the coolest man alive

Bob Dylan & Willie Nelson, Dutchess Stadium, October 10, 2004

“Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the poet laureate of rock and roll, the man who gave voice to his generation, who went from folk to rock and back, who toured with Rolling Thunder, found Christianity, became mired in substance abuse, was declared ‘washed up’ and emerged in the 90s with the best albums of his career. Please join me in welcoming Bob Dylan.”

Now, *that*, my friends, is an INTRODUCTION.

I was lucky enough to be at what I believe was the first “Dylan on keyboards!” show, October 4, 2002, Key Arena, Seattle. While I’m hardly a Dylan expert, I’m no tourist either, and I knew enough to know that when he walked out onstage and started playing keyboards that something was afoot. Reading the fan backlash after the first few shows, I was just waiting for someone to yell “Judas!” again.

So it’s two years later, and off we go to Upstate New York to this minor league baseball park in Fishkill. Bob has been playing a lot of these non-traditional venues in the last couple years, fairgrounds and the like; I generally stay away from those because my experience has unfortunately been that most people attending those kinds of shows are looking for Entertainment and not music. But this was the Field of Dreams tour, this was Bob & Willie, my companion had never gotten to see Dylan, so off I went.

It was a pretty rinky-dink stadium with similarly rinky-dink organization; we managed to get inside easily and grab a decent spot about 15 people from the stage. Everyone was lying around on blankets until Willie Nelson came onstage around 7pm.

I don’t know enough to talk about Willie’s set. It was billed as “and Family” and it definitely was a motley collection of folks up there. It was highly enjoyable, I’m glad I can say that I’ve seen him, but mostly I just enjoyed listening to Mickey Raphael.

Dylan’s stage set up has him on far stage right, facing the opposite side of the stage, with the band in a semi-circle around the back of the stage. They’re all wearing the same suits, long jackets, black shirts. They look like a gang of gunslingers than a kick-ass rock and roll band.

When the opening notes of “Rainy Day Women” began, I just started laughing and made some joke about pandering to his audience. By the time Dylan hit the stage, the friendly and comfortable crowd had evolved into drunk asshole central, combined with amateur hour. Not that many bands make it up to Fishkill. So there was a certain irony involved hearing the audience yelling “Everybody must get stoned!”

With the new arrangements, you can’t always count on the music to tip you off as to what the next song is – name that tune doesn’t necessarily work. So you have to rely on first lines, a lot. The first (and still only) Dylan lyrics reference I own has a first lines index and when I was a teenager, I’d amuse myself by picking out a line from the index and then tracking down and learning the song. So when I hear “You must leave now, take what you need” it’s one of those instant recognition oh my god moments – “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”.

“Highway 61 Revisited” was utterly SCORCHING. I swear someone kicked the volume up at that song – I hadn’t been missing my earplugs until towards the end of it. I have been mourning the loss of Charlie Sexton from this band, but oh my god – Stu Kimball? Un-be-lieve-able. And he does it without breaking a sweat.

Explain to me, please, why the drunk assholes don’t talk through “Lay Lady Lay” (I’ve never liked this song, ever) but do want to have long, extended, loud and rambling discussions during “Not Dark Yet”? But even with that, it was riveting and heartwrenching at the same time. I would say something like ‘You have to wonder how Dylan feels singing this when so many of his peers are leaving this earth’ but then I feel dumb, because in my universe Dylan is not a mortal who bothers with such trivial notions.

On the other hand, I was at the show where he started playing the Zevon covers (and we got *three* that night), so I guess that’s my answer.

“Masters of War” – okay, maybe a gimme, but I felt lucky to hear him sing that song right now. And the encores – sure, it’s everything you came to hear (well, almost) but this band just plays the fuck out of them. “Watchtower” absolutely sizzled.

I have spoken with huge Dylan fans who can’t be bothered to go see him now, who believe him to be a shell of his former self, a mockery, a travesty. And I understand that things have greatly changed, but Dylan has greatly changed. He can’t play guitar any more – a huge loss to rock and roll, absolutely. He can’t sing the way he used to – so he’s found another way to interpret his songs. I mean, how on earth do you reinvent *Bob Dylan*? No one else has been able to, and seems to me that Bob himself has found a viable way to keep being vital and alive and performing. That band kicks ass all over the place. They’re neutral (not in the negative sense), no one is grandstanding (kind of hard to grandstand when you’re on the same stage as BOB DYLAN but you know someone out there would try if they had the chance), they can play just about anything. Seems to me that he’s got this thing figured out – he plays the keyboards, he works with the band, he gets out onstage and does this little kind of Bob-dance at the ends of the songs; there’s still a ton of vibrant, viable, valid energy in this man and his music and how he performs his music.

I also find the country – motif, as it were, to be interesting; it’s the one genre of music in which there is already a proven strategy of how to grow old gracefully as a performer, it’s not a genre strictly for the young. I think that we will start to see – we are seeing – rock artists find ways to grow old with dignity (or at least go out with their boots on) without having to give up, sit down, and feel like they have to compete at the level of a 20 year old musician.

The final image of the night: The band, standing across the stage, instruments on the floor and held perpendicular as though they were weapons. They just stand there; there’s no gratiutous waving, smiling, nodding; Bob acknowledges the crowd in this odd Bob-like way, with a nod and a wink, and they walk off. That’s when I said, “He’s still the coolest man alive.”

+ + + + +

1. Rainy Day Women #12 & 35
2. Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum
3. It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue
4. Lonesome Day Blues
5. Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again
6. Lay, Lady, Lay
7. Bye And Bye
8. Highway 61 Revisited
9. Not Dark Yet
10. Honest With Me
11. Masters Of War (acoustic)
12. Summer Days

13. Mr. Tambourine Man (acoustic)
14. Like A Rolling Stone
15. All Along The Watchtower