You wouldn’t believe how tough it is to catch a Dylan song on the radio the day he’s playing a local show. Amazing. Speeding through the desert Saturday I had my fingers scanning every Phoenix station I knew, just waiting and hoping the classic rock stations would throw me a tune to set up the evening.
One, just one, beamed into my car, from the random Wild West station in Florence that inexplicably never has commercials. And of course, it was Don’t Think Twice, and for the several hundredth time, I was certain I knew exactly what Dylan was talking about. Don’t Think Twice encapsulates that singular moment when the protagonist finally shuts the door on his unrequited love, finally can say that it just doesn’t matter, that the target of so many intense thoughts just can’t take up space in the mind anymore.
It’s not a “fuck off” – not like Positively Fourth Street – there’s no venom. It’s not a “you got what you had coming” as in Like a Rolling Stone. It’s not the tattered broken soul of Idiot Wind or the deep longing of Sara. Don’t Think Twice applies to the protagonist as well. There are no second thoughts once you’ve made peace by separating yourself from the longing, cut off the bad fruit and closed your life to the one who never cared.
And damn if the high empty desert on a silver cloudy day, windows down in a clunker just hanging together, the clarity of a mind relaxed for a few days and a notion of freedom just don’t make Dylan all that much clearer.
I hit the PHX and caught up with the Butterman, concert companion in light of Stu’s Fiscal Plan. We chatted and swapped stories, but really the reward was perspective, to see how a pal from the olden days has fared, to hone in on where the hometowner took the different path, to see choices and results all at the same time.
Then, of course, there was the show.
The Hag was already on as we crept toward the seats, a legend in clear, crisp voice backed by a band all eager to please. I don’t know much of the Hag, but whooped it up when he hit into Mama Tried. Most of his set switched back and forth between boogie and ballad, short enough to be a good appetizer and long enough to say you’ve seen a legend.
I hit the can and walked around between sets, and saw Bill Walton just kicking it. We didn’t chat, unfortunately.
The lights dimmed and the curiously chosen Copeland music led into Dylan’s introduction. The set was an amazing mix of unexpected gems. I follow set lists closely and this show had just one repeat so far this tour, outside the written-in-stone encore.
Particularly appreciated gems were Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll and Every Grain of Sand. Mr. Tambourine Man was a great showcase for his new band, a soulful, bluesy new mix with Dylan on keyboards exclusively and amazing pedal steel work.
Absolutely Sweet Marie heated up the show, but Masters of War sent it into a different realm. Dylan sang it angry, sang it with an accusatory ring he never achieved in the original recording. He sang it so my only reaction was instinctual – to scream and yell and holler as chills hit me that had less to do with Dylan himself than the visceral truth he spoke to our country this very day.
He played Don’t Think Twice and I got to relive my afternoon revelation, just as true, but softened, by time and distance, mentally and physically. You never forget the doors you shut; that’s not the point. You just shut ‘em ‘cause they’re done; you don’t need ‘em anymore.
Dylan’s encore is as close as he gets to trying to actually please the crowd in general. Geeks like me may go nutso when he plays a long-forgotten tune and will appreciate how he just twisted one of his most memorable melodies into something else entirely. But two thirds of the crowd – easily – fought to be more appreciative than bewildered until he played Like a Rolling Stone, with George Recile’s gunshot drum launching the gig into orbit. Here’s where I loved Dylan’s keyboard playing the most – finally I got to hear Al Kooper’s light-as-air bouncy organ part duplicated live.
And if it’s mean, loud, guitar-driven rock ‘n’ roll you want, just try and catch Dylan and his band’s current run through All Along the Watchtower without burning your fingertips. It’s 99 percent Hendrix and 1 percent John Wesley Harding, a flaming ball of outsider honesty and ancient intrigue.
Part two of Double Dylan was the hometown show, in an arena I last got to experience for the couldn’t-be-different Motley Crue. For every tucked-in polo shirt of the middle-aged Monday there were a few missing teeth in October. I probably fit in better with Tucson’s skuzzy than I did with the disappointingly minded “better see him before he’s dead” crowd that showed up for Dylan. Tough to blame, though, I was the same at a B.B. King show a few ticks back, giving more weight to my presence there than to any of the songs, save the one or two “hits” I actually knew.
I caught the start of the Hag’s set this time, with his band running through a hopped up version of Okie for a while before he strode on stage. He had the same stately presence, the same command of a crowd that wasn’t his as before. Hag hits a bit of a lull when he throws too many ballads in, but goddamn it if he can’t turn right around and knock your skull with the most righteous version of Folsom Prison Blues ever performed (outside the composer, of course). I’d do hard time to sing Cash like that.
Once again, Bill Walton was in full effect. He had two fannie packs on – front and back – and just Frankenstein-loped his way around the arena at will, frequently passing to my right and emerging from the beer stand to head back to his seat.
SKC was the concert companion (and Dylan newbie) this go ‘round.
It must be said that the security guards were absolute asshole-fascists who needed punches in the teeth pretty much across the board. I just don’t buy the line that it’s “Dylan’s rules” that every ass must be planted into a seat not to move for the show. That big vacant area right behind the floor seats was ripe for dancin’ – either the middle-aged honky-tonk slow dancers who emerged during Just Like a Woman or the Outcast Patrol of high schoolers who were inclined to invent a new version of hippie dancing.
This show returned to the set-list pattern of the tour's first four shows, kicking off with an amazing Maggie’s Farm, bluesified remarkably.
Dylan stuck in the past next for She Belongs to Me, than jumped right up to the present with Lonesome Day Blues.
The fact that enough years have passed for Time Out of Mind and Love and Theft to have sunk into the Dylan fan consciousness is just incredible, because it allows such pairings without ever seeming disjointed or forced.
Queen Jane made me wish I had been “That Guy” and worn my weirdest Dylan shirt to the show (I went with the Superchunk Monday and the Son Volt Saturday).
It’s Alright Ma approximated the force of Saturday’s Masters of War, and the “president must stand naked” line got the biggest in-song cheer of the night.
To Make You Feel My Love made me wish hacks like Billy Joel and Garth Fucking Brooks just left the damn thing alone. Corruption of art in the name of record sales is a bit disgusting, but then again, Dylan’s had to deal with that his entire career. And I wouldn’t want to put the complete kibosh on covers, so I’ll just chose to talk shit about hacks like Billy Joel (late career only) and Garth “how many sappy ballads do I need to sing to take batting practice with the Padres?” Brooks.
Girl From the North Country took the late-show, back-catalog ballad slot over Boots of Spanish Leather (which was played tonight in El Paso). What’d ya think, SKC?
The most unexpected treasure of the night was High Water, with a banjo solo unlike anything I’ve heard before. It was as rough as an electric guitar, but quicker, and without screaming. Dylan’s completely reinterpreted that one in less than five years and it hit with such force you knew it was the set closer. It’s amazing, that performance got more out of the crowd than his Saturday night closer of Rainy Day Women, which you could just tell set the Barely Fans at ease, finally hearing something they knew.
The encore again was Greatest Hits Bob, his only real in-show concession to the fact that he wrote not only generation-changing songs, but actual popular ones too.
The Stones and McCartney charge well over $100 per show. Dylan easily could too, if he stuck to faithful reinterpretations of the chart-toppers. The comparison makes me think a lot less of the Stones and McCartney. Caution is the word least likely to be used in reference to Dylan – and praise his name for it.
Dylan on just keyboard infused the shows with a whole new focus and purpose. His current band hasn’t reached the battle-tested brilliance of the Larry-Charlie-Tony-George era, but they’re no slouches either. Donnie Herron is the star of this lineup, no doubt.
So that’s that. It’s been three and a half years since my last Dylan shows and in an era of unprecedented personal show-going, he still stands out among the rest, still compels me to write thousands of words when others don't.
He’s a chameleon, the single most adaptable artist in American history. Picasso would’ve loved to have had as many periods as Dylan. He’s into a new one now, I reckon. His Never Ending Tour had its start toward the end of the 1980s when he set his mind to recapture audiences – and succeeded. This epoch had its middle period, when Dylan’s cultural renaissance started with Time Out of Mind and continued through his memoirs and Scorsese blowjob. And now it’s a new scene in this late-career act. He has a new band, has reclaimed every bit of relevance he ever had, wows fans in bigger arenas than he has in years. And, perhaps most importantly, I have it on good authority that a new album is due, a step toward the soulful, a sound unlike anything he’s created before. Just keep listenin’.