Bob Dylan/Willie Nelson; July 1, 2009; Marcus Amphitheater, Summerfest
There’s a reason I see Bob Dylan every time I can. Tonight is one of those reasons. Even though the last several shows I’d seen had been disappointing, you just never know when there’s going to be one like tonight where you just want to cry because it was so good. OK, maybe you don’t, but I know I almost did. The Sears and Kohl Center shows I’d seen in 2006 were large impersonal shows that I didn’t even feel like I was at, not because I was so far away but because there was nothing to connect to. Last fall’s Riverside Theater show was certainly more intimate but his voice was perhaps the worst I’d heard it. It wasn’t like the 90’s where he mumbled through every song, no, that night he just sounded like a parody of himself.
Tonight I was almost as far away as I’d been at the Kohl Center but I hadn’t felt this much a part of a Bob Dylan show since, well, I actually don’t know when. I’ve been telling everyone this was the best show I had seen in five years, but it may have been even longer. There was that ’01 Milwaukee show that absolutely blew my mind and those ’02 road trip shows in Omaha, Sioux Falls and Fargo that made me want to follow the rest of the tour, but I can’t think of a show since then that made me this happy. The entire crowd was on their feet to greet the first song of the set “Cat’s in the Well” but by the fourth song most of them had settled back into their seats. By the fifth I was the only one standing in my entire gigantic section. I kept waiting for someone behind to tap my on the shoulder and ask me to sit down, or even more likely for the less polite “Down in front!” Instead I was allowed to stand in my blissful state for the whole show.
From the second he walked on stage I knew tonight was going to be different. He had a guitar. It had been years since I had seen him play, by those ’02 shows he was already switching between it and keyboard and it wasn’t long after that he had stopped playing guitar altogether. He’s always had a very competent band behind him with plenty of exceptional guitar players but the fact that he was playing tonight seemed to signify this show would be different. Past shows have been too jammy, too bluesy, too many new songs, too mumbly, but this one was none of those things.
Together Through Life released earlier this year was a very pleasant surprise. A surprise to everyone, his record label didn’t even know he’d been working on a new one. Filled with folky accordion and pretty songs, it was love at first listen. It was even more amazing since despite many attempts I hadn’t been able to get into his previous release Modern Times at all. Only two songs from Life showed up in the set, the pretty “Jolene” (which means I know more songs named Jolene than people with that name) and “Forgetful Heart,” but it was filled with treasures. Perhaps the prettiest jewel in the chest was “I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Met).” The narrator of the song hurt by a snub from a lover offers this advice at the end “But if you want me to, I can be just like you an' pretend that we never have touched. An' if anybody asks me, "Is it easy to forget?" I'll say, "It's easily done, you just pick anyone, an' pretend that you never have met!"”
I’ve seen the lengthy “Desolation Row” turn into a death march, but tonight it stayed interesting through all ten poetry filled verses. “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” was a heartfelt promise, “Highway 61 Revisited” a joy ride, and “Summer Days” a blissful boogie. Like most Dylan shows it dug deep into his catalog, only a few songs could be classified as hits. “It Ain’t Me Babe,” “All Along the Watchtower” and “Like Rolling Stone” were probably the only songs a casual fan would know, which may explain why people started leaving well before it was over. After knowing almost every song Willie Nelson played in his nothing but the hits set, they had to be a little put out by Dylan’s refusal to make it that easy. Not that Willie’s way is wrong, but I’ll take Dylan’s way every time.