Attending an episode of the Bob Dylan Show is like pulling your car over to the curb in the midst of an ordinary errand late in the afternoon of a drab day because you noticed something on the horizon and thought, Wow! that needs a closer look.
Because life is an accumulation of errands, and even when we’re on foot, or in flight, we spend our days inside cars that are the suit of clothes we wear, the style of slang we speak, the slate of politicians we let seduce us.
The Bob Dylan Show on the Friday before Thanksgiving, that maddening American holiday, at UMASS, Amherst, that architectural wasteland, was a most worthwhile detour. Bob Dylan at Amazon.com
The only comment we have for the management is: please make an effort to book the show into auditoria in every case instead of gymnasia, because it is all about the music, after all, and a big cement gym sucks as a venue for music, an observation the tunes themselves ratify by living an extra second up in the dusty distant rafters where they sound like an Edvard Munch painting looks.
All the more reason to be grateful for the gene that allows one to cultivate the appreciation of so ethereal a shape-shifting headliner as Bob Dylan, who pulls over to the side of the road way more often than you or I do.
This show demonstrated that the best of his songs can be boiled down to reveal a mere handful of notes – song cores that are both augur and auger; they have a dynamism that drills deeper to reveal more handwriting on the wall of your soul.
For all I know, being bereft of all musical ability, except for desktop drumming, this is no secret. Regardless, tonight I got the feeling that it might’ve been on the agenda, that Mr. Dylan and his crackerjack outfit set out to demonstrate just how simple, and joyful, his songs can be. Maybe they went out of their way tonight to reveal the simple dancing skeletons bedecked in a wondrous wardrobe of Mardi Gras costumes?
The sixteen performed tonight were a companionable mix with a range of ages that would be present at a typical Thanksgiving dinner: there were grandparents, adults, college kids, little kids, and babies.
And how ’bout them babies! Some born full-blown, like toddler Jolene, b. 2009 and already anchoring the #1 encore slot. It will be fun to watch her grow, to doff gowns and don guises, to cast her dancing spell my way.
Speaking of which, so too was Bob Dylan, born so much older than any of us. Witness the Witmark Demos, just released as volume 9 in the Bootleg series, 47 songs he recorded before turning 24, including one from tonight’s setlist.
If Dylan had got struck dumb in Tin Pan Alley way back then, today we’d still be marvelling at tunes like A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall. Thank God he didn’t, because tonight we got a sparkling rendition of it. Whereas he’s always been varying the vocal styling, now he’s added a whole suite of gestures, as if he’s been studying the young Al Martino.
The show started slow, chugging away from the station with an especially raspy singing of Gonna Change My Way of Thinking, a prosaic bit of testimony. He emerged from the between song blackout center stage but slightly askance to perform Shooting Star, another prayerful piece that he punctuated with a piercing harmonica coda.
Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again, a lyrical masterpiece, was next, introduced by Dylan on guitar. Would love to have heard it again an hour later, because the band hadn’t started coloring outside the lines yet. Spirit on the Water, which at its best reminds you of roller rinks and polka dancing, was also too restrained, unlike the next one, Rollin’ And Tumblin,‘ from which point the show soared.
It featured Charlie Sexton’s stinging slide guitar, which seemed to limber his colleagues, and George Recile’s drumming, a force of nature that he can tame to modulated mayhem. The show was on. It will be remembered as the one where Mr. Dylan revealed a new facet of the song-and-dance man, appearing like the vocal soloist of your community orchestra, who has been coached to emote.
Besides near archival-quality renditions of Tangled Up In Blue, Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum, Hard Rain, and Ballad of a Thin Man, the takeaway from this show was that the man who for decades has been lambasted for virtually ignoring the audience, now veritably pantomimes his songs!
It is not likely that he’s ever again going to be shooting the breeze with the audience, as we saw during the Rolling Thunder Revue down the road at Springfield, but it was fun to see this new wrinkle, another glint from a passing star.
It is too early to write his epitaph, but a good idea nonetheless to urge all the youngsters to catch the Bob Dylan Show while there’s still time for a glimpse of his ever-emerging refulgence.