Saturday, July 13, 2013

Hard Rain Didn't Fall: Review of AmericanaramA Show in Bayfront Park Duluth (Part 2)

Let’s start with the Squash Pit. I’m not sure how many groups are doing this today but Dylan did it in 1998 at the DECC and has been doing it elsewhere for some time, so you know what I am talking about. There are no front row seats, no box seats, only the open region stretching out from the stage. Here’s what I noticed about the experience.

As the earlier groups performed there was a measure of breathing room because Americans generally have a certain space they like to surround themselves with. If you get too close it makes us uncomfortable because in our experience it is not “normal.” Hence, as the warm up bands performed there was still a lot of room up in front. These seams invited the latecomers to seep into the unfilled spaces and there was pretty much always room for more. Not a lot of room for dancing in there, but you could breathe and you could sway and you could smile.

Here’s something else I noticed. If you have never heard Dylan sing since he recorded Nashville Skyline, then you were less likely to enjoy the concert. It’s like he says in that opening number, Things Have Changed. Including his voice.

I had a co-worker who I discovered was planning to attend Tuesday night. In preparation I loaned him a copy of Tempest, mentioned that it was likely that Dylan would sing Duquense Whistle and Early Roman Kings. After listening to the CD, which he enjoyed, he also went on to enjoy the concert because he knew the status of Dylan’s vocals and was neither surprised nor troubled by the gravel hoarseness that sometimes was passed off as singing. On the other hand, another co-worker did not enjoy the concert at all. He had come with different expectations.

Lesson: If you have a friend who is going to see Dylan because he’s a legend, a little advance preparation can help make it a more enjoyable experience for him or her.

While the various bands were setting up and tearing down sets I started asking different people what their favorite Dylan song was. Their answers were interesting, especially because when Dylan performed later in the evening the very favorite of this or that member of the crowd was played, which I have marked by italicizing.

Mark: Highway 61 Revisited
Dan: Postively Fourth Street
Michelle: The Times They Are A-Changin’
Joanne: Blowing In The Wind
Tom: “The entire Blonde On Blonde. The entire Desire. I still can’t think of my favorite tune.
Monte: Highway 61 Revisited
Eric: Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door
Dennis: Lay Lady Lay
Steve: Every Grain of Sand
Terry: Like a Rolling Stone
Julie: Shelter from the Storm
Mike: Rainy Day Women. “I have to many. He’s the paragon of song writing.”
Shane: All Along the Watchtower
John: Blowing in the Wind
Zane: With God On Our Side
Ron Brochu: Lay Lady Lay
Mayor Don Ness: Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall
Joe Berg: Subterranean Homesick Blues
Mike Creger: Girl from the North Country
Gaelynn Lea: Hard Rain
Jeri E.: Workingman’s Blues #2
Elliot: Tell Me It Isn’t True
Jeff Frey: All Along the Watchtower
Nancy: Forever Young
Kerry: Tangled Up In Blue

The Dylan Set

It was dark when Dylan's set was about to begin. The Pavillion seemed even taller and more imposing than ever as the crammed crowd waited with quiet anticipation. I already knew the song that he's been opening with, yet I did not know it because this night it began with a very lively guitar intro that got a good jam-beat going as the lights came up revealing the band, all wearing dark clothes and black hats of various styles, and Dylan center stage in a loose-fitting, double-breasted sharkskin-colored jacket and hat, dark slacks decorated with embellished piping.

The sound of the band tonight was great. (Thank you, Duluth!) But if you were not familiar with the song you would not have known what it was until he reached the first chorus. As of today Dylan has performed Things Have Changed more than 525 times, and it set a good tone for the concert because he was on his game.

People are crazy and times are strange 
I’m locked in tight, I’m out of range 
I used to care, but things have changed

The first time I saw Dylan perform in 1988 I was struck by the way he liked to step and move in these little maneuvers that gave the impression he was striking poses. He always had a guitar in hand back then and the moves were that of a guitar player. But now, he was standing in the spotlight holding a harmonica, or later moving to the grand piano, and the movements were different yet similar in that they conveyed Dylan's signature style. Tuesday he looked loose.

A good rendition of Love Sick followed. "I'm walking, through streets that are dead.... walkin', with you in my head..." The harmonica parts were uncomplicated but had the eeriness of the original version from his Grammy-winning Time Out of Mind. Charlie Sexton, who has been on tour with Dylan quite a bit over the years, played lead guitar. Donnie Heron switched from pedal steel to electric mandolin. (A few songs later he would also play the lap steel.) Throughout the evening Tony Garnier was switching out his electric bass for the standup base, curling over with with an electric enthusiasm. Stu played a plugged in acoustic guitar throughout the show.

High Water (For Charley Patton) followed, Dylan moving like a circus ringmaster on center stage, Donnie Heron accompanying on banjo. Then Dylan took his place at the piano for Soon After Midnight. I'd not seen him play piano live before (except on film in Don't Look Back, which was near fifty years ago) it was interesting to see his moves here as well, some of them clearly designed to give signals to the band like a third base coach would signal the runners on first and second. Occasionally he would play with his lift arm cocked, hand on hip. This tune is from his Tempest album, as was the one that followed, Early Roman Kings, a song about swagger and a great rendition here in Bayfront Park.

All the early Roman kings 
In their sharkskin suits 
Bow ties and buttons 
High top boots 
Drivin' the spikes in 
Blazin' the rails 
Nailed in their coffins 
In top hats and tails 
Fly away, little bird 
Fly away, flap your wings 
Fly by night 
Like the early Roman kings

You could tell the mosh pit crowd was into it because when he got to the heart of the song the crowd was right with him, stimulated and energized, soaking the music right into itself with verve.

If you see me comin' 
And you're standing there 
Wave your handkerchief 
In the air 
I ain't dead yet 
My bell still rings 
I keep my fingers crossed 
Like them early Roman kings

This would have been a highlight of the evening except there were others, so how do you narrow it to one? Right on its heels we had Tangled Up In Blue, the crowd responding, thrilled. I thought how different this was from times in his career when he was booed for not being what people wanted him to be.There were many here for whom this song had become something of an anthem.

Tony Grarnier had the big bass out again and a lively Duquesne Whistle followed, Dylan still at the grand. Loved it.

On She Belongs To Me, Dylan once again moved to center stage with his harmonica. The stars above with twinkling brightly, and it was amazing how the weather had been so very kind for this show. It's a familiar song from Bringing It All Back Home, but not quite the same as what we're acquainted with. "She's got everything she needs, she's an artist, she don't look back..."

Bob moved back to piano for Beyond Here Lies Nothing, the opening tune from his Together Through Life. Love that song, and the album it kicks off.

Then he followed with A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall. As he sang, "It's a hard... It's a hard... It's hard... and it's a hard... It's a hard rain a-gonna fall" one could feel that he still felt it and meant and and was serious when he said fifty years ago that he was going to know his song well before he started singing. He's seen a lot over the half century since he wrote those words. It's been an unbelievable period of history, and a song as relevant today as when it was written.

Another song he's been doing on this tour is Blind Willie McTell, a song Dylan recorded for his Infidels album but was left off. It later re-surfaced on disc three  of his Bootleg Series Vol. 1-3 (Rare and Unreleased) in 1991. Simple Twist of Fate, from Blood on the Tracks, followed, with Dylan center stage on harmonica. As is common, he varied the words on one of the verses while telling the same story. A lively Summer Days came next, Tony Garnier back on stand-up bass.

The fourteen song set came to a close with All Along the Watchtower. As soon as the song ended, the group all stepped away from their instruments and gathered center stage behind Bob in a tight stylized formation with the star in the middle front, hands on hips. They bowed and left the stage. Classic Dylan. 

For much of the tour Dylan has been performing Ballad of a Thin Man for an encore. Tuesday it was Blowin' in the Wind, though the song had been so re-arranged one could hardly discern what it was till he reached the first chorus. A long applause sought to induce him back after taken another orchestrated bow, but at this point he was no doubt already on the bus.

A couple criticisms were brought up by a few people I spoke with after. He never acknowledged the audience or said a word about his home town of Duluth.I know folks who would have wanted this. Second, most of the musicality of his voice is gone. There is a distinctive twang that occurs in some of his recordings (you can here it on Love Sick from Time Out of Mind) that showed up in one tune later in the show.

Many of the die-hard Dylan fans in this audience had already purchased tickets for the following night's St. Paul show by the time the Duluth event was announced. Though that concert had some very special moments (especially when Dylan did Susie Baby for Bobby Vee, who was in the audience) an email from a friend noted what a difference a venue can make. He said outright that the venue was terrible compared to Duluth. "The crowd was so big (about 15,000), you could barely move and couldn't even get near the stage. No chairs, but blankets everywhere made for chaos. The flat ball field made it impossible to see him except from the very back, with binoculars, through the sound tent... Finally, the sound itself was harsh and echoey, especially during the earlier bands."

It made a lot of us appreciate our Bayfront Festival Park even more. Thank you to everyone who contributed to make this happen.


Simon Clayton said...

Nicely written, made me feel like I was there, thanks

Anonymous said...

Love bob forever n forever is never long enough.......

Anonymous said...

Forever in love with bobdylan n forever is never long enough...

Anonymous said...

A little late here, but I was at the concert, and you nailed it Ed. Reading this brought back some fine memories of that night. I also heard a complaint about Bob's voice- but hey, some people never liked his voice. I thought it was wonderful. Like one person said- he's into the Leonard Cohen range. And that ain't so bad. Dylan is Dylan and nobody else is. Nobody can touch him as far as I can see. Thanks Ed for bringing me back to that night. Steve "Chief" Johnson.