An Appreciation: Bob Dylan Keeps Coming Back to the Beacon Theatre and I Haven’t Had Nearly Enough

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.

ART, COLUMNS, HISTORY | 17 comments | permalink
    1. Sid says:

      He was terrific this time around. Many people who have seen him over the past few decades have said this is the best he’s sounded in years. What a great time.

    2. Kay McFadden says:

      Nicely written tribute. Brought sensitive insight and appreciation to an artist I haven’t revisited for years. Thank you.

    3. Mel Van Horn says:

      Thank you for the brilliant review. I saw him in November in Akron, Ohio. It was the 32nd time I’ve seen him live. All different. Some brilliant, some with less effort. This fall tour was outstanding. I agree with all you wrote. Excellent observations

    4. Michael says:

      Dylan is a poet, a treasure. He has written great songs. We attended the first show at the Beacon a couple of weeks ago. But he cannot sing well. I do not think that this is news. His singing ability did not meet our low expectations. He would benefit from back up singers. His band was terrific. Overall a fun evening.

      • Bob says:

        He CAN’T sing well anymore, and that has been clear (unlike his voice!) for a while now. These “Bobcats” are in complete and total denial, and I just have to laugh…blind faith is a terrible thing, even Bob would tell you that!!

    5. Jamie says:

      I was also at two Beacon shows, and both were vastly different in feel even though the setlists were identical, Bob and his amazing band were in great form as you stated…cheers!

    6. Willie Ryan says:

      One of the best current analysis of Dylan I’ve read in a long time Caitlin. Saw Bob in Kilkenny, Ireland this year and was blown away by power & control of his resurrected voice for starters. North Country Fair sublime. Love the comment Roseanne Cash make about Bob singing that song with Cash on Johnny’s TV show & how cool she felt in school next day (Country Music by Ken Burns)

    7. Judith Lantagne says:

      My dream is to see Bob Dylan….bucket list
      Living in Rhode Island growing up……but never could go to the Folk Festival.
      This tribute confirms everything I ever thought about him….tried this year but tickets were out of my reach
      Hoping for next year!

    8. 1ifbyrain2ifbytrain says:

      Excellent review/analysis! The shows were wonderful. Can’t Wait was my favorite each night. Gordon Lightfoot was there on 11/30.

      A treat not being distracted by phones.

      Kudos to West Side Rag for picking up the slack for Times,News,Post by acknowledging genius in our midst.

    9. Suzie O'Connor says:

      Great review! Makes me want to go and see him, even though I don’t have the money to pay for a trip to New York or anywhere for that matter. Wish he’d come back home to Minnesota!! We miss you Bob!! Might be too cold for him.

    10. RichardD says:

      I have seen Bob 184 times – the last two shows I saw were in Kilkenny and Akron this year – both mentioned in previous comments. Bob in Kilkenny was like a 60% level Bob show – Akron was in the 90s. The changes in the band made a difference. Charlie Sexton has been working it out with new guitarist Bob Britt. George Recile was an excellent drummer but the energy Matt Chamberlain has brought has been huge. The set closer – a newly written version of “Gotta Serve Somebody” is stellar with Chamberlain. “Lenny Bruce” was jaw-dropping in Akron.

    11. Absolutely brilliant night

    12. Jim Douglas says:

      Great review and I just read your review of first show of Beacon run, which I attended. I am not one of the diehard fans who go to lots of Dylan shows. I have only seen Bob live 6 times, 1st time 1969 Isle of Wight, before 11/23/19 show last show I saw was c2000 in that big indoor arena in the Meadowlands. The Beacon show I saw two weeks ago was the best show I have seen by him. If I were asked which 20 songs I would want Bob to play, I would not have selected any on his setlist. But, I loved them all.

    13. Josh Havey says:

      Thanks for the great review of 2 of Bob’s Beacon shows. It’s a dream to someday see him in NYC. I caught his Denver show this past October from the front rail and I hope to never forget it! (in fact, I’m re-listening to it via youtube right now)

      I appreciate Caitlin Hawke’s hope for Chronicles 2 and new material…long live Bobby!

    14. Jim Dunn says:

      Tks for your excellent report on Bob Dylan at the Beacon,I live in Ireland and have been a fan since I first saw him at Adelphi in 1966. I have been to 37 concerts over the years in Europe and the States. I last saw him in the Beacon last December and came away with mixed feelings, felt he was going through the motions on that particular evening and said that will do me.
      However having read your article I’m being pulled back again
      Kind Regards
      Jim Dunn

    15. Teresa Hammond says:

      Absolutely magnificent to hear Bob Dylan is still going strong. He always will remain in my Heart as one of a kind…. May he be continually Blessed to keep performing!

    16. Evan Bando says:

      Thank you, Caitlin. So well said. What is Bob Dylan’s mystique? It’s like none other in any field of art or life for that matter. He stands apart bigger than the Beatles, Brando, Hemingway or the guy who walked on the moon. Name a favorite, even a hero, and the symbolic resonance of Dylan resides much deeper than anyone else. And it has nothing to do with the man himself. In a way, he’s as inanimate as a flag on a pole but somehow elicits the same allegiance from those who identify with his history and meaning. You can list the adjectives to describe the indescribable but, in the end, it gets down to the wind he wrote about in a song that manages to stir our imaginations and probably will, dare I say, forever.