Friday, November 3, 2017

I Came to Bury: Bob Dylan in Salt Lake City, 2017

            Ever creative, ever challenging, Bob Dylan rocked, crooned, and whispered through 20 songs on October 17 at the Eccles Theater in Salt Lake City, Utah. At 76, the master showed undiminished energy in leading his superb long-time band. The set list, however, is weighted heavily toward the rueful, the reflective and the elegiac. The American Standards covers, such as “September of My Years,” and “This Once Was Mine” carry this tone, and compose a quarter of the show. Several of his own numbers, like “Trying to Get to Heaven,” “Long and Wasted Years,” and a newly reworked stately march through “Tangled Up in Blue,” also contribute to the enchanting and yet “melancholy mood.” In 2017, Dylan doesn’t pretend young or play to illusions. In “Long and Wasted Years,” the closing number, Dylan shouts regret and loss over the rising and falling of his rhythm section, over the swell and ebb of strings, over the waves and undertow of his long past. 
            But here's the thing: the overall effect of hearing Dylan's current show, these sad ballads, balanced with fierce and playful rock and roll, is to make the listener feel poignantly, wonderfully alive. 
            Even as an older man, gazing back over the years, Bob Dylan lives entirely in the art of the present. The nostalgic still like to think of him as a folk singer, but he has never been content to be one thing. He is a shape-shifter and his shows consistently disappoint anyone with a fixed idea of what the music is. He doesn’t care. Dylan’s devotion is to spirit, craft, the timeless human drama, and the changes we can’t avoid. His music does not encompass any one style, because it is more concerned with history, mortality, the dilemma that men are both evil and good, and the sorrow that we are separated from God. Such a world view leans toward the blues, but you can’t cover all that with one style.
Salt Lake City was my 50th Dylan show, stretching back 39 years to a pivotal concert at the Blackbushe Aerodrome in the summer of 1978, at a moment when the artist was losing grip on the last shreds of his innocent, magnificent beginnings. He was about to turn to Jesus. In 1986, I saw Bob at the Tacoma Dome, dressed in leather and long dangling ear-rings, leading Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers through two sets of crunchy rock and a few spirituals. At the Paramount Theater in Seattle, in 2005, I saw the very first show with the nucleus of the current band. In 2013 I stood in Midway Stadium in my hometown of St. Paul, in our home state of Minnesota, as a Midwest grain train roared by while the band launched into “All along the Watchtower.”  Despite reviews to the contrary, in all these years I have never seen Dylan look less than fully engaged with his music. A few shows have inevitably been less energetic, or troubled by circumstance, but reports of Dylan’s inconsistency are grossly exaggerated, and nearly always based on the listener failing to match the singer’s presence with his own. If you want a sing-along or reassurance that everything’s groovy, Dylan has never been and will never be your man.
He has made this clear each night for the last several years, by opening with “Things Have Changed.” The song is a paranoiac’s dream, a fever vision of the turn of the millennium, and a doubtful plea for safe harbor in a world gone mad. “Some things are too hot to touch. The human mind can only stand so much. You can’t win with a losing hand.” In “Things Have Changed,” the singer asks us to drop expectations of succor and crush them under our feet. He is not here to serve our vision and we will find no sanctuary for our nostalgia. This night in Salt Lake City, less than two weeks after the massacre in Las Vegas, he puts wonderful snarling emphasis into the refrain, “People are crazy and times are strange, I’m locked in tight, I’m out of range.” It’s hard to miss the gun imagery, and it’s damn scary. This is a man who puts himself on stage 90 nights out of the year, in buildings with minimal security. No wonder I saw one of Bob’s long-time men roaming the crowd in the foyer pre-show and again in the break between acts, sizing folks up. “Just for a second there I thought I saw something move.”
Unsurprisingly, Tom Petty is not mentioned tonight, but I still have a sense that the spirit of Dylan’s close friend is present. I write this because Bob, when not being tender and mournful, is particularly ferocious, in a way that reminds me of those mid-eighties shows. His phrasing is crisp and biting, and I believe he is again re-inspired to do justice to the legacy of musicians he has worked with and lost. Another Wilbury is down, but as long as Bob can prance the stage, he will carry on with emotion, with a bloody-mindedness that is devotional to unseen things and departed friends. He is committed, “To the End of the Line. “
Delusion is everywhere. Before Dylan sauntered out this night, I had to endure the dialogue of the row in front of me: “We’re not expecting much, a friend told us he’s really lost it” and all that sort of chirping and chattering. I wonder, would you come to another Nobel Laureate’s reading so unprepared? Would you expect to understand Lessing or Ishiguro or Neruda, having read only one book out of twenty? Please do your homework before talking out of your ass so.  But when Dylan does appear on stage, fuzzy haired and elegant in a black suit and tawny golden boots, we all share at least one moment of pure pleasure and high voltage. Somehow the presence of Dylan in the same room with you will always thrill, if you were alive in the 20th century, and have managed to stay alive through the early years of the 21st.
After “Things Have Changed,” performed while standing at the piano, Dylan takes a seat for “It Ain’t Me, Babe.” It’s a clever choice, offering the audience a song they know, with a somewhat recognizable arrangement, but one that drives home the opening point:

Go lightly from the ledge, babe
Go lightly on the ground
I’m not the one you want, babe
I will only let you down
You say you’re lookin’ for someone
Who will promise never to part
Someone to close his eyes for you
Someone to close his heart
Someone who will die for you an’ more
But it ain’t me, babe
No, no, no, it ain’t me, babe
It ain’t me you’re lookin’ for, babe

I doubt the chirpers catch that this is not necessarily a song about a lover, but in any case Dylan has already moved on. He keeps our heads cocked with another nugget from the sixties, “Highway 61 Revisited,” a song about carnival America that just never goes out of style. In fact, it’s more pertinent than ever, with a lying huckster in the White House selling red, white and blue shoestrings, while his minions sit in the bleachers in the sun and cheer, all their feet tied together by their purchase, seemingly unaware that the “next world war” will turn them to dust along with the Mexicans and black men they fear. Anyone who thinks Bob does not make political (moral) commentary anymore is not paying attention.
            How are the band doing? Well, they are sparkling, shimmery and pretty as a sky full of shooting stars. A glimmer here from the guitarist Charlie Sexton, but then you look and it’s gone,  and a cascade of light from Donnie Herron’s pedal steel takes your attention. The rhythm section of Tony Garnier, George Receli and Stu Kimball pulses and sways perfectly, and Bob runs up and down the piano keys like he is hearing moonlight. Without a doubt, Dylan’s playing is the wild card in this set-up, and sometimes my ear wonders if he just danced across a few notes never heard in rehearsal, but then he lays down a melodic line that makes me clap with glee.
            Next up, “Why Try to Change Me Now.” Bob stands far back stage right,  cradling the mike stand like a lover,  just up from the bass player Garnier, and Sexton, and close enough to touch the drums of Receli. In this position he is embraced by the companionship and compassionate support of his band. He floats on their warm buoyant waves of sound, and he sings, clearly and deeply about his “daydreams galore,’ and “habits that even I can’t explain.” “Let people wonder, let them laugh, let them frown.” It’s gorgeous and quiet and strange, and I’m sure many nostalgists in the audience suddenly don’t know what to think or how to feel, despite the fact that this sort of song is the work of Dylan’s last three records.
             Back to the piano for “Summer Days,” completely reworked from the album version and from the live ones that were a staple of the set through the early years of the century. Now it’s a hoedown, a country stomp that takes full advantage of Donnie Herron’s mastery of the fiddle, and the overall tight relationship of the band. This felt like the sort of arrangement that was more common at the turn of the millennium, when Dylan was still playing guitar, and when the band (including the current core of Garnier and Sexton) more often turned toward the sounds of Appalachia. He has always had a fondness for the country, for Cash and the Nashville Skyline and big brass beds. With the current line-up, however, Dylan has usually emphasized elegance and precision over the hillbilly, so it’s great to hear this rave-up love song to ”the old, weird America.”
            Now we go back and forth for a few songs, between the standards and a few late period gems. The chirpers in the row ahead of me appear to be transfixed, because the man is undeniably transfixing, but my guess is that they are equally mystified. In this long center segment of the show, no bones are thrown to those who bray for a treat from the past. The furthest back we go is “Love and Theft,” from 2001. Dylan is also still having fun with “Tempest,” the last album of originals, a record that gets a quarter of the set. To my ears, however, neither ‘“Honest with Me,” nor “Pay in Blood,” have the power or focus of earlier live iterations.  Still, they are delivered with emotion and with the band’s usual clairvoyance. These driving numbers form a rock and roll cushion between the beguiling and very quiet mid-century tin-pan alley ballads, “September of My Years,” and “This Once was Mine.” The latter are sung from the same spot as the earlier standards, with Dylan standing by the bright hearth of his rhythm section, while Charlie and Donnie create cozy guitar atmospherics to the singer’s left.
            Then comes the dignified procession through “Tangled Up in Blue,” the only representative tonight, and in recent history, from Dylan’s mid-seventies. Perhaps no other tune has seen such a persistence in the set (ranking fourth all-time, with an astonishing 1633 plays) along with such continual change. “It used to go like that, now it goes like this,” Dylan famously says when introducing “I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met) in Manchester, 1966. “Tangled” is spot-on for such treatment, given the way the lyrics warp linear concepts of time. Dylan is still wondering what happened to some of his companions, although the nature of those musings have changed as well: “some of their names are written in flames, some of them are down in the ground.”
            Next up, my highlight of the evening, “Early Roman Kings.” This tune has also, of course, evolved. It’s still a blues stomp, but the current iteration contains breaks that feature sweet guitar lines by Charlie, weaving around some delightful stand-up bass plucking by Tony. Dylan really seems to revel in spitting out the lyrics, which, like “Tangled,” shift perspective between stanzas. The first three are straight ahead third person, describing the ravages inflicted on the country by predatory capitalism, by the speculators and wealth consolidators, by the real estate moguls and CEO’s who earn 400 times the pay of the average employee. These lyrics describe Bezos and Trump cavorting in the same piggy pile of money: “They’ve destroyed your city, they’ll destroy you as well.” The next three stanzas switch to the first person, but it isn’t certain that the same person is speaking in each. Vengeance and karma are in the air. ERK is an “Idiot Wind” for the 21st century, aimed not at a lover and an uncontrolled id, as the earlier song, but at an entire culture gone mad with materialism. The singer, bowing only to his Maker, is the witness and the one ordained to read the scroll. It’s not happy news, but it rocks with the soul of Muddy Waters.
            “Soon after Midnight,” also off “Tempest,” returns us to more personal ruminations. It’s a simple love song with a side order of chaos. Love comes and love goes, “down on the killing floor.” The outside world, the political world, keeps crashing in, but a fairy queen is forever. This one reminds me of the place “Spirit on the Water” held in the set for many years, a gentle piano tune that admits to the possibility of a modicum of basic human joy.
            Love is truly something to treasure, when we’re all living here on “Desolation Row.” Bob has returned to this gem regularly since the fall of 2016. It’s been in the program nearly every night. Hmmmm . . . .wonder why . . . .

Dr. Filth, he keeps his world
Inside of a leather cup
But all his sexless patients
They’re trying to blow it up
Now his nurse, some local loser
She’s in charge of the cyanide hole
And she also keeps the cards that read
“Have Mercy on His Soul”
They all play on pennywhistles
You can hear them blow
If you lean your head out far enough
From Desolation Row

The nurse will be played tonight by Sara Huckabee Sanders, filling in for Kellyanne Conway.
            The first couple of times I heard the new rendition I was not impressed by the sing-song cadence, but this afternoon, as I refreshed my memory with a boot, I was struck by how perfect it is. Call it the nursery rhyme school of the Nobel Laureate’s oeuvre. Uncle Bob relates, over a twinkly and repetitive melody, the matter-of-fact horrors of the dark side of the American dream, now more visible on the front page than they’ve been since the song was written in ’65.  “They’re painting the passports brown.” Check. “Her profession’s her religion. Her sin is her lifelessness.” (Sarah Huckabee Sanders again?) Check. “Now at midnight all the agents, And the superhuman crew, Come out and round up everyone, That knows more than they do.” Check. Sigh. On it goes, giving Bob a chance to doodle beautifully on the keys, while letting us know that we are indeed trapped here, in a world made not by the wise, but by the corrupt and the craven.
            Now we speed toward the finish, through a re-imagined and re-vitalized take on “Thunder on the Mountain.” Here’s a song I never liked very much, live or on record. I thought it had too many words that came out in too fast a rush. But the new performance is a revelation, uncovering a honky-tonk, carnivalesque rocker. It reminds me of Dylan playing with the Band circa 1974, perhaps “Rainy Day Women #12 and 35. It’s a full boogie blowout, complete with a climactic and marvelous drum solo by George. The new tempo suits the words perfectly, and the song deserves its late-set place, as a life-affirming blast of, dare I say, fun?
            Because what comes next is “Autumn Leaves,” and “Long and Wasted Years,” two songs that do not boogie. They make you think, however, if you’re a certain age, about the might-have-beens and the should-have-dones. It would be a mistake to ascribe the feelings in most of Dylan’s tunes directly to the life of the man himself, but the singer projects deep vulnerability in these two numbers. It’s a fine example of the brilliant contradiction at the center of his music. Dylan, a notoriously private man, rarely seen and heard except on his own strict terms, puts a life on stage of deep personal communication and sensitivity. We will never know how much is him and how much is fabrication, and we have no right to know, but it is difficult not to accept the songs as gospel for a life lived. Dylan is a famous thief and a collage artist of the highest skill, and yet his best works come across as sincere, personal,  and deeply felt. You might not know who the narrator is, but you do know that he has a line on something essential and true.
I recently read a transcript of a conversation between Dylan and Sam Shepard, in which Bob says his only home is on the stage. Tonight, I once again feel grateful for the invitation to the front parlor. In the end, whether the tale is about himself or “someone he knew once,” it doesn’t really matter. Any story Uncle Bob tells is bound to be a good one.
             I feel this powerfully in the first encore, the iconic “Blowing in the Wind.” This one hasn’t changed much since he placed it in this slot several years ago. It’s not a strident protest song anymore. It’s a lullaby. It’s hopeful and yet it’s sad. It’s a another nursery rhyme, a question without an answer. It’s a coda to the Never Ending Tour. How many times? No man knows the answer. Here’s Bob, no longer the wrathful God of “Pay in Blood,” but your wise and kindly grandpa, saying yeah, it’s pretty damn messed up out there, and you just need to keep on singing.  
            Finally, Bob stands behind the piano for the most frequent final encore of recent years, “Ballad of a Thin Man.” As with “Desolation Row,” Dylan knows he has a timeless song on his lips here, one that has circled around to full relevance 50 years on. And ultimately, he seems to be saying, his role is not to soothe you, but to freak you the hell out and wake you up. Mr. Jones is out there in his millions now, electing presidents. He is still clueless. These days, Mr. Jones drinks up propaganda spewed to make him feel like there are simple answers to a world perplexing in its complexity.  With his eyes in his pockets and his nose to the ground, Mr. Jones lives the unexamined life, frightened by the outsider, the immigrant, and all those who make him feel his time is past.
            Bob Dylan gives us “Ballad of a Thin Man” to end the show, not because he wants to satisfy cravings for nostalgia and for the sweet dreams of youth. He does so to show the inextricable connection between eras. In his inimitable voice, short on range but unlimited in texture, Dylan stands behind the piano and describes the human capacity for self-delusion and moral blindness.  Bob has taken very good care of his throat in recent years. The words are clear, exacting, and delightfully nuanced, in a way that is very difficult to describe. All I can say is that, as ever with Dylan, if you are willing and if you have done your homework, he creates the illusion that he is speaking directly to you, that you are indeed in his front parlor, and he couldn’t be happier to have you.
            There’s a great deal of trouble in the country right now, and in the world. For the moment we are alright, it’s true; the grocery stores are well stocked and medical care, if you have it, is pretty close to miraculous. Pleasure and distraction can be found in abundance. But there is an unease upon the land, disturbing trends in the natural world, and a feeling in many quarters that the center can not hold. In my life, and in the lifespan of Bob Dylan, despite many conflicts and disasters, I don’t think we’ve sensed a more perilous moment since the 1960’s. In that decade a young folksinger from Minnesota was making his name in NYC, in the shadow of the Cuban Missile Crisis and an escalating war in Vietnam. In that highly charged political time, Dylan had a uniquely personal take on events. Somehow, however, he was able to tap the depths of America’s historical soul rather than just his own brief life on earth. Within a few years he discarded sloganeering in favor of a more poetic calling, and a dedication to a spiritual path. I think that’s the path he is still on.
            “Things have changed” in the arrangements, “things have changed,” in the songwriting and “things have changed” in the band, and no doubt many “things have changed” in Bob’s personal life. You get older and you experience loss, and renewal, and loss, and if you are busy being born, renewal again, no matter your age. And when you keep up with Bob Dylan, and especially when you see him perform live, in his home, on the stages of the world, you see that his dedication to finding the truth through music remains strong. You are re-inspired by his new inspiration. He is an artist of the highest caliber, challenging and provoking his audience. Through constant creation and reinvention, at 76 years old, Bob tells immensely valuable stories about life on earth in a moment when “the end of time has just begun.” They are not simple stories and they are often uncomfortable. But they are real, and they speak to the heart, and that’s what I need, now more than ever, in these difficult days.
            Now I’m going to go pick up my copy of “Trouble No More.” Peace. 


  1. s.mcinally152@btinternet.comNovember 4, 2017 at 1:53 AM

    One of the few articles on Dylan that I have read that has come close to getting to the heart of Dylan as a performer and artist. Really enjoyed reading this, particularly when you wrote "Delusion is everywhere. Before Dylan sauntered out this night, I had to endure the dialogue of the row in front of me: “We’re not expecting much, a friend told us he’s really lost it” and all that sort of chirping and chattering. I wonder, would you come to another Nobel Laureate’s reading so unprepared? Would you expect to understand Lessing or Ishiguro or Neruda, having read only one book out of twenty? Please do your homework before talking out of your ass so." My feelings exactly!

    1. Thanks for reading and thanks for your comment! Appreciate it.

  2. It tickles me when people assume they know Dylan's political views.

    1. I know what you mean. Like Dylan handpicked his setlist to make commentary on the disastrous Trump presidency.LOL Wonder how this 'idiot child' would have spun the basically same setlist when Obama was president.

    2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    3. Thanks for comments and actually I believe you are correct JZ. I might edit the article to omit the one line referring to "political" views. Dylan has, at various times, claimed that he takes no political stand. But he has moral views, seen throughout his long catalog, in which he has consistently criticized lying, greed and duplicity, which are the defining characteristics of the current president. Last night, as I was watching the Trouble No More video, I was struck by these lines and how well they apply to Trump: "Big time negotiators, false healers and women haters, Masters of the bluff and masters of the proposition . . . So no, I don't think Bob handpicks his set list to comment on Trump, I just think he has songs that are timeless in their condemnation of the corrupt. So he just chooses a few that apply particularly well, and its up to the listener to decide. This article shares my take. You are free to have your own and that's the joy of Bob.

  3. This writer did not say anything about Dylan's personal views. Dylan's lyrics have a unique quality, which is that almost everyone who hears them, thinks he is addressing him/her personally. It's a quality that divides any form of great art from mediocre or worthless. The writer reports on his feelings while listening. Other people hear different things, I hope everybody hears his own personal meanings. Let me for once fall into the same trap: "There are no truths outside the Gates of Eden".

  4. ya take from it what it gives you.
    I didn't hear any of that anti-trump stuff, but I like it.

  5. Good review until you just had to get into the thoroughly predictable and unoriginal Trump analogy like everyone else does. A little restraint and you might stand out from the herd and the hive.

    1. Thanks for your comment, "unknown."It makes me wonder who else is out there applying Dylan lyrics to the predator-in-chief.I haven't seen that myself although I do agree it is pretty easy to do, given Trump's moral bankruptcy and Dylan's fifty plus year catalog that criticizes such cruelty and racketeering. It surprises me that some Dylan fans can listen to his lyrics and miss such references.

  6. Nice piece of writing. I've read so many Dylan reviews that only a few feel worth reading to the end. Thank you for creating this piece and sharing it with us. Manor

    1. Thanks so much for your kind words. It means a lot to me.