The following details are mandated by the Guild of Ignorant, Regional, and Irrelevant Music Reviewers:
- Bob Dylan did not speak to the audience.
- On these occasions, he did not wear a hat.
- His band did wear hats.
- Except for Tony Garnier and Donnie Herron, who did not wear hats.
- Nobel Prize!
- Songs from the 60s, unrecognizable.
- Sinatra songs sound like Sinatra isn’t even singing them!
- Turns out, Frank Sinatra is dead.
Note 1: I hereby wave my guildmember’s right to regurgitate my one-of-a-kind revisionist take on the gospel songs of Trouble No More.
Note 2: This review focuses primarily on the Nov. 12 show, but relies on impressions drawn from both Nov. 11 and 12.
Note 3: Low-end turns of phrase punning on Bob Dylan lyrics do adhere to guild standards.
These shows represented my 13th and 14th Dylan concerts. While this failed to impress some of the more seasoned Dylan fans drinking at the Waterford Inn prior to the show, bear in mind I didn’t start seeing Bob Dylan until 2006. The “upsinging” years. Soon after came the “instrument of torture” era. While surely not as difficult as the alcoholic slogs of 1991, the loud and monotonous shows were better suited to some ZZ Top cover band than the greatest living songwriter.
Between 2006 and 2013 there’d usually be one or two songs of merit. For a while I hung my hat on Gonna Change My Way of Thinking because a lyric or two had changed. Yelling “No!” after the line “You think I’m over the hill” in Spirit on the Water was always a personal point of pride for me. Sometimes there’d be a poignant Workingman Blues #2 or Nettie Moore. Often the second song would be the lone surprise in the set, and so some casual salutation of If You See Her Say Hello would serve as the lone justification for my trip to stupid Syracuse, New York or stupid Rochester, Michigan. No offense to these towns; they are stupid only insofar as they are stupid places to vacation for any reason unrelated to Bob Dylan enthusiasm.
Seeing consecutive Dylan concerts in those early years would have been hard to fathom. The thrill came from being around other true believers, and from being in proximity to the man himself. Truth was, I was often bored during the shows. No matter how spirited a reading of Shake Shake Mama was delivered, I had no qualms about acquiring much needed libations in the longest of beer lines.
But, happily, things have changed. I first noticed that something was happening at Toronto’s Sony Centre in 2014. He closed that set with Stay with Me. It was the first of the Tin Pan Alley standards I’d heard live. He was vulnerable, his voice was cracked but not broken, and as all the standards now do, it suited the best remaining aspect of Bob’s voice: his lower register. While each subsequent tour has benefitted from the tonal breakup of these standards, each one serves a specific thematic purpose: Stay with Me is a paean to fans whose enthusiasm had been stretched thin over the previous decade of sub-mediocrity.
Guess it’s true, I’m not good at a one-night stand
But I still need love ’cause I’m just a man
These nights never seem to go to plan
I don’t want you to leave, will you hold my hand?
Stay with Me.
The show begins with a little medley described on most bootlegs as Guitar Riffs? Somehow it sounds like several Bob Dylan songs but is actually none of them. Or maybe it is. There are over 600 of the damned things. Ultimately it’s goal is to get asses in seats. It also calls to mind the heyday of the NET when Larry Campbell and company would engage in a five-six song acoustic set.
The man walks to his piano and Things Have Changed is barked out in a fashion not much better than any of 2010’s bark-outs, but one bark out is good. One bark out is kind of cool. Then the casuals and lifelongs alike are satisfied by an It Ain’t Me Babe that features more melodic notes than were divulged in entire calendar years previous. His ‘voice of the 60’s counterculture’ contractual obligations are met with a Highway 61 that’s treated like Freebird, or in terms of NET Freebird’s, Silvio. The big, loud song of the night.
At the Nov. 12 show, this led to dancing from not just the obsessives in the front rows, but nearly the entire theatre: millennials, the middle-aged, and seniors were swaying, head-banging, or doing hip-replacement-friendly versions of The Twist.
There’s no rhyme or reason as to why the Sunday crowd was so much more energized. Certainly Saturday’s gang was considerably deeper into their 24oz cups. Perhaps, and this is just a theory I’ve been working on, perhaps alcohol is a depressant that more often than not inhibits one’s ability to experience joy. I digress.
Bob Dylan, it turns out, likes to see people dancing and having a good time. And while no, he will not remark, “Hey, great dancing fellows!” just as he will not remark upon the local baseball nine or any ongoing gubernatorial elections, what he will do is give it his all to try and maintain that energy.
Why Try to Change Me Now sees a confident (even pompous, were it any other musical personage) strut to the mic. He commands the stage like an arthritic James Brown for a moment or two, selling the song with his droll mannerisms before a note is sung. His leg is cocked in a motionless version of the duck walk that justified several years’-worth of concerts for me. He holds the mic at an angle like Elvis. And then he sings the song with every ounce of emotion in his 76-year-old lungs. Though the song was not written by Dylan but Joseph McCarthy (1885 to 1943), the words must be written on Bob’s soul. Or more likely it’s simply easier to put some emotion into a song you haven’t sung several thousand times.
Summer Days is the first of the dramatically-improved songs on this leg of the NET. So often the soggiest of the loves/thefts, it now has a bouncy tempo invigorated by Donny Herron’s down-home fiddling. This quicker tempo also showcases another of Dylan’s still-extant vocal gifts: his excellent phrasing. All while he plunks away at the grand piano to his own internal rhythm.
This sets up a pattern for the next few songs. Melancholy Mood sees more strutting and emoting. Honest with Me is the best of the new arrangements, and sees sardonic deliveries of lines like
You say my eyes are pretty and my smile is nice
Well, I’ll sell it to ya at a reduced price
As ExpectingRain.com user Smoke pointed out, the song borrows the guitar riff from The Beach Boys’ Dance Dance Dance.
Once Upon a Time sees more central-stage crooning. It’s a sin to just lump it in with the previous torch songs however. Each of these vocal deliveries would have been a goddamn event just a couple years ago. And again, each one is delivered totally fresh because the palate has been cleansed by the jumpin’ and jivin’ on songs like Summer Days and Honest with Me.
If the slightly speedier Tryin’ to Get to Heaven works least among the new arrangements, it’s not without poignancy to hear Bob Dylan, still grinding away at the NET, either for himself, or for us, singing, “I been all around the world, boys.”
After the first night I determined the following two songs would constitute my bathroom/libations break. The human kidneys pay heed to no man or musical bard. Pay in Blood would have constituted the highlight of many post-2012 concerts I attended, simply because I like the song. Now it just harkens back to the more destitute days in the swamp, and it can be missed.
Even if I didn’t require the bathroom or the beer line I’d probably just go admire the $40 t-shirts at the merch stand during Tangled Up in Blue. I always skip it on bootlegs. It seems almost perverse that Bob dusts it off every night. Rarely is it performed with any enthusiasm. I believe it’s the most-played song on the NET by a country pie or two; the song obviously means something to Dylan, so I can’t understand why he doesn’t give it a rest and bring it back with a little more meaning for everyone involved. Oh well, why try to change him now?
September of My Years holds particular resonance not just for another excellent delivery, but also for lyrics like
As a man who has always had the wandering ways
I keep looking back to yesterdays
‘Til a long-forgotten love appears
And I find that I’m sighing softly as I near
September, the warm September of my years
Early Roman Kings and the tour debut of Scarlet Town will ever remain swamp creatures to me. But if I strain to hear them devoid of the context of all those forgettable 2013 renditions, I can see how they add layers to the set as a whole.
The audience is then treated, or in some cases, subjected to, eight minutes of Desolation Row. I understand how important this is to people seeing Bob Dylan for the first time ever, or for the first time in decades. And yet it’s a lot of lyrics to get through, and Dylan struggles to do it prolonged justice night after night. Too often the song sinks into a sing-songy pattern, and what flourishes are meant to brighten the chorus aren’t quite sufficient.
Thunder on the Mountain is the most fun of the new arrangements. Among the most played of his post-millennial compositions, Bob has changed his way of thinking about Alicia Keys and his army of “tough sons of bitches,” having borrowed the guitar riff from from the Beach Boys’ Shut Down, Part 2.
Love Sick is delivered in a serviceable fashion that, again, would have been a strong point of any 2012 show. Now it is reduced by all the previous high water marks. It calls to mind a piece of novelistic advice I read somewhere: that a writer can judge the strength of her novel based on the quality of what she’s willing to cut from it.
The band leaves the stage for an encore break that fools nobody. Or maybe it fools a few. Or maybe those few people are just ready to leave for whatever reasons. Maybe they’d expected 4.25 x 6’ images of the hanging, postmarked ‘66. At this juncture it is my time to shine. I wait for someone in the first couple rows to leave and I appropriate their seat. The gamble is that by this time of night security is disinterested in tackling and tasing anybody.
In any case, it’s worth the electroreceptive risk to get close as possible to Dylan even for these couple songs. There he stands, light come shining through that inimitable Jew fro. I see him drink from a cup of coffee, thinking and breathing, human and hunched. It’s Based Bob Dylan. And here’s where the early seat evacuator is missing out, because it is that ’66 Dylan. He may sound and look different. The human body does completely regenerate itself every seven years. But it’s the same man.
The audience becomes one big collective Bob Dylan appreciation society for Blowin’ in the Wind and Ballad of a Thin Man. It is my custom to point directly at Bob Dylan while yelling words to the effect of “Thank you Bob,” “Alright Bob,” or “We love you, Bob.” While this may prove unsettling to the long-suffering Bob Dylan, it gives me some meagre sense of connection. Older attendees nearby close their eyes, perhaps considering where they’d been when they first heard those singular lines of philosophical inquiry…How many roads…
At the conclusion of Thin Man, Dylan and his band take centre stage for a bow. And on the 12th the fans are given a little gesture from Bob, kind of like, “Applause? Why no, but if you must, I insist that you applaud only your own selves.” And while so slight a gesture won’t register for the ‘didn’t talk to the audience’ Music Critic at HatFancier.com or wherever, it’s a substantive gesture. It means the audience helped give Bob the energy needed to deliver a standout performance in a lifetime of performances, that we, by funding leg after leg of the NET through patience as much as our pocketbooks, have allowed Bob Dylan to be where he belongs: still on the road, heading for another joint.
Mike Sauve has written for The National Post, McSweeney’s, Variety, and many other publications. Novels include The Wraith of Skrellman, The Apocalypse of Lloyd and the forthcoming I Ain’t Got No Home In This World Anymore. He’s currently working on a book about the Bob Dylan film Masked and Anonymous.