Decked out in a sparkling white suit, Bob Dylan took the stage of Boston’s Fleet Center at 8:15 on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, bounding up to the mic on the balls of his feet, and laid into Hank Williams’ Wait For the light to Shine, beginning a 2½ hour concert that closed the first “Love and Theft” leg of his never-ending tour.
“These poems, with all their crudities, doubts, and confusions, are written for the love of Man and in praise of God, and I’d be a damn’ fool if they weren’t.” – Dylan Thomas
Including six songs from the already-gold “Love and Theft” mixed in with “standards” that are older than many of the 14,000+ in attendance, it was a memorable performance – displaying many facets of Dylan’s genius: poet, composer, guitar slinger, talent scout, vocalist, and nimble-footed knee-waggler.
The opener had a playful feel to it and was followed by It Ain’t Me, Babe, begun a capella and then laid against the quiet sound of acoustic guitars and bass with rhythmic highlights from drummer David Kemper’s brushwork. Dylan delivered the verses without much variation, saving his emphasis for the refrains.
Coming to the end of the lyric, he fairly barked out a “babe” full of derision, but then repeated the last lines in a melodious fashion, tip-toed backwards to get his harmonica and light-footed it back to the mic where he delivered a coda almost on bended knee.
Next, on A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall, the band provided an expansive musical meadow, flowered by Larry Campbell’s bouzouki, for Dylan to romp through giving voice to this lyric that is remarkable for so many reasons, not the least of which is that he wrote it when he was barely out of his teens.
The replies to “Oh, where have you been…?, Oh, what did you see…?, Oh, what did you hear…?, Oh, who did you meet…?,” were variously recited, chanted, and intoned. The song’s final question, “Oh, what’ll you do now…?” was answered in exhortation, Dylan adding a syllable-full of angst at the end – “yea-as, it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.”
Another cover song, the plaintive Searching for a Soldier’s Grave, featuring vocal harmonies and Campbell’s mandolin playing, was followed by the first song from “Love and Theft,” Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum, a hugely fun rollicking tune jammed full of little aural treats.
The band was back-lighted on this number and the lighting played a role on the next tune, too, helping to show that the essence of Just Like a Woman, which has no trouble standing alone on the printed page as an integral work of art, lays in just a few simple notes, which convey effortlessly all the bittersweet emotion that is spelled out in the lyric.
Focusing on the dozen or so notes of the jaunty, descending melodic hook (which follows “…But you break just like a little girl” on the original recording) – the stage lights went down while Dylan repeated the melody a few times, then back up for another run through, now augmented by Campbell’s pedal steel guitar.
It was on this number, too, that Dylan threw all his dance moves into the performance. Almost always facing the audience, he’d move up to and away from the mic, using little hopping steps on the balls of his feet – like he didn’t want his footsteps to be heard. Was he being furtive? Coming like a thief in the night?
Having the new Lonesome Day Blues follow that newly-revealed old chestnut was felicitous; it is straight forward and all-of-a-piece, driven by a hypnotic rhythm overlaid with some nifty guitar-slinging. The sound is very heavy and the lyric, which appears to be linear, contains this perplexing juxtaposition:
“Well, I’m forty miles from the mill I’m dropping it into overdrive,
I’m forty miles from the mill I’m dropping it into overdrive,
Set my dial on the radio I wish my mother was still alive.
I seen ya loverman coming, coming across the barren fields,
I see ya loverman coming, coming across the barren fields,
He’s not a gentleman at all, he’s rotten to the core, he’s a coward and he steals.”
Also new, Highwater (for Charley Patton) came next, begun with Dylan racing through the opening lines before the band joined in, led by Campbell on banjo. The music built up and around the lyric, which is full of direct references and a variety of allusions. The performance had something of a tribal feeling to it, and the ad hoc Fleet Center tribe responded with big hand-thunder.
Next, it was back into acoustic mode for Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right, another gem mined decades ago, back during the Kennedy administration, three years before Bobby Orr became the darling of all Bostonians, and two years before the folk mafia wigged-out down the highway at the Newport Folk Festival. (review of Dylan at Newport, August 3, 2002)
Appearing like a youngster on stage tonight, like he’s having way more fun than anybody else in town, just how could Dylan have been so old so long ago that he knew so well how to handle heartbreak? Or did he just know how to write about it – writing a prescription and dosing himself with each performance?
To expand the medicinal metaphor, Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right, offers physical therapy too, by way of finger-picking, and Dylan, Campbell, and Charlie Sexton all cut loose for quite a display of acoustic wizardry, continuing to pluck away for a couple minutes after the song’s closing lines.
Next was John Brown from the MTV Unplugged record, with Campbell on bouzouki again, followed by a spirited acoustic Tangled Up in Blue, with royal red lights flooding the arena, then two more new songs, the jook-joint feeling Summer Days with Tony Garnier spinning his upright bass and then the lugubrious Sugar Baby. And before the set-ending Rainy Day Women #12 & 35, they played a southern-rock styled The Wicked Messenger, which Dylan wrapped up with a little harmonica riff.
Like a Rolling Stone came after Things Have Changed, and tonight’s performance was another sweet-hot rocker that flowed freely, dis-encumbered of the barnacles of a thousand trips. That party piece was followed by the psalm, Forever Young, tonight given a transcendent reading with beautiful vocal harmonies, and then the new Honest With Me, featuring Campbell’s slide guitar licks, a song that would’ve fit nicely on the 1965 album “Highway 61 Revisited.”
Then, after a disguised introduction, Blowin’ in the Wind got a spirited playing with the band adding vocal harmonies on the refrain. Dylan and his band plugged in again for All Along the Watchtower, invoking the spirit of Jimi Hendrix with plenty of stellar guitar riffs and runs. Roy Orbison was brought to mind too, when Dylan mimiced his Pretty Woman growl on the penultimate line “Outside in the distance a wildcat did growl…”
Before the stage went dark again, Dylan held his guitar up in front of his face and bowed slightly. A moment later, over the din in the dark arena, we heard the band humming the chorus of Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door, followed soon by the cleanly enunciated: “Mama, take this badge off of me/ I can’t use it anymore./It’s gettin’ dark, too dark for me to see/I feel like I’m knockin’ on heaven’s door.”
And so, on the Saturday after Thanksgiving 2001, good ole’ Bob Dylan came to the Hub of the universe, acting like he’d copped more than just a moniker from Dylan Thomas, who wrote this Note to his “Collected Poems”:
“These poems, with all their crudities, doubts, and confusions, are written for the love of Man and in praise of God, and I’d be a damn’ fool if they weren’t.”
Setlist (thanks to Bill Pagel at BobLinks):
1. Wait For The Light To Shine (acoustic) (Larry on mandolin) (song by Fred Rose)
2. It Ain’t Me, Babe (acoustic) (Bob on harp)
3. A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall (acoustic) (Larry on bouzouki)
4. Searching For A Soldier’s Grave (acoustic) (Larry on mandolin)
(song by Johnnie Wright, Jim Anglin and Jack Anglin)
5. Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum
6. Just Like A Woman (Larry on pedal steel)
7. Lonesome Day Blues
8. High Water (For Charley Patton) (Larry on banjo)
9. Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right (acoustic)
10. John Brown (acoustic) (Larry on bouzouki)
11. Tangled Up In Blue (acoustic)
12. Summer Days (Tony on standup bass)
13. Sugar Baby (Tony on standup bass)
14. The Wicked Messenger (Bob on harp)
15. Rainy Day Women #12 & 35 (Larry on steel guitar)
16. Things Have Changed
17. Like A Rolling Stone
18. Forever Young (acoustic)
19. Honest With Me (Larry on slide guitar)
20. Blowin’ In The Wind (acoustic)
21. All Along The Watchtower
22. Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door (acoustic)