Wet pavement, like oil slicks, holds a mirror up to the night’s city lights. They flash green, red, green, and Bob Dylan on the marquee. We enter the Shrine Mosque without any line. Soon we are seated, waiting for the show to begin. This is my third Dylan show, and hopefully not the last. I’ve seen him in Kansas City and Dublin, Ireland, but this time he is only an hour from home. By now, I know what to expect from his shows - about a 17-song set including a two-song encore, unpredictable sound quality, fabulously loud raucous music that often muffles the hallowed lyrics (see sound quality), and a grab bag of sharp, resculpted gems from Dylan’s past, present, and future.
And this is just how I like him. I love his unabashed refusal to play or sound like he did in his 20’s, even though everyone, myself included, would enjoy hearing that. I love how he sounds different every time I see him and he plays a constant guessing game of songs on his ever-changing set lists. I love that he is 68 and still doing any of this.
There is a ten year old girl sitting in front of us with her parents getting what I believe is the birthday gift of a lifetime - Dylan live. I didn’t really discover the vast and brilliant landscape of Dylan until I was out of college. I’m still aghast at this fact. If only I’d stumbled upon him in an old cardboard box at a garage sale in my youth, danced to the jiving homesick blues, chuckled at “On the Road Again,” or fumbled through his lyrics as if they were a secret code. I hope the girl in front of me has done all of these things. I can tell is that she is as excited as I am.
Soon the incense on stage is lit and the lights are thrown on stage. Dylan is introduced. Dressed in high fashion, all in black, most members in hats, Bob Dylan and His Band take the stage. They blast into “Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat.” They pound out the music and sound good. The audio seems wrong. The loud band’s music always seems to cloud Dylan’s voice. I listen hard as they play hard. Dylan is having fun. He’s moving a lot with the music, something I saw in Dublin, as well. He is jiving like the rest of us. One recent reviewer, Maxwell Webster, said, “He plays like a man possessed.” I love this idea and presume he’s possessed with what he calls on Together Through Life “the blood of the land in my voice.”
This brings us to his voice. I won’t say it’s for everyone. But it is as powerful as ever when the sound guys get it right. It is weathered and eroded. Not like a smooth beach pebble. Like a canyon, carved to sharp and steep crags and cliffs by a river. The river of a life lived in his case. The result is staggering, breath taking, sublime when you peer out at its vista, awesome when you teeter on its edge. That is Dylan’s voice. Listen at your own risk. But if you do, it’s unforgettable.
At about the fourth song we get up to move to the floor hoping to see a little better, as the enormous speakers are concealing half of Bob and much of the stage. Standing on the floor at the back of the crowd I am able to see most of the stage and band and Bob, which is something considering my height handicap. And to our surprise and luck, the sound quality is much, much better. The vocals are much clearer. They still aren’t crystal (but when are they)? And we stay here for the remainder of the mercurial magic. Dylan picks up his guitar for two songs; this is always a rare treat. He holds his guitar almost completely vertically and strums madly to “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” and “My Wife’s Hometown.” He plays a fabulous mix of old and new. Charlie Sexton, a guitarist who has recently rejoined Dylan's tour, gives a wild and wonderful performance. Sexton and Dylan banter back and forth with fierce solos of brilliance. The highlights are a rollicking “Highway 61” and a haunting “Ballad of a Thin Man.” I recognize “Thin Man” immediately by a faint guitar riff with the lights still black. Bob steps center stage in his black ensemble, “You walk into the room with your pencil in your hand.” He sneers the lyrics and waves and raises his arms demanding, “Something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is, do you? Mr. Jones?” There is a spotlight on him casting a huge stark shadow of another Dylan on the wall behind him. This ghost of Dylan past conducts a brilliant symphony of words and sound and some beautifully screeching harmonica solos. This moment alone is worth my fifty bucks.
But then a killer encore of three songs, “Like a Rolling Stone” circa 1965, “Jolene” circa 2009. We get a rare “Thank you friends (or fans)” before Bob introduces his rock solid band. And just when we think it’s over, “All Along the Watchtower.” A stellar end to a stellar concert. This being the third Dylan concert I’ve been fortunate enough to catch, I have already seen him perform many of these songs. But Dylan will be Dylan, and that means they are never the same. I leave, walking into the rainy night delighted, with a great smile on my face, impressed with Dylan’s fresh fruits, artfully forged from a dusty old vine.
Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat
Don't Think Twice, It's All Right
Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I'll Go Mine)
My Wife's Home Town
Rollin' And Tumblin'
Beyond The Horizon
Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum
Tryin' To Get To Heaven
Cold Irons Bound
Not Dark Yet
Highway 61 Revisited
Thunder On The Mountain
Ballad Of A Thin Man
Like A Rolling Stone
All Along The Watchtower