It sure has been one helluva ride since the young Bob Zimmerman came ramblin’ outa the wild west, a thousand miles from home, and into the freezing New York in January 1961. As he himself puts it in Chronicles: “The biting wind hit me in the face. At last I was here, in New York City, a city like a web too intricate to understand and I wasn’t going to try.” Nevertheless, one month short of the fifty-nine years anniversary of his arrival, Bob Dylan has been hittin’ some hard travelin’, too, but this fall he has been welcomed back to his residence at Beacon Theatre like he was the city’s own native son. Deservedly so, all the while it was here Bob Dylan was created. As George Bernhard Shaw said it: “Life isn’t about finding yourself. It is about creating yourself.” Dylan said it, too, and he surely did succeed.
More than 3700 performances since these days of ’61, and more than 3060 performances since the opening of the so-called “Never Ending Tour” in 1988, Dylan attacks this nights performance as his life depended on it. And I think it does.
It might be true that it’s always lonely where Bob Dylan is, but he is not alone up there tonight. Of course, Poesia and Oscar are present, but out of his art he has made a world of his own that he generously has shared with us, the one where Miss Jinx and Miss Lucy appears together, where Mack the Finger meets Louie The King, where we can close our eyes and see both the siamese twins and Two-Timing Slim’s corpse dragged through the mud, Charlotte and Honey pass by, watched by Lenny Bruce and Alicia Keys and the early Roman kings, most prominent, Nero with his fiddle, all the ladies in Washington scrambling to get out of town, we can see another politician pumping out his piss, a ragged beggar throwing us a kiss, the roving gambler, the bitch and the hag, Mr. Jones and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Mr Soul and the Ambassador. The circus is in town, partly with rearranged faces. And then there is the beautiful girl from the north country, with rolling and flowing hair, the good-looking brakeman and the two who sits together in the park, as the evening sky grew dark, the saxophone and the strange hotel. We can see the landscapes of Tennessee, Missouri, New Orleans and Sugar Town pass by, as we can see Rome and Brussels, Hell’s Kitchen and Highway 61, London and gay Paree. The whole tableau a collage of human nature and experience, empathy, love and lost love, hate, hope, regret and yearning, yearning, yearning, always yearning. Homer and Ovid is looking down like phantoms of the opera (well, not Homer, who is blind), as is Shakespeare and Walt Whitman, Muddy Waters and Hank Williams, Woody Guthrie and Chuck Berry, Blind Willie McTell (well….) and John Jakob Niles, while Dylan might look like he is moving, but he is standing still, in the eye of the cyclone of history, of literature and most of all, of music. He is an eternal melting-pot that treats every one of his inspirations like contemporaries, like peers, and he is unstoppable in extending the lines and connecting the dots between them, even today. It’s one helluva ride, it’s a never-ending journey, rolling through stormy weather like Odysseus. Then again, nothing of this guarantees a great concert. That is something completely else, happening, or not happening, in the spur of the moment of tonight, the dark stage is each night a blank canvas and a new painting when the musicians arrive, like shadows in the night. The songs, the band and the singer is the palette, and though a fixed set, it’s the perfect time for anything to happen, as we see the Artist walking around in his studio, in his classical restless and chaplinesque style, yes, he contains multitudes, but tonight is a new night – trying out new colors on old songs, old colors on new songs, changing them from verse to verse, line to line, none of them carved in stone, the material is more like clay, both when it comes to lyrics and performance. And then – tonight he takes the dark out of the nighttime, like he did last night, just occasionally painting the daytime black. My feeling is that the energy in the show grew through the first half, but that the second half was as strong as yesterday, with some very outstanding highligts.
Dylan got the full black suit tonight, with embroidered leaves falling both on the sleeves and on the trousers. Black shirt, white shoes. The Guilty Undertakers have become the Silvertones, all in Silver-colored jackets, eager and dead serious behind their captain.
“Highway 61” comes rolling like a freight train through the room – what a band this is, this is rock’n roll like it should be, Dylan dragging us after our feet from a merciless God challenging Abraham to the Third World War in a few minutes.
Dylan does an involuntarily mash-up of old and new lyrics in one line of the last verse of “Simple Twist of Fate”, without missing a beat, but is compensating by delivering another beautiful harmonica solo, and then continues with a just fabulous version of “Can’t Wait”, the band is rock solid, the new drummer fits perfect and the top notch singer both sings and raps and croons the song, perfect timing and phrasing from start to finsh, to thundering applause from the audience throughout the performance. “I don’t know, I don’t know, I say I don’t KNOW, how much longer I can waaaaaaiiiit!”
“When I Paint My Masterpiece” is very much appreciated by the audience, I would think also by they who don’t really know the song, but still are acknowledging the drama and the variation in the arrangement and the vocal through the partly re-written song, that makes this a really special moment of the night.
It’s difficult to use the phrase “front stage” tonight, Dylan is more at the back of the stage again, in a beautiful version of “Make You Feel My Love” one should think the whole song were directed at Tony Garnier, so close were they standing. But, then again, they were just as close in one of the best versions of “Pay In Blood” I’ve even seen, Dylan liberated from the piano, focusing solely on the vocals and the commanding hand movements, posing like a mafioso, convincing us all that this song really should stay in the program. The new guitarist, Bob Britt, makes a wonderful waaaaaailing solo at the end of the song.
It feels like everybody in the audience reacts collectively when Dylan sings “Lenny Bruce”, there is a whisper and there is sighs, all because of the sadness, the beauty and the truth in the song. Again – not a song familiar for everybody, but the strength of the performance will make many go home to their record collection or Spotify to find it. To integrate it in this well-composed set is simply a brilliant stroke of genius. The musical interaction between Donnie and Bob has always been nice to watch, it’s like the mild Herron has had a calming effect on Bob that has inspired his own playing of the piano. When Donnie plays the violin on the ballads tonight this is even more true than ever, precisely following Dylan’s improvised piano solos and perfectly “commenting” Dylans phrasing with a sensitive touch of the strings on the violin. Herron contains multitudes, too – as long as it got strings, he makes it swing. The same connection between the two happens in the most tender version of “Girl From The North Country” you can think of, when you listen closely you can hear hearts melting through the beautiful room. The song follows “Early Roman Kings”, which is perfectly sandwiched between the two ballads, another great choice, the change of tempo and color making all three songs stand out as unique performances. “Early Roman Kings” is a real demonstration of power, Dylan a cross between Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley, but none of them would defeat him tonight. As tough as it gets, and the band shines, not just because of the silver jackets.
The arrangement of “Not Dark Yet” is fabulous, we already knew that, but something tells me that the new incarnation of His Band was a necessary move to get exactly this great version – again gratefully received by a roaring audience.
Another train is coming through the room, “Thunder on the Mountain”, Bob almost jumping of joy by the piano, perfect rockabilly with a backbeat, ends with a crescendo, then it’s all slowed down with a sweet little thriller, “Soon After Midnight”, before Dylan introduces the band and, as we now are getting used to, makes shout-outs and little speeches to guests in the audience, like Little Steven, Martin Scorsese and William Dafoe, Dylan mentioning seeing the last one in “Last Temptation of Christ” and elaborates on it by wishing Martin Scorsese would make “First Temptation of Christ” – “Just for me, Martin”. Hilarious! The train is moving again, this time “Gotta Serve Somebody”, not a slow train anymore, it is picking up speed, the whole audience are standing and dancing at this time, and the brakeman look good, standing wide-legged by the piano, smiling and nodding till it’s over, a short bow and then the break before the extras, like a lap of victory after the battle already is won. The whole band, and Bob, too, is taking a bow before they disappear into the night, leaving a flabbergasted and happy audience eagerly discussing the highlights and their favorites of the night, as the lowlights were few, if any.
This is the “Never Ending Tour Revue” – the setlist a careful cherry-picking of songs from both the sixties, the seventies, the eighties, the nineties, the 2000s and the 2010s, demonstrating both the width and the depth of this enormous treasure chest of songs. When will the live album(s) from the last thirty years arrive??? Or from this fall?
Many of us has through the years emphasized that Dylan first and foremost is a performing artist, and that it is in his performing of songs, live or in studio that we really can see the artist at the height of his powers. Some of us think that this always has been true. Singer first. This fall, Dylan’s systematic work with the arrangements and the musicians, with a relatively fixed setlist, has been proven most fruitful. This fact, combined with Dylan’s last years reclaiming of the whole circle of his own voice, now makes it possible to go from growl to croon and back again in the same verse, in this way expanding his own vocal palette, drenched in life experience and musical knowledge, also trained in the Great American Song Book, now making it possible to still continue working, singing and touring in a very interesting and meaningful way, not just for himself, but also for all of his followers, even newcomers to his music. When Dylan combines this mighty weapons with the newfound variation between sitting or standing singing by the piano, his beautiful harmonica playing, and much of the time singing from the stage with a handheld microphone, dancing and playing with the microphone cable, the end result has been, as impressive as it is, some of his best shows in the last two decades, not so long away from entering The Big 8-0 and the sixtieth anniversary for his first trip to New York. That’s just unbelievable – it’s strange, but it’s true!
Thanks again, Bob!