By Caitlin Hawke
Alighting Thursday on the Upper West Side for a single, sold-out Beacon show, Bob Dylan drew peers and progeny — from the Silent Generation to Gen Alpha — to concert number five of seven in the New York vicinity. This was the only show in Manhattan. While still heavily a Boomer audience, it was striking how many Gen Xers and Millennials brought their young kids to some of the recent shows. If you are going to cut your teeth on one of Bob’s eras, the current one is a great place to start. The vibe is smooth and cool on this Rough and Rowdy tour.
No disrespect to certain megastars, but Bob Dylan invented “Eras.” If it were a friendship bracelet, his career would be a string of pearls, one semi-precious bead for each of his shapeshifting versions. For this chapter, it feels like the artist has come home to his true self — no channeling of Woody Guthrie, Johnny Cash, or Frank Sinatra. There’s still a touch of crooner and a healthy dose of Jerry Lee Lewis, but he’s not emulating anyone as much as expressing a lifetime of love for various genres that have now all been distilled within him.
Right now, we are deep into the latest era which began precisely in the wee hours of March 27, 2020, just seven days after the city locked down. Self-isolating in Malibu, Bob posted a message of solidarity and dropped a new extraordinary track online. The message said, “Greetings to my fans and followers with gratitude for all your support and loyalty across the years. [Murder Most Foul] is an unreleased song we recorded a while back that you might find interesting. Stay safe, stay observant and may God be with you.”
With that, he unleashed a 17-minute elegy for John F. Kennedy and a lament for an America that ever since the assassination had gone off the rails. His timing was impeccable: 330 million Americans were captive in our homes. Folks were streaming this tour-de-force track ad infinitum and catapulted it to the top of a Billboard chart, a career first. In swift succession came the full album “Rough and Rowdy Ways” — a lush soundscape complemented by existential and self-reflective songs, at times noir, at times wistful, and consistently transcendent. This was his 39th studio album.
Due to the various waves of infection, Dylan wasn’t able to tour this album for 18 months. While off-road and presumably going stir crazy having habituated to his “Never-Ending Touring,” he produced an arty, streamable concert which has since been released as his 40th studio album, “Shadow Kingdom.” It comprises many stripped down or reconceived takes on older songs without any percussion. The revisiting of these songs came on the heels of the hit musical “Girl from the North Country” which brought new, bare arrangements to the stage and perhaps inspired Dylan to dig into his back catalogue and tinker anew. No matter how he got to the takes he put out on “Shadow Kingdom,” it shows his constant state of becoming. His work is anything but static. And fans know not to expect a jukebox performance when they see him live.
Together these two albums make up the bulk of the setlist for his current tour. In fact, the setlist is nearly identical to the ones he played two years ago, his last pass through the Big Apple. But like the morphing coronavirus, the more Dylan tours, the more admixture the songs undergo. Today’s tour versions of the album’s tracks might be what Dylan would call “My Own Version of You.” He wants to bring them to life, and they’ll be done when they’re done. Which is to say, they will never truly be done. In most instances, attendees have trouble recognizing songs until he hits the chorus, but this is his standard operating procedure in action: gather no moss.
Devoid of moss, his only apparent concession to the natural course of longevity is that Bob Dylan has turned exclusively to the piano in recent years to spare his hands. (There’s one notable exception that broke the internet: in September he appeared alongside remaining members of The Heartbreakers for of an unannounced stint at the Farm Aid benefit. There, he strapped on his guitar to play “Maggie’s Farm,” “Positively 4th Street” and “Ballad of a Thin Man” from the gone-electric moment of his early days.) It used to be that he would play an upright piano off to stage left in the shadows, but now Dylan is well lit, at center stage on a baby grand. His voice and that piano are high in the mix, and you can readily hear him plinking the keys Jerry Lee Lewis-style. It’s strange to write, but he plays the piano like a harmonica, accentuating notes, repeating one note, one note, one note, or trilling the keys. Alas, the harmonica seems to come out less and less frequently.
The musicianship of the current band is excellent. They are tight and Dylan can be seen directing them clearly at times like a big band leader of yore. Several of the songs start out quietly with a languid tempo and then, a third of the way in, bloom into a full-on rollick. The band favors a stop and start teasing action such as the Don Henley-esque “Most Likely You Go Your Way (and I’ll Go Mine).” Here, the arrangement played with tempo and Dylan delighted in his new phrasing, drawing out the “yooooour way,” letting it soar, and then taking a beat and closing with a rapid fire “and I’ll go mine.” Tony Garnier, the veteran bassist who has been with Dylan longer than anyone, bows his upright bass in “Mother of Muses,” giving it a lullaby quality and accompanying an especially dulcet Dylan; the two fit together hand in glove.
There are only two songs that are not on either of the recent albums. First, a rendition of his gospel-era “Gotta Serve Somebody” but with almost none of the original lyrics. (He changes lyrics all over the place including in “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight.”) The Gotta Serve performance was driven by Link Wray-style guitaring and a hypnotic beat produced by the explosive drummer, Jerry Pentecost, a new recruit to the band. Pentecost is mesmerizing and received a huge ovation, largely because his beat glues the band so tightly together. It’s hard to take your eyes off him in any of the rocking numbers put particularly in “Black Rider” and “Crossing the Rubicon” where he managed to flip his drumsticks in what seemed like slow motion or stop action. The second exception is the final encore, let’s call it, because Dylan no longer leaves the stage and comes back. This last piece is invariably “Every Grain of Sand,” the lyrics of which could well have been submitted to the Nobel committee as they read like verse: “I am hanging in the balance of a perfect finished plan. Like every sparrow falling, like every grain of sand.” The crowd thrilled on Thursday when he brought out his harp to bring this encore home. The entire piece was a perfect dessert at the end of an endlessly delicious meal.
The low-profile singer was uncharacteristically verbose at the Beacon show, spouting off in favor of Jann Wenner after his run in with and removal from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame board. Each night, parsimonious with his words, he says some wry, incredulous variation of “I must say that these songs aren’t easy to play, but this band does such a good job of it, don’t you think?” In Brooklyn the night before he quipped, “They’re not easy to sing either.” Then he introduces each band member. And that’s it for the patter.
For almost each city he visits, he swiftly tailors an Easter egg in the wild card slot of the set list. Usually, it’s a nod to the locals if he does one. He delighted the crown on Thursday with a bit of Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind” before morphing into the spirited “Watching the River Flow.” In the Windy City, he opened with “Born in Chicago” and ended with “Killing Floor” by the hometown’s electric bluesman Howlin’ Wolf. In Montreal on October 29, he brought the house down by covering their beloved Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me to the End of Love” – perhaps also an acknowledgment of the events in Israel as Cohen’s song was set in the Holocaust. There have been rumors that he’s planning an album of Grateful Dead covers, which may explain the several Easter egg renditions of “Stella Blue” and “Brokedown Palace,” but for the last 10 days those have been out of the rotation. Another crowd-pleaser in nearly every show, he throws off a jaunty “That Old Black Magic,” the standard by Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen. Written in 1942, the year after he was born, the song emerges as the purest, warmest form of nostalgia for childhood. The big band feel the group achieves is burnished by a silky vocal from a feather-light almost giddy Dylan. And try as you might, you cannot resist it.
Dylan is a musician’s musician and one under close analysis of historians to contextualize him. In addition to Elvis Costello and the disgraced Jann Wenner, audience members included academicians, Dylan scholars, and collectors like Anne Margaret Daniel, Sean Wilenz, and the indefatigable Bill Pagel who have all been involved in the new Bob Dylan Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Inaugurated last year, the Center is a linchpin in the development of the Arts District in a city hoping to become the next Austin. The Center sits directly next to the Woody Guthrie Center making this a corridor of Americana to rival Dollywood or Graceland. Chocked full of over 100,000 artifacts, the archives housed at the Bob Dylan Center will be a repository where the generations to come can attempt to unlock the mysteries of this erstwhile Minnesotan who contains multitudes and who belongs to humanity.
But on Thursday night, on the Upper West Side, he’d made up his mind to give himself to us. And ours he was.
Caitlin Hawke is an occasional contributor to the West Side Rag. History buffs may appreciate her blogposts about the UWS Bloomingdale neighborhood here: https://www.w102-103blockassn.org/blog/category/history.
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