More Than Meets The Mogwai

Monday, November 03, 2008

"He's in a Cowboy Band": Bob Dylan in Concert, MTS Centre, November 2nd, 2008

The first time I saw Bob Dylan in concert was Summer 2002 at the Halifax Metro Centre in Nova Scotia. After some energetic introductory music (a bootleg of the show confirms what I’d always thought: it was Elmer Bernstein’s theme from THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN emanating from the speakers), Dylan strutted out center-stage to much applause with a guitar already strapped on, strumming the opening notes to The Stanley Brothers’ “I Am The Man, Thomas”. This cover became something of a constant opener with that leg of the so-called ‘Neverending Tour’, but I’d not yet heard it on any bootlegs, or knew of the song’s background: so, here I was, thirty seconds into the show, already thrown for a loop by lyrics of a number I couldn’t detect the name of, but blissfully unaware of the religious connotations of what was being said -- and glad to be hearing such a confidant, rousing chorus sung by the one performer I’d been looking forward to seeing live since my teenage years (which, now that I think about it, I guess I was still in). It was practically a chant from one of my heroes – strike that, the hero: “I Am The Man”, indeed.

A great show to be sure (“Blind Willie McTell” and a striking rendition of “Senor” were the highlights), it was hampered only by where I was sitting (and the incessant cloud of pot-smoke to my immediate left) -- on the main floor, but so far back in Row 30 with lights so dark that I could only detect the hard-lined shapes of the band on-stage. Still, Dylan performed with a guitar throughout (concluding the main set with an exploratory, emboldened “Drifter’s Escape”), and I feel privileged to have witnessed such a show in light of how much his performances have changed in recent years.

As for last night, I was sitting in a prime spot: second row on the floor of the MTS Centre here in Winnipeg, Manitoba, a hockey arena altered with bucket seats for big-ticket concerts like this one. When I was escorted to my seat, I took note that I was directly in line with Dylan’s keyboards, and quickly spotted the ubiquitous Oscar for “Times Have changed” standing on an amp. This was going to be something special, no matter what -- even if it turned out to be one of his dreadfully substandard shows, I was still part of a rapturous company reveling to be his audience for that evening, and, in addition, I was close enough to witness the minutiae of decisions being made and movements being worked out as Dylan toe-tapped around the stage (more on that later).

Dylan emerged from the wings right on time, and the band -- Tony Garnier on Bass, George Recile on Drums, Stu Kimball on Rhythm Guitar, Denny Freeman on Lead, and multi-instrumentalist Donnie Herron on whatever was needed for any given song -- erupted into the regular opener, “Rainy Day Women #12 and 35”. Up next was a curiously jaunty version of “The Times They Are A-Changin’”, which had everyone singing along, but it was the rollicking “The Levee’s Gonna Break” that first gripped me (beyond the immediate emotions of the realization that I was seeing Dylan so up close).

The opening strains for a quicker-paced “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” sounded a lot like “Mama, You’ve Been On My Mind” to these ears, but once the lyrics broke out, it was unmistakably nothing but this galvanizing (non-)love song from THE FREEWHEELIN’ BOB DYLAN. Upon realizing what it was, many of the younger members of the crowd in the first few rows cheered giddily, and it was heartening to see that the same Dylan tracks that drew me to his work still had their charms over new admirers.

With my gaze affixed centrally, all I could take in was Dylan’s profile, with Herron behind him on a pedal steel guitar. After about a minute into “Don’t Think Twice”, something or other malfunctioned on the keyboards, and a technician came out to assist; Dylan kept up with the number, walking over to the old-style microphone and crooning the next few stanzas (apparently something he’s been wont to do for recent shows). His slick, pointy-tipped shoes glided all the way there, and his small, sprightly frame called to mind Chaplin’s Little Tramp with its very deliberate movements (it’s not lost on me that the comparison’s been made elsewhere). At one point, he turned his back to Recile on Drums, and as his gold-striped pants were obfuscated momentarily, and the warm light stripped away the years, I had instant recall of photographs of the man in 1965, recording BRINGING IT ALL BACK HOME in a black suit (here, sans dark shades), unkempt hair poking out from the back of his white cowboy hat; ditto, later during “I Believe in You”, when an orange-y light played tricks on his face, removing the wrinkles and pencil-thin moustache enough to call to mind his younger self during any given decade. The facts are in: time has been kind.

A lighting effect came on that loosely resembled stars in the nighttime sky (after a very solid and assured “’Til I Fell In Love With You”), so I figured, out of left field, here would come “Shooting Star” -- but not so, logic was defied, and we were treated (and I, delighted) to hear a mid-tempo reworking of “Simple Twist of Fate”. Dylan’s reading came out in rushed spurts, but the clearly enunciated words rung out clearly, his raspy voice giving off a calming effect as opposed to the pained voice heard on BLOOD ON THE TRACKS. This was to be one of the major highlights.

A more faithful, if tricked-up, “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” was up next, with SLOW TRAIN COMING’s striking “I Believe in You” providing a respite from its transient whimsy. During “Mobile”, Dylan came out from his keyboards, strolled over to a guitar lying dormant in front of the drums, chewed tentatively on what must have been a hangnail -- unmistakably deep in contemplation. He returned to the keyboards, then back again, picking up the guitar to finish the song off properly, roaring through a few chords before placing it on its back. (I couldn’t help but instinctually clap, my motor functions seemingly already engaged before my brain had told them to act.)

Literal gasps cascaded over the audience as “Desolation Row” was recognized (I think most, like myself, were expecting either a number from LOVE AND THEFT or MODERN TIMES to be interjected here, after the three old favorites). The starkness continued with “Blind Willie McTell”, two chilly, foreboding evocations in a row that were performed with pitch-perfect acuity (I’ll be excited to hear a bootleg of this concert to compare the two “McTell”’s I’ve seen live; right now, the 2002 Halifax version has a slight edge for its even barer, slower-paced performance.)

“Summer Days” offered up playful nostalgia, and Dylan, once again, emerged from the back of his keyboards, while “Nettie Moore” (exempting “Workingman’s Blues #2”, my favorite track from MODERN TIMES) carried forth in all of its tender glory (the Oh, I Miss You Nettie Moore /And My Happiness is O’er lines can’t help but cut to the bone). (Incidentally, this was my girlfriend’s favorite number all night -- ruined only slightly by the patrons to her left who decided to spark on their bright cell phones and check for missed calls!)

“Highway 61 Revisited” exploded out in all of its forthrightness as the true electric number of the evening, while “Ain’t Talkin’” cooled things down a notch, almost occupying a code of honor for its singer. Here, the mystical lyricism Dylan employs can’t help but captivate, and it’s a song that gains ingrained meaning when performed live, much like “Tangled Up in Blue” and the lines: But Me, I’m Still on the Road / Headin’ for Another Joint.

“Thunder on the Mountain” and two crowd-pleasing encores later (his anthem: “Like a Rolling Stone”, and an electrified tip of the hat to Hendrix’s cover of his own “All Along the Watchtower”) and Dylan left the stage, the band trailing behind him, his Oscar still beaming brightly amidst cacophonous applause.

So, was it an exemplary show or something in-between? Defiantly something in-between, with Dylan not exactly on auto-pilot, but only really showing brief glimmers of innovativeness in the reworkings of songs from his legendary oeuvre. While plunking on his keyboards, briefly strumming the guitar, or howling through his harmonica, Dylan never fails to impress, and his selection for which to employ those instruments last night caught on fire rarely, but modestly blazed throughout. The fire in his performative soul has not gone out, and I doubt that it ever really will.