Bob Dylan doesn’t give a fuck. He doesn’t give a fuck about you. And he doesn’t give a fuck about me. That’s what makes Dylan, Dylan.
His never ending tour came through town last night, and Dylan does what Dylan does best, and that’s play what he wants, and do as he sees fit. He pleases himself. Last night was pretty indicative of where Dylan is nowadays… a reworked back catalogue with smattering of American standards made famous by crooners and represented on his latest Triplicate and the two previous recordings.
Dylan, at 76 years old, is slowing down, and has reached a comfortable place to perform from. His band has settled in as well. A few years back they seemed to be a musical distance that separated the band from Dylan the performer. Dylan is notorious for not practicing with his bands. Often they are set to learn the material by themselves, with Dylan coming in close to the live dates to run through the material. This band has been behind him for years, touring in a Never Ending set of dates (roughly 2000 shows). It has all gelled now. The Bob Dylan backing band is like “The Band”… in fact Dylan eludes to this approach by calling the evening a night with “Bob Dylan and his Band”.
Similarly to The Band, especially when they were backing Dylan himself, is the approach to the songs. Part of The Band’s magic was to be able to play all at once, not trading off solo’s one after the other, which is unfortunately all too often the norm, but soloing all together as it were… All of the musicians are playing muscularity and finding room in the music. There is just enough space for each musician to explore the song, but not be featured in it. If you listen closely every one is contributing to the melody and rhythmic structure all the time. The music is full, almost bursting with life. Listening to old live shows from The Band with Dylan (especially the 1974 tour) you get the sense that this is complex music from simple songs. This band is getting it out there as well.
The set list varies very little from show to show. Usually a few songs might be swapped out, but he has been playing shows with less song variation then he did when he was at his most powerful stage of the Never Ending Tour. Years ago, between 1997-2004 Dylan had Larry Campbell and Charlie sexton (1999 -2003, with some shows featuring Colin Linden instead) along with Winston Watson and Tony Garnier. They did Dylan songs justice, I’ve seen at least 30 Dylan shows and nothing compared to this band. The set list varied a lot more, and the band could reach deep into the extensive Dylan catalogue and pull out blistering versions of Masters of War, or Leopard Skin Pill Box Hat.
I think it was as early as 1986 with Tom Petty and the Heart Breakers as his backing band, a bill that included the Grateful Dead at Rich Stadium, that I discovered Dylan as a rock machine. A year later, he collaborated directly with the Dead and did six shows that changed Dylan’s perspective of live performance. THE NEVER ENDING TOUR SPRUNG OUT OF THIS RELATIONSHIP… although the collaboration on those six shows was received with mix reviews, the 270 minutes of studio rehearsal outtakes, that circulated widely among tape traders, proved that there was deep fertile ground that the two crossed into. This is the base of Dylan’s live sound ever since… a band that plays so well together, that it becomes intuitive and organic… melody lines and riffs collide as they negotiate the space where they can let loose… never quite stepping on each others toes, but brushed right up against each other… think of it as not colouring in or out of the lines, as much as creating a picture by filling up all the available space… whereever you look closely there is detail, step back and you see the whole. A picture with nuance.
The present band is almost as good as anyone who he has played with. I was excited to see Charlie Sexton again on lead guitar. He compliments Dylan’s sound just perfectly. The multi instrumentalist Donnie Herron (pedal steel, lap steel, electric mandolin, violin) is untouchable. Donnie replaces the void left by Larry Campbell (who went on to be Levon Helms band leader after playing with Phil Lesh for a while- now he can be found on tour with Teresa Williams). George Receli (drums, percussion), and Stu Kimball (rhythm guitar) joined shortly after Larry Campbell left, and have been stalwarts of Dylan’s ever since. Continuing to hold down bass is Tony Garnier, playing both an electric and stand up acoustic bass.
In general, I hate large shows, but when Dylan comes around, i usually buckle under and go. It’s not the number of people necessarily, it’s not the size of the venue, especially since the sound quality is so good these days. It’s mostly the fake and frustrating hoops that security make you jump through. This creates an oppressive atmosphere. Somehow it seems forgotten that I am a paying customer, who is in effect supporting these events through my money, and I, like all the rest, have come to commune with Dylan to free ourselves from the daily grind. The treatment and invasion by security in the name of safety and the like, has gone too far.
The average age at the Canadian Tire Centre was easily 50. This is mostly a grey haired set. There were no 40 oz of Jack Daniels being traded around, instead it is a bunch of middle aged white people sitting on their hands, and in the case of last night they barely noticed that Dylan and his Band had finished the show and had left the stage. A slow burn of appreciation was lulled out of slumber coaxing a two song encore that Dylan would have played regardless.
So why the metal detectors, so why must I empty my pockets, why do I have to watch an illegal and invasive search of my wife’s purse. It was pouring rain, and a hastily an “umbrella” check was set up… what exactly was the danger of an umbrella… some one might get impaled by the 80 year old beside me??… i guess. The truth is, if there was someone who wanted to do harm they would not be set back by any of this fake security measures. The metal detectors only react to a metal density as determined by its programmed setting. This is for simplicity sake a “gun or knife” density… my carabiners didn’t set it off, my credit card knife didn’t set it off, my lighters and lighter fuel went undetected … anyone who had a grudge and moment to plan would by pass the security with out too much hassle, yet we conform…
Now Dylan has every right to control his image, and the reproduction of it. So there was a strict no camera or recording policy… fine, i understand, it is his performance and his image, and as Dylan often gets burned by the media, I get his need to address this… However, everyone has a cell phone, and on those devices they generally have a camera…. the request is to stop recording and taking photo’s, not to stop a paying audience member from texting home to tell the babysitter what time to expect them. Or write something, check out Tinder, or even play a video game, if they so desire. So it came as quite a shock when security warned every one in the front row the if they see a phone out of your pocket at any time during the show, they will be evicted!
Nowhere in this scenario can there be an expectation to have people not access their personal property, especially as long as they are not violating any safety or policy requests that are reasonable. What I do with my phone, or a pen and paper, or my hair brush is my business… also, this is a discriminatory policy that is impossible to police… sure as I’m in the front row and it is definitely possible to monitor my actions, but what about 10 rows back, middle of floor, or section 220 , or anywhere in the darkened arena, really!
The gentleman beside me has a child with special needs at home. Is it conceivable to have him cut off from his child in order to enforce a no picture rule? These are mutually exclusive actions, taking pictures is not texting. So i said no, and the response is almost always the same… speak your mind and project a reasonable argument and you will be surrounded by a bunch of security guards. A fairly standard practice for them is to intimidate anyone who has an opposing voice to their “demands”. Guess what? Like Dylan, I don’t give a Fuck.
An unreasonable policy, especially one that goes against my rights and autonomy needs to be stood up against. I wish we would stop being so complacent with security, they have limited rights, and you should protect the ones you have left, before they are gone as well. I use my phone to take notes. Imagine that. I will continue to use my phone as a work tool. I respect Dylan’s right to control his image, and the reproduction of that. But no way can he or the CTC control my right to access my belongings.
And so it went.
I had a security guard stare directly at me for the first hour of the show, about three feet away, a dead mans stare. Fine. If that makes them feel better, go and get paid for it. When I turned the power of the gaze back onto her, and stared back, she would look away. Eventually, what I would later find out was the head of security, came out to watch as well.
After the show, I had a great talk with him. He was very polite and personable, and understood that my intentions were valid and relatively innocent. But why was any of this necessary? I told him about Wilco’s Solid Sound Festival that I just returned from. I told him that the only time I had even seen a security person was at the gate when they took the ticket, and did a cursory look into any bags (Note: they did not touch anything in the bag, as that is not permitted - unlike the CTC- if they wanted to see anything further, the owner of the bag is requested to show the item).
The rest of the three day festival was a beautiful, life affirming, family friendly, forward thinking event. OH, and guess what? When I left the main lawn on the third day, there was not a piece of garbage on the ground… not a spec… an example of a self policing audience using mutual kindness and respect. When you start an event with a heavy handed security, the tension is built, people are not respected, and inevitably some joy is lost. Fuck them.
And Fuck me if Dylan wasn’t great. A typically dressed Dylan in a white Jacket, blue patterned shirt with white trim on the collar, pocket and down the buttons, a bolo tie, black tuxedo pants with a bold white strip down the leg, and incredible two toned leather brogue shoes. A back handed cowboy look filtered through the 1920’s. All members of the band wore suits and bolo ties, mostly in grey. A grand piano was stage left, and this is where Dylan played from most of the night. Sometimes standing, sometimes sitting. He came out from behind a few times taking centre stage.
He played no guitar this night. He did however do his best crooner pose with mic stand in hand and head arched just so… oddly Dylan had three additional microphones on stage that he did not use… two of those are the classic RCA Radio design, which would have put the crooner pose into overdrive. Six out of the twenty songs had Dylan centre stage. Often, he would nestle way back on the stage and settle in between the drummer and guitarist. Occasionally walking in circles or posing with one hand on his hip, you could tell that the body is stiffing and aging has set in. His voice as well has been ravaged by time, now it is mostly a gravelly growling roar. His phrasing is also very different. Shorter in duration, and often with a lot of air and hang time before it’s delivery.
Every classic song was reworked. Both musically and vocally. It prevented the classics from being reduced to sing a long, feel good moments, and I am thankful for that. His voice, at least from where I sat, was clear and articulate. I’ve seen Dylan so drunk on stage that he would forget the words and purposefully mumble the lyrics. Not these days. Every word was clear and with intention. Lots of incredible interplay, high lighted by beautiful pedal and lap steel guitars or softened by brush stokes on the drum kit.
Mostly I was impressed with how good Dylan’s piano playing has gotten. Muscular and detailed, much better than the electric keyboard he was using with this band a few tours back. Dylan was very musical all show, dominating some of the melody lines and falling back into the fray over and over again.
My favourite moments came at the beginning of each song, as the band would suggest sounds and shape and form them into a melody. A space/ jam intro to every song. The “Duquesne Whistle” was especially notable as it is, along with the opener “Things Have Changed”, written during the Charlie Sexton years of studio recordings. Bob Dylan as Gun Slinger. A Honky Tonk Dylan, if you like. It was the most rave up they would be all night.
Simple and understated lighting exemplified the tone of the evening. The band played really well, but always looked like they had more in the tank. They never reached into the reserve tank, but blossomed during the best version of “Desolation Row” that I have heard. Building crescendo’s, full of hills and valleys. Two fan favourites “Blowin’ in the Wind”, and “Ballad of a Thin Man” were the encores. Here was the only obvious guitar solo of the night with Charlie Sexton stepping out and shining bright.
The set looks odd, but the show had a nice flow. A pace that seemed to suit Dylan, his head space and his age. Not that he would give a FUCK.
Things Have Changed
Don't Think Twice, It's All Right
Highway 61 Revisited
Why Try to Change Me Now bob centre stage (Cy Coleman cover) Summer Days
Make You Feel My Love
Melancholy Mood bob centre stage (Frank Sinatra cover)
Stormy Weather bob centre stage (Harold Arlen cover)
Pay in Blood
Once Upon a Time (Tony Bennett cover)
Tangled Up in Blue
Early Roman Kings
Soon After Midnight
That Old Black Magic bob centre stage (Johnny Mercer cover)
Long and Wasted Years bob centre stage
Autumn Leaves bob centre stage (Yves Montand cover)
Blowin' in the Wind
Ballad of a Thin Man