Bob Dylan and His Band, NJPAC, November 26, 2014
Seeing Bob is about so much these days besides *seeing Bob*. It is about showing up, it is about paying tribute, it is about memories and chasing ghosts. I am not proud to say that I insisted on going to this show on the assertion that this might be the last time we see him, so it is time to pick a show and pay the money and go, dammit.
NJPAC is a lovely venue that is a reasonable walk from Newark Penn Station; you can take the light rail one stop if it’s raining, but you’ll likely end up walking back (like we did) because they run every 30 minutes later in the evening. It is new-ish at this point, and surprisingly grand, and feels more like a European opera house than it does a venue in New Jersey. Our seats were right on the price break after the VIP, which meant 12th row stage right. The sound is very, very warm; there is a lot of good resonance in the house. This is important for this kind of show and for this show, especially, it made a big difference.
I was a little concerned when his voice was overly raspy on “Things Have Changed” and sat there thinking that he was sick in this awful changing winter weather, and the road, but he warmed up by “Workingman’s Blues #2″ and then I sat there muttering that he needs to warm up and not use the beginning of the set for that purpose, but by the intermission I realized that at 73, throwing away what’s left of the voice on a warmup is stupid. Once he got to the fourth song, his voice was strong and emotive, and “Pay In Blood” was absolutely riveting. He moves between this mysterious trio of mics at center stage (one standard at the center which he actually sang into, with two vintage on either side, which we originally thought were for use with a harmonica, but weren’t, and remained completely unused the entire evening) and the piano, sometimes (as the case of “Tangled Up In Blue”) within the same song.
“Tangled Up In Blue” was the first cascade of applause at the start of a song. I didn’t know if it was because the performance was particularly powerful or if it was the first song the rank and file recognized. I’m never sure, you know? At least in a theater setting you did not have the additional distraction of the first-timers getting agitated realizing that Bob is not going to sing the songs they know in the way they will recognize them (although the couple to our right did not get up or applaud once the entire evening; I’m still not sure what was up with that).
The guy behind us, who came up from Philly (he told the story six times in the course of the evening) yelled for “Blueberry Hill” throughout the evening. Normally I would be annoyed but given the fact that he did play it a couple of days earlier, I couldn’t really blame him too much for trying. The crowd remained seated, despite a few attempts up front to change the dynamic; security chastened anyone who tried, with the exception of the petite woman front row center, who I decided won some kind of award once I realized that she was wearing a pillbox hat (and house lights at intermission confirmed the obvious second half of that statement.) Really, if you’ve been to the Beacon, the ushers are just as unpleasant and disciplinarian, almost to the point of distraction; there was a woman on the aisle in the fifth row who would leap to her feet to dance in defiance for a few seconds every time an usher was in the rows in front of her waving a flashlight at someone with an iPhone.
But I digress.
The band left the stage after “Love Sick” and came back out 15 minutes or so later to kick off the second set with “High Water (For Charley Patton),” which I was happy to see. The back half of the set was not as focused as it was earlier; the intermission might give Bob a needed voice break but I think it broke focus. The performances were still above-average–this was, hands down, the strongest I have seen Dylan in the last decade–but it did not connect as powerfully for me as the start did.
There is so much to consider and ruminate on. The stage, the very dim lights, except for the few times they are reasonably brighter but still not as intense as a standard rock show. The grand piano, the classical bust of a woman on stage right that remained spotlit the entire time, even when the rest of the stage was dark. Bob’s old timey carnival barker suit. The hat, straight of the Desire era. His onstage demeanor, trying to discern if he was engaging with the crowd or not; I think he did see us and did notice those attempts by the faithful to stand and salute and cheer. There was one trip back from the piano where he almost did a little ‘fuck yeah’ triumphant dance (maybe at the end of “Beyond Here Lies Nothing”? I was concentrating so hard for the first few songs I forgot to take notes), which was preceded by a fluid, loud interlude on the keyboard. He would sometimes sashay a little bit over to stage right and pause with his left hand on his hip; that was the most acknowledgement he gave all night.
(Even in 2014 we still parse everything he does for some kind of deeper meaning. Sometimes a walk a few feet away from the mic is just a walk.)
The setlist is frozen because he knows he can sing the songs and these are the songs he wants to sing, and sing them well. He has pulled out a few chestnuts and fashioned new renditions that suit his voice. The backing band is, as usual, unbelievably competent. They play well together and follow Bob like glue, but in a soulful, fluid fashion; they’re not playing like a bunch of session dudes up there. This has been a continual hallmark and delight of the Never Ending Tour.
The SO was pleased to get to hear Bob Dylan sing “Blowin’ In The Wind,” which I realize is no small thing, to heard the person who wrote the song actually sing the words live in front of you. My problem is that my list of songs I want to hear Dylan sing were already out of the setlist before I even got a chance; after, say, Sam Cooke at the Harlem Square Club, Otis at Monterey, or the Velvet Underground at Max’s, the Rolling Thunder Revue remains one of the shows I most regret not being old enough to have attended. I tend to be philosophical about this, mostly because there’s nothing I can DO about it. So I don’t even go to Dylan hoping for anything except the experience of being in the same room with Bob, which is a ‘you pays your money, you takes your chances’ kind of proposition these days.
But this time out, everything fell into place and Dylan was masterful, powerful even, exceeding expectations. Which at 73 is more than anyone can hope for, and probably more than we deserve.
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