May 18, 2015:
A Spring Waltz through Texas with Bob Dylan
By Nancy Hernandez
Houston, May 5, Bayou Music Center
Austin, May 6, Bass Concert Hall
San Antonio, May 7, Majestic Theatre
Things have really changed, and Bob Dylan’s so-called “Never Ending Tour” has evolved into a sophisticated concert experience bathed in golden moonlight. Gone are the rowdy general admission shows, fans buckles to butts, 20 rows deep, holding forth at the foot of the stage or stage-rushing at seated venues to get up close, where Dylan seemed to delight in the energy, as fans danced and rocked to classics like Summer Days, Like a Rolling Stone, and Highway 61. This is no longer even a rock ‘n roll experience, and it’s probably time to put to rest the phrase Never Ending Tour, which Dylan never bought into anyway. It’s over folks. Dylan now brings forth a very mature show for a seated listening audience.
The experience is much like a theatrical production, with Dylan the orchestral band leader, an actor in a play, moving around the understated and elegant stage taking the audience on a cinematic-like journey. During Long and Wasted Years, I heard Al Pacino coming through Dylan’s voice as he emoted and sang, “Come back baby if I ever hurt your feelings I apologize . . . We cried on that cold and frosty morn, We cried because our souls were torn, So much for tears, so much for these long and wasted years.”
On this visual and musical journey, Dylan is just passing through, bringing some old-school Hollywood jitterbug rag and the best of every other mid-century and beyond genre he has been honing for decades. “He ain’t taking no shortcuts or dressing in drag. . . He’s got nothing to prove. He’s an artist, he don’t look back.”
By song two, we are hypnotized, marching forward to the beat, as the stellar band colludes with Dylan, and the storyline unfolds to a sexy Latin-tinged She Belongs to Me. The “Egyptian ring sparkles as he speaks.”
Dylan owns the stage in a different way these days, opening the show center stage with microphone in hand and harmonica at the ready. The pace is slowed down and vocals much clearer, the delivery focused and precise. Moving over to the grand piano, seated at the end of the horizontal side of it, the bench trailing behind him, Beyond Here Lies Nothing is performed next. The narrative continues with the opening line, “I love you pretty baby . . . come close,” he sings. “There is nothing but the moon and stars, the mountains of the past.” It’s a moment so in the present and so about to be in the past. The narrator will be moving along after midnight, leaving the only love he’s ever known, moving down “the boulevards of broken cars, past windows made of glass,” the flame still kindling but “nothing done and nothing said.”
Back at center stage again, Dylan shifts to the realities of life in Working Man Blues #2. The narrator is “feeding his soul with thought,” the lament of Donnie Herron’s lap steel, Charlie Sexton’s lead guitar and Tony Garnier’s masterful bass playing moving the storyline forward. It’s back to the grind of work and the ravages of life’s toil. He prays the “fugitive’s prayer,” relying on his higher power to help him through this earthly struggle. In life “you can hang back or fight your best on the front line, sing a little bit of these workingman’s blues.”
Dylan shuffles back to the piano and the story picks up speed as the train chugs through town to the snappy sounds of Duquesne Whistle. The band takes the audience on a spirited ride -- Donnie sliding down the rails on lap steel, Charlie always on point, George Recile steering on drums and Stu Kimball rhythm guitar, all as solid as they come. Bob’s left leg rising up and down as he rides this train out of town. He knows exactly where he’s going.
With Bob still at piano, the train ride transitions into a waltz. The audience is now experiencing what feels like a carousel ride to Waiting on You. The magnificent lighting washes the band in a soft moonlit glow, the narrator still pining away, waiting for his love to return.
The complicated love story and everything else go rogue on center stage in Pay in Blood. The audience loves this one. The working man comes unchained and reveals the dark, biting, nasty backstory. “The more he thinks, the more he gives.” There are threats. Someone’s wife is shot, but his conscience is clear. He “paid in blood, but not his own.” Awesome performance all three nights.
After the bloodletting above, the mood transitions into a slowed-down version of Tangled Up In Blue, including new lines -- “digging in my pockets” in Houston and “blasting of the news” in Austin. Dylan’s masterful harmonica playing enraptures, taking the song into flight, and then he segues from center stage to piano as the song revs up in grand style, Dylan passionately blowing the reeds again. The heart-pounding Love Sick follows, and the band digs into a gnarly and twisted groove, Donnie conjuring up frustration and layers of emotion on mandolin. Badass Bob and band tear it up. Love still out of reach. It’s time for intermission.
Dylan’s current show began shape shifting into being in late 2013, and by the end of 2014, a complete transformation had taken place. The atmospheric lighting is magnificent. The cohesiveness of the same golden color used throughout the show ties the theatrical feel together. The lighting changes from song to song with the use of giant globes, standing lights, small caged lights, spotlights from above, and diffused floor light. The band is stationed in a precise wide crescent shape. Very orchestral. Every detail is well thought out, and the result is subtle and effective. There is a maturity and stripped-down honesty to the songs and the interaction between artist and audience. The way the show closes reveals in song this new place and time we have entered in our journey with Bob Dylan.
But first, the band returns from intermission to the sound of Donnie’s banjo.
Act II begins slowly and warms up with High Water (For Charley Patton). The scene is set with the backdrop washed in shadowy clouds and sky. The big globes diffuse moonlight on the stage, Bob with left hand on hip, center stage, like he’s ready to pull his gun from its holster. In the swathe of one song, the imagery roams from Southern California, the home of Big Joe Turner, to Twelfth Street and Vine in Kansas City, to the homeland of the Delta Blues, through the travails of Ole Man River on the Mississippi River via Vicksburg. A grim reminder of our fragile humanity against the power of Mother Nature, her fury greater than “every conceivable point of view.”
Thunder rolling over Clarkesdale, everything is looking blue I just can’t be happy, love Unless you’re happy too It’s bad out there High water everywhere
The emotional roller coaster trails into a tender Simple Twist of Fate with some stunningly beautiful harp playing, the best of each night. Bob nails it and elicits the sound of crying, blowing his sadness away. He was born too late, the arcade ride is filled with memories circling his brain. He is like a blind man, who had been thrown a few coins of her love. She’s gone, and we’re left with this gorgeous song of lament.
Filled with the blues, the narrator at the piano struts out Early Roman Kings. With Stu Kimball shaking the maracas, this naughty ditty digs into another story of the underbelly of life. It ain’t pretty, but Bob shakes it down, helped by some tasty licks from Charlie on lead guitar and Donnie on lap steel slide guitar.
The next quartet of songs digs deeper into the soul journey of the narrator. The mournful Forgetful Heart finds comfort to his pain in a harp solo that reminds one of Man in the Long Black Coat. Dylan sings to perfection, and Donnie’s expressive and sad violin turns this into another exquisite performance. The audience loves it. The door may have closed forevermore, but that won’t keep this warrior down. He finds lightness of foot in Spirit on the Water, as his spirit skips and travels along, pushing the narrative forward. It’s complicated, folks, but we can still have a “whoppin’ good time.”
Like a thief in the night, we are caught unaware by the sharp juxtaposition of Scarlet Town, so engaging while announcing end times, John the Revelator coming through with prophecy, warning in vivid imagery. Whether up on the hill or at the bottom of the hill, the sky is clear, “go yonder and pray,” make your amends, “for you know not what hour your Lord does come.”
The sense of a carousel ride returns in the lilting Soon After Midnight. We are transported to the 1930s or ‘40s. The tale is upbeat in its nursery-rhyme telling, but the story is dark and seedy. Our hero is still looking forward to rendezvous and find feminine consolation soon after midnight with the faerie queen. Will the leading lady be found in this lifetime?
“It’s been such a long, long time, since we loved each other and our hearts were true,” the troubadour laments in Long and Wasted Years. This song theater is like some kind of movie, the leading man coming to terms with life’s fading days. Of Dylan’s recent compositions, this is my favorite. His writing and singing are still so on point, the long days and years have not been wasted. Bob Dylan’s gifts spring from a deep well that is extraordinary. Blessed are we to live to experience them.
The tender goodbye begins with Autumn Leaves. This one comes deep from the heart, the vocals beautiful and precise. It feels like a personal message to the aging crowd. We are autumn leaves, and he still loves us. He’s going to stand beside us, because he is one of us. Donnie Herron, along with Charlie Sexton, are so talented, they catapult Bob to new heights on this one in a very restrained and crafty way. The entire band is par excellence.
Dylan sums up the musical journey encore with a slowed-down, high-impact version of Blowin' in the Wind. He asks the big questions. They remain the same. They will always remain the same.
Bob humbly stands before the crowd for the final song of the night, Stay with Me. It’s a prayer, a call to God summoning up his mercy, grace, and forgiveness. In the end, one of Dylan’s greatest gifts is pointing people to God. It takes courage and grace.