Bob Dylan and His Band are playing “Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat” when I arrive at Nashville’s Municipal Auditorium. There’s no time to buy beer. I give my ticket to the usher, who walks me right in front of the stage to get to my seat. And for a moment there, I swear I feel Bob Dylan’s eyes on me as I make my way across his path. It’s a giddy kind of thrill, and a bit uncomfortable, too. The band launches into “This Wheel’s On Fire,” and I take my seat. “If your memory serves you well, we were going to meet again and wait. So I’m going to unpack all my things, and sit before it gets too late.”
The last time I saw Bob Dylan perform, I had the surreal experience of standing several feet away from him, on the side of the stage, at Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. But I never got to see his face. Instead, I stared at his back and shoulders, as he coaxed notes from his keyboard, and spit hot fire into the microphone. That was the last time I ever shushed someone at a concert, too. Come, on, dude, I longed to say to the gabby, over-privileged douchebag next to me. Dylan might hear you! Besides, what generation were you ever the voice of? Keep it down, chico!
How was the Brooklyn concert? Somewhere between transcendent and okay. Everyone knows a modern day Dylan show is a dicey proposition. Will he be in a giving mood? Will his voice be shot? Will he sing like he means it? Is this show gonna be blowin’ in the wind, or will it just blow? I’d seen bad Bob Dylan before, and I had no desire to repeat the experience. Which was why I was pleasantly surprised, in fact elated, to attend this show. Bob Dylan brought it, ladies and gentlemen. He brought it hard.
As an added bonus, I had a spectacular view. Halloween’s approaching (everybody get their Bob Dylan masks on), and like a jack-o-lantern, his face was half concealed in shadow, and half lit up in an orange glow. Then there was Charlie Sexton, his foil, by his side, looking for all the world like a Nashville cat, with his sharp gray suit and coiffed hair. He’d drop to his knees while pealing off guitar lines, embodying the fact that we were all into it. The other musicians were equally suited up. And then there was Dylan: dressed in his now trademark antiquated outfit, he resembled a civil war relic leading a rock band. Question for the purists: when’s the last time Dylan performed without wearing a hat?
“Stuck Inside A Mobile (With The Memphis Blues Again)” had me wondering what the veteran songwriter must think of these old lines and cryptic riddles, some forty-odd-years later. Smoking eyelids, punching cigarettes, it’s all so very 1960s. Apparently he still gets a kick out of them, since he’s never stopped playing it.
On “Just Like A Woman,” Dylan is his own organist. Where would he put the emphasis this time? The song had nice stops after “takes…” and then the women sitting next to me would sing “…just like a woman” like a Greek chorus. Bob, of course, showed up after. “Tangled Up In Blue” has been rearranged, again. Now it goes “early one mornin’…” (wait for it) “the sun was shinin’” (wait for it). All the Bob Dylans we used to know, they’re an illusion to us now.
If you like the way Dylan’s vocals sound these days, all raspy and abused, then you really like hearing songs like “Beyond Here Lies Nothing,” and “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” live. It’s the same voice that’s on the records. Perversely, the new songs feel like they’re where the really good lyrics are at. They’re certainly not in “Lay, Lady Lay.”
“Rollin’ and Tumblin’” is where the whole concert seems to hit its stride. “I got trouble so hard, I can’t stand the strain. Some young lazy slut has charmed away my brains.” Afterward, somebody calls out for “All Along The Watchtower,” which, from what I can glean, is almost always in the encore. Strangely, it doesn’t show up tonight.
“Spirit On The Water’s” melody is pitched much higher than it is on Modern Times, and features another Halloween-friendly lyric: “I’m as pale as a ghost, holding a blossom on a stem. You ever seen a ghost? No, but you have heard of them.” Also macabre: “I wanna be with you in paradise, and it seems so unfair. I can’t go to paradise no more, I killed a man back there.”
“High Water (For Charley Patton),” with Donnie Herron on banjo, was an appropriate song for a city that “went down in the flood” not too long ago. On songs where he steps away from the keyboard, such as this one, Dylan uses his body, very subtly, but very cooly, to punctuate the lyrics. For a second, he seems like an old, wizened black blues singer in his delivery.
“Workingman’s Blues,” probably the evening’s highlight, is emotional. And clear. Damn. “He’s more coherent tonight than the last three shows he played in Nahsville,” the woman who was singing along to “Just Like A Woman” tells me. I believe it. “Highway 61 Revisited” comes alive. A new gear has definitely been kicked into. We are moving down the road at an accelerated speed. Someone tell the second Mother this is being done.
“Ain’t Talkin’” is a long song, but it still grooves. And it gives Herron, a man of many instruments, a chance to break out the viola. “Thunder On The Mountain” has that killer intro, a kind of false start that gets you ready for the main event. It, too, sounds a bit like “Highway 61 Revisited.” But it’s got Alicia Keys in it. And Tennessee.
“Ballad Of A Thin Man” would have been a good one for Jack White to sing on. Word on the street is that Dylan stopped by White’s Third Man Records offices on Monday, just to say hello. White joined Dylan onstage at the Ryman in 2007 for “Meet Me In The Morning” and “One More Cup Of Coffee.” But he must have stayed backstage tonight. Dylan takes another Dada-ist harmonica solo into his bullet mic, playing just enough notes to make an impression. Then it’s encore time. For “Jolene,” the front rows turn into a sock hop dance party. And “Like A Rolling Stone” is pure party music, and rock concert happiness – those basic rock and roll chords (heard in “La Bamba,” “Wild Thing” and elsewhere) getting everyone loose. How did it feel? It felt pretty good.