The clang of an ancient gong announced that Bob Dylan was in the house, and that his first set for the final night of a three-night gig (October 30, 2014) at the beautifully restored Paramount Theater in downtown Oakland, CA, had begun.
Was I excited, yeah baby! Yet I was worried too. How could he compare to the Dylan of old?
“Ah, but I was so much older then/ I’m younger than that now,” he once sang, though not on this night.
And it was good he didn’t. Those lines made sense when he wrote them, when he was in his early 20s.
But Dylan is 73, he’s so much older now.
I last saw him live at the Greek Theater in Berkeley in June of 1986, and it wasn’t the best show. Frankly, it was a shadow of the show I saw in 1974 when Dylan and The Band played the Oakland Coliseum and tore the place up. That was incredible.
Think about it though. 1986. That was nearly 30 years ago. Ancient history. Another lifetime.
Bob Dylan, age 73. What would that be like? I’d seen John Lee Hooker perform at the Sweetwater when he was past 80 and he was fantastic. And I saw Muddy Waters when he was 65, and he was damn good too. There’s a wisdom that sometimes comes with age.
But Dylan? With his ragged frog of a voice. And no guitar, ’cause he doesn’t play guitar anymore. How’s that gonna work?
Whatever my pre-show worries, as soon as the band kicked off with “Things Have Changed” I relaxed.
This was gonna be good.
Dylan came onto the stage, a character out of one of his more surreal songs. The flat-brimmed white hat, something a Spanish Don wore in the ’20s perhaps. And a black frock coat with white trim. Dylan was dressing up for us. He wasn’t showing up in his streetwear — jeans and a hoodie. No way, he was here in a grand old theater and he had dressed the part.
A band leader. A performer. An artist.
Dylan is the master of great looks.
He still has style. And you know what, Dylan dressing up the way he does each night, sends the audience a message before he even sings a note. This isn’t gonna be Chuck Berry doing just another gig. This is special. Bob Dylan got dressed up on this night for this crowd. He cares.
I was there with a long time friend, and later during the show he asked me how this show compared to when I’d seen Dylan in 1974.
Well you can’t compare the Dylan of the past and the Dylan of today, I said. It’s like he’s a different person now. It’s like the folkie protest Dylan was one guy, and the Highway 61 Revisited Dylan was another, and the man who recorded the Basement tapes and John Wesley Harding was someone else again.
The Dylan of 2014 is yet another Dylan.
First of all, I thought Dylan was in great voice, and having listened to a recording of the show I can say that with even more force. Sure his voice is different. More Tom Waits than Woody Guthrie. But if you give it a chance, it grows on you and pretty soon you find yourself totally digging it. And it’s totally Dylan’s voice. On this night he was a live wire.
Dylan as piano man. He’s always had his own bluesy piano style, and over the years he’s gotten even better. So while I miss Dylan on guitar, his whorehouse piano on numerous songs including the snaky tango, “Beyond Here Lies Nothing,” was just right. And while some have derided his harmonica playing since the early days, I’ve always been a huge fan. On this night his harp breaks were dead-on perfect.
He seemed totally in-the-moment and with us as he sang his songs — all but one being his own compositions.
But what knocked me out the most was the set list. Of the 18 songs Dylan sang, 14 were ‘new’ songs, written in the 21st century. Only one, “She Belongs To Me,” was written in the ’60s, and two, “Simple Twist Of Fate” and “Tangled Up In Blue,” came from the mid-’70s. The final song of the night was Dylan’s version of a song Frank Sinatra made famous, “Stay With Me.”
That’s gutsy. That’s self-confidence. And you know what? These 21st century Bob Dylan songs are killer.
While Paul McCartney and the Rolling Stones go out and play oldie-but-goodie greatest hits shows, Bob Dylan plays material from his most recent albums.
Dylan these days comes across onstage as a working musician. He doesn’t talk to the audience. He’s there to play music.
“He’s a real song and dance man,” my friend said.
Dylan was either at the piano, standing fairly still before the microphone as he sang, or swaying in place as one of his band members took a killer solo.
And speaking of the band, another thought I had as I took in the music was that this current band are as good as The Band.
Dylan has assembled his version of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, or Merle Haggard and the Strangers.
What I mean is, this band is like those great country-western bands, musicians who play with soul and really have their chpps down. Now I’ve been cheering the raw, imperfect sound of punk bands since the early days of The Stooges and the MC5, and if I’ve got to choose between soul and spirt, or musician ship, I’ll take soul and spirit every time.
But Dylan’s guys, they are some of the best musicians you’ll ever hear; they’ve got a total feel for Dylan’s music. As used to be said of a great jazz band, they swing.
Bassist Tony Garnier (on upright), drummer George Receli and rhythm guitarist Stu Kimball are a rock solid rhythm section. They ground the songs and let Dylan, lead guitarist Charlie Sexton and mutli-instrumentalist Donnie Herron (pedal steel, lap steel, electric mandolin, banjo, violin) add beautiful texture and solos.
Both Sexton and Herron are simply incredible. I love pedal steel guitar and Herron added hip country riffs to “Things Have Changed,” “Workingman’s Blues #2,” “Duquesne Whistle,” and others.
Meanwhile Sexton added electrifying riffs and solos.
Dylan has become a great band leader. Years on the road, and certainly his perfectionist demands, have turned this band into one of the best.
Highlights? The beautiful ballad “Forgetful Heart” was love on a moonlit night, with rhapsodic violin from Herron, and a mournful harmonica solo from Dylan. “Long And Wasted Years” was a triumph, from that unforgettable opening riff and Dylan’s defiant vocal, to the final lines:
“So much for tears
So much for these long and wasted years.”
There were many other highlights. “Early Roman Kings,” “Simple Twist Of Fait,” “Scarlet Town,” “Pay In Blood,” “High Water (For Charley Patton)” — I could go on.
After nearly two hours of listening to Dylan’s new music, it’s clear that just as Dylan and the Hawks had a very unique sound in the ’60s, so too do Dylan and his current band.
Leaving the Paramount, I said to my friend, the music Bob Dylan now makes is totally its own thing. It has nothing to do with current trends, and it’s not some retro trip either. The only reference point for Dylan’s new music is Dylan. He’s created something unique that works for him in 2014, and his fans love it. Dylan being Dylan, and nothing could be better.
You could call the music Dylan and the band make Americana, an umbrella term that covers blues, rock, rockabilly, jazz, folk, country, western swing and more, but if were going to name Dylan’s sound, I’d want to come up with something more unique. But really, what’s the point.
It’s 2014 Bob Dylan music, a thing all its own.
Bob Dylan — vocal, piano, harmonica
Stu Kimball — rhythm guitar
Donnie Herron — pedal steel, lap steel, electric mandolin, banjo, violin
Charlie Sexton — lead guitar
Tony Garnier — bass guitar
George Receli — drums, percussion
Things Have Changed
She Belongs to Me
Beyond Here Lies Nothin’
Workingman’s Blues #2
Waiting for You
Pay in Blood
Tangled Up in Blue
High Water (For Charley Patton)
Simple Twist of Fate
Early Roman Kings
Spirit on the Water
Soon after Midnight
Long and Wasted Years
Stay With Me
[I just published my rock ‘n’ roll novel, True Love Scars.” Rolling Stone has a great review of my book in a recent issue. Read it here. There’s info about True Love Scars here.]