Bob Dylan; November 6, 2008; Riverside Theater, Milwaukee
I’ve seen Bob Dylan many, many times. So many, in fact, that I don’t even know the exact number anymore (OK, I looked, it’s 34). There were a lot of bad shows of course, most of the Eighties and the first half of the Nineties were a blur of half-hearted shows and non-enunciation. All of that changed in the mid Nineties, seemingly right about the time of his MTV Unplugged special. It was like one morning he woke up and decided he articulate in a way that people would actually understand. Now it seems that age is bringing us right back to where we started.
I’ve read rumors of the onset of arthritis which precipitated his switch from electric to acoustic and eventually now to keyboards. Tonight he did more singing and blowing on his harmonica at an old-timey mike located almost center stage, as he frequently strayed away from his keyboard located off to the side, like he were part of the band instead of the focus of everyone in the audience. It has been easier to accept this change, age is a much better reason than simply not caring, but this show was a far cry from one at the Milwaukee Arena in 2002 when I nearly fell to my knees and weep tears of joy after a stunning set (which strangely enough included “Lay Lady Lay,” a song I swore I never wanted to hear live after hearing multiple mangled live versions).
Though the faces in his band have changed in recent years, only the rhythm section of bassist Tony Garnier and drummer George Recile remain from my favorite era of live shows, the band is as tight as ever. The set list format isn’t much different, there are still the anchor songs, “Summer Days” from Love and Theft is sure to come near the end of every set, and classics “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Blowing in the Wind” and “All Along the Watchtower” are bound to be part of the requisite encore, but what shows up in between is anyone’s guess (I’ve heard the band has to know somewhere in the neighborhood of 150 songs for every tour). He’s still not content with the way these songs were written, changing melody, tempo and words as he sees fit.
One song that benefited from these tweaks was “Highway 61 Revisited,” which became even bluesier than it was originally. Sometimes it becomes a game of name that tune, as the songs have changed dramatically from the originals. Only a snatch of lyric identified “Love Minus Zero (No Limit)” one of my favorite songs. Unfortunately it fell early in the set when the sound wasn’t as good. Always a crowd favorite, “Tangled Up in Blue” seemed more pedantic than usual and “A Hard Rain’s A’Gonna Fall,” sadly, went on forever. Several songs from Modern Times made the list, “Thunder on the Mountain,” “Working Man’s Blues #2,” and “Ain’t Talking,” though I have barely listened to that record, the songs held their own, while other relatively recent compositions like “High Water (For Charlie Patton)” and “Love Sick” were highlights.
Going to see Bob Dylan has never carried a guarantee, but every show has something that makes it worthwhile. Tonight’s show had the advantage of being in the relatively small, and quite gorgeous, Riverside Theater, much better than seeing him in the cavernous Kohl Center and Sears Centre. A superior set list to stops on this tour made me glad I had chosen tonight over other shows. It’s not much, but sometimes it is enough.