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Bob Dylan, United Palace Theater, NYC: As I walked out tonight in the mystic garden November 21, 2008

Posted by Anton A in American music, Bob Dylan.
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It wasn’t really an idiot wind in our faces as we trudged up Fort Washington Avenue toward Reverend Ike’s temple on an upper Manhattan hilltop, nor did it quite howl, but it sure did sting.

I’d been to the United Palace Theater in upper Manhattan a year ago to see Neil Young. I had the navigation and parking issues sussed out from my misadventures then, so that part had gone smoothly – an easy blast from Jersey across the George Washington Bridge, a quick bail from the traffic at the first local exit and a short drive downtown to the parking garage, keeping just west of the gridlock around the Palace.

This year we walked straight into the theater and slipped through the first door on the left directly into our back-of-orchestra seats; couldn’t have been easier. We had a tunneled view of the stage; I wondered whether the overhang of the loge, suspended ovver seemingly half the orchestra seats, would muddy the sound. I was also disappointed that we were so far back because we couldn’t take in the gilt rococo splendor of the Palace. It’s one of New York’s most remarkable spaces; it was a shame to miss the full effect of the place.

We had a few minutes to de-layer and try to arrange coats & sweaters. The crowd around us was genial and so young! I’d wager that most of their parents hadn’t even met when I was seeing Mister Dylan at the piano scowling “Something is happening here but you don’t know what it is,” backed by the musicians who a few years later would become known as The Band. Time….

The lights flickered about ten minutes later, then went dark There was the usual Copland music and the spoken “poet laureate / forced folk into bed with rock / haze of substance abuse / strongest music of his career ” intro and then:

Every Dylan show has its Señor moment, where he plucks an unexpected song from the catalog and delivers it with such intensity that you’ll remember it for the rest of your life. This time Dylan opened the show with that moment: he delivered Gotta Serve Somebody from center stage in his usual opening growl, holding a mike and harmonica playing the role of front man in a white skimmer, pale green shirt & scarf under black suit with single-side-striped trousers. Bob held the mike and harp in his left hand, leaving his right hand free to gesticulate and emphasize. A bold gambit. The sound was clear and sharp; the song penetrated. Where could the night possibly go from there? Would it all seem anti-climactic?

The show would meander a bit, but it would return to the level set at the start, perhaps even exceed it. Bob slipped back to the organ for The Times They Are A Changin’ and Levee, throwing some deft harp lines into the breaks. He returned to center stage and picked up his guitar for Tomorrow Is A Long Time. His instrument seemed to be a Gibson ES 175 hollow-body electric. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen him hold any sort of guitar. He played some rockin’ lead lines at the end, interspersed with a few Chuck Berry-style chords. By this point his voice seemed to have shed a good 30 years, it was clear and strong.

An intense version of Things Have Changed was next, with Bob back on the organ. They flew into a scatter-shot version of Desolation Row, each verse featuring a different attack, from straight-up declamatory rock to carnival oompah to Brechtian cabaret. I’m not sure that it all worked, and it seemed to lose focus as it went on, but I have to give Bob & the band credit for trying new approaches.

Bob remained in the past with It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding). This rendition emphasized a bluesy riff at the expense, I thought, of the ferocity I’d heard in the more sparse 2006 arrangement. But it’s a great song. The line, “Even the president of the United States sometimes must have to stand naked,” drew a huge cheer.

The band seemed to settle into an easy groove for the next five songs, slowing things way down with Beyond The Horizon and gradually ramping it back up. This hypnotic interlude was shattered by a smoking, foot-stomping version of Highway 61. The stage backdrop, which had remained black till then, was splattered with a projection of white dots that seemed like a closeup view of the Milky Way.

Ain’t Talkin’ followed. The subdued stage lights were lowered even further and the backdrop became a twisted tangle of white lines with sharp points, suggesting ghostly tree roots. The band gave a fiery performance that conjured up some serious voodoo in the night’s spookiest moment.

The lights came back up, the backdrop faded to black again, and the band closed the main set with Thunder On The Mountain. They gave it a good swing but it seemed a bit anti-climactic at that point in the set.

The band returned to the stage underneath the Eye Of Horus logo. I was struck by how effective the three stage backdrops were, the more so for being sparsely used, a marked contrast with the busy images that surround the typical rock concert.

Like A Rolling Stone was the first of three encore songs. I’d been watching Bob through my binoculars all night; halfway through the show, he’d begun cracking little smiles here and there. By the time he got to “Napoleon in rags” the smile had become huge, as it was two years ago when the band was nailing Tangled Up In Blue. The man is so focused on his delivery of every song, you can still see why he became known as The Great Stone Face; these days, he’s not always so stony.

All Along The Watchtower was rousing, as always. The way he ended the song with a reprise of the first verse and, this night, a special emphasis on the final phrase, “Businessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth, None of them along the line know what any of it is worth,” really seemed to resonate with the state of the world. You can read as little or as much prophecy into that 40 year-old line as you want, from a foreshadowing of the subprime mess to agribusiness to Herman Daly’s vision of a post-capitalist economy. Dylan, I’m sure, would tell you it’s just a song.

Blowin’ In The Wind has been transformed into a fractured country blues tune. Bob strapped on the brown & yellow guitar again, returned to center stage and gave us one last shot of tinkling lead lines during the song’s outro. It was the perfect iconic moment to end the night.

Dylan’s band was serously tight. You don’t go to a Dylan show to be dazzled by instrumental shredding, though Tony Garnier on bass and George Recile on drums in the center of it all will mesmerize you whenever you can focus on them. From stage right, Denny Freeman stood and delivered clean Texas blues-tinged lead lines on his custom white Strat. Stu Kimball, billed as rhythm guitarist, switched between acoustic and electric; on several songs he played thoughtful acoustic leads while Denny held the rhythm, a nice textural variation. Donnie Herron sat above and behind Dylan’s organ at stage left, virtually inaudible on pedal steel guitar and banjo; only his violin on Things Have Changed and haunting viola work on Ain’t Talkin’ cut thrugh the mix, but he seems to have a special rapport with Bob’s playing and vocal phrasing that anchors every song.

With their black suits & hats (except for Donnie – can’t muss that great hair!) and the muted stage lights, they seemed less a band than a group of backroad conjurors led by the wizard with the white hat and the quirky gestures, there for one cold night in Reverend Ike’s glittering church on the hill atop America’s ultimate city to raise those songs from our collective memory and give us the rare chance to dwell in the space of that music for a spell.

There’s magic of the best kind here. Long may it run.

Setlist: Gotta Serve Somebody, The Times They Are A-Changin’,  The Levee’s Gonna Break, Tomorrow Is A Long Time, Things Have Changed, Desolation Row, It’s Alright Ma (I”m Only Bleeding), Beyond The Horizon, ‘Til I Fell In Love With You, Make You Feel My Love, Honest With Me, Spirit On The Water, Highway 61 Revisited, Ain’t Talkin’, Thunder On The Mountain. 

Encores: Like A Rolling Stone, All Along The Watchtower, Blowin’ In The Wind.