Bob Dylan At The Beacon Theatre, Friday, November 30th, 2018, Reviewed
Back in the 1980s, Bob Dylan capped a tour with the Heartbreakers with a tour with the Grateful Dead and stopped and looked around and saw that it was, actually, not so hot. So he auditioned other bands, and settled on GE Smith’s one (because they knew “Peggy-O”) to lead a four piece, guitar, bass, and drums from 1988-1992 (the earliest leg of the Neverending Tour). That wasn’t so hot either but it lead directly to one of his greatest live decades, the 1990s. Last year, Dylan toured with Mavis Staples opening, and performed five songs from his genius level arrangements of Sinatra songs for a rock band format, Triplicate. A year later Dylan was back at the Beacon Friday, nearing the tail end of his seven night residency, and two things are different: 1) After large bands to cover the Sinatra arrangements, he had cut to a four piece plus Dylan on keyboards and 2) all the Sinatra songs were gone. The response has been uniformly positive, however claims that he was more inspired this year are mistaken.
Of the last three Dylan shows I’ve seen, this one is in the middle. The 2017 Forest Hills Stadium concert was hurt by an inattentive audience, and last night the pacing got a little draggy, the concert in November 2017 was just right. On both shows from 2017, Dylan hasn’t sung better since the “Slow Train Coming” tour, and has never been quite so playful, roleplaying as a Sinatra (not to mention Yves Montand) surrogate, he would stand midstage, just the mic wire as a whip, with legs spread, hands on hips, and head back: he emerged as a latter day sex symbol, and turned songs that have been ignored for years, as well as songs that have been performed RELENTLESSLY for decades, into something else. He made them both Sinatra and his own, and he sang with a full throated conviction simply not on display last night.
I had read the reviews with high hopes but realized they were missing the point with the very first song. Last November we were reeling from a year of Trump and from the start, “Things Have Changed,” Dylan sang “Gonna get low down, gonna fly high,” before a punishing staccato roar “All the truth in the world adds up to ONE- BIG-LIE,” that put me in mind of his November 2001 concert at MSG: it felt like a coming together as American resistance. Friday night Zim still opened with it, a fair to middling take: good… not as good. The evening found Dylan pounding the keyboards, both hard and soft (I know, but I mean it), and performing re-written versions of some of his songs with real rewards and real failures. The lights were quite bright, and Dylan wasn’t wearing a hat, but except for a hard rocking which found him mid-stage and domineering on “Scarlett Town” he stayed parked behind the keyboards and didn’t go near a guitar all evening. The band seemed on a tight leash, except, was that a drum solo during “Scarlett Town”? Surely not. Yup, George Recelli got a solo. With rhythm guitarist Stu Kimball missing in action you would expect guitarist Charlie Sexton to pick up the musical slack, actually Dylan played rhythm on the piano: he was the complete centerpiece of the musicians; Sexton got his moment late, during the encore. Kudos to utility man Donnie Herron, superb on the slower songs -he was behind the evenings best moments.
Dylan followed “Things” with the set he has performing all during the residency (the last song before the encore “Gotta Serve Somebody” was especially excellent) with the exception of first song of the encore “All Along The Watchtower” being replaced by a tremendous blues version of “It Takes A Lot to Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry”. Not all the rearrangements were so successful, and I’m gonna ask you a question and you tell me which line on “When I Paint My Masterpiece” works better: “someday, everything will be smooth like a rhapsody” or “someday, everything will be beautiful”? Really, talk about from the sublime to the generic. The version itself was a slow, not quite there, recognizable (though the recognizable factor never bothered me), but it only caught fire when Dylan pulled his harpoon out of his dirty gray bandana. The final song of the evening was a useless “Blowin’ In The Wind,” and If that was the worst moment, the “Simple Twist Of Fate” wasn’t up to much either and didn’t I just spend a fortune on More Blood, More Tracks? Yet Dylan didn’t bother with any other of those songs.
The heart of the show were two re-arrangements and four songs off Tempest. what’s good on Tempest is great, “Early Roman Kings” and “Duquesne Whistle” are top notch, what’s bad, the title track and another Lennon tribute that doesn’t work “Roll On, Johnny” -makes you miss “Lenny Bruce”. Friday, he did a lot to save the stuff in the middle, “Soon After Midnight” sounded like the Everly Brothers without the harmonies, “Scarlett Town” took the dramatics Dylan learnt from Triplicate and put them to good use, “Pay In Blood” was the only miss, an Americana take that lacked the necessary brutality.
The two arrangements that made this section of his “Never Ending Tour” (or second annual Beacon residency) special were “Like A Rolling Stone” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright”. Both difficult ones because both are stone tablet song commandments for Dylan: just humongous. Right in the middle of the evening he performed “Stone,” “Early Roman Kings” and “Don’t Think Twice” in succession. The “Stone” was a tricky one, it was a question of tempo, and Dylan brutally fucked with it, slowing the verses to a crawl while he merged the bridge before hitting the verses:
“Now you don’t seem
to scrounge around
After that slowed to a stop, you expect a taunt, hard smack and and still the chorus doesn’t roar, it is a mid tempo lull. So the question is, why did he do it? I can see only one reason, to help us hear it differently…The audience loved it, and the audience were smart. I didn’t hate it. But I loved the “Twice”. This was a gorgeous rethinking of a song that didn’t need rethinking, a guitar peaked completely beautiful tweaking of his melody, sung in a different key, with Dylan drawing out the last word of every line, you feel as though he may never reach the end of the “travelling ooooon.” It makes mincemeat out of asinine comments about his singing voice. So cleanly arranged, so minimal and yet thorough, as purely soulful as anything you’ve ever heard. Anybody who has moved on from a lover may find themselves tearing up, the harp solo is sublime, the instrumental outro blew the audience away. The song lifted the entire evening onto a different level. It is the single best live performance I’ve heard from Dylan since “Dark Eyes” with Patti Smith, also at the Beacon, in 1995.
As a whole though, not bad, not great, in the middle. But it is Dylan. Neither him, nor you, nor I, will be here forever, twenty years from now we may regret not seeing the voice of a generation every single chance we got. Till next time, Bobby.