Update: A photo of Dylan and the Cowboy Band at concert close in Ypsilanti, MI, a few days ago. Dylan is making the same hand gesture he used in the NH concert, which has been variously interpreted as a thumbs-up gesture (me), an acknowledgment of the crowd's applause, his version of applauding the crowd, or his acknowledgment of a hot session by the band - or all of the above. The Dylan "Eye" logo is displayed as backdrop during the show encores. The Oscar is blocked by a fan's head, but resides on the red case which can be seen at far right. Also note Dylan's keyboard. fhb
I picked Peggy up at 4:30 Friday afternoon, and we headed over to our first early-bird special since we stopped visiting my parents in Florida many moons ago. Peg had booked us at the Piccola Italia Ristorante in downtown Manchester, a couple of blocks walk from the Verizon Wireless Center. We had a waitress used to serving people who were later heading to a concert, and she was quick and efficient without making us feel rushed. If you like up-scale Italian and are in the Manchester area, go check out Piccola Italia. Great food. We were surrounded by graying Dylan fans, so we - or at least me - fit right in. I may have just been having my own flashback, but I swear to God the woman seated at the table next to me, who was at least in her mid-50s, said to her companion, "I'm starting to peak." Maybe it was the martini.
By 6:45 we were in our 3rd-row-from-the-stage seats, with a helluva lot better view than we had when we last saw Mr. D almost six years ago. That had been one very strange concert, a couple of months after the release of "Love and Theft," after 9/11. November 2001, the night before Thanksgiving. I was unemployed, laid off about three weeks earlier, paranoid about my future. Peggy had a family dinner to prepare the next day. We went anyway.
We enjoyed ourselves during that 2001 concert, but we were all the way back by the soundboard, disappointing me because I hadn't known that "G" was an entire section away from the double-letter first row seats. The view had been lousy, not helped by the audience being on its feet for the entire 2-hour show and Himself a tiny unmoving figure on stage the entire night. The music was good, but all-in-all - especially from the perspective of this recent show - it was a subdued performance, ending with Dylan's apparently unhappy arms-by the-side stare at the audience after the encore, frozen, not acknowledging the applause with any look or gesture.
Many differences six years later in 2007, not least that Dylan had two opening acts before his set. Amos Lee opened promptly at 7:00 with a half-hour solid folk-blues set that could have been improved by bringing down the thumping bass a bit for his mostly gray-beard audience. Three rows from the stage and directly under the overhead speakers, we levitated from our seats each time Lee's drummer hit the bass pedal. Fortunately, both Costello and Dylan's people had a less bass-emphatic sound mix, or we'd probably still be going "What?" several days later. At closing Lee thanked the sparse early audience for coming to see him, and turned the stage over to Elvis Costello.
"Oh, I'm in fine voice tonight," Costello laughed midway through his set, and it was a good prediction for things to come. Armed with solo guitar, Elvis marched through a 45-minute set of standards from his playbook, opening with a powerful "Radio, Radio," blasting through "Watching the Detectives," crooning a mournful "Alison," and leading the now much larger and appreciative crowd through a "do-do-doo-doop" call-and-response during a Van Morrison cover medley.
And then it was the Cowboy Band's turn. The Verizon's lights were dimmed, leaving only a small flood on stage lighting Dylan's "Things Have Changed" Oscar. The recording announced the presence of the man who had forced folk into an unnatural relationship with rock. And Dylan and Company launched into a pretty "Cat's In the Well."
Staging for a Bob Dylan concert: Song finishes, lights go down; Dylan walks over to a playbook next to his Oscar, studies it; lights come back up; band launches into next number. Repeat 16 times.
After "Cat's" came the only stumble of the evening, a raspy-voiced "Lay, Lady, Lay" that was so difficult to listen to that I was frightened about what the rest of the night might be like. Dylan seemed to be struggling after the first verse of the song, seemingly realizing that it had gotten out of his control. He tried different phrasing, different timing. Nothing worked, and the song sounded as if an embarrassingly old man was pleading with a 15-year-old hooker for a free piece of action. Dylan looked as relieved as I felt when it finally finished. "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" and "Positively 4th Street" followed. Both on-target, nothing like the horror-show of "Lay, Lady, Lay" but not all that energetic either.
But something happened mid-way through the fifth song, "The Levee's Gonna Break," and the night just went golden from that point on. I'm still not sure what went on. Dylan had switched to keyboards by this point and he began exchanging sly grins with Donnie Herron, on pedal steel behind him. You could almost see the band's energy rising as Dylan began to attack - there's no other way to describe it -the keyboard for that one and for each song that followed, charging into it, shaking his hips like Jerry Lee, raising his legs. I kept expecting him to break free from the keyboard and start dancing around the stage at some point during the evening. The complaints of hard-core fans notwithstanding, it seemed from our vantage point that Dylan was much more comfortable the moment he put down the guitar and took his center-stage keyboard position. And the man is not going through the motions. He was hammering those keys, with the diamond-encrusted ring on his wedding finger flashing in the stage lights as he waved his hand above the keyboard.
Great versions of "Spirit On the Water," Honest With Me," and a beautiful rendition of "Beyond the Horizon," followed in close succession. And then an extremely spooky version of "High Water." That, and an equally powerful "Nettie Moore" following a blistering "Highway 61," had me thinking that I really want to hear a commercial live Dylan album that includes songs from "Modern Times." You have to hear how radically these songs have evolved from the studio versions to understand what Dylan means when he says that to really hear the music he has in his head you have to go see him live.
"Summer Days" was next on the slate, and then came the old warhorse, "Like a Rolling Stone."
I have mixed feelings about hearing Dylan doing this - my favorite song of his - these days. While I like, appreciate, his having it still in his portfolio some 40-odd years after his writing it, I can't hear it live without thinking of the blistering, acid-thrown-in-your-face performances of the `60s. I always see ghosts on stage, battering their way through the music, in defiance of everything, the audience, the day, the world, young, old, while I watch the contemporary Dylan weave around among those shadows, performing his slower, near-waltz-like modern version. But having said that, this was one of the best contemporary live LARS I've ever seen him perform, fast tight, grooving. Dylan was grinning like a Cheshire Cat throughout the song, leaning into the How does it feel? chorus like he was cresting a wave.
"Thunder on the Mountain" began the encore, and a surprising and very pretty "Blowin' in the Wind" ended it. Lights down for the final time, and Dylan and Band walked to the front of the stage, where a visibly happy Dylan gave thumbs-up to both the audience and band members as the floods turned on.
Sixty-six years old, the man looked as if he could be in no other place or time than where he was right at that moment.
After the show, not feeling that I had contributed enough to keeping the economy healthy, we stopped at the Dylan bling table where I bought the world's most expensive - but cool- t-shirt. I also bought the concert poster for that night, which is pretty much what you see above, except with the venue and dates changed, of course.
It wasn't till the next day that we noticed that the poster listed Dylan as playing in "Manchester, MA." A collector's item.