A few notes about the Dylan concerts I attended over the weekend.
- To the best of my recollection, this was my 8th and 9th time seeing Dylan perform and the first time in nearly six years. For my 24th birthday, my then girlfriend, Wendy Combs, surprised me with tickets to a Dylan show in Columbia. Since then we’ve seen him once more at the Hearnes Center in Columbia, at the Fox in St Louis, Sedalia at the State Fair, twice at Starlight in KC and, most recently, at the Shrine Mosque in Springfield. After this weekend I can add the show I saw on Saturday night in Tulsa and the show the following night at the Kansas City Music Hall.
- The shows over the weekend were something different from all the others. Lately, Dylan has settled into a fixed set list. In the past, as much as two thirds of the set list changed every night. That was fun. You never knew what was coming next, what rarities he would dust off for one night only. But, I now see that variety came at the expense of polish and thematic flow. I preferred what I saw and heard this weekend.
- I’m glad I did the groupie thing and made the trip to Tulsa. The venue was intimate, comfortable with perfect acoustics. Though sold out, a lot of the tickets had been comped to casino guests who didn’t show or realized he wouldn’t be regurgitating his hits and left to get back to their slots. So there was lots of space to move around.
- The fan base demographics were wildly different at the two shows. I’m not sure how to account for that, but the average age of those attending the Tulsa show was probably close to Dylan’s own age; but at the Kansas City show, I might have been slightly older than average. Ticket prices, perhaps, had something to do with that. Or Dylan hasn’t yet caught on with the youngsters (ie, people my age) in Tulsa.
- Dylan is, more than ever, a working artist. He’s focused on challenging himself and others. He’s not your sing-along hippie jukebox. Before the encore, he only performed a single song from the 60’s and two from the 70’s. Six of the numbers were all from a recent album: 2012’s Tempest. Bob can do what he wants, of course. But I still felt bad for the guy who called out “Hurricane!” between every song. Never going to happen, dude. He’s recorded 40 some odd albums since then. Hurricane Carter’s not even in prison anymore.
- KC fans gave him lots of love during “High Water (for Charley Patton)” (Big Joe Turner looking east and west from the dark room of his mind/He made it to Kansas City, Twelfth Street and Vine/Nothin’ standing there/Highwater everywhere). But he didn’t do it for them; it’s a permanent fixture in the new set list. (12th Street doesn’t intersect with Vine, by the way, but either it once did or the city put up this sign post as a nod to Bob and Big Joe and Charley Patton. Nothing else is standing there.)
- Nothing was rehashed. Every song he chose brought something distinctive and previously unheard to the table. Even the songs from Tempest were significantly rearranged – musically and, often, lyrically. “Pay in Blood,” “Forgetful Heart” and “Scarlet Town” were even improved from the album, in my opinion, and I already loved them. “Pay in Blood” sounded more furious than ever due to, ironically, the band’s toning it down for most of the song and then kicking it up during the bridge to each refrain, eg: “Another politician pumpin’ out the piss/ Another ragged beggar blowin’ you a kiss” and then hitting it hard again in the instrumental interlude after each occurrence of the climactic refrain “I pay in blood, but it’s not my own.” Most rock performers would feel the need to bellow and gesticulate at the line; Dylan delivered it with a calm sneer while resting one hand in a coat pocket.
- Fans are making much of the fact that, after an extended break from touring, he returned for this tour sans wedding band. I don’t know much about his personal life. But songs about lost love and angst certainly were prominently featured in the set. “Things Have Changed” (I used to care, but things have changed) opened the concert. “Long and Wasted Years” which explicitly references a failed marriage (embedded above) and “Autumn Leaves” closed the main set in sequence (Since you went away/ The days grow long/ And soon I’ll hear/ Old winter’s song).
- Dylan sang at times more beautifully and melodically than I’ve seen before. Pitch-perfect crooning of the high notes of a gorgeously re-worked “Simple Twist of Fate.” Notably so, as well, on “Forgetful Heart.” And most of all on the set and encore closers: “Autumn Leaves” and “Stay with Me” both from his latest album of Sinatra songs. Very spare accompaniment on both of those songs; just a microphone and Bob pouring out his soul through his clear though strained voice. So oddly crisp was his enunciation and delivery, I felt he intended us to feel the full effect of lyrics like “Should my heart not be humble/ Should my eyes fail to see/ Should my feet sometimes stumble/ On the way, stay with me.” That hymn-like song served as the final encore, a surprising but apt way to end this hand-curated collection of his own songs. I could hear my late Grandpa singing old hymns in church.
- And finally: I hope this tour culminates in an official live album release. Bob Dylan on tour doesn’t get any better than this. Long live Bob Dylan.
A footnote on my my early history with Bob Dylan.
A friend recently asked me how I started liking Bob Dylan. It so happens, I remember the exact first time I heard Dylan. When I was a senior in high school, I borrowed World Gone Wrong on CD from the Tulsa City-County Library. An odd introduction to Dylan in hindsight. The cover photo of a top-hatted old man in a cafe intrigued me. Truthfully, I didn’t think much of it. I liked atrocious music in those days: DC Talk, Carman, Petra, et al (shudder). But later, my elder sister visited home and had a copy of Time Out of Mind, recently released. I guess my taste for Rich Mullins’ music had primed me by that time for something more authentic. Anyway, I loved it. I must have played that album a hundred times before she left. A year or so later, I borrowed Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 from a college friend who lived in my dorm. I was so loathe to return it to him that my then girlfriend, Wendy Combs, bought me my own copy. No wonder I married her.
An additional footnote on Dylan’s religious views
Much has been said and speculated – including by me – about Dylan’s religious views. Clearly his views have evolved and shifted a great deal over the years, and may be evolving yet. But this statement by Dylan himself ties a lot of his apparently conflicting comments together.
“Here’s the thing with me and the religious thing. This is the flat-out truth: I find the religiosity and philosophy in the music. I don’t find it anywhere else. Songs like “Let Me Rest on a Peaceful Mountain” or “I Saw the Light” – that’s my religion. I don’t adhere to rabbis, preachers, evangelists, all of that. I’ve learned more from the songs than I’ve learned from any of this kind of entity. The songs are my lexicon. I believe the songs.”