By Caitlin Hawke
It seems that autumn in NYC is a performance rite of passage for Bob Dylan. Never-ending as his touring may be, it does alight regularly in this town. Prior to 2014 it bopped around from venue to venue, none feeling quite right. But nowadays, you can pretty much bet your giblets on getting a bit of Bob on the Upper West Side around turkey time. In 2014, he settled into a five-night stint at the UWS Beacon Theatre, which he reprised in 2017. In 2018, he upped it to a seven-concert run at the Beacon. And this year, we’ve just come off a fortnight of Bob at the Beacon with a record-topping series of 10 concerts played from November 23 to December 6.
Perhaps you noticed that, nightly, the LED marquee at West 74th Street and Broadway twinkled “Bob Dylan & His Band: Tonight Sold Out.” If you are counting, that’s 29,000 bottoms he brought in to fill each and every seat. Those bottoms belonged to folks like Jack White, Jann Wenner, Donald Fagan, Ethan Hawke (no relation), Steve Earle and who knows how many legions of other musicians and critics and artists. He’s a musician’s musician and a poet’s poet. So naturally they all come out. I, being neither, partook twice, once at the beginning of the run and once for the penultimate concert. The set list changed not an iota, but the concerts were night and day. Which isn’t to say that either was bad. Quite the contrary. The audience on the first night was “dry” and didn’t set that feedback loop into motion that would send the performance of Dylan and his wonderful five-member band into a state of grace. But by the ninth performance, looking a little more relaxed if not ragged, the band hit the stage in a state of grace and things only got better from there. The return of lead guitarist Charlie Sexton cannot be underestimated in the creation of ‘the sound’. Sexton’s presence and playing anchor Dylan who played piano most of the show interspersed with a couple of harmonica solos and two songs on guitar.
This series was, in a word, stellar by any reasonable performance standard.
My theory as to why the performances are so stunning has to do with the journey he’s been on in the past five years.
I hope by now it is uncontroversial enough to state that Bob Dylan, like Walt Whitman, “contains multitudes.” From his Oscar (always on display stageside), to his Nobel (never yet to my knowledge taken on tour), he has the prizes to attest to it. Personally, I am of the camp that were he just himself, Dayenu. But Dylan is often himself mashed up with others who came before him. Don’t forget how he hit the scene in New York as Woody Guthrie’s spawn. And recall the Nashville sessions with Johnny Cash after the mythic/mythical motorcycle accident when Dylan emerged from self-imposed exile in buttery voice, mimicking the mellifluous Cash sound. From 2015 to 2017, he recorded a prodigious number of pop standards. Now, after this five-album dive into the American Songbook canon, he’s trained himself to be a crooner, à la Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra. Similar to his gospel period from 1979-1981, which is finally being revisited critically, getting the crooner period into and then out of his system seems to have had transformative power not only on his voice, but on his performance style as well.
For many years, fans played the parlor game of trying to guess which songs he was playing live because he toyed so much with arrangements; often it isn’t until the refrain that the crowd recognizes the song. In this tour, his arrangements are novel but not gratuitously so, leaving the songs identifiable. He wants to keep his listeners with him through the narrative arc he’s building with his set list. It’s a show: the dramatic lighting and costumes, the touches like the watchful supper club mannequins decked out in black tie at the back of the set, all these telltale signs telegraph that we’ve entered a world of Dylan’s making.
The story line created by the set list is hyper personal, yet he barely speaks. This is the tale of a man reflecting on his longevity, every day now numbered like every grain of sand.
A man of few words, he did find a few to introduce the band each night during the run – something I hadn’t experienced in years. With coy comments about each like trumpeting bassist Tony Garnier’s veteran status with the band, or asking new drummer Matt Chamberlain to “stand up so the people can see you.” In keeping with the operatic conceit, there is no patter – zero – between songs. Smartphones are strictly prohibited and policed, again because he wants people to get and keep their heads in the show. This is no small feat but bless him and the security staff for setting the tech-free bar high. It certainly paid off.
Nightly, Dylan brought the house into complete submission as he played the stripped down, haunting piano version of “Lenny Bruce is Dead” accompanied only by Donnie Herron on violin. Easily the most beautiful song and easily the evening’s showstopper. And had it not been for the pop standard phase he went through, his singing on “Lenny” would have been vastly coarser and croakier. He’s not barking out his songs the way he once did, nor is he upsinging anymore to compensate for the ravages of age on the vocal chords. While his voice remains an acquired taste, of late it is more honey than rasp.
At 78 and a half, Bob Dylan’s greatest fortune is to have work he so clearly finds meaningful. May it lead to Chronicles, Volume 2 and a new album of original material in short order.
For his fans, our greatest fortune is that there is no slow train coming for this man. It’s not dark yet. And by the sounds coming from 74th and Broadway last week, it’s not even close to getting there.
Caitlin Hawke is a longtime resident of the Upper West Side neighborhood known as Bloomingdale where she blogs for her local block association. For more on Bob Dylan, you can read her review of the November 23 Beacon concert here.