Bob Dylan delivered as even and as excellent a show as you could imagine Saturday night at Wahconah Park in Pittsfield, MA; it felt like this was a big deal for him rather than another run through a list of old songs in front of a mass of faceless people in another nameless town. It was a remarkable performance of a predictable setlist; he’s done so many shows that I’m sure this list was predicted by someone’s software program.
Here’s how it broke down chronologically: middle, early, recent, early, early, recent, early, early, early, recent, early, recent, early, early.
Mr. Dylan’s voice rang clear over a rocking rendition of “Cat’s in the Well,” getting the show off to a fast start at 9:00, setting a tight, energized tone that would carry throughout the hour and three quarters show. Following a day off, the band were playing their tenth show in two weeks on this leg of the Never-EndingTour – they were in perfect sync, seeming eager to do the jobs they’ve got so much time, talent, and soul invested in.
No need for me to rank this lineup among the various ones I’ve seen dating back to 1975, here’s what Dylan himself told Rolling Stone about them last week: “This is the best band I’ve ever been in, I’ve ever had, man for man. When you play with guys a hundred times a year, you know what you can and can’t do, what they’re good at, whether you want ’em there.”
In the same interview, he decried the state of music recording in these modern times, which thinking may account for the inclusion in tonight’s setlist of two songs that came out of his 1967 Big Pink jam sessions in nearby Saugerties, NY with the Hawks (soon to be renamed The Band), “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” in the second spot, and, in the the eleventh, “I Shall Be Released.”
The former could serve as a template for the whole set: really clear vocals from Dylan, his keyboard fairly high in the mix, and a solid harmonica coda (which, coincidentally, brought the huge diamond ring on his left hand to everybody’s attention), and notably tasty pedal steel licks from Donny Herron, as every song had at least one star turn from the band.
Herron and guitarist Denny Freeman each had several, always augmented by the brilliance of the rhythm section. There were exciting elements to the arrangements throughout. For instance, the fourth number, “Just Like a Woman,” opened with something of a duet between Herron’s pedal steel and Dylan’s organ and closed with Herron echoing Dylan’s harp. In between were sweet, sublime solos by Freeman and the audience’s filling the gaps left by Dylan for them to sing “just like a woman” before he did.
Vocal highlights included “Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum,” which sounded way better than we’d heard before. We may have been too quick to dismiss it earlier because of the silly name and its surface cartoonishness, but upon further reflection, it may be on a par with the mid-60s’ ballads in terms of substance, only that went unrecognized because his later song writing style is spare where it once was florid. Anyway, Dylan sang it with relish, the band played it with flair, and now I’m wondering what Christopher Ricks thinks about it!
The soloing Freeman did on the next song, “Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again,” was apparently a highlight for Dylan because it had him wiggling his eyebrows and waggling his tail, simple gestures that become hilarious when done by this most stoical performer. A very cool reading of “Million Miles” came next, sounding more like the official recorded version than any song on the set list.
Having called the setlist predictable earlier, we ought note now that that doesn’t imply inferior, because any setlist that has “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” and “Desolation Row” back to back is a good one. And what a great time to lay those gems side by side, with truly rejeuvenating and re-revealing arrangements inspired by how charged-up Dylan is these days and having these cats in his band.
The setup for “Don’t Think Twice…” was semi-acoustic, with Tony Garnier laying down a hypnotic, pulsing beat on the double bass over which Freeman and Dylan interwove juiced-up melodic lines against which the lyric bounced. (There were times tonight when Dylan’s keyboard emerged from the mix just enough to remind one of Al Kooper.) The song ended with a hot solo by Freeman giving way to a cool one on harp by Dylan.
Best rendition of Desolation Row
The arrangement of “Desolation Row” was simply spectacular – it was a sound ballet. There was luscious acoustic work between Garnier and Freeman, laying down swinging, jazzy lines and then doubling them. Geroge Recile was all over his drum kit, making thunder and great brassy noise. And Herron pinned down every phrase of Dylan’s with hot rivets of electric mandolin; a wicked cool effect.
By now these guys have got it all going on, they’re deep in a glorious groove, loosed from the bonds of gravity. Eight songs down and six to go. Dylan had a blast singing “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight;” a purely playful number, a delightful interlude before the freighted “Cold Irons Bound,” another one off Time Out of Mind. Tonight it had a crazy feel to it, dictated by Recile who crafted a beat that sounded somewhat martial and/or reminiscent of a score from an old detective movie.
We’d been listening to Time Out of Mind alot lately and are coming to think that it merits placement in the upper echelon of Dylan albums, alongside Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde, and Blood on theTracks. It differs from those in its literary sensibility and is less complex musically, but it is so audibly affable that frequent listening starts to reveal subtle profundities – and isn’t that what we’re in search of, after all?
The other Big Pink number “I Shall Be Released,” notable for the interplay between Freeman and Herron, set the stage for the set closing “Summer Days,” which first we loved and then grew tired of, and tonight got a whole new appreciation for, as it was done, as everything tonight was done, in Watermelon Sugar.
The stage went dark for a couple minutes before Dylan and his Band returned for the first encore, “Like A Rolling Stone,” a great celebratory rave-up that featured Herron’s steel guitar riffs sounding like Al Kooper’s Hammond B3 on the original recording.
Dylan then responded to the riotous applause with “Thank yahhh, I’d like to introduce my band …”
The show ended with “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35;” despite a longtime predilection for a variety of stoning substances, this has always been among my least favorite songs, but, tonight – you guessed it…totally fuggin awesome!
Everybody just got goofy, including Dylan, who had Recile cracking up on L.A.R.S. and who, himself, was cracking up on the closer, doing his little boogie-in-place and exhorting the fans on the rail. A swell night it was in Wahconah Park.
August 26, 2006 setlist: All song lyrics available on: bobdylan.com
1. Cat’s in the Well (Under the Red Sky, 1990)
2. You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere (1967, First release: Greatest Hits Vol. 2, 1971)
3. Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum (Love and Theft, 2001)
4. Just Like A Woman (Blonde on Blonde,1966)
5. Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again (Blonde on Blonde,1966
6. Million Miles (Time Out Of Mind, 1997)
7. Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right (The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan,1963)
8. Desolation Row (Highway 61 Revisited, 1965)
9. I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight (John Wesley Harding,1967)
10. Cold Irons Bound (Time Out Of Mind, 1997)
11. I Shall Be Released (1967, First release: Greatest Hits Vol. 2, 1971)
12. Summer Days (Love and Theft ’01)
13. Like A Rolling Stone (Highway 61 Revisited 1965)
14. Rainy Day Women #12 & 35 (Blonde on Blonde,1966)