Bob Dylan Review 07/08/11 – Rochester Hills, MI

As a Dylan advocate (you might at times have said “apologist”) I sometimes fear my legitimate praise of the great man will be perceived as mindless fawning.

So let me first complain about the last show I’d seen at the Kitchener Aud (terrible acoustics) with a bunch of Greatest Hits enthusiasts, and poor Bob looking almost bored to tears.  Even at this type of vaguely disheartening show I’d rationalize:  “Well it looked like he was having a good time.”  I was saying this because he bobbed his knees a few times.  And because at previous shows I’d seen he’d looked like he was having a downright bad time.

Well, last night in Rochester Hills, Michigan, Bob looked (not just to me but to even a neutral observer) like he was having a fucking hell of a time.  I think the biggest improvement is that Bob’s new configuration of switching from organ, to centre-stage crooning to playing guitar really mixes up the dynamic.

Previously, when all Bob did was plunk away on his circus organ (sometimes called the “instrument of torture”) things began to sound dreadfully similar and it could lull you to sleep, even if there were some grand moments.  It also led to a lot of sing-songy shouting that disappointed the people who wanted the songs to sound at least something like the songs they love.

But, now, for the handful of songs played on the IOT you get a great attack between the organ and Charlie Sexton’s subtle, exquisite guitar slinging.  In the past there had been accusations among knowledgeable fans that Bob was drowning Charlie out.

But it’s when Bob is crooning that his shows are now the most fun.  During his early 60s appearances in Greenwich Village some compared him to Charlie Chaplin because of the comical way he’d look nervous and uncomfortable before tearing into some ballad that held the room in the palm of his hand.  Also maybe because he is really short and cartoonishly cute in appearance.

Well, now the Chaplin comparison has come full circle as Dylan seems to, more than ever, embrace the role of comedian.  He prances about in a way so comical that I couldn’t help pointing it out to the somewhat aggravated “long-time-listeners-first-time-attendees” beside me.

These people were also trying to have a kind of religious experience with Bob but a kind that wasn’t quite up to date.  The woman was interested in my tips about what to expect.  But her companion, after delivering a non-sensical speech about Blowin’ in the Wind that kept coming back to his condemnation of marijuana-smoking, was shushed by his more-savvy companion, so he eventually became insecure and boorishly yelled at me to leave them alone in stereotypical American nastiness, for which his date later apologized, referring to him as “her friend” as though she wanted precious little to do with him after his dickish outburst.

As I have a sensitive psychic constitution this rattled me for the remainder of the show.  Also, because the premiere area under the pavilion is seated, it’s a totally different vibe than standing general admission which encourages dancing (and in my case, a Bob-inspired duck walk).  When I was yelling out the encouragement I felt Bob deserved I was generally perceived as a lunatic.

That brings me to my main point.  In the past I’ve had a theory that when an audience is rocking, Bob gives them what they deserve, but when an audience is passive Bob phones it in to a degree.  This might explain why the shows in Europe and abroad are consistently better than the ones in America.  Last night he fought through that beer-drunk passivity and just did what he does best now.

It’s my opinion that songs two through four are usually the highlight of any Dylan show.  And the last time I saw him, once those were over it was a long slow death march through Highway 61, Thin Man, etc.

Last night was a totally even show, consistently good from top to bottom.  Those aforementioned songs that I usually skip when listening to bootlegs are becoming nightly highlights.  It could also be that they’re meant to be heard live where the power of the band really comes across.  But more so than usual, the band was drum-tight on those songs.

The addition of Mississippi allows Bob to play with the lyrics to one of his most beautiful songs in the way he’s been doing with Visions of Johanna and Desolation Row for the last few years. 

For some this is, to quote one message board commentator, “pissing on the Mona Lisa,” but for others, going to a Bob show and hearing one of these lesser played masterpieces is, like, a reason for living.  I can attest to that somewhat extreme statement.  The night previous I’d been at a wedding, and, as usual, due to my proclivity for hard drinking and the sensitive psychic constitution mentioned above had made a sort of minor scene.  So I was hungover, plagued by guilt and a Kierkegaardian “sickness unto death,” and in this sorrowful condition, watching and hearing Bob healed and nourished me in ways that would only sound silly to anyone but a fellow Bob freak.

Back to the music:  When this boot comes out…pay particular attention to the clipped yelling on Things Have Changed.   Clipped yelling is what people have grumbled about for years.  Some idiots have even called for him to quit because of it.  Maybe that lit a fire under Bob.  Because this is a new kind of clipped yelling that even the Greatest Hits fans can’t help but be amused by.

Something is happening here…

The Songs Bob Dylan DID Play in China.

I’d say 90% of self-identifying Bob Dylan fans are more a fan of the idea of Bob Dylan, or the ghost of Greatest Hits Bob Dylan, or the Bob Dylan they perceive as a piece of hipster capital rather than the substantial, continually-evolving musician he is.

By this same token I feel probably 98% of Bob Dylan journalism is woefully trite, mal-informative and insignificant.  Was he wearing a hat?  What did he say to the audience?  Well, as someone who actually listens to Bob Dylan as much as possible, I can already tell you:  “He introduces his damn band!”  It’s what he does.  He does not make a comment about the local restaurant or the current political climate.  The reason people continue to write about this has something to do with  the intellectual laziness of the press.  But also, as the old saying goes, “We get the press we deserve.”  People, writ large, are happy with simple definitions of things, and Bob Dylan is but one fixture in the same tapestry as Lady Gaga, Bieber, et al, so there’s no time for understanding the complexity that is Bob Dylan in 2011.  That’s the reason behind all the Bob Dylan hat journalism.

Let’s not go into the Dowd fiasco concerning BD’s supposed concession of not playing The Times They are a Changin’ or Blowin’ in the Wind, or the Dowd-fiasco-response (that he did play Gonna Change My Way of Thinkin’,) both of which have been done to death.  Let’s talk about the music Bob Dylan did play in China.

I’m going to start with April 3 in Taipei, even though it is technically Taiwan, or Chinese Taipei, or…well I’m not that geo-politically astute…but mainly because this was one of the most interesting concerts of this jaunt.  It began with one of my favourite hard-rockin’ openers Gotta Serve Somebody rendered to gravelly perfection, and noted with much enthusiasm in Bob Dylan circles far and wide.

Serviceable versions of It Ain’t Me Babe and Things Have Changed followed, and generally these are a welcome addition to any BD set-list.

Then things got real interesting with a heart-achingly beautiful Sugar Baby, a rarely played slow-burn of a ballad that reminds us Bob still has something of immense significance to offer.  (As a non-musician music writer, like most of my ilk, I tend to rely heavy on the adjective.)

This was followed by a fairly by-the-numbers Cold Irons Bound, a song that like Highway 61 and Ballad of a Thin Man I often skip because otherwise I would hear them 1000+ times a year.

Simple Twist of Fate offered some classic Blood on the Tracks Bob.  His melancholy delivery of this always reminds me just how much the great man has been through in his life, and of Jacob Dylan’s quote that Blood is his dad’s lone album he can’t bring himself to listen to because it invokes memories of his parents’ divorce.  Gorgeously done.   This also appeared in every set-list of the China leg. I challenge any Bob detractor to tell me this isn’t a pretty performance of a fine song.  Even with the growling, Bob Dylan offers two things at this stage in his career:  pure emotion and fine, nearly peerless phrasing, and both are on full display here.

Then came a slightly revamped version of Honest with Me. a tune that usually gets kind of bogged down in the general swamp-bluesy, would-be-ZZ Top sound of Bob’s uptempo songs.  A quick-paced little riff at the beginning creates a new imperative for this number and reveals Bob is forever tinkering, if not producing new arrangements every night as many publications erroneously report.

Then a particularly growly Desolation Row I felt fairly neutral about.  I prefer when the melody gets warped a little more, but hey, I don’t complain when Bob dishes out the desolation, in fact if I don’t have time to listen to a whole set I always make sure I listen to Desolation in the early going.

Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum is another song I’ve heard just way too much of.  But it always gets the older folks dancing.

Forgetful Heart:  as with Time Out of Mind, some of the better numbers from Together Through Life, particularly this one, are improving with age on the road.  Bob really poured his heart into this performance, perhaps trying to convince people TTL wasn’t such a dud after all.

I often skip the last third of shows, and will do so here.

April 6 Beijing:  Bob starts with another of my fave openers Gonna Change My Way of Thinking.  This once-forgotten little gem from Slow Train Coming is a real showcase for both the excellent guitar-slinging of Charlie Sexton and Bob’s current delivery.  It was the focus of many anti-Dowd retorts due to the line “So much oppression, can’t keep track of it no more,” which Bob howls with a particular vehemence here.  Eat it Dowdy.  Me, I prefer the line, always delivered excellently, “We’re living by the golden rule, whoever got the gold…rules.”

It’s All Over Now Baby Blue:  Vocals weren’t great.  But hey, that’s the mystery of a Bob Dylan show, greatness next to the generic, or an amazing performance of a song most fans consider insubstantial like My Wife’s Home Town but then a ho-hum effort on one of the best tunes the man has ever written.

Case in point, the next song, Beyond Here Lies Nothin’, with some horns, was a knock-em-out-leave-em-dead highlight, perhaps because it benefits from Bob’s current voice whereas with a song like Baby Blue one can’t help recalling the relatively dulcet tones it was originally sung in.

Tangled Up in Blue is another tune I often skip, although there are often little moments of genius in it, it’s one that Dylan often slips into a sing-song with which can be really hit-or-miss.

Another great performance of Honest With Me, another serviceable Desolation Row, another vaguely annoying (to my ears) Tweedle Dee/Dum, but then an excellent little suite of Love Sick (a song I never get sick of hearing and really works well for contemporary Bob,) Rollin and Tumblin (which I always think of as a superior Tweedle Dee-type number) and the always welcome Hard Rain.

Spirit on the Water is always nice to listen to and was no exception here.  Ballad of a Thin Man was particularly resonant on this occasion because of incendiary lyrics like “Something is happening here, and you don’t what it is.”  And this was one of the more engaging performances of it I’ve heard in some time.

April 8th Shanghai began with another effective Gonna Change My Way of Thinkin’.  Then there was an absolutely gorgeous Don’t Think Twice it’s Alright that contradicts everything I said about the previous night’s Baby Blue.  How to describe the difference?  Well, in a hackneyed way:  feeling.  Also there are some nice tonal things going on, something soft and tender.  This is what keeps a guy downloading bootleg after bootleg.

More excellent Fate Twisting, Things Changing and Rows of Desolation, but then there were two surprise gems Blind Willie McTell and The Levee’s Gonna Break, both relatively rare and both performed about as well as a Dylan aficionado could ask for.

There was a strong close to this show with a better-than-average Like a Rolling Stone and a simply glorious (read:  as good as 1997-2003 Bob) Forever Young that I can’t imagine complaining about a lack of Wind Blowin’ or Times Changin’ afterwards.

April 12 Kowloon Hong Kong:  In my massive Bob Dylan storage folders I sometimes make little notes, here I have, “Excellent sound.”  The sound of this bootleg is about a zillion times better than the 8th in Shanghai, which wasn’t even that bad.

Gonna Change for example was a real eye-opener when heard with this  sound quality, and it had me duck-walking around the apartment in the fashion my girlfriend has grown to loathe.

Senor: a personal favourite of mine.  Some great harp from the Bob-man as always, and a good one for Bob to snarl out Tom Waits-style.

Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues is always a crowd favourite from the outset of its recognizable intro.  Bob fought through it with a noted lack of melodic vocals.

More tangled, honest, fate-twistin’ that was all very good and wouldn’t be skipped over here were it not for concerns of repetition.  And again, if you only DL one of these boots, this or April 13th are the best because of superior sound.

Two more songs off TTL, My Wife’s Home Town and Jolene, were both more engaging than I’ve heard them in the past.  This creates a real hope for me that 2011 is going to be closer to one of my favourite Bob Dylan touring years, 2009, and less like 2010, which I found kind of drab.

This set really closed with a flourish, I’ve listened to it in its entirety several times and it’s my favourite show from his Chinese stint.

April 13 Kowloon Hong Kong also has damn fine sound, and I think these two will be packaged together as gold-star bootlegs for years to come.  On that note I think years from now all the Dowd crap will be an interesting footnote to a really great collection of Bob Dylan performances.

Gonna Change opened yet again and Lo and Behold, I haven’t gotten sick of it  yet.  Open with it every night BD, it’s good with me.

It Ain’t Me Babe is always a good bet in the 2-hole, kind of the Derek Jeter of Bob’s setlists.  (I know Jeter leads off now).  He always manages to pour a little something extra of himself into this beauty.

Then the best Things Have Changed from China.  I like when Bob mucks with this one on the organ, which he does here to interesting effect. There seems to be a correlation between how much disturbance Bob inflicts on his so-called “instrument of torture” (so-called by his organ-detractors) and how interesting the vocals are.  This song that “doesn’t pussyfoot around human nature” is a great showcase for his dark, sardonic, wise, been-through-it-all…(I am just going to stop mid adjective-parade w/r/t to Bob’s voice.).

Several more repetitions I won’t mention, but Simple Twist of Fate most notably just seemed to get better each time out.  I’d almost rather here this one than the Blood version.  Almost, that Blood version kills me every time.

Then the only High Water of this leg, a bass-heavy tune I often skip.  But because of some nice finger-picking and a sharp delivery from Bob, this could definitely fit on a compilation of say, the 25 most interesting High Waters from 2006 to present, which I’m sure many hardcore fans would listen to out of pure sick Bob Dylan love.

Bob was sing-songing again on Hard Rain, and growling out comical “Yaaa’s”, the way I like.

Hot damn.  Bob Dylan in 2011 eh?  Should Bob Dylan retire you ask?  Bob selling out Dowdy writes?  Uh, something is happening here, Bob Dylan is performing world-class, innovative…(whoa, another adjective parade, I’ll just stop now.)

China tells us one thing:  Bob Dylan is still one hell of a performer, Forever Young even if he sounds old as hell relying entirely on phrasing now that his voice is so battered, but still producing a more interesting couple hours of music than McCartney, The Stones, and Tom Petty combined could ever hope to.

One final note:  I noticed Bob forgot a few more lyrics than usual over the course of these shows.  I’m too lazy to listen to them all again in pursuit of these screw-ups though, and besides, the guy has 600+ songs, so this should be forgiven.

All of these shows are available for free legal download at various file-sharing sites.  For a great catch-all I highly recommend the Expecting Rain message board.  Just sign up for free and be in Bob boot heaven.

Taipei, Taiwan, April 3

  1.  Gotta Serve Somebody
  2.  It Ain’t Me, Babe
  3.  Things Have Changed
  4.  Sugar Baby
  5.  Cold Irons Bound
  6.  Simple twise of – Fate
  7.  Honest With Me
  8.  Desolation Row
  9.  Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum
  10.  Forgetful Heart
  11.  Highway 61 Revisited
  12.  Tryin’ To Get To Heaven
  13.  Jolene
  14.  Ballad Of A Thin Man
  15.  Like A Rolling Stone
  16.  Blowin’ In The Wind

Beijing, China, April 6

Beijing Workers’ Gymnasium

Shanghai, April 8th

Kowloon, Hong Kong, April 12

  1.   Gonna Change My Way Of Thinking
  2.  Señor (Tales Of Yankee Power)
  3.  Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues
  4.  Tangled Up In Blue
  5.  Honest With Me
  6.  Simple twise of – Fate
  7.  Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum
  8.  Blind Willie McTell
  9.  Jolene
  10.  Desolation Row
  11.  Highway 61 Revisited
  12.  Spirit On The Water
  13.  My Wife’s Home Town
  14.  Thunder On The Mountain
  15.  Ballad Of A Thin Man
  16.  Like A Rolling Stone
  17.  Forever Young

Kowloon, Hong Kong – April 13

  1.  Gonna Change My Way Of Thinking
  2.  It Ain’t Me, Babe
  3.  Things Have Changed
  4.  Tangled Up In Blue
  5.  Rollin’ And Tumblin’
  6.  Simple twise of – Fate
  7.  High Water (for Charlie Patton)
  8.  A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall
  9.  The Levee’s Gonna Break
  10.  If You Ever Go To Houston
  11.  Highway 61 Revisited
  12.  Spirit On The Water
  13.  My Wife’s Home Town
  14.  Thunder On The Mountain
  15.  Ballad Of A Thin Man
  16.  Like A Rolling Stone
  17.  Forever Young