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Bob Dylan, United Palace Theater, NYC: I know a place where there’s still somethin’ going on November 17, 2009

Posted by Anton A in American music, Bob Dylan.
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Bob Dylan and Dion: two New York icons appeared up at the United Palace Theater tonight. Dylan has been remarkably astute in his choices of opening acts in recent years.

I remember a friend expounding on Dion some years ago. It was a treat for me to see him for the first time last night. He opened the show at 7:30 sharp. He’s still in fine voice. We missed the first 15 minutes, arrived in time for a cover of Summertime Blues, a moody Abraham, Martin & John, a powerful rendition of King Of The New York Streets, & then extended versions of Runaround Sue and The Wanderer. He’s got a wailing sax man. His band is a bit like a small-scale version of the E-Streeters. Highly enjoyable.

Dylan was astounding, as always. Austin guitar whiz Charlie Sexton has replaced Denny Freeman, at least for this leg of the never-ending tour, & has completely changed the dynamic of the band. Before, the act was often reminiscent of The Band, with that sort of contemplative American roots sound. I liked it just fine, it had a solid place in the scheme of things. With Sexton, this round feels like Dylan back on speed & psychedelics. Sexton’s musicianship pushes Dylan to new levels of energy and the rest of the band to pick up the pace; do they ever respond. This was by far the most energized of the five Dylan shows I’ve seen in the last three years. Bob always brings his best to these year-end New York gigs but I never expected a show with as much fire as this one.

Setlist: Cat’s In The Well, It’s All Over Now Baby Blue, Beyond Here Lies Nothin’, A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall, Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum, John Brown, Summer Days, Po’ Boy, Cold Irons Bound, If You Ever Go To Houston, Highway 61 Revisited, Ain’t Talkin’, Thunder On The Mountain, Ballad Of A Thin Man.

Encores: Like A Rolling Stone, Jolene, All Along The Watchtower.

Bob Dylan, First Energy Park, Lakewood, NJ: When I left my home the sky split open wide July 23, 2009

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“Dylan had the echo off the grandstand working like a high mountain marauder.”

I want to acknowledge this fine line from a review by Jim R. It captures the essence of what makes these ballpark shows such a unique experience, standing in the outfield in front of the stage, immersed in a special sort of Surround Sound.

But that’s the middle of the story. Not that the beginning had much to recommend it. Thanks to the long drive, miserable rain, traffic & equally miserable parking situation around First Energy Park, we missed Willie Nelson’s opening set.

We made it to the stadium in time for a rousing 70-minute performance from John Mellencamp & band. With the rain continuing to fall in the deepening twilight, we watched the show from the walkway above the grandstand seats; everything seemed too wet for us to venture any further into the ballpark.

Last time we saw a Mellencamp show, on the tour with John Fogerty opening a couple of years ago, they had the violin & keys/accordion dominating the sound, an interesting approach that ultimately seemed to take the edge off most of the songs. This time the guitars were back up in the mix, giving the performance a lot more bite, with the violin and accordion still prominent enough to add that heartland-music atmosphere.

Mellencamp was in excellent voice. It was too soggy for me to keep a set list but there were particularly fine renditions of Paper In Fire, Rain On The Scarecrow, Check It Out, Crumblin’ Down, an acoustic Small Town, Authority Song, and a sobering, haunting slower tune (I don’t know the title) about being “almost done with this body.” He put anyone who might remember his heart attack, or have had their own brushes with mortality, in touch with some raw emotions for a few minutes there.

Mellencamp’s game isn’t always subtle. He has a gift for the big, obvious, memorable musical hook, and he’s made the most of that. He’s also very smart about choosing the people he tours with, and when it’s time to take the stage he puts all he’s got into every performance. He’s earned a lot of respect in my book.

I’d grabbed a vile hot dog towards the end of the set, had to have something to renew my strength for the upcoming slog to the outfield for Mister Dylan. We made our way down the grandstand aisle, hopped over a big mud puddle & walked out to left field, where’d they’d covered the ground with thick rubbery mats that made getting around out there vaguely like walking on a waterbed.

The lights went down and the familiar Copland strains came up. My brain immediately went into overdrive, neurons I didn’t know I had started firing. What is it about a Dylan show that affects you like a hit of speed? Is it the unmatchable resonance that he brings to the stage? Is it not knowing which songs you’re going to hear? If you follow the tour setlists on line, you know that certain songs will pop up in certain slots, and you also know that it’s impossible to predict exactly how the band is going to get there.

When they lights came up, we saw that Dylan was decked out in the usual black hat, a natty lavender coat, white shirt & the familiar single-gray-stripe-on-black bellhop pants. He strapped on his electric guitar. Holding it just shy of vertical, he showed us that he’s still got some chops with Watching The River Flow.

They went into Girl Of The North Country. Dylan sang the first verse in a bit of a slur as “If you’re traveling to the north country fair, with the wind…. on the border….” You immediately wonder why he’s done this. Was it a deliberate lyrical change? Did he forget the words? Was he simply preoccupied with something technical early in the show? Whatever it was, he sang the familiar full lyric loud and strong in the repeated first verse at the end of the song.

That was all we’d hear from Bob’s guitar that night. When he moved to the organ on Lonesome Day Blues, it was clearly higher in the mix than on the previous tours I’ve seen, you could hear him pumping out every chord. To my ears the band had a great sound, like some undiscovered band that you’d stumble onto in an Appalachian roadhouse somewhere, except with one of America’s great songwriters and most distinctive voices at the helm.

You run across a number of reviews that long for the days when Larry Campbell was in the band and the guitarists took more solos. Those days are gone and Dylan has taken the band in a direction where the guitars are much more restrained. Does he want the focus to be on Garnier and Recile? Visually they’re at the center of the stage set. Their bass & drum work is so tight, so accomplished, that it’s easy to get lost in their playing until snap! suddenly a whole song has gone by. Maybe this is part of Dylan’s ongoing desire to turn the notion of a conventional rock show on its head.

Regardless, the effect of Dylan’s current approach is to put the song itself at center stage; each one seems to float there, conjured into being by this backroads band. On those few songs when Dylan takes the center mike, he’s simply allowing the entity that’s there to inhabit him and speak through his voice. That echo off the grandstand seemed to envelop us in the songs more and more as the evening progressed, enhancing the spooky-medicine-show atmosphere that always seems to hover over Dylan’s act these days.

Back to the show: Tweedle Dee was sharp and rocking, propelled by Kimball’s & Freeman’s precise guitar work. Somewhere early in the set the rain had finally abated, which added a little touch of irony to Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall. Honest With Me has a new minor-key arrangement and a hard edge that added a dark dimension to the song; it was a highlight of the night. Workingman’s Blues was elegant and elegiac, driven by a gorgeous acoustic guitar chords from Stu Kimball. Highway 61 rocked hard, as usual.

Ain’t Talkin’, for me, was the next highlight; I think the song is one of Dylan’s recent masterpieces and always find the live performance spellbinding. Clearly a large chunk of the crowd disagreed, since they took the song as their cue to exit the outfield and leave the stadium. Everybody gets something different from a Dylan show.

Thunder On The Mountain, always rousing, and the three encore songs showed up in their usual slots. Jolene works very well in the encore; it’s nice to hear a song from the new album at that point in the show.

Maybe it was my waterlogged ears at that point, but Watchtower seems to have a choppier, more angular feel this year that owes as much to The Clash as it does to Hendrix. Maybe I’m delusional. In any event I enjoyed this rendition of that familiar song much more than I’d expected; I think they’re continuing to reinvent it.

I’d carried my waterproof binoculars out onto the field, and I can testify that Dylan was having a great time with this show, flashing little grins all night. I’m not talking about the smile-like grimace that he frequently uses to get the right tone from a word at line’s end, I’m talking about actual grins. The man’s already done 47 shows this year and he’s still having a blast. Whatever magic he’s found to drive him at this point in his life, it’s working. It’s an inspiration.

I hate to return to mundane details. Exiting the ballpark into a dimly lit parking lot and more rain was very disorienting. There were no busses visible where we’d been dropped off. Most of the staff had no idea where the pickup site was and the few who did seemed incapable of explaining how to get there. We eventually found the bus queue by following a few people who seemed to be walking purposefully somewhere. It took us 45 minutes to get back to the car. You have to suffer for art in some way, even when you’re just a spectator.

Setlist: Watching The River Flow, Girl Of The North Country, Lonesome Day Blues, Chimes Of Freedom, Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum, A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall, Honest WIth Me, Workingman’s Blues #2, Highway 61 Revisited, Ain’t Talkin’, Thunder On The Mountain.

Encores: Like A Rolling Stone, Jolene, All Along The Watchtower.

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.

Bob Dylan, Continental Arena, East Rutherford, NJ: There’s a wicked wind still blowing November 16, 2006

Posted by Anton A in American music, Bob Dylan.
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It always seems to be an adventure getting to a Dylan show. Last summer we nearly got flattened against the side of an invisible UPS truck parked across the highway. On this November Thursday, vicious wind gusts & a stinging near-horizontal rain would set the tone for the evening.

As we drove along the Meadowlands parking lot alleys and came up behind Giants Stadium, a dumpster suddenly blew across our path. I hit the brakes and waited for the gusts to subside, making sure that we weren’t going to get broadsided by this contraption, before creeping by it. A little further on, a dual-stall Port-O-San sat smackdab in the middle of the road, blown in from God knows where. We wondered fleetingly whether there was anyone inside as we swerved around it, but there were no Port-O-San stories on News Of The Weird next day, so I guess there wasn’t.

We parked in the stadium lot near the mouth of the covered footbridge over Route 120 and hiked above the three-abreast line of cars waiting to get into the arena lots. Haha, they were going to miss The Raconteurs and we weren’t. We pushed on along the bridge, down the ramp, up the steps to the Continental Arena entrance, along the hall and down again.

Some of the heaviest Hammond organ I’ve heard since Jon Lord left Deep Purple was coming off the stage as we made our way down to our center court seats, just 6 rows off the floor, perfectly situated to see Mister Dylan face on. The Raconteurs were already ripping it up. I hoped for more of that Hammond sound but it was featured on just the one song. Still, the band did not lack for great acid-drenched guitar textures.

They seem to have added a blond guitarist since their CD, which features 4 dark-haired guys on the cover; he complements Jack White’s riffs and sonic sense very well. On one song, the blond guy and the multi-instrumentalist fellow had dueling E-Bows going while Jack was picking away. Cool stuff. They did an intense cover of Cher’s Bang Bang as Zep might have done it in No Quarter style.

I quickly settled into a frame of mind where I felt like it was a night at the Fillmore. Hearing this solid dose of deftly delivered acid rock, with Dylan and his cowboy band up next, reminded me of those strange genre-free days when you might get Albert King and Quicksilver Messenger Service, or Paul Butterfield Blues Band and the Jefferson Airplane, on the same bill. Most of the crowd appreciated what The Raconteurs were doing and gave them a good ovation when they finished.

We strolled around the arena hallways during intermission. The place was maybe 60% full, with only a smattering of people in the upper deck, so everything seemed low key, a nice change from some shows I’ve done there, even though I wasn’t happy to see Bob not filling a venue. Everyone seemed in a good mood, even the bedraggled stragglers getting in late; I think we were all glad to have a little shelter from the storm.

Back to our seats to wait for the Copland & that peculiar intro. The lights went up and there was the band, all in gray suits, some with black shirts & others in gray, Denny Freeman with a tie, all in hats except for Donnie Herron; I guess his great hair qualifies as a hat. Dylan wore a long black gambler’s coat with a powder blue scarf and royal blue rhinestone-bedecked shirt, black slacks with a single gray stripe down the sides, flat black cowboy hat with a few more rhinestones around the brim. Toward the end of the show he would pull his coat sleeves back to make sure we got a good look at the rhinestones on the shirt cuffs. He was a-sparkle for sure.

I don’t know whether Mister Dylan took his cues for the night from the fierce weather outside, or if it just seemed that way to my soaked sensibilities, but the show quickly developed an intensity and an energy that wasn’t as much evident at the more contemplative, laid-back summertime ballpark show. They opened with Cat’s In The Well, same as the Dutchess County show, a nice wry tune for the band to get warmed up. They moved quickly into a biting rendition of Señor (Tales Of Yankee Power) from Street Legal, Dylan snarling out every line. “There’s a wicked wind still blowin’ on that upper deck” seemed to connect directly with what was happening outside. “Senor, senor, let’s disconnect these cables, Overturn these tables. This place don’t make sense to me no more. Can you tell me what we’re waiting for, senor?” went right into the deepest part of your brain. I got a sense then that this was going to be a special night.

After the obligatory Rollin & Tumblin (I’m still trying to figure out why Dylan is doing this song, and maybe that’s the reason he does it), the band went into another guess-the-tune intro. I thought that we were going to get another repeat from Dutchess, of You Ain’t Going Nowhere, but it didn’t sound quite right. I was not prepared at all to hear “You’ve got a lotta nerve, to say you are my friend….” Damn! This was the song that captured and defined my adolescence. The arrangement was peculiar, an almost sweet-sounding chord progression against those bitter bitter lyrics; it seemed to morph more towards the original as it went on, though it never quite got there. Still, by “….you’d know what a drag it is to see you,” it was like 41 years had evaporated and just for that one moment we were all young again. It was unbelievable; I never thought I’d hear that song performed four decades down the road.

Could the night get any better? Yes. A different guess-the-tune intro, this one full of bluesy minor chords and dark intensity, and suddenly: “Darkness at the break of noon, Shadows even the silver spoon, The handmade blade, the child’s balloon Eclipses both the sun and moon To understand you know too soon There is no sense in trying.” Damn brilliant.

A heartfelt rendition of When The Deal Goes Down, and then something I didn’t recognize at all. After the show I’d learn that it was Things Have Changed from 1999, available only on the Essential Bob Dylan collection. Dylan enunciated every word clearly – “Lot of water under the bridge, Lot of other stuff too, Don’t get up gentlemen, I’m only passing through” seemed again to reflect the storm outside.

Next up, a relatively faithful arrangement of Simple Twist Of Fate. The crowd went nuts at the opening chords and seemed to hang on every line; this was a night for rarities. A blistering Highway 61 charged us up, Spirit On The Water let us catch our breath. Then the band seemed to crank up the volume another notch, and suddenly we were Tangled Up In Blue. This was the sonic highlight of the night. Mister Dylan sporting a big grin with a twinkle in his eye? I had binoculars, I saw it happen; it was obvious that he knew they were nailing this song & he was just digging the hell out of it. There was a bit of lyrical confusion in there – tangled up indeed – but when you’re rocking that well, who cares?

If you’ve been following this tour you pretty much know where the show goes from here, into a kind of gentle winding-down with more than a few performance highlights, if no more song surprises: five last songs to be savored and one more reference to that howling wind outside.

Somewhere during the night I watched Dylan stroll over to his drinks, in big red plastic cups perched on top of a little equipment rack at the right side of the stage. Next to the cups was the little gold statue, illuminated by a tiny light, which I now know that Dylan received for Things Have Changed from Wonder Boys. A heap of strung beads, presumably from Mardi Gras, hung over the corner of the rack. Apparently these items are on stage at every show on this tour. An Oscar and beads from New Orleans: totems for these Modern Times.

At the final farewell, when they all line up at the front of the stage, Dylan looked serious and a bit glum. Always Mister Enigmatic. Curiously, the band departed stage left while he stalked off stone-faced in the opposite direction. Most of the crowd then started to leave, but I kept watching through the binoculars and saw the old artificer circle around in back of the amps, where he caught up with drummer George Recile; walking side by side, they each threw an arm over the other’s back and patted each other on the shoulder for a moment, talking and laughing as if they were about to step through the swinging doors of an old saloon for a night of carousing. The solitary public walk-off had been another bit of stagecraft, one last calculated image to punctuate the night.

Outside the rain had dwindled for the moment to a soft sprinkle. It’s always a moment of elevation, emerging from a show at the Meadowlands arena and feeling the buzz dissipate into the brightly lit expanse of the parking area while the seagulls hover and glide, brilliantly white against the night sky, beautiful scavengers. The wind would rage and the rain would spit again before we got back to our homes, but for a while there we were all soaring.

Setlist:

Cat’s In The Well, Señor (Tales Of Yankee Power), Rollin’ And Tumblin’, Positively 4th Street, It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding), When The Deal Goes Down, Things Have Changed, Simple Twist Of Fate, Highway 61 Revisited, Spirit On The Water, Tangled Up In Blue, Nettie Moore, Summer Days

encores:

Thunder On The Mountain, Like A Rolling Stone, All Along The Watchtower

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

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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.