The greatest artists were never spokesmen for just one generation. That’s what makes them classics. Their work speaks to the part of humanity that never changes through the ages – human nature, the human heart. For he or she who listens, they dig deep and beyond words – if they use words or not, if they use their voice or not. They make us believe that somebody knows the trouble we’ve seen, the thoughts and doubts we’ve had, the feelings of love and loss we’ve had, the joys and blues we’ve had. A William Shakespeare, a William Blake or the Hillbilly Shakespeare, Hank Williams, a Robert Johnson, a Van Gogh, a Miles Davis or a Beethoven, they’re all able to bring important pieces to our own jigsaw puzzle of life, as well as to other artists jigsaw puzzles of art. They are links in a chain that goes back to times out of mind and to the hills of mystery. They’re the classics. Bob Dylan is one of them. And he’s still around. In a time where hope isn’t a matter of course, the advertising of a world tour from 2021 – 2024 is in itself a statement of hope, not just in a personal way, but as a message to us all. Stay safe. Stay observant. More shows to come.
Knowing that he is never watching the same river twice, there’s always this hungry, restless feeling about Dylan’s work – “it is a moving thing”, as he himself once said – an art form where movement and evolvement is as important as anything – evolution, progress, growth – always in a state of becoming. It’s more than the maturing of an artist from a personal point of view, it’s about how it never stops, not as a whole, and not the parts. It’s a work of clay, not of marble. It might change. It will change. The most underrated part of Dylan’s production, his enormous live project, gives proof to this more than anything. He is, among a multitude of things, the Whitman of our time. A state of becoming.
It’s always fascinating to recognize the short memories of many critics when it comes to, well, when it comes to so many things, you know, but this time, when it comes to Dylan’s voice, when it comes to the fact that he is a great singer. Many reviews are still based on an impression they or others might have had, that usually he can’t sing, that he can’t sing, or that, last time they heard him, he couldn’t sing, making the surprise of the new show almost a journalistic scoop. To each his own, of course, but this time it makes even less sense than usual. Dylan is a man of many voices, of course, and there has been some rough and rowdy years, but come on, didn’t you see him in fall 2019? (Here is my review of the last four shows at Beacon Theatre: 1, 2, 3, 4.) In my opinion some really beautiful shows, touching performances of ballads, intense delivery of slow burning rock songs – hey, he even played the guitar and talked to the audience. This is a general observation, not at all meant to belittle the magnificent and very different shows of 2021, which now are a truly unique part of Dylan’s overwhelming live output.
There have been rumors of an impatient artist really wanting to get on the road again, first of course the planned tour in Japan, then another in the US, in spring and summer 2020, both cancelled because of the pandemic, later just rumors of possible plans, times or venues for new shows. In hindsight one can think that the usual impatience to get on the road might have been heightened by an extra eagerness to present his new songs, later known as “Rough And Rowdy Ways”, generously given to us by the artist himself in our hours of darkness – “Murder Most Foul”, 27th of March, “I Contain Multitudes”, 17th of April, and “False Prophet”, 8th of May. The first of them even followed by a touching dedication:
“Greetings to my fans and followers with gratitude for all your support and loyalty across the years.
This is an unreleased song we recorded a while back that you might find interesting.
Stay safe, stay observant and may God be with you. Bob Dylan“
The greeting itself tells us about a state of mind you can feel from start to finish in the 2021 shows, Dylan every night underlining, in spoken words, that “we’re glad to be here” – “we love Chicago as much as you do”, “it’s good to be back in The Big Apple”, “nice to be here in D.C”, even reminding us that he knows the place, the people, the artists, the cheese-steaks, the city’s place in history, and that he is glad to be there once again. Of course he is. Who could know anything in these times of the plague? Who knows when next time will be? This time Dylan brings his pure joy to the world. The joy of still being here, of being back on the track.
From the third of the shows on, the carefully crafted setlist is set, and stays the same for the rest of the tour. No greatest hits. The backbone is eight of the ten songs from “Rough And Rowdy Ways” (underlining in full why the tour is named “Rough And Rowdy Ways Tour”). Just three songs from the last shows of 2019 survives – two songs from the seventies, “When I Paint My Masterpiece” and “Gotta Serve Somebody”, and one from the last bunch of new songs, “Early Roman Kings” from 2012. The first two with re-written lyrics, as they were in 2019. Five of the songs, “When I Paint My Masterpiece” one of them, appeared on the fabulous exclusive film from last summer, “Shadow Kingdom”, Dylan revisiting, rearranging and/or rewriting songs from his early years (to be precise, from 1965-1989); the other four are “Watching The River Flow”, (1971), “Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine)” (1966), “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” (1967) and “To Be Alone With You” (1969), all of them evolving from the arrangements on Shadow Kingdom. That leaves two songs – the American Songbook describing the overall “Melancholy Mood” of the show, and a finale of endless melancholy beauty, “Every Grain of Sand” (1981).
The four first songs are kind of a prologue, “Watching The River Flow” also a warm-up and adjusting of both voice and sound equipment, while “Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine)” takes the place of “It Ain’t Me, Babe” from 2019 as song number two, but also in theme, this one in a way mirroring the first in an two-sided dialogue of a challenging relationship. There have been many songs and many moments in songs where the audience wonder: Is he singing to us? Is he singing to an unknown past or present “You”? Why do we have to choose? Life is complicated.
Then it’s getting personal, or so it seems. It is well known that it doesn’t have to be a song about his wife, just because it is named “Sara”. Nor has it to be a song about “Key West”, just because it is named “Key West”. Still, I got this feeling, that “Rough And Rowdy Ways” might be one of Dylan’s most personal collections of songs, starting with “I Contain Multitudes” – some nights he even steps to the stage during exactly this song, making some unmistakable “Song & Dance Man” moves. And what a perfect prologue it is: Welcome to my world. I’m your host this evening. I contain multitudes. Let’s just hope that the roof stays on.
Even the first shows of the tour are great pieces of art, still some of the songs grow and grow from night to night. “False Prophet” is one of them, at the end of the tour it might be one of the highlights each night, with its heavy, dirty blues stomp riff and its shouted messages from the enemy of the unlived, meaningless life, he who was making his deal at the crossroads, then opening his heart, no matter the cost of bitter loneliness, and letting the world come in. Endlessly searching for the Holy Grail & Masterpieces. It’s a hard life, climbing the mountains of swords on bare feet, listening to the thunder above. You can hear it, you can feel it. The performances of the song gets more and more powerful, more and more passionate. This is personal: And I’m telling you once and for all, I ain’t no false prophet, as Ratzinger suggested, I just know what I know and I just said what I said.
The jaunty, swinging version of “When I Paint My Masterpiece” shows a very interesting change from the beautiful, majestic 2019 version, that forever will be my favorite. Never mind the sentiment of the song, the singer in 2019 sings like his future is a thing of the past, taking us with him looking back, both knowing that his road is paved with masterpieces, but that everything has to come to an end. The lyrics are the same as this year, he already feels like his cup is runneth over. The new masterpiece or masterpieces hadn’t materialized yet, no one knew if there would be another album of new songs. You never know, especially not when you’re 78. This year, in 2021, the same song is joyfully sung by a proud fighting rooster, almost overwhelmed himself of being able to base his new tour on the back of a brand new collection of songs, some of them ranking up there with some of his greatest material, himself setting the bar impossible high. Of course he should be proud. You can hear it, you can feel it. Not only in this song, but at these shows as a whole. His cup runneth over, but his time is running out. That’s how it is. Such is life, such is happiness.
There were always this “Memento Mori” theme in Dylan’s work. Even from the start the awareness of death as one of the pillars in life, makes its clear mark on his debut album. “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean”, “Fixin’ To Die” and “In My Time of Dyin'” the most obvious examples. Of course there is an endless list of lyrics and of his choice of cover versions through the years which substantiates this fact, the shadow from the valley below, the inspiration from the fact that we all are living on borrowed time:
“With hungry hearts through the heat and cold
We never much thought we could get very old
We thought we could sit forever in fun
And our chances really was a million to one”
The words are written by the 21 year old (!) Dylan, looking back on the carefree days of childhood and youth. Nothing lasts forever. Remember that. This is the time when he also idolized the old bluesmen with more experience in their voices than he himself could bring to the table, hoping that he, one day, would be able to get to their level. That’s the level he is on now. By far.
Whether “Black Rider” is Death itself, one of his servants, or the tooth of time isn’t what’s important. The “I” is walking away, but the Black Rider is trying to make him look back. That’s being busy dying. The tiring presence of a false clock that is trying to tick out your time, of this flashing sign of Memento Mori, the lack of time that grabs you by the heels, the reminder that comes with age, even from your own body, makes what you always knew, even more real. Like many of the songs these evenings, they come even more alive live, this is one of them. It’s a quite quiet moment of the show. It’s serious business, a song perfectly fitted for the voice at the mike.
At this darkest moment of the show it’s time to bring some light, it’s time to dance. Have no fear. The funky rockabilly version of “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight”, in its original version Dylan’s first released soft and intimate country ballad a la Hank Williams, here a full blown rocker, making the “kick your SHO-HO-HOES off” sound like a train whistle from a mystery train. Are you sure we don’t have to fear? But it’s something with the rhythm, we just have to move, even dance. This is partytime! It’s great!
After the dance we’re prepared for a trip down to the morgues and monasteries looking for necessary body parts for “My Own Version Of You”. A more creative approach to deal with the same theme as in “Black Rider”, even maybe challenge the rider himself, or a plan to keep him at an arm’s length distance. You knew it from the album that this would be perfect for Dylan’s live treatment of a song, rapping the New Frankenstein story in significant details, wrapping it in the driving rhythm of hammers and pistol shots. It’s hilarious and it’s a bloody tragedy. It’s not possible: “I want to bring someone to life – turn back the years/Do it with laughter – do it with tears.” It’s a classic, and it borrows from the classics, both Shakespeare and Shelley, still it makes me think of a song meant for a stage, like a Brechtian play, like the ones that made such an impression on Dylan in his early years, brought by Suze to the theatre, as he describes in Chronicles: «Each phrase comes at you from a 10-foot drop, scuttles across the road and then another comes like a punch on the chin. This piece left you flat on your back and it demanded to be taken seriously. It lingered.» And even more: “It was the form, the free verse association, the structure and disregard for the known certainty of melodic patterns to make it seriously matter, give it its cutting edge. It also has the ideal chorus for the lyrics. I wanted to figure out how to manipulate and control this particular structure and form. I could see that the type of songs I was leaning towards singing didn’t exist and I began playing with the form, trying to grasp it — trying to make a song that transcended the information in it, the character and plot.” And that’s exactly what he did. Making songs that didn’t exist, and he made them come alive when he sang them. Just like he does at 80 years old, in the dim lights at the stage at Beacon Theatre. That’s magic. You know what I mean, you know exactly what I mean.
“Early Roman Kings” (2012) is up next, the only song representing the period from 1979 to 2012, and fits like a glove with the Rough And Rowdy Ways songs. An anonymous song at the album has grown to be a tough blues, bad ass piano, like in Hershey, and the perfect occasion to deliver the line: “I ain’t dead yet/My bell still rings”, once again.
The swing version of “To Be Alone With You” is, well, it’s a new song. As opposed to its origins, the song from “Nashville Skyline”, where the loved ones meet at night, the sweet reward after the working day’s through, this time it’s more complicated, maybe a love that’s unattainable, a dream, a wish, is she already gone where the “I” can’t reach her, in an Ivory Tower? And what does “I’ll hound to you death” really mean in these circumstances?
“I’m collecting my things in a pattern
Moving from place to place
Stepping out in the dark night
Stepping out into space”
There is a restless search for her, and it will be “My mortal bliss, to be alone with you”. Is it a meeting after death? Or a hope of such? Is the mortal bliss a touch of “Romeo And Juliet”?
Dylan also uses the phrase “mortal bliss” in “Beyond the horizon” (2006), maybe describing some of the same feeling:
“My wretched heart is pounding
I felt an angel’s kiss
My memories are drowning
In mortal bliss”
“Key West is on the horizon line”. This the last words of the next song. Was it Dylan’s or Donnie Herron’s stroke of genius to add the accordion to the arrangement during the tour? Nevertheless, that really was a perfect touch, and adds even another shade of blue to the beautiful song and to the tender performance. As do the fact that the great performer whispers the words of the song to an audience holding their breath to get every word right. Hardly a song primarily about geography, deeply related as it is to the song “Highlands” (1997), where “I’ll be when I get called home” – dreamlike scenarios of beautiful enchanted landscapes mixed with mystic connections to paradise divine and the great beyond. “Key West is fine and fair/If you lost your mind you’ll find it there”, while “my heart’s in the Highlands, gentle and fair”, “the only place left to go”. Memento Mori. Dylan himself has spoken of his songwriting in recent years as trance-like, that makes sense: “It’s one of those where you write it on instinct. Kind of in a trance state. Most of my recent songs are like that. The lyrics are the real thing, tangible, they’re not metaphors. The songs seem to know themselves and they know that I can sing them, vocally and rhythmically. They kind of write themselves and count on me to sing them.” The songs were damn right. “Key West” is one example, the lyrics like a flying carpet, taking us with them on an existential journey down History Street, through history and through stories, through human life, through surprises and connections we don’t really get, the strong scent of flowers, sounds and music leaking in from Luxembourg and Budapest, a trip from the Highlands to “down in the bottom, way down in the Key West”, slowly sinking, without us noticing. The magic of radio signals, short waves, stations and end stations. A pirate looks at Eighty. A song to die for. A highlight every evening.
The slow train of yesteryear has been picking up speed, it’s more like a freight train now – “Gotta Serve Somebody” is rocking even more than in 2019, this time it’s cruising above the land, like Dylan’s voice is cruising above the music, the endless master of the syncopation, getting into the groove like the first night in Philly, totally in command, the vehicle is a band that follows his lead every inch of the way, with barely no time to stop at any station. Can’t you hear the diesels hummin’? Dylan now and then shouts like a singing brakeman – Yeaaaaah, or even comments during the song…..AAAAWRIGHT. The lyrics has changed since the original, but still you gotta serve somebody. The new band is tight and tough.
To get “I’ve Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You” live was almost too much to hope for. It’s like taking this very delicate and fragile instrument out in the air, you might be afraid to destroy it. But no, Dylan demonstrates that the song was right. Night after night. Dylan even surpasses the album version, investing even more range, tenderness and intensity in his passionate performance of one of his most touching songs ever. The “I” in the song philosophizes over life and death, and “hope the gods go easy with me, ” after thinking it all over, thinking it all through, sitting on the terrace, lost in the stars. This time, Dylan is the traveling man that traveled a long road of despair, showing us something we didn’t know. What an artist.
Never a man for compromises, Dylan integrates the rich American Songbook in the set, as he has done the previous years, not just because the songs goes easy on his vocal cords, but because it includes “some of the most heartbreaking songs ever written”, that in simple words pinpoints a naked emotion, like in “Melancholy Mood”:
Forever haunts me
Steals upon me in the night
Forever taunts me
Oh, what a lonely soul am I
Stranded high and dry
By a melancholy mood”
He makes it his own. It is his own. And yes, there it is – the subtitle for the show, even through the rock, roll & swing. The melancholy mood goes from heart to heart when sung.
To be in a state of becoming comes with a cost, in all phases and stages of life. Then we search for love and inspiration and maybe becomes becoming one more time. As time passes by, the struggle for renewal might be more and more challenging, but don’t give up. There’s always possible to send a prayer to the “Mother of Muses”, maybe she can help, one more time? But the mind of the “I” in the song wanders off from, seeking peace, tranquility and clarity as much as anything else. Still, the silent prayer is heard, and is rewarded with a new state of a-slow becoming – to write this song, and to sing it, each night in a unique way.
“Take me to the river, release your charms
Let me lay down a while in your sweet, loving arms
Wake me, shake me, free me from sin
Make me invisible, like the wind
Got a mind that ramble, got a mind that roa
I’m travelin’ light and I’m a-slow coming home“
The visual qualities of “Rough And Rowdy Ways” is obvious – and in this show – for each song you might just close your eyes and watch the movie and feel the cool breeze encircling the artist.
There is a long string of musical heroes in the story of Bob Dylan, and he ain’t afraid to show it. Jimmy Reed is one of them, and his homage “Goodbye, Jimmy Reed” displays his blues roots and love for the genre as much as for Jimmy’s special talent for the cool great riffs. When I first heard “Rough And Rowdy Ways” this was the song I immediately “heard” as a live performance. It’s tailor-made for a spot in Dylan’s show, a joy to play both for him and the band as well. In Washington D.C. he attacks the last verse with all the playfulness he owns, before he talks to the audience about the city and its history, about J Edgar Hoover and the Mayflower Hotel and about the great bluegrass band “Country Gentlemen”, like he each night reaches out to the audience, not just through the songs, but in a personal way, happy to see them again. Bob Dylan will never announce a farewell tour, that’s for sure, but everything has its end, we all know that. And he knows it, as he in “Early Roman Kings” sings the line: “One day/You will ask for me/There’ll be no one else/That you’ll wanna see”. Truer words were never spoken.
“Goodbye, Jimmy Reed” also includes the Christmas card this year. He believes the songs.
“Go tell it on the Mountain, go tell the real story
Tell it in that straight forward puritanical tone
In the mystic hours when a person’s alone“
“Every Grain of Sand” had its live debut in Lakeland, Florida, the 21st of November 1981. Its inclusion in this year’s set marks the 40th Anniversary of both the song and this debut. For many of us, both believers and non-believers, it is ranked as one of the absolute highlights of Bob Dylan’s career. The album version’s sublime combo of words & music, the harmonica’s play and the vocal performance, the long road the song has traveled with his master through the last forty years, it all leads up to the point that it enters in Cleveland, the third show of this tour, chosen by its own Master’s hand as the perfect ending of this show, the perfect finale to this carefully hand-picked suite of songs – it embraces the whole Melancholy Mood Memento Mori canvas in a way that makes any encore superfluous, leaving us with the poetic summary of a life’s journey, with the unsolved mysteries in the foggy web of destiny and with the peaceful consolation that lies in a song that you can believe, performed with a warmth and tenderness in the voice that exudes deep empathy for the naked ape and its history, as it connects the song, the songwriter, the singer, the man and humanity in a way that only the greatest artists do.
It’s a “coming home” theme this time – Dylan feels at home on every stage and in every city, happy to be “home again”, to play again, to see the audience again, to communicate. It’s a “coming home” theme as it always was for Bob Dylan: “I was born a long way from where I belong, and I’m on my way home”. It’s a “coming home” theme in a Memento Mori kind of way – a dominating theme for “Rough and Rowdy Ways”: “I’m traveling light, and I’m a-slow coming home.” But all together – the “Rough And Rowdy Years Tour 2021” and its lead singer still incarnates the state of becoming.