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The Never-Ending Tour turns 25

Bill Wyman (no, not that Bill Wyman) points out that Bob Dylan’s Never Ending Tour has turned 25. I can’t think of any other well known artist who tours as obsessively as Bob.

Since 1988, Mr. Dylan has played more shows than Bruce Springsteen, the Rolling Stones and U2—each of them a marathon touring act—combined.

I stopped counting how many times I’ve seen Dylan over the last 15 years or so but I’m sure I reached 30 shows some time ago. Seeing Bob perform live so many times has been a formative part of my life. I’ve seen him as far away as Memphis and as close as walking distance from my apartment. I’ve seen shows that were transcendent and I’ve seen him phone it in (fortunately I’ve seen many more of the former than the latter). But I can say that what has always struck me about seeing Bob Dylan and His Band out there, night after night, is the sheer joy of performing.

Bob clearly delights in surprising his audience and confounding expectations. After 25 years of creating set lists on the fly, digging into rarities and obscure covers, I’m constantly surprised that there are folks who go expecting to hear a Greatest Hits set. Some of those audience members will never appreciate the radical re-arrangements and the loose, raucous interplay between band members (notably between Bob and Charlie Sexton, who has occupied center stage the last few times I saw them play). I think what impresses me the most is how Bob has learned to accept that. Instead of second guessing himself, he seems to constantly rededicate himself to putting on the best show he can on his own terms.

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Things Should Start To Get Interesting Right About Now

 

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Bob Dylan shows are like beaches. No two are exactly alike, and there’s a lot going on beneath the surface that you might miss if you’re not paying attention. So Dylan fans go time and again, each time noticing the different shore lines, different eddies and wave patterns. Some bring small notebooks, obsessively sketching every fine grain detail. But most people there just want to kick back and have a good time.

When Bob came through Asbury Park on August 14th, this was no scholarly exercise. He was there to have a good time. He spent most of the show grinning and mugging to the audience. He looked like a kid in his first school play, just excited to get to be in front of a captive audience. This guy has been playing well over a hundred shows a year for roughly two decades now, and he was prancing around the stage, having the time of his life. That’s what music does, if you do it right.

Ally got there early and grabbed a spot in line. The deal was that she’d hold the spot in line, and I’d come bearing whiskey. When I got there, so quickly poured most of the Jim Beam into some ginger ale cans she had with her, and we got our place up near the front of the line. The crowd filled Convention Hall, all ages and types. There were excited old hippies, just glad to have something going on other than golf outings or bridge or whatever it is those people do. There were college kids, and parents who probably last saw Bob playing with The Band in ‘73 bringing their kids out so they could have the experience once. I mean, the man isn’t getting any younger.

We all squeezed into the auditorium at 6:30. There were old drill-instructor types hollering orders to the crowd. “If you have any chairs or blankets with you, you must dispose of them now. Umbrellas will not be allowed in the venue. Make sure you have your tickets out and ready”. Sir yes sir.

Thanks to Ally, we were right up front, just a couple yards from the stage. The remaning crowd packed in behind us. We waited there for an hour and a half before the opening act came out.

Leon Russell was okay. Really, not bad. If I closed my eyes, the music was grooving and fairly soulful. What I couldn’t get past is that he did NOT look like he wanted to be there. Not a single smile the whole time. Once Dylan came out afterwards, the contrast couldn’t be clearer.

Bob’s set was heavy on newer material (you can find the set list here). Right off, he set the tone with Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat. The song is a tongue-in-cheek take on romance gone wrong. Bob was in full jokester mode. To Ramona came next, and was pretty somber, but even that had a lilting beat, an ironic waltz. Soon he brought a shortened Tangled Up In Blue, singing “Me, I’m still on the road, trying to stay out of the joint”. The new Bob is a classic trickster. A Chaplinesque tramp, trying to stay one step ahead of the problems he’s causing.

The biggest surprise of the night was a jaunty version of Mississippi. It’s not surprising that he played this 180° from the album version. Radically changing song structures is practically Dylan’s stock in trade at this point. But this reimagining didn’t quite hit. Instead of being a story of regret and perseverance, Mississipp became, without any changes in lyrics, the story of scamp moving from one con to another. The music was an upbeat blues shuffle, and Bob stood at the mic, center stage, practically acting out the song to the audience. Of course, Bob’s been re-thinking how this song should be played. If you get the Deluxe version of Tell Tale Signs, you’ll find 3 (!) alternate versions. Plus he gave it to Sheryl Crow to cover before releasing his own version. Even if I would personally pick it as possibly the best song Bob’s written in the last 15 years, it’s clear that he still doesn’t know quite what to do with it.

The show continued on. Bob changed between standing at his keyboad, standing center stage, maybe blowing a little harp here and there, and actually playing guitar (3 or 4 songs this time!). A older man leaned in to me and said “first there was Shakespeare. Then 500 years later you get Dylan”. I don’t know if it’s a fair comparison. Shakespeare didn’t have nearly the range that Bob’s built up over the last x-decades. But either way it doesn’t matter. He’s going to pull his show up to your doorstep every so often, and if you’re smart, you’ll go and be part of this experience. But if not, it doesn’t matter. This is a show that exists separate from its audience. It will continue as long as the performers wish.

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Happy Birthday Bob

Bob Dylan’s birthday should be a national holiday.

 

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