Thursday, September 18, 2008

Down the Highway

On August 28, I attended my first Bob Dylan concert. The short version: it was sublime, mythical waves of words & melody pounding my ears. If you want the long version, continue reading.

Dylan Live '66 (

We head north on Highway 71. I’m drunk on my favorite concoction, anticipation & the road. And my husband isn’t expecting anything. He likes to experience things with a blank slate, so to speak. No expectations, no disappointment. I think he’s missing out; anticipation is a heady high. We near our destination, Kansas City. While scanning the radio stations I stop on a KC jazz station issuing a haunting harmonica solo. I haven’t heard it before, but I know it. A strange incantation of “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” rings from the radio with a slanting tune & altered lyrics. I wouldn’t expect any less from Bob Dylan, the Master of Reinvention.

I am on a pilgrimage, albeit a short one, to see Dylan in the flesh, to hear him with my ears, to marvel at the legend. The jazz station offers a good soundtrack as we near our destination. Dylan songs are sung by various artists, some funky jazz tunes follow. Momentarily, a freight train (one of Dylan's favorite images) travels along side the highway. Clouds roll in, dark & low, though the sun still shines through & around them. The train cars pull away.

We arrive at the Uptown Theater in Kansas City two hours early. Anticipation is slowly dissolving into culmination. We walk down three blocks to join the end of the line; excitement is palpable. I see fourteen year olds, sixty-four year olds, a wide spectrum of young indie rockers, suits straight from work, peasant shirts, hippie skirts, & cowboy boots. Dylan is everywhere, looking as iconic as ever on a plethora of fans’ t-shirts. I am donning a gray felt newsboy hat in homage to Dylan & boots I will regret. I have a habit of staring at my fingernails (I am a licensed manicurist); I examine a job well done, or poorly done. Tonight this habit is amplified as I have fashioned the lyrics of “Visions of Johanna” on a few of my nails, the others are a deep inky purple. On them I read, “We see this empty cage now corrode where her cape of the stage once had flowed. The fiddler, he now steps to the road.”

I peer up at second story windows. Would Dylan be curious enough to peek out? Is he drinking a cup of coffee now, preparing his harmonica? I don’t see him, but if he peeked down, I think he’d be impressed. Like any great carnival, this convergence of civilization hosts a street performer, a sideshow (although not at all grotesque). A girl dressed in early Dylan (jeans, boots, a work shirt, corduroy beret) strums the guitar hung over her shoulder & plays a harmonica on a rack. She sings “Talkin’ World War III Blues”. She delights us as the line shrinks. Sporadic drops of rain turn my grey shirt black, one spot at a time. We make it inside just as a hard rain begins to fall.

It is difficult, but I walk past the tables vending t-shirts & trinkets. The commercialism seems anti-Dylan (although they are selling his wares). I don’t buy anything (but secretly wish I had). I vow to buy John Wesley Harding instead of an overpriced t-shirt. We make our way into the theater. The tickets are general admission, so we can sit or stand anywhere not already taken. I am enticed by how close we can get to the stage if we stand, so I choose a spot in the center about 30 feet from the stage. It is still an hour before show time. Meant to recreate a “vibrant Venetian courtyard,” the theater is intimate, with a capacity of 2500. It glows with colors - blues & corals, golds & greens. Goddesses are sculpted high in arched alcoves. Columns flank arches & ornate sculptured woodwork climbs the walls and ceiling. Dylan has played here several times. I can see why he likes the theater. It is soaked in myth like his music. And with him playing, this will definitely be a mythic experience for me.

An hour of waiting passes quickly. Someone lights incense on stage. The smoke spirals slowly up. A voice I cannot see announces, “Ladies and Gentlemen, Bob Dylan.” Applause swells within & around me. Drums crack, guitars wail, and Dylan begins, “Well, I see you got your brand new leopard-skin pill-box hat. Yes, I see you got your brand new leopard-skin pill-box hat. Well you must tell be baby how your head feels under somethin’ like that, under your brand new leopard-skin pill-box hat.” A marvelous opener and a favorite, “Leopard-skin Pill-Box Hat” stuns with Dylan on keyboard and harmonica, a version unlike any other. What other magic will ensue?

I’m impressed by Dylan’s voice (Internet reviews have not been kind). No, it’s not his 1963 folk crooning or his ’66 electric sneer, & I didn’t expect as much. He’s somewhere between Robin Hood, the Wild West, & heartache, plus a couple (thousand) packs of smokes. His intonation & diction are still all crooked and cracked. It’s wonderful, and it's a good thing he sounds great because I can’t see much. At five foot nothing (plus a few inches of boot heels), I’ve never been so acutely aware of my height. I shift left and right, countering the fans in front of me, crane my neck, & will myself to grow taller (Oh, where are my Elton John platform shoes?). Still, I only catch views here and there. There are six men on stage - three playing guitar, one on steel guitar, one on drums, and Dylan on keyboard. The band is dressed to the nines in black suits and everyone is wearing a hat - a derby, fedoras, a backward beret. Bob is no exception. He’s wearing a black suit with silver buttons down the front. His shirt is a dusty rose color. His dark gray hat is wide brimmed and flat with a black band.

I peer intently through cracks in the crowd trying to see his hands hammering out sounds on the keyboard. Of this, I can see very little. I find myself distracted by trying to see and often I just close my eyes and listen to the music, the rhythm, the ragged voice of a generation and occasionally a brilliant harmonica solo. Early Dylan anthems are mixed with his more recent music, somewhere between country, rock, folk, and blues. A fiddle and bass accompany a few songs. Dylan has continually reinvented himself, refusing any labels, especially “genius”. In that same tradition, which I believe is the heart of his art form, he has molded his older songs into new incarnations. They have a different voice and sound, maybe a few strands of original music. Even the newer songs morph into amped up versions with quicker beats. I listen to him sculpt quicksand on stage and he does it masterfully. I welcome the songs with awe and bliss. The set is stellar, one pleasant surprise after another, especially “Watchtower” to close with.

I’m still trying to take it all in as the crowd shuffles outside into the muggy aftermath of a Midwest thunderstorm. My husband (who was both pleased and impressed by the show) has to work tomorrow so we are driving back home tonight. He’ll fall asleep while I drive, which is just fine because he's probably had enough Dylan & I’ve already slid Blonde on Blonde into the CD player as we make our way up Broadway then back to 71. I’m filing freeze frames and sound bytes into my memory. I’m trying to weave a tapestry of Dylan - early, recent, & that magic I just heard - crisscrossed by train tracks, carnival routes, and my road home.

Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat
It's All Over Now, Baby Blue
Rollin' and Tumblin'
Girl from the North Country
High Water (for Charlie Patton)
Chimes of Freedom
Til I Fell In Love with You
A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall
Honest With Me
Just Like A Woman
It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)
Beyond The Horizon
Highway 61 Revisited
Ain't Talkin'
Thunder on the Mountain
Like A Rolling Stone (encore)
All Along the Watchtower (encore)


Anonymous said...

i really enjoyed this review. i'm glad your first show was a good one. may there be many more to come...

Laurence J. said...

On the other end of the scale, I've been catching Bob's shows since 1963, saw the '65 shows at Newport and Forest Hills, and just saw Bob and Levon at Saratoga a month's always a crapshoot with Bob, but there will be transcendent moments...
ya gotta give the song and dance man credit - nobody else is out there doing what he does a hundred times a year...find a bootleg of the Stanhope, NJ show of summer 2000 if you can - a blazing onslaught, a perfect wild west medicine show.