each song, sometimes smiling inwards, sometimes smiling and laughing to Donnie, and sometimes to us all. He knows that something is happening, and he knows what it is. He is deep down in the groove in “Highway 61 Revisited”, the band is at it’s tightest, and Bob is at his bobbest, reelin’ and rocking all the way down the road.
An outstanding Bob Dylan concert will always include examples of his immaculately timing and phrasing, and tonight was no exception. The slow, funky, dirty blues of “Can’t Wait” brings the audience to it’s feet, and Dylan knows he is The King of New York tonight: “I’m breathing hard” is sung like this: “I’m breathing (then catching his breath in a split second, before he delivers the next word filled with rocks and gravel) hard!!!” He is playing with fifty shades of tenderness in “Make You Feel My Love”, when he finishes the lines of the last verse, before another fabulous harmonica solo.
Dylan introduces the band tonight, but goes on greeting Steve Earle in the audience, speaking about his album Copperhead Road, about Earle as a great songwriter, then continues by greeting Jann Wenner, “the founding publisher of Rolling Stone, the magazine that got it all: Sex, drugs and politics!” Or something like that, Dylan smiling and delivers an “Oh Yeah!” before the thunder of “Gotta Serve Somebody” starts, the song from “Slow Train Coming” where Jann Wenner, in his Rolling Stone review, told us that Bob Dylan is the greatest singer of our times, and that “…his versatility and vocal skills are unmatched. His resonance and feeling are beyond those of any of his contemporaries. More than his ability with words, and more than his insight, his voice is God’s greatest gift to him.” I would never disagree.
This is an extraordinary night, and Exhibit One is the spontaneous response from the audience throughout the night. They are welcoming both old and new songs, some more than others – standing ovations after the first verse of “When I Paint My Masterpiece”, trying to convince Bob that he has already painted a few, the roaring welcome to the first line of “Girl From The North Country” (the one song from this year’s last release, Bootleg Series 15: Travelin’ Thru’), or the collective gasp after the first verse of the raw beauty of “Not Dark Yet”. The greatest Rolling Stones song that is not a Rolling Stones song, “Pay In Blood”, tonight it appears as the singer’s hard-core conversation with invisible characters played by Robert DeNiro and Al Pachino, all bragging about their evil ways. The kafkaesque mystique of “Ballad of a Thin Man” gets standing ovations from a grateful audience, before the heavy blues of “It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry” is bringing it all home – Dylan and the band takes a bow and disappears into the New York December night.
The set is carefully composed when it comes to both genres, themes and tempo. It surely is no joke that Bob Dylan is a “song and dance man”, it’s just a matter of fact. He himself once quoted Elvis who was quoting Sinatra with these words: “Without a song the day would never end/Without a song the road would never bend/When things go wrong, a man ain’t got a friend/Without a song”, but he is also dancing the jitterbug rag in his own peculiar way, both by the piano to the sound of “Highway 61”, “Honest With Me”, “Thunder On The Mountain” and “Gotta Serve Somebody”, or when he slowly moves and makes gestures when he is standing front stage with the microphone, with one hand waving free. This is what it’s all about. The song and the dance of life. In front of an audience that understands. This is where it all comes together. Tonight it happened at Beacon Theatre.