The "Song and Dance Man" Returns
By Glen Boyd
When you've seen Bob Dylan live as many times as I have, you kind of come to expect the unexpected. Based on the ten or so Dylan concerts I've seen since 1974, the man largely runs hot and cold. From my experience at least, you are either going to get the quieter, introspective "detached" Dylan or the somewhat more energetic "song and dance man" model.
As old as I am (50 for those keeping score), I am not nearly old enough to have seen Dylan when he was pissing off the folkie purists at Newport by strapping on an electric guitar with Mike Bloomfield and the like. For those memories, I'll have to settle for my DVD of Scorsese's brilliant No Direction Home.
Nor was I old enough to witness his original groundbreaking shows in the sixties with The Band. My experience with Dylan live actually began when I was a high school senior in 1974. Eighteen years old at the time, I wandered down to the Seattle Center Coliseum on pretty much a lark and ended up accepting a free ticket to his sold out reunion show with the Band from the stoned out hippie who offered it up to me. Imagine my luck.
After witnessing that amazing show, which is captured on Dylan and The Band's live Before The Flood album, I became a fan for life.
Of the many Dylan shows I have witnessed, I've seen him through most of the more interesting phases of his career since that time. I saw the Vegas model Dylan introduced on the tour for Street Legal in 1978 (and later captured for posterity on the Live At Budokan album), where Dylan debuted his "song and dance man" routine in earnest.
I saw him on the Jesus tour where he pretty much pissed off every hippie and leftover sixties radical still alive by performing a super-charged gospel revival show and refusing to play stuff like "Like A Rolling Stone." About a year later, I saw Dylan when he came back and played a "greatest hits" show that seemed almost like an apology for all of the hell and brimstone of that "Born Again" show — a rare artistic compromise in a career marked by so few of them.
Through it all, I can tell you what they say about Dylan live is largely true. Not only does the man run either very hot or very cold, but you can pretty much count on him reinventing his songs in a concert setting every time. Usually to the point where it may take a minute to even recognize them — at least until the lyrics start to kick in.
Bob Dylan And His Band "In Concert And In Show" October 13, 2006 at Seattle's Key Arena, was no exception.
Taking the stage to one of the most bizarre self-deprecating introductions I've ever heard - the intro read more like a career bio mentioning everything from his "poet laureate" status to his Jesus years - Dylan and his amazing band played a dazzling near two-hour set (long by Dylan's recent live standard). It was a show that was long on radically revamped versions of old hits, and surprisingly short on material from his brilliant new Modern Times release.
On the second night of an arena tour meant to promote that album, only three of its songs showed up on the setlist in Seattle. The first of these, a poignant and lovely sounding "When The Deal Goes Down" found Dylan in fine voice for a version that remained true to the album. "Workingman's Blues #2," Dylan's most recent lesson on war and economics (and one of Modern Times many standouts), came a few songs later.
Surprisingly, "Thunder On The Mountain," the apocalyptic sounding blast which opens that album didn't come until the encores. Its opening wash of bluesy sounding guitars actually brought a high-five from the fifteen year old sitting behind me who'd been complaining about the lack of new songs all night.
Which begs the obvious question — when was the last time you heard people complain about so many hits and so little new stuff at a show by someone who's been around as long as Dylan? Certainly not at a Stones or McCartney show.
Sandwiched in between the lone three Modern Times tracks was what can only be a characterized as a fan's dream setlist. And from the opening "Maggie's Farm" to the last encore of "All Along The Watchtower," nearly all of the songs were radically reworked to represent Dylan's more recent musical turn towards a darker, bluesier sound. They were also expertly played by a great band that seems to specialize in making these songs swing like the proverbial pendulum.
Actually, save for Dylan's raspier croak of the past few years, "Watchtower" stayed pretty close to the original, as did "Rolling Stone," and a version of "Highway 61 Revisited" where the band blew the roof off of the place. "Positively 4th Street" and the opening "Maggie's Farm" on the other hand sounded so different it took many (myself included) a few minutes to even recognize them.
As great as Dylan's current band sounds onstage, it was Dylan's voice that was the star of the show here. With it's deeper resonance, and the way Dylan's been using his voice as more of an instrument lately, Dylan dramatically phrased certain words, going from a low croak to a high register often in an instant. It was like hearing these songs — many of them over thirty years old — for the very first time. Although he is most often recognized as being this generation's greatest songwriter, as a master of vocal phrasing Dylan likewise has few equals.
This was displayed most dramatically during a wonderful new take on the Blood On The Tracks classic "Tangled Up In Blue" where Dylan's weathered and weary voice breathed new life into that song's famous lyrics about love and heartbreak. Some of the reworkings of classics were also a little cruel. Dylan teased the opening notes of "Every Grain Of Sand" (one of my all-time favorite Dylan songs), during an intro for what eventually became a new reading of "Just Like A Woman." Good as "Just Like A Woman" sounded, I had a hard time masking my disappointment when he failed to deliver on the initial tease.
But Bob Dylan was most definitely in "song and dance man" mode for this show. Dressed in black gamblers hat and suit (his band wore carefully color-coordinated matching duds), he displayed some pretty impressive dance moves (for an old codger) from behind his keyboards, and he smiled more often than I can ever remember seeing the man do onstage. Dylan seemed to be having a great time up there.
Sadly, this was the second Dylan show I've seen in the past couple years where he never strapped on a guitar — something I now suspect we're not going to see again anytime soon. There we're a few nice turns at the harmonica though.
For those who've seen some of the more withdrawn shows Dylan did with people like Merle Haggard on the so-called "Neverending Tour," I highly recommend getting out and seeing the man this time around. Rocking again like the born "song and dance man" he is, this is truly Bob Dylan "In Concert And In Show."
Hopefully, he'll work in a few more songs from Modern Times by the time he reaches your town too.
Bob Dylan And His Band
October 13, 2006
Key Arena - Seattle, Washington
1. Maggie's Farm
2. She Belongs To Me
3. Lonesome Day Blues
4. Positively 4th Street
5. It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)
6. Just Like A Woman
7. Highway 61 Revisited
8. When The Deal Goes Down
9. Tangled Up In Blue
10. A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall
11. Watching The River Flow
12. Workingman's Blues #2
13. Summer Days
14. Thunder On The Mountain
15. Like A Rolling Stone
16. All Along The Watchtower