A few weeks back, I journeyed up to Tulsa for a Dylan concert and a surprise 40th birthday party for an old friend. Both events were excellent, and worth the headaches of perpetual road construction both up and back.
I hadn’t seen Dylan since 2001, when he was fresh of the accolades off Love and Theft and touring with an astoundingly good rock and roll combo. That night, the arrangements were tight on the new songs, and the interpretations of classic chestnuts like “Tangled Up In Blue” and “Desolation Row” were in keeping with the sound he was mining at the time. That show was all killer and no filler, the band well rehearsed and Dylan in fine vocal fettle (or what passed as such at the time).
Fast forward eleven years and Dylan once again is touring with an astoundingly good combo, though now they sound as much pre-rock and roll as after; an amalgam of a time that never was, an imaginary musical landscape that sounds like a distillation of popular music from Depression-era blues and country through the rock and soul that predates the British Invasion. It’s Bob being current by being out of time. But on this tour it seems the tightness has lost a bit of it’s iron grip, and an elastic sense of rhythm, openness, and playfulness has seeped in. Not that Dylan isn’t in complete control, for he most certainly is; however, this is now a band he leads instead of one he rules. You can see it as they play, all facing Bob, watching and listening for subtle clues, the call and response, the nods and motions.
Mark Knopfler had opened the evening, and I feel entirely unqualified to judge his set. I’m unfamiliar with his 20+ years of post Dire Straits solo work, but most of it sounded cluttered with too many instruments. The one highlight was when most of his band left the stage and Mark, with only a bassist and drummer, played a beautiful blues number that showcased his softly emotive voice and wonderful guitar work. That he butchered the one Dire Straits song I still have fond affection towards (“Brothers In Arms”) did not help things. But when Mark came out early in Dylan’s set to play lead guitar on three songs he utterly redeemed himself. “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”, “Things Have Changed” and “Tangled Up In Blue” were immensely aided by his performance. It made me wish I could have seen the 1983 tour with Mark in the band.
After those three, Bob settled back for some balladeering, and the audience settled in to listen. By the time he fired up “Desolation Row”, his vocal cords had loosened, and some of the gravel had shaken free. However, his piano playing fingers had also loosened, and bum notes flew left and right as the band dutifully tried to get Bob back to the right chords. You could see Dylan smiling as he miffed note after note, and I wondered if he was daring (or challenging) the band to follow him into some atonal rendition. They didn’t, and the piano moved from misses into dissonance, Bob switching from proper chords to stabs of partials, a touch of late Monk in spirit if not skill.
After a spirited “Highway 61 Revisited”, they tackled a couple of the best songs from Modern Times, an album of songs I love and production choices I hate. To hear “Ain’t Talkin’” and “Thunder On The Mountain” with this current incarnation of the touring machine was revelatory. Absolute redemption to these ears, and I will acknowledge them as perhaps the best songs he’s written since Love and Theft. But it was the next song that struck me dumb.
“Ballad Of A Thin Man” sans piano, with echoed vocals? I don’t even know what to make of it a month later. It’s long been one of my favorite Dylan tunes, but without it’s pounding percussive piano it’s a different beast. The echoed “Do ya (do ya), Mr. Jones?” reverberated throughout the BOK center, an extra echo off of harsh concrete that added menace and venom that can’t be captured on tape. I’m sure I’ll be wrestling with my thoughts on this for years to come.
The rest of the show couldn’t live up to it. Even though he ended with the best arrangement of “Blowin’ In The Wind” I’ve heard in years (this has been a sadly necessary lowlight of nearly every boot from every tour for nearly a decade), it was that question that echoed in my mind: “There’s something happening but you don’t know what it is. Do ya (do ya), Mr. Jones?”