Seeing Bob Dylan for the 13th time, I knew what to expect. I’m sure there are plenty of people that still go to Dylan shows with the expectation that they will sit back and get a nice mellow set, with a few electric flare-ups from Bob. He’ll play his best known songs and some new ones from that new album everyone’s been buzzing about. But as much as I hate breaking things into these categories, its true. You ‘get’ Bob, or you don’t. I’m not saying that not everyone can enjoy his concerts these days, but there are some that just lack the understanding that it takes to enjoy a show. Its not a IQ thing, its an expectation and realization thing, and yes, an appreciation thing.
Dylan was in St. Paul this week, back in his homestate, and he gave a solid, fun show. Some reviews have said there was a lack of energy at times, and I’d have to agree with that, but its not Dylan’s fault. When I go to Dylan shows, I snag general admission tickets on the main floor whenever possible. I’ve been known to stand 7 or 8 hours in line to get up close to the stage. At the Xcel on Wednesday, I didn’t have that luxury. The main floor was reserved seating, and more expensive, so I bit the bullet and got a seat in the lower bowl.
As I’ve said, I’ve been to enough Dylan shows to understand the demographic of the folks I typically stand with an entire day. These are the big Dylan fans, young and old, that get excited to see Bob. And when they are excited and going nuts, Bob feeds off that. When security is making people sit down, and the people with reserved seats get to be in front with their expectations of sitting and enjoying a relaxing show by an ‘aging rocker,’ then energy levels die down. And you could tell they did a bit on Wednesday.
The show was still great though. I got my 10th different show opener, “I’ll be Your Baby Tonight,” which had Bob crooning and nice pedal steel from Donnie Herron. Opening act Mark Knopfler guested on the next three: a great version of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” a spitfire rendition of ‘Things Have Changed,” and, what’s become one of my favorite live songs of recent months: “Tangled Up in Blue.”
“Things Have Changed” was a particular treat, with Bob almost rapping back and forth across Knopfler’s guitar fills. Bob even interjected some commentary a few times. “The next sixty seconds could be like an eternity. (Pause for effect). That’s a very long time!” “Tangled Up in Blue” had Bob supplying some great harp, and leaning near his grand piano as if reciting a ‘dark and stormy night’ tale.
Then it was off to Surpriseville. As the lights went back up on the band, they began a slow romp into the first ever live rendition of “Early Roman Kings.” Bob has, for his own reasons, generally refrained from performing material from Tempest, his latest album. This was only the second time he’s played a song from it. The first being “Scarlet Town” up in Canada earlier in the tour.
A heartfelt, soulful “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” followed, and then things got spotty. Bob’s toned down both “Summer Days” and “Highway 61 Revisited” and I’m just not a fan of that. I’m used to Bob’s guitarmen and drummer George Receli roaring on these, and certainly Charlie Sexton and Stu Kimball are capable of doing so. I think Bob just would rather have them toned down more these days. It may fit his voice more. He’s still capable of really leaning into things (as he did on “Tangled” and “Things Have Changed”) but these are more subtle songs these days, and I thought perhaps they fell a little flat. Although this could also be attributed to the fact that I’ve heard Bob play those songs many times before.
The homestretch of the show was back to being awesome. “Blind Willie McTell” was certainly a highlight with some haunting banjo fills from Herron. “Ballad of a Thin Man” was echoing with menace, one of the best songs of the night. “Like a Rolling Stone” and “All Along the Watchtower” were solid. Sexton’s guitar on Watchtower was great. And it all closed out with a one song encore: one of the best versions of “Blowin’ in the Wind” that I’ve heard.
At the end of the day, Bob does what he wants and I expect that and love it. There have been some grumbling reviews about how he plays obscure songs and rearranges others so that nobody can recognize anything. Well, here’s the deal. Bob hates playing a song the same way twice. Listen to some of the Bootleg Series outtakes. The versions of these songs we hear on the radio just happen to be the ones Bob was playing while being recorded. Naturally, he’s still changing things live. If you don’t like it, tough. But don’t push your narrow mind and view of what Bob should play onto him. He’s changing, he’s reinventing, and his mind is always working. He plays it like it is. You can take it or leave it.