A chance to see Dylan in a 2000-person club is never something to pass up, especially when he’s opening the newest leg of his “Never-Ending Tour” there. The opening night-ness of the show was apparent however, for both better and worse. On one hand the show was loose and ragged, fun and, to use a clichéd Dylan term, freewheelin’. However, Bob’s voice proved itself out of practice; he took half the show to cough out the family of frogs in his throat. The setlist was something special indeed though, featuring the first performance of “Tryin’ the Get to Heaven” since ’05, and the ultra-rare “Can’t Wait,” so it is a shame Bob did not make the most of these choices. As the evening progressed, however, the performance improved, culminating in a beautiful banjo-driven “John Brown.” DOWNLOAD BELOW.
The Long Version:
The crowd at the Palladium had barely gotten themselves settled when 8:00 hit and Bob, perhaps hoping for an early bedtime, scurried out with the band almost immediately. With such an underwhelming entrance, the crowd had no time to react when the lights went down and the intro began, Dylan already on stage wandering around aimlessly. Instead of “oh boy he’s coming!” we thought, “oh yeah…there he is…” Small criticism though, compared to the fact that after a year of playing the opening songs on guitar, he went straight to the keyboard, and stayed there to whole show.
The advantage of sticking with the keyboard is that lyric sheets there let him mix up song choices a bit. He took advantage of that, presenting the first time he’s broken out of a three-song rotation of opening songs since last August with “Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum”. It’s never been a fan favorite, but a stark rearrangement breathed extra life into it, with a stop-and-start structure that lets guitarist Denny Freeman’s frenetic solos break out on their own. Probably the best feature though was that before anyone had a chance to get sick of it, it was over, lasting under three minutes.
“Girl of the North Country” has become a rare song these days, and it was a perfect choice for the second slot. However, vocal problems masked by the volume and speed of the opening number were on full display here. Dylan was at his growliest for the first half of the show, sounding like he was hacking up a hairball as his voice cracked back and forth. For those who dislike Dylan’s voice normally, you can only imagine how it would sound on a bad day. He was engaged in the performance, but with the voice like that he could only do so much.
The syrupy country riff opening “Watching the River Flow” was a sign for those in the know to sigh, a song that isn’t very good to begin with, and always performed about the same. Country Bob is my least favorite variety, and with lyrics like “People disagreeing everywhere you look / Makes you want to stop and read a book” this is a real stinker.
A personal debut for me of “Can’t Wait,” it featured a swampy ascending riff from Denny and loud organ blasts from Dylan. This sort of deep bluesy worked better with his gruff voice, to a degree.
“The Levee’s Gonna Break,” as a twelve-bar blues song, needs special delivery to not become boring. Tonight it didn’t have it, and Dylan’s blues-lyric clichés were certainly not interesting enough to stand on their own. By the seventh time he sang a verse beginning with “If it keep on raining, the levee’s gonna break” I hoped it would, just so he’d shut up.
However, the most exciting setlist choice of the night was up next, a personal debut off of my favorite album, Blood on the Tracks. “Simple Twist of Fate” was instantly recognizable from the intro that could draw tears before Dylan sang a line. The singing almost did make me cry, but for a very different reason. One of his most notorious singing techniques has been coined “upsinging” by fans, a tendency to sing the last word of every line an octave higher than the rest of the line. Used sporadically it could be one of a handful of cool vocal tricks, but its overuse apparently compensated for lack of creativity in the desire to sing it differently. It had all but vanished in recent years until now, but every line that he used it on make me cringe. I cringed a lot.
Another generic blues song, “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” suffered from many of the same problems as “Levee”. Rhythm guitarist Stu Kimball playing acoustic gave it an interesting sonic depth, and was certainly better than the slide Denny was playing, as during his solo breaks – and these days with Bob, any solo break is a Denny Freeman solo break – he mostly just played the chords even louder. I used to hate the guy, and though he’s coming into his own as a lead guitarist,that's only on the slow songs. On the fast ones he plays like a moderately talented rhythm guitarist with his instrument tuned up too high in the mix.
“Tryin’ to Get to Heaven” is where the night began to turn around. My third personal debut of the night, and the first time this one has been performed since ’05, Dylan reworked the tune to hold out a long note and the end of every other line. For instance, “When-I-was-in Missooouuuuri, they would not let me be / I-had-to-leave-there-in-a huuuuuurry, I only saw what they let me see.” As you might gather from that punctuation, the downside of this new trick is he had to race through the beginning of each line, sometimes not quite making it. Regardless though, it was cool way to sing the song. Whether it was a one-night thing or a semi-permanent rearrangement remains to be seen. Denny capped it off by a curt solo, each not cropped for maximum effect, staying close to the melody line, but throwing plenty of spice.
Multi-instrumentalist Donnie Herron picking up the banjo can mean one of only half a dozen songs is on the way, and tonight it was anti-war outtake “John Brown”. Some more upsinging popped up occasionally, but on the other lines Dylan put enough passion in to make up for it, enunciating each lyric more clearly than he had all night as Donnie picked and plunked in the background. Dylan had finally warmed up, and the reprieve from Wolfman Bob allowed the full force of the delivery to come through.
“Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine)” was the first song of the night from Bob’s sixties trilogy, and had been slowed down to substitute the fury of the original for a more funky acoustic take. The arrangement was generic, but Bob’s delivery made up for it, using some of that “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven” technique and some descending vocal riffs.
The first decent Modern Times song of the night, “Spirit on the Water” was pretty as always, but otherwise unmemorable. He sang it a little less straight than he has in the past, which kept it fresh, but didn’t happen to stumble across anything revelatory as he often does. The “You think I’m over the hill / You think I’m past my prime” has become an audience participation number, everyone yelling “No!” in response to both claims. Cute.
“Highway 61 Revisited” is always fun and rocking for new show-goers, but for veterans it’s more hit or miss, depending as much on your mood as anything. Tonight was a miss for me in the sense that it was perfectly fine, but bland. The band played it like they usually play it, loud and fast with plenty of solos, but that was about it. As for the vocals…wait, is that the same “Heaven” vocal trick again? Ok Bob, it’s getting old.
Another Modern Times gem, “Workingman’s Blues #2” started off its career dazed and confused, but since has become a dependable show highlight. It did not disappoint tonight, sweet sensitive playing by the band staying far enough back to let Dylan’s vocals shine through. Every line dripped with resigned emotion, a tragedy from his tone alone. If listening carefully, you’d notice quite a few revised lyrics, impressive in a song not yet two years old. “In the dark I hear a songbird call / The hills are rugged and steep / I sleep in the kitchen with my feet in the hall / If I told you my whole story, you’d weep.” Try to find that in the official lyrics.
Tony Garnier grabbing the upright bass is always a symbol that “Summer Days” is coming up, as it has every show for years. Recently it’s moved from the final slot of the main set to the penultimate. I don’t think it makes much of a difference, to be honest, as the song has sounded the same forever.
Donnie practicing the trademark riff on his lap steel signaled that “Ballad of a Thin Man” was up next, a song that seems underappreciated in his live cannon. Sure, it sounds a lot like the original, but when the original sound and arrangement is so perfectly suited to the carnival lyrics, I don’t see that as a problem. If Tom Waits wrote a Dylan song, this would be it.
“Thunder on the Mountain” is the “Summer Days” of the new album: a song performed every night that sounds pretty much the same. The lyrics come too fast for Dylan to do anything very creative, but he put his all in them tonight, minor vocal inflections and clear diction keeping a mediocre song fresh and lively for even the most jaded.
Bob doesn’t mix around the final song a lot, so I wasn’t real surprised to hear “Like a Rolling Stone.” It seemed a more mellow arrangement though, the subdued guitars and prominent organ replacing the fury of the original with the attitude of “Yeah, I feel bad for you, but there’s nothing I can do.” The problem with this song live is that Dylan is so adamant about avoiding a singalong that he doesn’t sing the chorus at all, but just shouts out the lines as fast as possible to preempt anyone trying to join in. Needless to say, it doesn’t sound particularly good. A slightly anti-climactic end to a concert that started off rough, but built to have been pretty good by the end. Nothing compared to the next night however…
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