- 20 Nov 21
It is always a special occasion when Bob Dylan returns to the Big Apple – the city where his first big breakthrough was fashioned. With a powerful album, in the form of Rough and Rowdy Ways, driving this latest live incarnation, there was a brand new feel, to much of the show at the fabled Beacon Theatre. Not to mention, the inevitable surprises that the master songwriter revels in…
It felt like a Broadway opening, perhaps because it was. Bob Dylan returned to the Beacon Theatre, that golden and red velvet palace on the Upper West Side of New York City, last night — and he and his excellent band were welcomed with open arms and dancing in the aisles.
The Beacon is aptly named, glowing away on Broadway between 74th and 75th Streets since 1929. Dylan has played many shows there, but none I’ve seen have been so broadly attended and passionately anticipated, in support of an album immediately and much admired, and in the wake, only it isn’t yet, of a pandemic still ongoing.
The Rough and Rowdy Ways Tour, the current leg of Dylan’s “Neverending Tour” that began in 1988, features almost all the songs from his 2020 album of the same title. Hearing them live for the first time is revelatory: the arrangements differ from those on the record, and Dylan’s voice is clear and commanding, leading the instrumentals in every instance. On ‘Black Rider’ and ‘My Own Version of You’, particularly, it sounds like old-fashioned lining: the singer doing a recitative or sung line, with the instruments then rising to accompany him after the fact. It showcases the singer, which is what the audience had come for.
They’d come from far away: in the lobby I saw friends from Wisconsin and Minnesota, Massachusetts, Canada, Ireland, and England. They’d come from near: I also saw friends from all around New York City — Greenwich Village, Chelsea, the East and West Sides — from New Jersey and the Hudson Valley and Long Island. All vaccinated (a requirement for entering The Beacon), most masked throughout the show, all smiling under those masks. We were there for Bob.
And he was very, very much there for us. From the first song, a gritty ‘Watching the River Flow’, Dylan’s voice was rich and strong, particularly in the lower registers. He had a clear tenor voice as a young man; now, after decades of singing (and smoking), his is a baritone, a dramatic baritone, a Verdi baritone. The instrument he plays in concert these days is an upright piano, its light-wood back to the audience, shielding him from us sometimes. Dylan plays it light and jazzy, heavy-handed, honky-tonky, boogie-woogie. He has all the styles in his fingertips, and his piano, like his voice, leads the rest of the band.
What an excellent band it is, too. Tony Garnier, his longest-time sideman — as Dylan said in his band introductions, Tony’s still here — is on the bass, with Donnie Herron on mandolin, lap and pedal steel, fiddle, and (gloriously on ‘Key West / Philosopher Pirate’) accordion; Bob Britt and Doug Lancio on guitar; and Charley Drayton on drums. They play tightly, snappily, and smoothly together, swinging into individual strolls, ready to take the stage at the Iridium or Birdland as easily as at the Beacon.
Dylan relied on the band as a solid platform from which to do as he liked, changing words and arrangements on some of his old and well-known songs. ‘Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine)’ featured a long instrumental introduction — there was never silence between the songs — and a powerhouse vocal. “You know how hard you try” now rhymes with “say goodbye.” On the line “This time I’m not gonna tell you why that is” Dylan ad libs “not this time,” and the “Yes, and I’ll go last” has become a drawn-out “Yeaaaaaaahh, I’ll go last” — both engender yells of approval from the audience. Herron’s mandolin conclusion is stunning.
Stepping to the centre of the stage for a moment, one hand still on his piano as if for reassurance, Dylan performed ‘I Contain Multitudes’, the first new song in the setlist from Rough and Rowdy Ways. As he crouched to deliver the line about Songs of Experience and William Blake, he looked like he was performing at 25 again, his legs adopting the same positions we know from his 1966 tour, his body slim and hands expressive, only the guitar absent. He followed up with ‘False Prophet’, in a swaggering one-two punch, doing a marching step to the rhythm as he sang the sharp lyrics:
“Another day without end - another ship going out/ Another day of anger - bitterness and doubt I know how it happened - I saw it begin / I opened my heart to the world and the world came in….
You know darlin’ the kind of life that I live/ When your smile meets my smile - something’s got to give I ain’t no false prophet - I’m nobody’s bride/ Can’t remember when I was born and I forgot when I died.”
Shifting back to his vast, deep, and wide back catalogue, keeping the old songs every bit as fresh as the brand new, Dylan gave us the gift of ‘When I Paint My Masterpiece’. Instead of having a date with Botticelli’s niece these days, he’s going up to the hotel room to wash out his clothes, which are covered with grease. “Ain’t gonna talk to nobody,” he insisted, until that masterpiece is painted. The arrangement is walky-talky, with a two-stepping rhythm; Dylan often preempts the end of a line with the first word of the next, pulling the song along through the strength of his voice alone. “Everything’s gonna be SO different,” he sings, and it is.
‘Black Rider’ is done in a rocking-chair beat, back and forth. The humour in it took the audience’s fancy; the directive “Go home to your wife, stop visiting mine” – and the dismissal “The size of your cock will get you nowhere” – both brought appreciative ripples of laughter. Dylan then surprised us with an almost unrecognisable, hotted-up ‘I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight’.
A rough, repeated riff from the guitars propels the song. Dylan seemed to enjoy adding spice to it. “You won’t regret it,” he sang, and then cracked, “Not tonight, anyway.” ‘My Own Version of You’ has a swoony, swirly, seductive sound, at odds with its grim gorgeous lyrics. The mention of Leon Russell received applause; the instruments quieted on the verse beginning “I can see the history of the whole human race/ It’s all right there — it’s carved into your face,” so that Dylan’s voice could be well heard. The lyrics came out as a series of commands, once more: one couldn’t help but listen, and heed, and be moved.
Both ‘Early Roman Kings’ and ‘To Be Alone With You’ I’d heard in concert many times before, but never as Dylan is performing them now. Herron’s fiddle lights up ‘To Be Alone With You’, and presages Dylan’s own playing with the song: surely I heard the rhyme of “just an hour” and “in an ivory tower” and
“I wish the night was here
Without a doubt
I’d fall into your arms
And let it alllllll hang out.”
Best of all?
“My heart’s in my mouth
My eyes are blue
My mortal bliss
Is to be alone with you.”
No time to breathe, to recover from an entirely new song you’d known all your life, but Dylan and the band went straight on down beyond the sea, beyond the shifting sand, to Key West.
‘Key West / Philosopher Pirate’ is, for my money, the best song on Rough and Rowdy Ways, and to hear it live is a benison – and Dylan’s performance a benediction. The swell of the band on every refrain is overwhelming. No one spoke, no one sang along, no one moved. ‘Gotta Serve Somebody’ was a necessary shift back to the known, from the land of enchantment, an up-tempo breaking of the spell, but still one with a religious valence. Then Dylan shifted back to three songs that are hymns. 'I’ve Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You’ is an immensely long title for an enormously heartfelt and loving song. The standard ‘Melancholy Mood’ sustained the contemplation, and ‘Mother of Muses’ made people cry.
“Take me to the river and release your charms/ Let me lay down in your sweet lovin’ arms/ Wake me — shake me — free me from sin / Make me invisible like the wind /Got a mind to ramble — got a mind to roam / I’m travelin’ light and I’m slow coming home.”
The shot of vitality and passion from ‘Goodbye Jimmy Reed’ was so needed. We jumped to our feet and danced to the pounding, rocking beat, but the words maintained the elegiac mood: goodbye, good luck, good night, so long, God be with you. Even that last earthy, sexy “Can’t you hear me calling from down in Virginia?” couldn’t dispel the longing for none of this to end, even as the evening was about to do so.
After a few words of affection for “the Big Apple” and some of its landmark places, Dylan introduced his band, and they did one more song, ‘Every Grain of Sand’. A spiritual meditation born of the Bible and William Blake, this song is now thirty years old. Dylan wrote it during his “Gospel years” — which did not really begin in the late 1970s, but rather when he was learning songs from the Staple Singers albums as a boy, and which continue today. His performance of it now is something beyond, and above, elegy: a goodbye that has its original meaning of God be with you.
“I hear the ancient footsteps like the motion of the sea / Sometimes I turn, there’s someone there, other times it’s only me / I am hanging in the balance of the reality of man/ Like every sparrow falling, like every grain of sand.”
*The Rough and Rowdy Ways Tour continues through December 2 on the East Coast of the United States, and worldwide, in dates to be announced, through 2022.