America letters - with Dylan on the Freedom Trail
By Johnny Borgan
Having walked the streets of Boston streets following the cleverly laid path through the city's historic sites, from the State House with JFK statue in the garden, via places for massacres and fights for liberation, seen Paul Revere's grave, house and horse (yes, the one mentioned in "Tombstone Blues"), wandered in Benjamin Franklin's footsteps, beheld the USS Constitution and the Bunker Hill Monument, and the very impressive and rich JFK Museum, it feels quite natural that Bob comes onstage. Boston oozes desires of freedom, integrity and fighting spirit. So does Bob!
After a solid but predictable seventy minute concert with Mark Knopfler and his very competent folk band, with no surprises, the uncrowned king of spontaneity hits the stage, more of a jazz musician than most realize. Yes, we know some of the songs that are most likely coming, but he dives into them with a new approach, chasing yet another way to sing "Like A Rolling Stone», another way to play it, and this tour the first time at the piano - new, untried possibilities, a bunch of black and white keys that practically begs to not be treated as the day before yesterday or the day before that. And they don't.
But first he charms Boston, starting the party with a flirty and rocking "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight", quickly followed by "Don't Think Twice" with piano, harmonica and a resounding applause after each chorus. Then he's in front, walks up to the microphone and makes a Chaplin version of "Things Have Changed", with eloquent gestures, grimaces, smiles and supplemental comments to the lyrics, before driving off with a exorcising harmonica solo to an uptempo version of "Tangled Up in Blue ", for the occasion with rewritten text a la 1984. By the way - the latter three songs with a Scot named Knopfler, but there is only one star on the stage, and the other is in the shade. A tight and rehearsed band that constantly follows Dylan slightest hint, and quickly adapts to his new ideas and twists, this is in itself a great achievement of a band, but not even the star guitarist Charlie Sexton receive his earned place. It's Dylan is all about, and with the grand piano center stage, he is not going to stop.
This summer he was exploratory and tentative, now he is majestically sure, and why playing the guitar when it is so much fun with the grand piano??? He rocks and swings through "Summer Days", "Thunder of the Mountain" and "Highway 61", with jazz syncopation and whimsical Picasso-figures on the piano - all lands rock solid tonight. But he also takes it down - a sensitive "Visions of Johanna" let us see the lights from the ceiling on the opposite side, hear the rain and feel the visions, while the audience holds its breath as he takes us into the catacombs of a sorrowful heart with "Forgetful Heart". The most of us got tears in our eyes at this.
Dylan has often apparently had a lot of time, but it strikes me now that it seems as if it is different - his desire to convey the most seems almost manic, he's smiling and laughing and enjoying himself in every song, but he knows that the hourglass runs slowly, but surely, towards empty. Then he just use all eight carburators as long as it goes - and it did tonight. It was a really brilliant show, with a perfect view from row 4, but the applause sounded from all of the hall this evening - not least related to Bob's musicianship - pianist hybrid a place between happy amateur and brilliant improviser, and his joy and happiness easily overcomes the audience. Sailing to Philadelphia tomorrow.
Philadelphia - The American nation's cradle and answers to Norway's Eidsvoll. Here is the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, where th founding fathers met – the struggle for independence, the Battle of Gettysburg nearby, Lincoln's speech – this was the first capital, too, while Washington was established – the winds of history all over the place – and for one that dreams about the Mayflower and is a walking symbol of independence and integrity, it must always be nice to come to Philadelphia. For someone who seems to see himself living at the same time as both Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin, and who is entering the stage disguised as a 'roving riverboat gambler', the spirit of this city must be all a call for action. On the other hand, it's many people in the streets who looks both homeless and with no place to go - with no direction home. There's many who could need a little Obamacare .. Will there be any Chimes of Freedom tonight?
Before we can answer, first it's Mark & his band. As expected, almost identical to the concert yesterday - very nice, but not exciting. Yet it is slightly touching the drummer is from Wales, who sent so many Quakers here to team up with Penn (he from Pennsylvania) himself, and the virtuoso flautist is from Ireland, (the little plummer boy, so to speak) the country that sent waves of unwelcome and poor starving refugees to the west in the nineteenth century - with the Scot Mark, from just another country that sent boatloads of boatloads of hopeful people, - together they greets Philadelphia with the notes and instruments from the old country, and are received as family and friends. But no 'Sailing to Philadelphia'.
Bob starts with a slightly jagged "You ain't going nowhere", but is soon back with a very nice "It's all over now, baby blue". And yeah, "Chimes of Freedom" lights up the evening, with the Liberty Bell just down the street - for every hung-up person in the whole wide universe - nothing less. The evening's highlight was otherwise an absolutely beautiful version of the masterpiece "Desolation Row", Dylan at the piano, with a worn and wrinkled, weathered voice that matches the song and its message better than ever. 'Mississippi' swings in a new arrangement, while the drama played out in "Ballad of a Thin Man", enhanced by lighting and echo, brings wild applause, and the crowd on their feet. A great version of "Early Roman Kings", too, with the very appropriate remark: "I'm not dead yet, my bell still rings." Show ends with the soul arrangement of "Blowin 'in the Wind", and the Philadelphia audience seems very pleased with a show that may not be completely at Boston level, but with some very strong highlights. Washington tomorrow.
Ever since the British burnt the White House down / there 's a bleeding wound in Heart of Town, Bob sings in "Narrow Way" on "Tempest", referring to the war between England and the United States in 1814. Well, today he brings the British in a peaceful errand. While he was in Washington the first time in 1963, in which the young Dylan stood center stage, just hours before Martin Luther King gave his 'I have a dream speech'. Bob sang his wise songs, and was certainly not unaffected by having Abraham Lincoln's eyes in the back, combined with a huge crowd in front of him. Great for a 22-year-old, one would think. After Lincoln's wise words about tolerance and freedom, carved in stone on the wall in his Memorial, many years passed before a black president was living in the White House, and it was probably a special moment for both, when Dylan in 2010 met up at Obama's home, singing "The Times They Are A-Changin '.
And tonight he is here again, and metaphormosises and having a great time from start to finish - he's Hank Williams with "I'll be your baby tonight", he is Muddy Waters' in «Early Roman Kings", he's Asleep at the wheel in a thundering "Summer Days", he is Chuck Berry in "Thunder on the Mountain" and Jimi Hendrix in "All Along the Watchtower", finally standing at the piano, driving the band like an apocalyptic buffalo herd through an existential mountain pass. He is romantic and nostalgic waltzer in «To Ramona», he is intense storyteller in "Tangled Up in Blue", prophetically speaker in "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall", empathetic freedom fighter in "Chimes of Freedom" (The most beautiful song of freedom ever written, as Springsteen said) and sensitive crooner with blood on his hands in a tear jerking and beautiful world premiere of "Soon after midnight". Sigh. Great show!
I used to care, but things have changed, he sings - but no one believes him. The distinction between a regular gig with Knopfler and Dylan concert is increasingly striking. You see it in the bands faces - the relaxed faces of Marks bunch radiates safety with all their undoubted virtuosity, they know exactly what will happen, no surprises tonight, while Bob's boys look like a bunch of gangsters who always sleep with one eye open, alert, dead serious, Charlie Sexton almost anguished - they are not sure of anything, and follows the Godfather's steps every second, be it to camouflage any mistakes or jam up against an unknown riff or groove on the piano. They are always there, bright as the best waiters in the back of an impulsive butler, who tonight probably once pounded the ace "Ballad of a Thin Man" in the stage floor - a drama of shadows & harmonica - no one will convince me that some version from 1966 is better than the version tonight, this requires buckets of lived life. It all finishes with "Blowing in the Wind" and a ray of hope, also played at the March, nearly fifty years ago (then with Peter, Paul and Mary), but this time without a hint of nostalgia - rather a reminder of that we do can't take a single costly victory for granted, barbarism is always lurking like wolves, ready to take over. But not tonight. Tonight Bob rules.
Bob Dylan came clattering into New York at the beginning of 1961, the same week that John F Kennedy was sworn president. He saw 'people going down to the ground, buildings going up to the sky'. Armed with guitar, suitcase with some clothes and a strong desire to meet what would be his last idol, Woody Guthrie, which at this time is ill, heavily affected by Huntington's disease. The address is Brooklyn State Hospital, and the purposeful nineteen year old quickly find the target and is ultimately sitting at the master's bedside, playing Guthrie's own songs to him. History tells us that Guthrie in one of his lucid moments commented that he doubted whether the boy could write, but followed up with, 'but he sure can sing'. NY was in many ways Dylan's new hometown, where he drank inspiration like a sponge. The strong and ambitious desire to communicate and to break through was still balanced by an artistic integrity that in 1963 led him to leave the studio for Ed Sullivan Show and the chance to reach millions in minutes. The reason: He was asked to put aside the anti-anti-communist song "Talking John Birch Society Paranoid Blues", and to sing something else instead, such as "Blowing in the Wind". Dylan took his guitar and left.
Tonight Dylan is back in Brooklyn for this years 86th and last concert. One more year of touring. In the last three years he has given more concerts than he did in the 60's. More than he did in the 70's. In all – about about 3217 performances. Until now. Approximately five per month in average. In 51 years. I'll say it one more time – he who do not realize the importance of meeting the public, for Dylan, misses something crucial - sure, he's a poet, not a bad one, either, but always singer, musician & dance man - first and last. In this meeting the alchemist is in his workshop to mix his brew, night after night, looking to find the magic moments for those who have ears to hear them. What he has done in the studio is just one of the ingredients. But he's obviously not for everyone - his rawness, his lack of 'communication' with the public, (meaning cozy chats between songs), his unwillingness to recreate something you've heard on disc, his anti-sing-a-long-killing synkopication, his breakneck musical line dancing without safety net and not least his inimitable voice, now mostly as a stone-baked hybrid of Howling Wolf, Louis Armstrong & Tom Waits, where he growls & snaps & whines about life, and where he is using his voice as a flick from a whip to mark the rhythm of the heaviest songs, topped in a perfect union with the truth about life and the theme of the songs. 'I will tenderly pin you down in rhythms', says the norwegian poet, Olaf Bull, and shares in his way some of Dylan's vision, though maybe not always tenderly.
But – although it sometimes sounds as if both dust and gravel from 'forty miles of bad road' has laminated his vocal cords, he continues, the next moment, almost a crooner, with finely tuned tenderness in the dissemination of lines that require this – as in 'everything passes, everything's changing, just do what you think you should do' or 'I'm searching for phrases, two sing your praises',' I met a young girl and she gave me a rainbow, 'or' These Visions of Johanna is now all that remains'. Anyway - rough or tender - the magic is still there in his unique mix of 'timing & phrasing', and these golden moments can still captivate the person or persons in the audience who are open to it, and this is what makes every concert a unique and original experience, in sharp contrast to Knopfler fine reproductions. At these concerts it have been many of them. Both golden moments and cheering spectators, age divided by ten to eighty years. And then - tonight's concert:
It was like he got home. From the beginning, he put his hat aside the first songs, and bareheaded he received the tribute from the home crowd after charming them with "You ain't goin' nowhere" and "Don't Think Twice". He filled the new big room in town, Barclay's Center, to the top roost, as far as I could see, and it felt like there was an extra heat from the audience today - they receives him with tumultuous applause after each verse and each harmonica solo on "Tangled Up in Blue" and followis closely the "Early Roman Kings," which draws lines from ancient Rome to the gang culture to the Wall Street mob. And they listen carefully to the post-Sandy-greeting "The Levee Gonna Break". "Chimes of Freedom" arouse great enthusiasm, despite cluttered piano solos, while "Highway 61" rocks hard and heavy with long rolling and thundering piano passages.
Highlights were probably still an incredibly beautiful "Visions of Johanna", with very high goosebumps factor, one could hear the sighs in the audience, a stunning "Forgetful Heart" and a beautiful doowopy version of "Soon After Midnight". As for the other concerts the energy level are very high, and what's probably a definitive version of "Ballad of a Thin Man" brings the audiences to their feet, where they are left the rest of the show, until they have to realize that he's not coming back.
In the foyer on the way out I noticed a promotional poster for the Brooklyn State Hospital Center, drawing, without knowing it, threads through Dylan's history, from the songs by Guthrie's bed to the tribute he gets today from the NY audience. A bit of a trip.
The relationship between inspiration and perspiration may be the subject of many interesting discussions in our own lives, but even more to our understanding of art and the artists lives. For Dylan his undoubtedly stayer ability, fighting spirit and strong will be a kind of a perspiration kinder-egg that matches that of fast-flowing streams with creativity, linguistic equilibrism and an inexhaustible vein of love for music. Without this endurance dream combination he could have been long time resting on his laurels, but he thus continues, seemingly tireless, almost as if he did not have any choice, twenty years after he won a Grammy for Lifetime Achievement. With this year's album release, he shows also that the cornucopia is not empty yet. And with the summer tour, he shows that new aces can still be pulled out of the sleeve, this time in the form of a grand piano, "two keep the show fresh". The obvious possibility of stripping the live concept down to a more acoustic and mellow ambient is still there, as we can experience on the top songs of "Tempest". With Dylan we do not know, maybe the last joker will never be played. But we can still hope for it.
Four great shows on a tour where Dylan constantly continues to evolve, while he just tasted the new "Tempest"-songs, which can in time lift the new concerts to new heights. But that's next year.
Anyway, I'll stand in line. Life is short.