If the main complaint about Bob Dylan is that he keeps fucking with songs that were perfect in the first place, it isn’t true on his 2021 tour. And while he must be sick to his back teeth with some of his huge catalog by now, and needs to keep skin in the game, last night at the Beacon Theatre he really wasn’t doing that. From “Watching The River Flow” and “When I Paint My Masterpiece” through “Most Likely You Go Your Way And I Go Mine” and “Gotta Serve Somebody” he certainly didn’t re-write the tune, he arranged the songs and switched temps “Serve Somebody” at double time), but he sang the melodies. Only a disastrous “Early Roman Kings” was a serious re-write, and on the other end of the spectrum, he closed with the best “Every Grain Of Sand” I’ve heard: a perfect testament to how we listen for Christ, via William Blake.
2021 has Dylan returned from the pandemic a changed man with an album to promote and a new band to help him push it. A set not entirely unlike his Shadow Kingdom my back pages stream from early this summer (here). He shares four songs with Shadow Kingdom, eight (out of ten) off Rough And Rowdy Ways, one Frank Sinatra, and four odds and sods. If there is an internal tick tock beyond pushing the product it is mostly inscrutable. And if you add up the hits and misses, it is mostly hits with an end, “Goodbye Jimmy Reed” followed by “Every Grain Of Sand” that sends you out floating on air. No opening act. No encore. He did speak to us briefly though he had nothing much to say. At a crisp, streamlined 95 minutes, Bobby didn’t linger.
Like all of us, Zim has spent the past two years at home and his return to the stage finds him relatively cheerful. Sitting behind his keyboards for the most part (he doesn’t go near a guitar) and when he gets up the 80 year old man steadies himself on his piano and stoops as he walks, and on occasion sings while he stands for a coupla verses. The first third of the stage is empty though he isn’t wearing his huge hats so if you can see him, you can see him, just not that closely. The set eschews Americana for classic rock variants, there is a lead and a rhythm, a slide and a bass guitar, as well as drums, and the songs are swift and powerful kicks except for the ones that don’t make, it, a droning “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” is the worst offender, but even the worst moment ain’t that bad.
It feels like the end of the Never Ending Tour, last night was the Rough And Rowdy Ways tour, and he played most of the album -except he passed on “Murder Most Foul” (which makes sense) and “Crossing The Rubicon” (which doesn’t make any sense whatsoever). Which he has been known to add a clutch of new songs on tour, he usually doesn’t past the 25% threshold since 1974, with the Triplicate push an exception of seven songs. Still, seven out of 21 not eight out of seventeen. This is the most typical type of set I’ve ever seen Dylan perform, it is the sort of set Taylor Swift ALWAYS does, she always pushes the latest album and smatters in some oldies. Zim does the same thing, nothing at all from classics like Highway 61 Revisited, Blood On The Tracks (he was performing “Simple Twist Of Fate” at the start of the tour), you name it, it ain’t here.
If this was your first Bob Dylan concert, the setlist was too Rowdy centric, but if you’ve seen him a multitude of times, it makes no difference. The band aren’t his best by a long shot, pros abound but they don’t quite coalesce. According to Ultimate Classic Rock (here): “Tony Garnier switches between electric and upright bass, while pedal steel player Donnie Herron also doubles on fiddle and accordion. The group is rounded out with two guitarists, Bob Britt and Doug Lancio, plus drummer Charley Drayton (who played with Dylan back in 1991” . I read somewhere but I can’t find where, where the reviewer said the band seemed scared to make a mistake. Perhaps, but they were tight as hell and time after time found a groove and swung it for him.
The Rowdy songs weren’t all great, but at least from time to time they made sense of the set construction, “I Contain Multitudes” has “I sing the songs of experience like William Blake, I have no apologies to make” and at the end of the night he sings the song of experience like William Blake. Both the Frankenstein story “My Own Version Of You” and a song that should be picked up the way “Make You Feel My Love” has become a classic (Adele just covered it at her Griffith Conservatory gig), “I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You” is a beauty.
The audience were attentive and give the new songs the same ecstatic reaction they gave the new songs. It was one of the better audiences, completely unlike the chatty twits at Forest Hills who destroyed the set with constant talking. They were rewarded with an “Good evening everybody” at the end.
The set wasn’t for everyone, but if you love Bob Dylan without reservation it was a great performance, a studied, concentrated, straightforward version of Bob.
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