I enjoy club shows, I like the intimate environment and the fact that the musicians are approachable; there’s never that disconnect that I sometimes feel in large venues, almost like you are watching it on TV instead of in the same room. Then there’s the matter of price, those big venue shows cost a lot of money. Still, there is one artist I am still willing to pay the big bucks and brave the cavernous rooms for, and that’s Bob Dylan. I’ve seen him 40 some odd times over the last 25 years, some of the shows have been bad, but many more have been transcendent, and he is on a winning streak right now.
It’s been almost two years since he’s been in the area and I was definitely going through a little bit of withdrawal. I routinely scan his tour dates page for something in the area (you know within 300 miles or so) or to plan a road trip around. Even though it was a Tuesday night, this show fit the bill. I’d never been to Rochester before, a city famous for its hospital and not much else. As I approached the city it occurred to me that it was sort of out in the middle of nowhere. I liked the town immediately, easy to navigate and, as I found out at the end of the night, free parking in the garages after 5 pm. The Mayo Civic Center was your standard medium-sized town venue, much like the LaCrosse across the border. I was immediately glad I had chosen the general admission seats since the reserved ones seemed so far away and I felt close, only twelve people and a barricade separated me from the band.
I was close enough to see the slightly bemused smile Dylan wore throughout the night. Quite definitely not a smirk, it was the grin of a man having a genuinely good time. Dylan hasn’t played much if any guitar over the last five or more years, sticking exclusively to keyboards stage left or simply playing harmonica center stage. The new addition for this tour was the baby grand that he played half of the night’s songs at, which also provided the perfect pedestal for his Oscar which travels to every show with him. Appropriately enough, the winning song “Things Have Changed” was in the set. The piano isn’t as forgiving as the electric keyboards are, and I didn’t leave marveling at his ability to tickle the ivories, but it was still a nice touch. He did pull out the electric guitar for one track, a slightly garbled but still enjoyable “Simple Twist of Fate,” one of my top ten Dylan songs.
Usually a few days after seeing Dylan I check the set lists of the shows surrounding mine on the internet, something I probably shouldn’t do. I usually end up wishing I had been somewhere else. My show was likely just fine, “but look,” I would think, “he did (insert song here) in (insert city here).” Not this time. I couldn’t have been happier with the set list. He’d been doing “Simple Twist” every night, so that wasn’t as much a matter of luck, but “Love Minus Zero- No Limit” (another top ten) figured into the set early. “John Brown,” which meditates on the cost of war, has never been one of my favorites, but it was powerfully haunting tonight. I may have even gotten a little misty eyed. The silly “Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat” and the elegant “Visions of Johanna” were amazing. Of his relatively recent catalog “Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee” was a winner, and the danceable “Summer Days” was fun. My only criticism is that a couple of the newer blues songs, like “Spirit on the Mountain,” both live and on record, can become a little tedious. The monotonous “da da DA da” gets boring long before the song is over.
There are tracks that he plays at every show, “All Along the Watchtower” and “Like a Rolling Stone” top that list. And I’m OK with that. Most of the people there haven’t seen Dylan as many times as I have, and they want to hear those songs. I don’t necessarily need “Tangled Up in Blue” at every show, but I’m glad that the always enjoyable “Highway 61 Revisited” has become a regular. What he didn’t play was anything from his record Tempest slated to be released September 11. For any other artist that might seem unusual, but that’s what I expect from him.
Dylan looked great in his black suit and his always excellent band looked especially dapper in their matching grey suits (guitarist Charlie Sexton to the point of distraction). As much as I hate to drive anywhere these days (the Megabus doesn’t go to Rochester, yet), this show was totally worth it.