We have limited vacation time here in the Garden and we use it for In Show And Concert opportunities. Among the largesse of being a Bob Dylan fan in the new millenium is doing and seeing extraordinary things to occupy the hours before he takes the stage, or after he’s left the stage and before it’s time to head to the airport, in places I never thought I would set foot in. Above is a photo of something that held no interest for me until I visited it, and then I found myself instantly hostage to its story and itself. The Crazy Horse Memorial on a sunny day is an hour outside of clock time, let me tell you.
Every street corner in Rapid City, South Dakota, is home to a life-size and very skillful bronze sculpture of a president, with relevant gestures, and accessories that range from puzzling (why does John Tyler have a violin?), to preposterous ( a grinning John F Kennedy holds the hand of his little John-John and with his other hand offers the child a toy airplane…), to moving (FDR’s leg braces are visible under his bronze pants). On each street corner you can play the “who is that?” game and try to guess the president based on what he is holding, doing, wearing.
The theme of holding, doing, and wearing carried over to the show on the 17th at the Barnett Arena. This show was my 50th, and since Show The First was in 2005, the changes in personnel and production that are minor for an awful lot of people have been dramatic for me. The first time I saw him play the guitar onstage, Denny Freeman gone, Charlie Sexton all-too-present, Stu moving right to left, the keyboard facing one way then another–all of this feels like something more than ordinary housekeeping and personnel developments. And so, there was an awful lot of simple personal rearrangement of impressions last Friday for me.
This was my first show without the introductory rituals–no Nag Champa, no putting folk into bed with rock. Just lights out, picking out the familiar silhouettes, the rise in crowd noise when Dylan’s silhouette is recognized, a few guitar notes, lights up, Leopard-Skin Pillbox Hat, and riding straight on through, Like a Rolling Stone and All Along the Watchtower now part of the set, the only encore Blowin’ in the Wind. So the pace of the set had a locomotive momentum, despite the familiar shifts in tone and mood.
The stage is so cluttered now. Lots of stuff plus six different-sized men, all governed by our Workingman’s functional aesthetic. The baby grand piano is tucked behind the keyboard and changes the topography of the entire stage. The front space reserved for Dylan’s up-close-and-personal appearances is compressed by musicians and instruments and monitors and now feels rather spot-lit and cabaret-ish, or squeezed and narrow, depending on how your own impressions are being rearranged.
And despite the five other different-sized men, Bob Dylan has become a one-man band who capers diffidently, if such a thing is possible, from keyboard (really only for the opener) to piano, to front of stage with and without harmonica, to guitar for Simple Twist of Fate, on and off that piano bench throughout the show. On Tangled Up In Blue he went from front of stage to piano mid-song. On the piano, he is never still. He twists and dips and raises a leg and mugs and points. This came to feel more showmanlike to me, not in the sense of artificial, rather in the sense of keeping plates spinning, a kind of vaudevillian energy. At the piano Dylan is a combination of Glenn Gould, Harpo Marx, and Bob Dylan that has to be seen to be appreciated.
And without a wide-brimmed hat obscuring his face, the restlessness multiplies in scowls, smirks, and the peculiar sightless glares in the direction of the audience that seem reprimanding and curious at the same time–what was it all of you wanted indeed.
From the center of the second row, I had an ideal sightline to all the glares and the prancing, and that had a slightly deafening effect. Oh, I heard him play faster and looser with Tangled Up In Blue, and I heard a luscious Make You Feel My Love, and I was treated to that terrific new arrangement of Tweedledum and Tweedledee, whose particular new flavor I can’t describe–more bass, more drum, more ominous? I heard all the repetitions of the little riff he plays on Simple Twist Of Fate that I’ve come to recognize as the sound of futility. I know what I heard, but I know a lot went by me this fiftieth time around, because I saw so much. I’m looking forward to Portchester on Sept 4, when I’ll be in the balcony, seeing less and and hearing more.
I like to compare Dylan’s recent voices to kinds of rock because that feels right to me. Physically feels right, not figuratively. The timbre now is a quarry. He mines words and syllables like boulders from beneath his feet and sets them pendant in the air. Words shear into serrated flinty edges. There’s gravel everywhere. So it was a wonderful gift to find that South Dakota could teach me more about rocks in 3 days than I’d learned in my entire life. Rocks that glittered and rocks that sharded into perfect cubes down a hillside and rocks red and gold and white and rocks that poured upwards and rocks that needled upwards and rocks as broad as the sky and veined dark and light so clearly that you somehow intuit the language of time there–that the science of geology is the code of the earth’s lifespan makes sense when you see these rocks. There’s more to sounding like a rock than having an old throat.