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Bob Dylan, Dutchess Stadium, Wappingers Falls, NY: It’s not dark yet but it’s getting there September 1, 2006

Posted by Anton A in American music, Bob Dylan.
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I.  The journey

All week I’d had a sense of foreboding about driving up north to see The Bob Dylan Show, even before Ernesto’s path had become pretty certain and it looked like that tropical storm was taking dead aim at the Northeast for Friday night.  Initially it was simply the notion of heading up the Thruway on Labor Day weekend Friday, when many thousands would be on that road to get to their last weekend of summer in the Catskills and Vermont and the like.  I couldn’t shake the notion that there was danger up the road, and death lurking around every corner.

Several times, I considered canceling the whole effort, but I really didn’t want to miss the chance to see the man whose words and music had influenced me so much.  I’d managed to see him only twice before in more than 40 years – the legendary 1965 fall tour, and the Rolling Thunder Revue 10 years later.  That’s a lot of water under the bridge.  This show was in a minor league ballpark, yet, in Dutchess Stadium up in Wappingers Falls.  I’d missed last summer’s ballpark tour, even though Dylan had brought the show to a stadium only 8 miles from my home; I didn’t want to miss another one.

Thursday night, rechecking my route on MapPoint, I was filled with even more dread when I saw that somehow I’d mistaken the distance, which I thought I’d determined accurately before I bought tickets. It was over 60 miles rather than the 40 I’d expected.  I really didn’t know if I was going to go through with the show when I went to sleep that night.  But Friday dawned dry, if grey, and the Ernesto forecast had the heavy rain holding off till well after midnight, surely time enough to get up to the show and back again.  I checked MapPoint once more, and realized that we had a fine alternative route on local roads if the Thruway proved too heavy.  I called my friend Landon to solidify our plans for the journey.  I agreed to meet him at the train station at 5:45, which would give me time for a quick lunch and nap after work.

Landon’s train was 11 minutes late.  We zipped back to my house to gather ourselves for the drive.  I checked the online traffic reports just before we left, a little before 6:30; they weren’t too encouraging about the Thruway, reporting major delays around exit 16, which we’d have to pass through to get to the stadium.  As we shot up Route 17, I had pretty much already decided to cut off the Thruway and drift up northeast Seven Lakes Drive through Harriman State Park, cross the Hudson at the Bear Mountain Bridge, and zip up the east bank of the Hudson on Route 9D to the stadium some 15-20 miles further on.

When we hit the Thruway a half  hour later, the traffic looked surprisingly light, but I was still worried about what might lie ahead. We jumped right back off and into Harriman.  Almost immediately, we began seeing deer grazing on the roadside grass  in the twilight.  The hills of Harriman, where I’ve spent many a day hiking, rolled away to either side.  The road was nearly empty.  We drove past six of the Seven Lakes, one by one.  It wasn’t as fast as the Thruway but it was certainly less stressful.

We pulled off at Silvermine Lake recreation area to use the facilities.  The huge parking lot held only three other vehicles, there was silence all around in  the fading light.  You walk across a little concrete bridge over a wide stream to get to the bathrooms there.  On our way back, we stopped  to admire the greylight view of the stream emptying into the lake.  The waters were virtually still.  Looking down, we  noticed what seemed to be a couple of birds flitting over the surface of the stream, scouring for bugs.  We quickly realized that they were bats.  This was fascinating; I had never seen bats in flight from above.  They would swing out to the end of the stream, swoop back towards the bridge, repeat the pattern a couple of times, then zip under the bridge and fly up the stream about 50 feet to where it narrowed.  They circled that area a few times and then flitted back under the bridge to the lake side again.  You could hear them chirp every time they approached the bridge, so that they wouldn’t run into the sides of the concrete arches that supported the bridge; the arches formed a small echo chamber which added depth to their squeaks. 

We finally tore ourselves away, got back in the car, and headed down to Long Mountain Circle, around Bear Mountain and across the bridge, right up under the Hudson Highlands peaks looming in the dark grey sky.  Driving up Route 9D, a standard two-lane highway, we caught occasional glimpses back over the river to the peaks in the west.  This is one dramatic road in daylight, but we were seeing mostly vague shapes at that point in the evening.

II.  The Reaper sends his regards

We drove up through Cold Spring, rattled down 3 miles of wretched road in a construction zone near Beacon, and were closing in on the Beacon-Wappingers Falls border when we hit one of the few traffic lights that pepper the route.  We were the second car in line at the red light.

The light turned green. The lead car moved away and I quickly followed.  We drove out of the lit zone at the intersection, our eyes beginning to readjust to the darkness of the road.  We had almost gotten back to the legal highway speed of 45 mph when the brake lights of the car ahead blazed on and he stopped short.  I pumped my brakes furiously and was able to stop just before I hit him.  All I could see was that there was some sort of huge black wall across the road immediately ahead.  I was about to whack my emergency flashers on when I heard the sound of tires screeching behind us and thought, “Oh, shit this is it.”  I saw that there were still a few feet between us and the first car; I pulled my foot off the brake and coasted forward as close to him as I dared.  Saying a quick silent prayer, we braced for multiple impacts from the rear.  Somehow, miraculously, they didn’t come.

My heart was  pounding; I was shaking like vibrator in overdrive.  The air was thick with the acrid stench of burnt rubber from the tires on the cars in back of us.  I peered ahead, trying to see just what this nearly invisible barrier across the road was.  My shocked vision put together the outlines of a UPS delivery truck.

The truck had come out of a driveway or side road – I couldn’t see exactly what it was in the darkness – and was trying to make a left turn to go south on 9D.  Apparently the driver’s notion of how to make a proper turn onto a busy highway was to place his truck completely across the northbound lane and sit there, waiting for a break in the southbound traffic.  His left turn signal wasn’t on, and there was no reflective surface anywhere on the side of the dark brown truck to make it apparent to drivers.  You might think that the gold UPS lettering would show up in headlights, but no; the truck was truly invisible, a disaster waiting to happen.

The driver made his left turn a few seconds later; I cursed him driver roundly as he sped past.  Naturally, he had his door and window closed, so I didn’t even have the satisfaction of seeing him bat an eye.

III.  The show

Adrenalin was racing through my system and I was still in something of a daze as we drove on.  We came up on a long line of cars a few minutes later and knew we must be approaching the stadium.  Both sides of the highway were already full of cars parked on the shoulder.  There were a few vacant spots left but, not knowing just how far the stadium was, I was reluctant to park out there.  As it turned out, we still had about 2 miles to go.

We finally rounded a bend, and there was the stadium to the right, atop a bit of a hill.  We could hear what I assumed was Jimmy Vaughan’s band playing.  We got up to the stadium intersection, where a cop directing traffic informed us that the stadium lot was full and directed us back to the parking lot of a mall under construction across the street.  He was kind enough to stop traffic for us for a moment & allow us to make a U turn to get back to the mall road.  Good fellows, those Wappingers Falls cops.

It was just after 8:00 as we made our way across the road and up to the stadium, Jimmy’s band sounding tasty and getting louder.  We entered, walked past the concession stands under the seats to the access archway on the first base side, and took a quick peek inside to orient ourselves.  The infield was covered with the tarp and completely roped off.  The stage was out in the outfield, backed right up against the center field wall; you could walk behind the field level seats past first base to ramps that led down to the field and stand in the grass in front of the stage, or you could sit in the grandstand and hear the show from afar.

I was famished at that point, particularly after our encounter with the UPS truck, so we went back to the concession area, grabbed some ballpark food , and went back up to the sparsely populated grandstand to devour.  Sausage and peppers never tasted so good.  We were just in time for the last two songs of Jimmy’s set.  Jimmy’s band sounded pretty hot, and Lou Ann Barton had a good bluesy voice.  I wish we’d been able to hear the whole thing – for that matter, I wish we could have done the whole show and caught Elana James and Junior Brown, but a 6:30 show that far up the road was impossible on a work day.

We finished our food and strolled down to the outfield.  The air was cool and damp but there wasn’t a hint of rain.  We were able to get a pretty good vantage point at the right of the stage.  Dylan’s current tour logo, a big stylized gold eye with swirling gold lines around it that vaguely suggest G-clefs and musical notes, hung on a black banner atop the stage.  It’s one of the cooler logos I’ve seen in recent years; if I had tons of money I might have bought  one of those $40 T shirts.

There was, I believe, some Copland playing over the sound system shortly before Dylan came on.  Then his standard recorded intro:

“Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the poet laureate of rock ‘n’ roll. The voice of the promise of the ’60s counterculture. The guy who forced folk into bed with rock, who donned makeup in the ’70s and disappeared into a haze of substance abuse, who emerged to find Jesus, and who suddenly shifted gears, releasing some of the strongest music of his career beginning in the late ’90s. Columbia recording artist, Bob Dylan!”

Bob and the band came out, all of them dressed in black, each wearing a hat of some sort.  Dylan would switch from some sort of weird leather cap to a cowboy hat towards the end of the evening.  They tore immediately into Cat’s In The Well, a rather disturbing song from the little-known Under The Red Sky album. 

The first thing you notice, of course, is Dylan’s voice.  In the deeper registers, he has a horrible rasp that’s almost painful to hear, but he soldiers on; on the higher notes, his voice is surprisingly clear and penetrating.  This is a different voice from the one  that many of us have burned into our brains.  It’s still utterly distinctive and compelling.

As the night goes on, you realize that the familiar songs have new arrangements and Dylan has developed vocal phrasings that almost transform them into completely new songs.  Stuck Inside Of Mobile is kind of a laid-back shuffle with a bluesy vamp between the verses.  Highway 61 is a heavy ass-shaking rocker.  Visions Of Johanna is just Dylan at the keyboards.  All Along the Watchtower delivers a heavy nod to that timeless Hendrix version.  Oddly, Dylan closes the song, and the show itself, by repeating the first verse and then bringing everything to a crashing halt on an extended major chord.  I  have no idea what that signifies, and Dylan may not either, but it’s startling.

Dylan plays keyboards all night, mostly organ, some piano.  He occasionally picks up the harmonica to add its lilting quality to the music, and always gets a round of applause when he does.  He no longer plays guitar on tour.  Some have speculated that it’s because of arthritis in his hands, others, that it’s an artistic choice.  Apparently he’s not telling; he just does what he does.

Landon pointed out how self-effacing the production is, and it’s true.  Dylan stands at the keyboards just a little to the right of stage center, facing lead guitarist Denny Freeman and longtime bassist Tony Garnier on our left. George Recile on drums and Donnie Herron on pedal steel, lap steel and mandolin, are on risers at the back of the stage. Rhythm guitarist Stu Kimball cranks it out from behind Dylan on the right.  The lighting never puts anyone, including Dylan, in the spotlight; it comes up for every song, shines on the whole band in varying colors and intensities, and goes dark in between the songs.  Very simple, and as curious and compelling as the music.  Everything seems designed to convey the impression that this is a band and Dylan is just the guy who plays the keys and sings.  

The show ran for a full two hours and it went by all too quickly.  The setlist:

Cat’s In The Well, You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere, Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum, The Man In Me, Watching The River Flow, Stuck Inside Of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again, Not Dark Yet, Highway 61 Revisited, Visions Of Johanna, I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight, Sugar Baby, Summer Days

encores:

Like A Rolling Stone, All Along The Watchtower

There is really nothing out there these days like The Bob Dylan Show.  It stays with you for quite a while.  See it while you can.  That voice won’t  last forever, though I suspect he’s going to try to make it do just that.  There’s a fall tour of small arenas coming up.  That won’t be quite as much fun as going to a ballpark and standing in the outfield grass in the night air with a few thousand like-minded fans, but I suspect it’ll still be pretty good.

IV.  The return

After the lights came up, we strolled slowly out of the stadium back to the mall lot.  Kind of eerie hanging out in front of empty quasi-Colonial buildings.  It was obvious that, with the stadium lot and the mall road all pouring out onto Route 9D, it was going to take a while to get anywhere.  We decided not to fight the traffic and just  waited till our lot cleared out.  We wondered how they managed to park people for the ball games – did Dylan sell thousands more tickets than the local team, or does the area get jammed up like that all the time?

We eventually got back on the road.  I wasn’t about to go back the way we’d come up, not with that horrible stretch of road construction, so we got onto I-84, nipped across the Beacon-Newburgh Bridge, deciphered the deteriorating highway signs (what’s up with that, New York state?) just in time to catch the Thruway exit, and headed south. 

We hadn’t been on the Thruway for more than 2 minutes before we ran into Ernesto’s northern front.  It quickly became the oddly termed driving rain, not really something that you want to drive in, but it didn’t faze me at all.  The traffic was light, and I knew we’d already had our brush with fate on the way up, I was certain there wouldn’t be another.  The rain let up again when we hit  New Jersey.  I dropped Landon off in Jersey City and took my familiar back roads west through the swamps of Jersey, up to the ridgetop and north again, the New York City skyline glowing across the Meadowlands and the Hudson, and so back home, “It’s not dark yet but it’s getting there” and “Out on Highway 61” still echoing in my brain.

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