(From the Archives, November 2011)
One man’s word on…
Bob Dylan in Concert, NYC
On November 16, I went to see Don Rauf and his band, Life in a Blender, at Fez, under the Time Cafe. I was reminded how Mr. Rauf has remained one of New York City’s most singular and prolific songwriter-performers since he unleashed the first line up of his band upon the Manhattan music scene in 1984. Their final encore on Friday was a Ska version of Bob Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay” that simply must be experienced to be fully appreciated.
The following Monday, Don and I went to see Mr. Dylan and his band at Madison Square Garden. Neither of us had ever seen him before, despite the fact that Dylan and the Beatles WERE my childhood, musically speaking. I was a poor hippie when I missed the 1978 tour that found him wearing eye makeup, long hair and singing 20 minute songs about his conversion to his own brand of Christianity. Later tours passed me by as well for one reason or another. One might say we have both come a long way since those days.
You know how people used to go see Sinatra and other such legends and spend all that money to pay homage to some old guy for who he once was? That was decidedly NOT the case here. At 60 years of age Bob Dylan put on a vital show with a wide array of tunes from many eras. None were the kind of haphazard or sloppy arrangement that had shown up on various live recordings over the past twenty years. Many of the current renditions had returned to their roots or at least retained the flavor of the original versions. Those that departed radically were clearly thought out and well executed.
He opened the set with a cover of an old-timey, country foot stomper. Tony Garnier thumping away on an upright bass and David Kemper rolling along the snare provided an ideal backdrop for Dylan and his two guitarists, the light-fingered Larry Campbell and Austin’s whiz-kid-all-grown-up, Charlie Sexton. The lack of keyboards in the band led to some creative guitar work on normally organ-heavy numbers as “Like a Rolling Stone” and lent the evening an overall country timbre.
I was amazed that Dylan did not use a teleprompter, as is often the case these days when someone has a large catalog of songs and an aging memory. He also managed to sing numbers he has performed thousands of times and made them sound like the person he wrote them for was in the room and hearing them for the very first time. “It Ain’t Me Babe” was a great example of this. As was “Just Like A Woman”, which sounded very different but then retained the 1-2-3 1-2-3 turnaround between each verse heard on the original recording.“The Drifter’s Escape” (from John Wesley Harding) was so changed I could not remember the title or album until half way through the second verse. But then, it was done as a serious rocker with some of the best guitar work of the night. Very cool indeed.
One nod to New York City in the wake of the recent terrorist attack was the inclusion of the rarely-performed “Just Like A Tom Thumb Blues”, with the last line “I’m going back to New York City, I do believe I’ve had enough” sending the crowd into a frenzy. The arrangement seemed to have been inspired by the version the Grateful Dead played for years. Another nod came at the end of the set when he finally spoke to the audience to introduce the band. “Most every song we played tonight was written in this town.” Big ovation. “And those that were not written here were recorded here. I guess that says a lot about what this city means to me.” Biggest ovation of the night.
Another rarity was “John Brown (Went to War)” which resurfaced in his set lists just this month. He has included more and more songs from the new album, Love and Theft, in recent months as well, so they took up a good part of the evening. They opened with four songs on acoustic instruments, changed to electrics for four or five songs, (Charlie and Bob on Fender Stratocasters and Larry on a Telecaster. Although at times there were three Strats) and then back again. Bob would often switch back to his Martin “negative” guitar while the other two stayed electric. Regardless, every number had a driving pulse to it that swept the audience up and carried them along. The sixth and final encore, and twenty-second song over all, was a roaring rendition of “All Along the Watchtower”. The crowd could have easily sat through six more.
One of the biggest surprises was the fact Dylan did much of his own lead guitar work. I know he has been doing that in recent years, but it takes Dylan-size nerve to play all the leads when you have people like Charlie Sexton in your band.But I have to say he did a good job. He was a true lead guitar player, doing all his own fills and trills and glides up the neck that can really make a tune interesting, while he was singing the song at the same time. And if you are a guitar player you know how difficult that can be. It was his solos that left a bit to be desired. He might have been better off featuring Campbell and Sexton more than he did. But, hey, he’s Bob Dylan. He can do whatever he wants and has done exactly that for years.
But unlike a lot of “stars” who get by on their laurels while tossing off weak, half-baked performances as the masses cheer louder than ever (Stephen Stills and the Rolling Stones come to mind), Dylan was all there. Even if his voice has developed a course gravel to it as he has aged, it retained a resonance and articulation that rang out to the last seat and made the show worth every penny. His guitar work was an added plus.
For the night’s guitars, Bob’s Stratocaster looked to be an old, gray one, but with the stage lights, who knows? “Bob Dylan” was written in script up the neck. His only acoustic for the evening was his now famous Martin “negative” guitar. Martin had made a special HD-28 for Acoustic Guitar Magazine’s anniversary giveaway a year ago or so. It is designed like a photographic negative with a black body and top, and the fingerboard and all trim that would normally be black or dark was made in white. Dylan saw it and asked Martin to make him one, only his has a duel white pick guard on both sides of the sound hole, ala Josh White or the Everly Brothers. He is no longer wearing a harmonica brace, but would walk back once in a while, pick up a harp and play it into a harmonica mike. I have always felt he could use a lesson or two from Neil Young or Steve Earle, even if he did manage to find the right notes often enough to get crowd to its feet more than once.
Charlie Sexton played a red Gibson J-200, a Strat, and a big ol’ hollow-body Gretsch. Larry Campbell played what looked like a new HD-28, a Tele and a Strat, as well as what appeared to be a Trinity flat back bouzouki, pedal steel, mandolin and banjo. Tony Garnier played the big doghouse bass, but also picked up a Fender bass and at one time played a Taylor acoustic bass, the kind with the kidney-shaped sound hole in the upper left bout. (The $10 binocular rental was also worth every penny.)
Dylan has been wearing a western motif these days, often sporting a cowboy hat on the street. Tonight he wore an over-sized suit that made me think of the one David Byrne wore in Stop Making Sense, but with a black felt collar and black stripes up the pant legs. I leaned over to the couple next to us and said “Only a woman could successfully name the color of that suit.” She laughed, and her initial response was “lavender with some white and pink in it.” A few moments later she tapped me on the shoulder and shouted over the applause “Orchid! Orchid would be a good name for that color!!” So, Bob Dylan wore an over-sized, western-style, orchid suit, with black cowboy boots that had white flames coming off the toes, to entertain us all. And he certainly did that.
Here is the set list. All musicians played on all the songs, there were no Bob-only songs this time around.
1. Wait For The Light To Shine (acoustic) (song by Fred Rose)
2. It Ain’t Me, Babe (acoustic) (Bob on harp)
3. A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall (acoustic)
4. Searching For A Soldier’s Grave (acoustic) (song by Johnnie Wright, Jim Anglin and Jack Anglin)
5. Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum – from new album
6. Just Like A Woman (Bob on harp)
7. Just Like A Tom Thumb’s Blues
8. Lonesome Day Blues – from new album
9. High Water – from new album
10. Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right (acoustic) (Bob on harp)
11. Tangled Up In Blue (acoustic)
12. John Brown (acoustic)
13. Summer Days – from new album
14. Sugar Baby – from new album
15. Drifter’s Escape (Bob on harp)
16. Rainy Day Women #12 & 35
17. Things Have Changed
18. Like A Rolling Stone
19. Forever Young (acoustic)
20. Honest With Me – from new album
21. Blowin’ In The Wind (acoustic)
22. All Along The Watchtower.