Bob Dylan At Beacon Theatre, Friday, November 29th, 2019, Reviewed
It must be tough being Bob Dylan, writing a fresh couplet as strong as “sailing round the world full of crimson and clover, trying to get home just like my cup runneth over,” and knowing it can’t compare with “sailing round the world in a dirty gondola,oh to be back in the land of, Coca-cola”. On Friday night, half way through Bob Dylan’s annual ten night residency at Beacon Theatre, he tweaked the melody, slowed it down, brought out its inhibited wait, and threw out Botticelli’s niece. It’s his song, if he wants to play around with its insides, as he does all night long on song after song, on the current tour, so be it. Like Madonna, there is a prize to be paid for the pleasure of seeing our greatest living artist in person.
But the price is a little less steep than it has been in the past.
Ken Shane of Popdose messengered me, “It was one of the best shows I’ve ever seen and you know I’ve seen him a lot. Everyone there was blown away. Great set list, great band, and Bob himself was in top form and really engaged. He played GUITAR on two songs and even introduced the band. Everyone I know who has seen him lately has said the same. I always have a theory after seeing him. This time I suspect that playing the standards as he did brought him a new found respect and appreciation for his own songs and he’s determined to present them in the best possible light now. As a friend said last night he’s insuring his legacy as a live performer.” Now Ken saw Dylan for the first time in the 1960s, Me? 1994, Roseland. So with much less to draw from, let’s take a look at the last ten years live of reviews:
Beacon Theatre, Friday, November 30th, 2018 – B+
Beacon Theatre, Friday, November 24th, 2017 – B+
Forest Hills Stadium, Friday, July 8th, 2016 – B
Beacon Theatre, Friday, November 28th, 2014 – A
Jones Beach,Saturday, July 27th, 2013 – A
United Palace Theatre November 18th, 2009 – B-
The best time I ever saw him was probably the 1995 tour with Patti Smith, but I never saw the 80s shows, the born again shows (though I have seen film, pretty damn excellent) I didn’t get to, none of the classics, no Before The Flood with the Band, though what I have seen has been uniformly excellent. Maybe 2002 at MSG, his response to 9-11, was the very best. I know last night wasn’t.
There was a great deal of skill, starting with a gorgeous and quiet “Girl From The North Country” so he could simultaneously nod at his Broadway musical debut (I caught it at the Public here) and the sublime Travelin’ Thru, 1967 – 1969, which includes the version with Johnny Cash. With one song, Dylan found himself in tune with his current history. “Times Have Changed” has become a new day “Silvio” -he always plays it, and nice to see him on guitar (Dylan spent half of the evening standing back with his band). There were four songs off Time Out Of Mind, three off Titanic and Highway 61 Revisited, and the rest scattered among his humongous catalog. This is a problem that Dylan will never solve, nothing feels complete at one of his concerts. For example, I went to see Ariana Grande earlier this year and she performed nine off Sweetener and eight off thank u, next -Dylan can’t do that, he has 19 songs or so to represent a lifetime where, like Joe DiMaggio once noted, somebody is seeing him for the first time. In effect, with Dylan, it has become one long song. None of his biggies were performed, not one, no “Like A Rolling Stone” and no “Blowing In The Wind” -hits, misses, none of it matters. That leaves his sets without a clear arc, the center is missing. For the most part it all feels so random, and while it works on a strident “Serve Somebody,” and the steel guitar on “Soon After Midnight” is other level, why fuck around with “Not Dark Yet,” and “Thunder On The Mountain”? What’s the purpose on seeing through the melody lines you wrote and changing tempo to suggest a new song? In the intro the band plays the melody straight before Dylan twists it till it is less melodic. The set nether ebbs nor flow. It has great moments, the “Make You Feel My Love” is a showstopper. But it doesn’t feel cohesive in context. And while he is in fine voice, he was in better voice circa Triplicate.
We are spoiled in New York, I’ve seen him seven times in ten years. It is an event, he is a legend, but it is like having an affair with Elizabeth Hurley, the first time you fuck her you can’t be believe you’re doing it, two years later you’re caught on Sunset Boulevard with a 25 year old transvestite you were giving a lift to because she looks tired. Dylan is a 25 year old transvestite in New York, we see him all the time and we become a little picky. Dylan and his band are Americana groove monsters, who can plod, or can explode, “Early Roman Kings” is a very strong blues workout, “Can’t Wait” doesn’t quite happen. Dylan merges into the band, and performs with em not above em, he has been doing this so long that when Elvis Costello asked if he gets nervous before going on stage replied “I Wish”, and his coolness is the definition of a day at the office.
Oddly, last night he was better at the slower songs, “Masterpiece,” “North Country,” “Lenny Bruce,” and “Simple Twist Of Fate” (though none of his changes lyrically help the song in the slightest). At his worse on “Not Dark Yet,” a bummer mood track, a depressing “Thunder On The Mountain” as a rockabilly bossa nova (is it really so popular it’s worth destroying?), a straight up guitar based blues “Ballad Of A Thin Man” should have worked better. And in the end, it didn’t quite come together.
Maybe that’s what happens when you’re a true legendary figure in the arts, you do what you will. What the hell, Bobby’s been to sugar town and shook that sugar down. See you next year.