I left at 8:30 Saturday morning and, after a brief stop at the bank to replentish the $1.37 I had in my wallet, headed up to Buchanan, MI to pick up standin' in the gallows (otherwise known as Dan). We made the wise decision to take his new Ford Taurus, instead of my '89 rustbucket (which you have to drive with one foot on each pedal) and pointed our hood towards Comstock Park, MI, a Grand Rapids suburb. Got to the town itself with no incident, but we couldn't for the life of us find the park. It was right next to the highway when we drove in, then as we exited we promptly lost it. We saw one of the tour buses as we drove back and forth, and it appeared to be equally lost. After many dead ends, however, we made it to the ballpark.
We got in the early entry line about 1, with only six people ahead of us. The sun beat down on us for the next four hours, but we had a nice time chatting with creature void of form and Jane, both just there for the one show, although Jane was gonna be hitting more later in the tour. Needless to say, when the gates opened at 5, we got the rail, on the right side so that Bob on the left side of the stage would be facing us. Or so we thought...
A pic of us from the Grand Rapids press. We're over on the left, me in the blue shirt, creature to my left and Jane to my right (blocked by my hand...sorry) and then Dan. Taken during Elana's set.First up was Elana James and the Continental Two. Elana James...the artist formerly known as Elana Fremerman, who toured in Bob's band in the spring of 05. She was at all four shows I saw then, and was quite good (both as a performer and as eye candy). But that wasn't anything compared to her in her own band. I didn't know what to expect, but it was a phenomenal set. In a little in-joke to us Bobcats, the first thing she said was "Welcome back" before kicking off a great set. Lots of old bluegrass tunes, accompanied by two guitar players and a bassist (isn't that three though?). Very talented musicians, but the bass player was out of this world, playing slap bass at ridiculous speeds. The highlight of the set was a song he sung called "Stomp, Stomp", filled with plenty of bass soloing. A very tight, fun group, definitely worth seeing if they come to your area. The best of the openers I'd say (and that's saying a lot). As a special treat, we could see sidestage during Elana's set, and saw a stocking-capped Bob watching in a leather jacket and sunglasses, talking to his guitarists. Usually he hasn't even arrived when the openers are playing, so that alone is a tribute to her talent (or looks).
After a quite lengthy break, Junior Brown came on, carrying his guit-steel, an instrument he invented, half guitar, half steel guitar. Accompanied by a bassist and drummer, he proved himself far more than just a novelty act, switching back and forth between neck of his instrument at lightning speeds, playing incredible solos as he tore into songs like "My Wife Thinks Your Dead" and "Highway Patrol". And on the opening song, "Broke Down South of Dallas", he did this awesome thing where he would hit the lowest string on the telecaster and as it rang tune it way down, then back up. Sounded quite cool. Quite a character, at one point he stopped using his middle finger during a solo to flip us all the bird as the other fingers kept going. I'd gotten his greatest hits cd, but the studio recordings don't do him justice. He needs the time to solo, incorporating classic country riffs with surf instrumentals with a side of blues. Another top-notch performer; great even after the initial surprise at the instrument wears off.
Next up: Jimmie Vaughn. Brother to Stevie Ray, I'd gotten one of his CD's and was most excited to see him. Playing straight ahead Chicago blues, his guitar solos were to die for. A true master of the form, he should be far bigger than he is. He came onstage looking straight out of The Godfather, greased back hair and tinted sunglasses and started in with a couple blues numbers. Nothing I knew, but he was fun to watch anyway. A more animated performer than the rest, he would walk the stage, occasionally bending to one knee or making some other rock star pose. He even played his axe behind his head at one point. Jimi would have been proud though. That said, I was a little disappointed. He was good, but not great. Part of the problem was that where we were the organ was deafeningly loud, making it difficult to hear his solos. And the set really went downhill when he brough out Lou Ann Barton. From Austin, TX, she's sung with Jimmie (and his brother) for years, but it's hard to see why. She's not bad, but nothing special. Boring to watch and listen to. She sang a few songs by herself, including "Suger Coated Love", brought to life only by Jimmie's solos. Things looked up when they duetted, cause she was easier to ignore. The highlight of the set was definitely them singing "Bapa-Boom", a really fun Vaughn classic. Attempts to get the audience to sing along, however, had limited success. Some of his best soloing here too. One more song and they were gone.
Next up...the poet laureatte or rock'n'roll, the voice of the promise of the 60's counter-culture, the guy who forced folk into bed with rock, who donned make-up in the 70's and disappeared into a haze of substance abuse, who emerged to find Jesus, was written off as a has-been by the end of the 80's, and who suddenly shifted gears, releasing some of the strongest music of his career beginning in the late 90's...Columbia recording artist Bob Dylan. As the stage techs set everything up though, we noticed something strange. Bob's keyboard, instead of being in its usual place stage right facing left, was stage center facing right. And I mean directly right, not angled towards the crowd at all, but rather facing a wall. Meaning our theoretically great spot was actually mostly staring at his back, with guitarist Stu Kimball occasionally blocking him completely. Yikes. Needless to say, this caused much consternation among us on the rail. What are you going to do though? Bob is Bob. Trying to predict his moves never works out well. It was really unfortunate for Jane and creature though, who didn't have the height advantage Dan and I enjoyed, and could barely see his head.
Anyway, Dylan finally came out, dressed in all black with the cowboy hat (no more Zorro) and the band in matching grey suits, all hatted save Donnie. Denny and Tony have switched to the other side of stage, and Stu has taken their place. Donnie is directly behind Bob (couldn't see him at all) with George to his right. Not a great set-up by any stretch of the imagination. On to the songs:
Maggie's Farm - Was hoping he'd open with something different, but no luck. A song with a stronger riff would be better; this is just kind of muddy. A solid delivery, though. He did something very nice when he said "I get...bored", barking out bored short and clipping it off.
The Times, They Are A-Changin' - While I would have liked a setlist changed, I'd never heard this live before, so that was nice. A very nice performance of a song that has often been massacred in recent years, with a killer harp solo at the end (behind the keyboard; he never ventured center stage). Denny's guitar work, I started to notice, has far improved, and would just get better as the night went on.
Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum - Confession of the day: I thought this was Drifter's Escape during the opening riff. I have no idea why; maybe I'd tried to forget this song even existed. Too optimistic though, as exist it did. Solid, which is better than you can always say. It'd be a lot of fun if he just didn't perform it every night.
Mr Tambourine Man - In 05 this song was a highlight of every show, in a surreal, languishing arrangement. Unfortunately, that arrangement is gone. In place is one that, while not bad, is less creative. Bob didn't do much until about halfway through, when he suddenly kicked into gear and really wrapped his voice around the lines. Ended with another nice harmonica solo. The king of the three-note solo, the harmonica performances these two shows were the best I'd seen him do.
It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding) - I was getting a little worried at this point by the set lists. No surprises at all; almost all hits. I didn't pay too much attention during this one.
Just Like a Woman - Bob the greatest hits jukebox just trucks along. What made this song somewhat special were the choruses though. He would let the audience sing "just like a woman" and then echo it with his own quick "just like a woman". That's about as close to audience interaction you get at a Dylan show, but it was a nice touch.
Cold Irons Bound - After a slow start, things began to look up here. This version took me a few listens, but it is truly incredible. A slow-burner that builds and builds, but never really climaxes. It built more towards that final explosion tonight than it used to, however, getting pretty raucous by the end. Great vocal delivery and the band was smoking, Denny especially (never thought I'd say that). Not surprisingly, I was the only one who clapped after the "winds in Chicago" line. One of the clear highlights, for both the music and the vocals.
Shelter From the Storm - Oh my God. I thought it was Boots of Spanish Leather when Stu started his acoustic intro, but when Bob came in with "It was in another lifetime" I almost passed out. An incredible song off of my favorite Dylan album, I hadn't thought to even hope he'd play it. An incredible song doesn't always translate to an incredible performance though; I remember on one of its few outings last year this was of the worst upsung songs I'd ever heard. Here, however, it was incredible, sung slowly and deliberately, each line being turned a different way. Of special note was the way he sang the fifth line of every verse, higher than the rest and jaw-dropping each time. He ended by repeating the first verse. Seeing it performed at all would have been enough, but the way it was performed was unreal. Out of eight shows, the best performance I've ever seen him do. Unreal.
Masters of War - I was still recovering from the previous song for the beginning of this, but it was another very nice performance of a song I don't think has ever been performed badly (first one to say Grammys 91 gets smacked). Very spooky ambiance created by the band and the lighting. With the terrorist attacks and all, it seemed as topical as ever, a fact Bob was probably well aware of.
Highway 61 Revisited - Was expecting this one, but was disappointed because it meant only one more surprise slot. Even still, the band rocks this one out and didn't fail to here either. It's never one with subtle, nuanced vocals, but Dylan did a good job enunciating them. Even still, though, this song belongs to the band, especially George.
Sugar Baby - Another highlight. I'd seen it performed in West Lafayette 2004, but this version was far better. I like the arrangement and it made for a nice break between Hwy 61 and Summer Days. Bob was really putting effort into these vocals, probably realizing it was his last chance this show to focus on them in a non-rocker. I didn't think I was a huge fan of the song, but he convinced me otherwise. The chorus is really great, not ending at all how you'd expect it to.
Summer Days - Would he do two Love & Theft songs in a row? Yup. This song is a great rocker live, but would be better moved around, as now it's always tempered by the fact it signals the show is almost over. Nevertheless, it was quite good. As it is often a vehicle for a Tony bass solo, I guess now would be the time to mention how horrible he looked tonight. Not just bored and tired, but about to pass out, eyes rolling around. I've never seen anyone more out of it on stage. Maybe he was sick, maybe he does a lot of drugs (seems unlikely, but who knows), but he looked horrible. Barely standing. Oh well. Encore break.
Like a Rolling Stone - I'd heard that this song has been reinvigorated in 06, but I didn't see any evidence of that. Same old crowd-pleaser, only now missing Stu's solo which was my favorite part of last year's performances. Turning the lights on the audience during the chorus is fun if you're in the pit though, just cause everyone goes nuts.
All Along the Watchtower - Unlike LARS, this is a daily song that is killer every time. I hope he never drops it from the set; it's the perfect way to end every show. George's drum roll after the first verse literally makes me shudder every time. It is just perfect. Some more very nice solos by Denny. He used to be so boring, but he's really picked up recently. Not great yet, but he could be there by the end of the year. The echo effect was used on a couple lines in the last verse, but only minimally. Stu's acoustic guitar, which seems like a bizarre idea for a song this hard-rocking, actually works nicely, coming through occasionally when the electric take a brief break.
All in all, a very good concert. Not great, but with a Shelter that was to die for. It was also nice that the set list was a little mixed up, even if it was still mostly hits. George was great as always, Denny was much better then I'd expected, Stu was non-descript, Donnie's instruments might as well not have been plugged in, and Tony was about to pass out. Bob, while not in top form, was reasonably close, and made for a very nice opening night. Off to the motel, to leave at 10 tomorrow morning for more Bob!