Saturday, May 3, 2014

Palm Leaf Shadows and Scattered Flowers: Bob Dylan in Hawaii


            Things Have Changed (Bob center stage)
            She Belongs To Me (Bob center stage with harp)
            Beyond Here Lies Nothin' (Bob on piano)
            What Good Am I? (Bob center stage)
            Waiting For You (Bob on piano)
            Duquesne Whistle (Bob on piano)
            Pay In Blood (Bob center stage)
Tangled Up In Blue
(Bob center stage with harp then on piano on 4th verse)
            Love Sick (Bob center stage with harp)
            High Water (For Charley Patton) (Bob center stage)
            Simple Twist Of Fate (Bob center stage with harp)
            Early Roman Kings (Bob on piano)
Forgetful Heart (Bob center stage with harp)
Spirit On The Water (Bob on piano)
            Scarlet Town (Bob center stage)
            Soon After Midnight (Bob on piano)
            Long And Wasted Years (Bob center stage)
            All Along The Watchtower (Bob on piano)
            Blowin' In The Wind (Bob on piano)

            There you have it. The very nearly unchanging set list from spring, 2014, Japan and Hawaii. Bob singing what he wants to sing, singing with clarity and vehemence, pounding and caressing that piano. Blowing some very sweet harp. Nearly shouting some songs in his excitement. Two years ago in Missoula and Seattle I was desperate to hear a Tempest debut that never arrived. It’s easy to see in retrospect that he simply wasn’t ready. This year we get six songs and they are the best of the set. The rest is fine as well, impassioned and inspired, but the band and Bob somehow turn it up a notch for the newest material.
            It probably should go without saying that if a casual fan turns up at one of these shows hoping for some acoustic folk, there’s going to be a little cognitive dissonance. Unfortunately and predictably, it still happens. The fellow next to me in Honolulu left halfway through, and on the way out I overheard some blowhard saying, “He put no energy into that. I don’t think there’s a single person here leaving who thinks that was a good show . . . blah . . . blah ….”

        “They chirp and they chatter, what does it matter?
        They’re lying, they’re dying in their blood”

        “People see me all the time, I guess they just can’t remember how to act
        Their minds are filled with false ideas, images and distorted facts.”

              In contrast, anyone paying attention heard something spirited, fantastic, musically exciting, and often quite bleak. The band is tight and controlled, similar to the last few years. They are allowed to break out here and there, with perfect accentuation, but there are no excesses. They perform skillfully, with poise and discretion, but there is no mistaking that there is the Band, and there is the Man. The Man is at the center of it all, and while his own playing can be idiosyncratic in moments, his power is unquestionable. The turn of the millennium is very far away indeed, when you might find Sexton and Dylan and Campbell on a parallel line in front, strumming three varieties of guitar in syncopation. Now the other players hold to their spots in the rear, in a supporting arc. This is still a single organism, but everything happens in service to the nucleus, in service to the genius who struts and prances from center mike to piano stool.  The boys don’t even get introduced anymore. This is not a criticism. This is Bob Dylan in the latter days of his performing career, as deliberate in his choices as in 1966 or 1975, as intent as ever on sharing a particular vision. He wants to hone in on that vision, and everything else is extraneous — the comic voice-over introduction that lasted for years, band introductions, solos that are not just so, any pandering to the name of the town, or any indication that he is just playing around.
            Every move the band makes focuses on the poetry Dylan feels now and the particular way he chooses to musically highlight those images. Some might criticize the static set list of this tour, but looking back two years to the “Tempest” –less set in Seattle there were only three songs that we heard again this time. That’s remarkable. Obviously Bob has the depth to shift the songs constantly and only play amazing tunes, but it’s silly to look to a changing set list alone as a mark of quality. For now, the composer is sacrificing the matchless extent of his oeuvre for dedication to a particular, precise communication.
            “Tempest” is at the center. In an earlier post I discussed the overall themes of the album, and all of those ideas come forward in the live performance, but these renditions pretty much blow the recorded template out of the atmosphere. “Pay in Blood” is a song that illuminates Dylan’s current poetic moment, hearkens back to earlier concepts, and dispels any notion that Bob is sitting in the meadow, ambivalent about the culture. “Pay in Blood” is in the “Idiot Wind”  and “It’s Alright Ma” column of Bob’s discography, a scalding accusation of moral turpitude aimed, not so much at the other, as at the ability of Everyman to live in the heart of evil while going about his business. At these shows in Maui and Honolulu, Dylan sang with vitriol about “another politician, pumping out the piss,” but he acknowledges, just as forcibly, that we are all culpable, passing by “another ragged beggar, blowing you a kiss.” He marches to mike for his lines, steps back in rhythm to his drummer, and then forward again, every lyric given breathe and nuance."Hear me holler and hear me moan!" But the song seems to be asking a question: Who is listening? Who is listening to anything outside the chatter in their own skull?
            There are two general categories of performance at these shows. For the first, for “Pay in Blood,” and “Love Sick,” and “Long and Wasted Years,” Dylan stands at the center, with harp only, giving all to the harsh wind of his voice. He gesticulates and swaggers and leans in and blows. The band churns up a controlled maelstrom behind him, a tornado in a laboratory. For the second, he sits on the edge of his piano stool, crooning his twisted love songs and leading a jam, such as on one of the few sixties era songs, “All Along the Watchtower,”  that takes its inspiration more from Miles Davis or some earlier bygone jazz than from Hendrix. The band plunks and beats and strums in skillful sympathy, sometimes transcendently, at other times a bit hapless before the madness of their leader.
            The most extraordinary example of the latter is a staple of the set over the last five years, “Spirit on the Water.” It is clearly a song Bob feels strongly about considering how regularly it has appeared amidst the changes. In Maui, Bob’s piano continually brought the tune to a point not far from incoherence, and a point not quite close enough to brilliance. In between his love rhymes, his runs on the keyboard and the rhythm section’s beats and the guitarists’ fills nearly added up to something sublime, but not quite. They nearly fell to mayhem, but not quite. In contrast, in Honolulu, the same improvisation, led of course by Dylan’s funky, off-key, soulful piano, gave that rare sense in music, that a veil had been pushed aside and another dimension revealed. We had the marriage of beauty and chaos and the love and the orgasm of that union. In my section in the fourth row, several people, including myself, actually leapt into the air in delight.  
            It’s not hard to see that anyone who came expecting a sing-along would be befuddled.
            “Duquesne Whistle,” as performed in the spring of 2014, is much better than the album version. It moves like the train should move, at a fast clip. Bob calls out the lyrics clearly as we rollick along on George Recile’s marvelous wheeling drumbeat.  It feels like Dylan has decided that if the train moves fast enough and he keeps shoveling in the coal, maybe the ride won’t ever need to end. Even as he sings about the end. Whereas the recorded version seems to drag ever so slightly, in a way that reminds you that this is a composition, in the current live version you are sitting in a boxcar on a warm day, your feet dangling out the open door as the fresh countryside rolls by. Simply joyous. You are more hobo than beggar. You are doomed to die, but you don’t care.
            Another piano standout, but not loose and jazzy at all, quite the opposite, is “Early Roman Kings.” This song just kills. Sure, the live rendition, same as the record, is a copy of a standard blues. But these boys can wind that up to high tension. And again, although the music is central, the music is there to serve the epicenter, and the epicenter is Dylan’s rage. I would say that this is one of the few angry songs that is purely directed outward at a societal ill, as opposed to a societal ill with a high degree of existential culpability. This is a song that says: there are some people out there who are seriously fucking it up for the rest of us.
            It’s a song that reminds us that we are living under the hill in “Scarlet Town.” I’ve written in an earlier post about this bleak update of “Desolation Row” and “Ain’t Talkin’.” This was the first live rendition I’ve heard, and if the album cut is a bummer, the performance version is suicidal. It’s a musical edition of “The Scream,” and who wants to look at that for very long? Here you look it square in the face for about five minutes and damn if it doesn’t haunt you.  
The previous day I was sitting in an awful little taco shop in Waikiki in search of a meal costing less than $40, while the two angry dudes behind the counter took a very long time to produce a fish taco that proved inedible. I spent that 20 minutes listening to some thumping bass and staring out at a young pauper on the corner, lolling and burning on a camp chair in the hot noon hour, his dog sleeping under an umbrella — the only evidence of love on that street. He crouched there, death in his eyes at twenty-five, while the high fashioned tourists, with their cute little hats, their human forms so glorified, strolled by. I knew I should buy him a taco but I was suffering myself under the weight of the tall buildings and I had no room to breathe. “In Scarlet Town, crying won’t do you no good.”  
Tell it, Bob, even when I don’t want to hear.
            Love. Pain. Love. Pain. In this set we travel between those poles until we are not sure if there is any difference. “Forgetful Heart,” “Spirit on the Water,” “Soon After Midnight” and the closer, “Long and Wasted Years.” The first and the last in this list delivered from the center, with a torch. The middle two at the piano, with  lilt and bluster. “Long and Wasted Years,” is another shocking performance, each line offered in a shout, rough and smooth at the same time, with complete conviction. I was reminded several times in these two Hawaii sets of the 1970’s, when Dylan scorched the microphone with his vocals.  Every line of regret emphasized, every line piling up, crashing toward the end:

            We cried on a cold and frosty morn!!
            We cried because our souls were torn!!
            So much for tears!!
            So much for those LONG  and WASTED years!

Again with the crying, and the futility of such.
I know some will scoff, but I thought of Rolling Thunder, when every stanza was a performance piece. And the Street-Legal tour, my first, when every song was also musical theater.
            In this set we get three that might be primarily called spirituals. Two songs close to the beginning, and one at the end. For “What Good am I?” Dylan stands center, declaiming, gently and clearly, while the band follows on tiptoes:
What good am I if I’m like all the rest
If I just turn away, when I see how you’re dressed
If I shut myself off so I can’t hear you cry
What good am I?

I always thought he was speaking to a lover in this song, but tonight I don’t see that at all. I see that beggar again, the same one blowing me a kiss. The same one crouching at the gate of the taco place, sheltering his dog from the harsh sun instead of himself.

What good am I if I say foolish things
And I laugh in the face of what sorrow brings
And I just turn my back while you silently die
What good am I?

There he was, dying on the street in Scarlet Town. He knew his crying would do no good.

If my hands are tied must I not wonder within
Who tied them and why and where must I have been?

Maybe help will come for that fellow and his dog. Maybe it will come too late. It won’t come from me. I shut myself off. My hands were tied. What Good am I?
            The next tune invoking his mortality and his maker is “Duquesne Whistle.” As mentioned above, the performance is rousing, a hand-clapper, and one that makes you feel that being on a train headed toward death might just be the same as a train headed home.
            In finale, we get “Blowing in the Wind.” In many instances I have never really got this song. I mean, “the answer is blowing in the wind?” It has always seemed so vague. But tonight he makes me get it, in the context of all that suffering, all those tears. Dylan sits at the piano and plays it like an upbeat lullaby. His tone is gentle and smooth, and he sings like he’s someone’s kindly old grandpa. It’s not sung like a folk classic or an anthem, but a comfort in hard times. He sings like he believes deeply in an answer, even if we can’t see it. Like he knows the questions are really hard, terribly hard, and we get some credit just for asking. He sings it like a lullaby for children asking why we die. Bob sings with compassion: there is an answer, and it’s not the nihilism of greed and power or the determinism of science. It’s a mystery but it’s out there in the wind. We might get a sense of it when our guard is down.
But you know, I’ve always been a child who wants to believe. It’s soon after midnight and I’ve got a date with a fairy queen. 

A few postscript band notes: I was talking to my wife on the phone in the Maui airport on Sunday when Donnie Herron walked by. My wife has since forgiven me for hanging up on her. I spoke to Donnie for a couple minutes before we were interrupted by Dylan’s sound guy, so I didn’t get a chance to ask any really fun questions. I did tell him that I’d seen the first set of shows he played with Bob back in ’05 in Seattle. I wasn’t very nervous because it was completely spontaneous. I asked him about the fiddle case he was carrying and he joked (I think) that it was an urn containing his grandmother, who had “always wanted to go to Hawaii.” I did get nervous a few minutes later when I noticed that the entire band, except Charlie Sexton (and Bob of course) were also in my waiting lounge. I thought they were all on my flight, so I made no effort to speak to the others, thinking I would have plenty of time and could be all cool and casual-like. To my dismay, it turned out they were on the following plane to Honolulu, as I noticed while boarding. So I hung around the baggage claim in Oahu for another chance. By that time I had conceived a lame idea to have them sign a small card advertising the Maui show that I had picked up. Indeed, they tromped on through 30 minutes later, and I spoke briefly with Tony Garnier and Stu Kimball, who were very kind, very gracious, and they signed my card. But by then all spontaneity and naturalness was long gone and I felt like a stalker. So I thanked them for their shows over the years and fled, losing any chance of a more substantial conversation. Funny thing is I could care less about autographs and managed to lose the card later anyway!
In any case, it was a cool happenstance overall, much like a year ago in Saint Paul when I walked into my hotel bar to see Sexton talking with Jakob Dylan. At that time I also raved incoherently with Charlie for a few minutes before running away. I also ran into him again this year by the stage door of the Maui show. I honestly was just walking by, not hanging out, and walking quickly even, when we nearly collided. We shook hands so that was nice. I don’t quite understand why I seem to bump into the band like this. Especially since I can only achieve minor conversation. Still, kind of fun. And nice to meet them and have the chance to express my thanks. 

AMERICAN FALL TOUR? Here’s hoping.


  1. Thanks for this. People so rarely write anything worth reading about Dylan anymore. It's all copying others from the net or a spewing of either sycophancy or personal bile. Rarely do you see someone actually engage the work and hear and see what's there. I don't even bother reading anyone anymore usually. Glad I made it to your piece somehow. Thanks again.

  2. Ditto of koufax, basically. Very absorbing review. Thanks

  3. Thanks for the engaging descriptions of a timeless man and his music.

  4. completely enjoyed your heartfelt observations and inner line of thoughts- thank you- you found different ways to express the wonder of our hero still being the great inspirator for so many of us.