When sometime Creem mainstay Wayne Robins' daughter called to say Bob Dylan was playing on her campus, he decided to drive a few hundred miles and check out the old bard. This is his postcard home--Barney Hoskyns, Editorial Director, Rock's Backpages
I don't remember the last time I saw Bob Dylan in concert, but I do remember the first: February 1966, Dylan and the Hawks (soon to be known as The Band), at the Island Garden, a dank, long defunct minor league hockey arena in West Hempstead, Long Island.
Since then, I've seen many, including the Rolling Thunder revue, the Last Waltz, the Columbia Records 30th anniversary tribute, and a number of shows in the early let's-stump-the-audience period of extreme, spontaneous rearrangement of the classics.
But I hadn't seen him since his songwriting and recording renaissance that began with Love and Theft in 2001. So when my daughter Liz, a junior at Binghamton University in upstate New York, called to say that Dylan was performing on her campus Nov. 17, I jumped at her invitation to drive up and see the show with her in the not-quite-full student section. She paid $25 for reserved seats.
Liz is not a Dylan fan but she is an admirer: she certainly has had more exposure to his music than most of her peer group. She does have a curatorial ear, however, which she displayed last year on her radio show on the campus radio station. She would mix in a Dylan standard with her alternative rock and classic rock faves. But her DJ fingerprint was playing a cut each show by Ella Fitzgerald. Call her on her cellphone, though, and her ringback tone was "All Along the Watchtower," the unmistakable voice of Bob, pleading, "There must be some kind of way out of here."
My daughter understood from the get-go that no one has ever gone to a Dylan concert or bought a Dylan record for the singing, and that at age 69 he was not being considered for the next "Three Tenors" tour. Still, the new arrangements that bewilder some and excite others are partly the results of compressing the melodies so that Dylan can deliver the lyrics without having to hit notes that were barely in his range 30 or 40 years ago. Compared to Dylan's rasp, Louis Armstrong, Jimmy Durante and Joey Ramone could be the Three Tenors, but they wouldn't have his material.
Dylan, wearing a Cordoba hat and looking like the undisputed don of the hacienda, took the stage with his band at the Binghamton Events Center at 8:10 p.m., and finished their efficient performance just before 10 p.m.
The band was skillful and versatile: Charlie Sexton and Stu Kimball on guitars, Tony Garnier on bass guitar and standup bass, Donnie Herron on pedal and lap steel and an assortment of other string instruments, and George Recelli on drums. Dylan spent much of the time playing electric organ, but also piano, guitar and, of course, harmonica. The combo sounded like a particularly gifted 1950s or early 1960s roadhouse band. Call them Bobby Dee and the Starliters, tag their music Iron Range Rock, the kind of big beat perfection Dylan might have imagined before leaving Hibbing, Minn. The show was a steady rolling collection of savoury riffs from "Rock Around the Clock" and "Blue Suede Shoes."
It is not a band of show-off soloists, nor have Dylan performances ever been constructed that way. But the playing was magnificent, performed with purpose. Receli's fully funky backbeat provided the acceleration on songs as unlikely as "I Don't Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Met)," the oldest one of the night. It was first released on Dylan's unaccompanied acoustic album Another Side of Bob Dylan in 1964; hearing it with full band and jazzy harmonica put the song in a new light. "The Man in Me," from New Morning (1970), dropped its familiar pastoral mode with Dylan's harmonica phrasing packing the fat urban wallop of soul legend King Curtis' tenor saxophone.
From what I've seen, Dylan and company never play the same set twice, and with a repertory of so many hundreds of songs to choose from, why should they? This is anything but a greatest hits or "best of" tour; it's a celebration of a lifetime of writing, recording and performing. There were three songs from Highway 61 Revisited, and three from Modern Times. 1965, say hello to 2006. And there were songs before, later, and of course, in-between.
But it's the mix that makes the magic, and the selection and sequencing Nov. 17 in Binghamton was a Dylan fan's 116th dream.
Every song was a surprise, starting from the opener "Gonna Change My Way of Thinking," a Jesus blues from his best Christian album, 1979's Slow Train Coming. After "The Man in Me" came a dip into the primo stuff, "Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again" from the historic pinnacle Blonde on Blonde, the 1966 album that rephrased the conversation about the boundaries of rock and roll music and lyrics. Dylan played electric guitar; the jagged singing did not diminish the thrill of the lyrics, which have such lived in beauty that one felt oneself levitating.
After "I Don't Believe You" were the only songs back to back from the same album: "The Levee's Gonna Break," featuring Herron on electric mandolin, and "Spirit on the Water," which weren't sequenced together but certainly could have been on 2004's Modern Times. Dylan took charge on both organ and harmonica while guitar lines rippled through "Honest With Me," a tune from 'Love and Theft' (2001).
Then it was back to the shrine of "Desolation Row," from 1965's Highway 61 Revisited. Instead of the surreal despair of the recording, Dylan's phrasing was playful, as if to acknowledge that Desolation Row too has become gentrified. The undercurrent of the arrangement flirted with the pop/R&B colours of Ben E. King's 1961 hit "Spanish Harlem."
Back to 'Love and Theft' for "Tweedledee & Tweedledum," which had Dylan back on guitar on a five-alarm arrangement that sounded like the versions of Bo Diddley's "Who Do You Love?" recorded by two Dylan affiliated bands in the 1960s: Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks, and the Blues Project.
"Blind Willie McTell" was another treat for loyalists, a cult favourite that was one of Dylan's most widely beloved bootlegs until his version was finally released on The Bootleg Series 1-3. This rendition, though, was something else: a kind of spook house blues, as if it wasn't a once obscure Dylan song, but a still obscure Screamin' Jay Hawkins tune.
The title song from Highway 61 Revisited gave way to "Love Sick" from Time Out of Mind (1997) and "Thunder on the Mountain," his triumph from Modern Times, with Dylan's funniest blues line in decades: "I was thinkin' 'bout Alicia Keys, couldn't keep from crying..."
It was back to the canon with "Ballad of A Thin Man," a young man's furious indictment of the clueless mainstream media in 1965, a song that launched 500 underground newspapers and alternative weeklies. Listening to this after the election of 2010, I couldn't help but wonder who the shallow and fatuous "Mr. Jones" of the title would be today, and who might have usurped the voice of his angry antagonist: Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity, god help us?
That was the finale. The reaction of the audience was mixed: There was no consensus on applause that would demand an encore. Some people clapped, some sat on their hands; some people left, some held up their cell phones, some checked messages on the cell phones. Dylan and band came back, did a spirited Bill Haley-style "Jolene" (from 2009's Together Through Life). And then the conclusion, with OUR national anthem: "Like A Rolling Stone." Band introduction, band bowing together, good night, Binghamton, and good night Bob, we'll see you down the road.
The next day, over coffee in the Vestal, N.Y., Barnes & Noble, Liz told me that the reactions to the concert on campus Facebook pages were divided: About half didn't know what to make of the songs and couldn't bear the singing; the other half felt fortunate to be able to absorb a part of history.
Some people just want to breathe the same air as a living legend, and if you're a college student, and all it costs is $25, why not? It's part of your education. If Dylan confounds their expectations, that is partly because of his determination not to live as a legend. He got the reclusive hermit act out of his system back in the late 1960s, when he nearly folded from the expectations placed upon him. Dylan spends his life do the most honourable thing he can think of doing: going to work every day as a musician and practicing his craft, as long as there's gas in the tank. Some days on the job are better than others. Nov. 17 was a good night's work.
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