Bob Dylan Lives Up to His Legend

Bob Dylan/Mark Knopfler
Barclays Center
November 21, 2012

I'd heard for years what a crapshoot Dylan concerts were, how he may render classic songs "unrecognizable." Given the cost of his shows, I never took the chance before. 

But my wife wanted to see him, and made my ticket my early Christmas present. The show was only two blocks from our place, after all, and for as much as I hate the Barclays Center both for what it represents and for the myriad inconveniences it foists on us, I figure we're due a benefit from it. It turned out to be worth the price of admission, though that determination was in doubt for a while.

First came a 100-minute set from the opening act, Mark Knopfler. Apparently he is distancing himself from his Dire Straits work; as a result, I was unfamiliar with everything before the encore, which was his old band's "So Far Away," the title of which could be taken as a comment on his old work. He even taunted fans at one point by playing a familiar riff and then said, "Ghosts of old songs -- we aren't gonna play 'em." Nonetheless, it was a mostly enjoyable set, as he is still a helluva guitar player. Though the style of his band has changed -- there were Celtic touches on many songs -- his fingerstyle playing remains an utterly distinctive sound. Three of the other seven players were guitarists, but some doubled on other instruments; fiddle, accordion, Uillean pipes, flute, and Irish whistle were often prominent.

The setlist, I think:

"What It Is"
"Corned Beef City"
"Privateering"
"Kingdom of Gold"
"I Used to Could"
"Song for Sonny Liston"
"Done With Bonaparte"
"Hill Farmer's Blues"
"Haul Away"
"Marbletown"
encore: "So Far Away"

The low point was "Privateering," sort of a sea chantey; not a very good song, it tried to get by on character, but quickly became annoying. Otherwise, it was mostly pleasant, more Celtic than I would have liked, and mostly interesting for Knopfler's guitar solos. He can make even a jangly uptempo song sound wistful by spinning out his guitar lines at half the tempo of the rhythm section, but of course he can also unleash dazzling rapid-fire passages. An hour and twenty minutes was about twenty minutes longer than necessary, I'd say, but as opening acts go, it was pretty classy.

After a fairly quick set change, Dylan and his band started with a few famous songs, "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere" and then "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright." They were quite different from the originals (and the latter is fifty years old now, and performed with a band rather than solo acoustic, so why shouldn't it have evolved?), but far from unrecognizable. He moved the word rhythms, mostly by shortening phrases; there were no longer any sustained notes. And, of course, his high vocal range is apparently gone, or at least unused nowadays, which necessitates change as well. Knopfler joined them, unannounced, for "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright," on which he took a solo in his instantly recognizable sound, and stuck around for the next two numbers, on which he was more low-key.

Speaking of change, next came a song that, I admit, I had to look up online after I came home: "Things Have Changed," a 2000 non-album single from the soundtrack of the movie Wonder Boys. It was delivered gruffly, with no melody to speak of. Then Dylan returned to familiar territory with "Tangled Up in Blue," which also seemed to lack a melody; not only was he squeezing the phrase lengths, he was flattening the note range. The song's sole remaining musical interest came from the band's loose groove, which was ever-so-slightly funky, and from Bob's riffy harmonica solo.

It was reported, during the beginning of this tour, that Dylan wasn't playing any songs from his 2012 release, Tempest, but by this night -- the last stop on the tour -- that was no longer true, and the next song, "Early Roman Kings," was the first example. It's a slow blues shuffle that's clearly based on Muddy Waters's classic "Mannish Boy." Like many early blues songs, the verses are not especially related to each other and don't advance a narrative. After that it was back to the back catalog with "Chimes of Freedom." Here, the "unrecognizable" characterization applied, apart of course from its famous lyrics, which were more barked out than sung. The triple-meter rhythm remained as well, though transformed by the band's accompaniment, which had an attractive undulating quality.

Newer but more familiar, "The Levee's Gonna Break," from 2006's Modern Times, is another adaptation of an old blues tune (first recorded by Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie), this time without even changing the lyrics as much. As a hard-rocking uptempo shuffle, it added some by this point much-needed energy to the set; people were starting to leave the arena. A long instrumental introduction led into "Visions of Johanna," which was largely unmemorable, alas, aside from Dylan's sloppy piano work (he spent much of the evening behind the keys). "Highway 61 Revisited" fared better, building to a fever pitch during its instrumental coda.

Then another track from Tempest, "Soon After Midnight," brought the mood down; on the album, it's a highlight, but onstage it's just a downer. Offering an energetic contrast was another fast shuffle and another Modern Times song, "Thunder on the Mountain," apparently a regular feature of Dylan sets ever since. Musically it's just bar band blues, but lyrically it has its moments, not least when he barks out, "I'll say this: I don't give a damn how you feel." It's a sentiment he may feel deeply at this point. He followed with "Forgetful Heart" (from 2009's Together Through Life), one of his best songs of recent vintage. A slow number, it featured a mournful harmonica solo.

This stretch was the only time in this set Dylan played recent songs consecutively. Three in a row was more than some of the audience could stand; by this point, two-thirds of my row had disappeared, never to be seen again. It would soon be revealed that they had made a horrible error of judgment.

"Ballad of a Thin Man" kicked off the rousing stretch run to the concert's conclusion with one of the few arrangements relatively similar to the original. Again Dylan's harmonica solo was a highlight; it also seemed to inspire the band (though of course one can't tell from just one show how spontaneous its reaction was), which picked up on a scalar four-note descending figure and repeated it to powerful effect, including behind Dylan's next solo; on a purely musical level, it was the most magical moment of the evening so far. "Like a Rolling Stone" followed, also not drastically altered, with a layered arrangement held up by a fat electric bass sound over which the guitars riffed like horns. Bob and band were on a roll. It was right after that that he introduced them. Stu Kimball on piano and guitar, Donnie Herron on lap steel guitar, Charlie Sexton on guitar, George Recile on drums (I think; deciphering what Bob says is a bit of a crapshoot, so I'm assuming it's his regular drummer), and Tony Garnier on electric and upright basses (again, assuming his usual guys).

They closed their set with "All Along the Watchtower," driven by a pounding, emphatic beat with guitar riding on top and the melody mostly reduced to two notes. It featured a nearly drumless instrumental break that was almost abstract. Then, after a brief break, they encored with "Blowin' in the Wind," though the instrumental introduction was so different that I was guessing "Shelter from the Storm." Here, over a 12/8 rhythm, Dylan's reworked melody was an improvement on the original, lending it more drama. And though his enunciation is famously erratic, he made sure to make the "how many deaths" part absolutely clear. Don't let anybody, even him, tell you he's not still a protest singer.

Dylan's hour-and-a-half set was far from flawless, but given its great four-song closing streak and sufficient interesting moments leading up to it, I found it easy to forgive the lapses. - Steve Holtje

steve-holtje

Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based composer, poet, and editor. His song cycle setting five of James Joyce's Pomes Penyeach can be heard here.

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