Bob Dylan, Madison Square Garden, NYC- 11/13
About halfway through Bob Dylan's show at Madison Square Garden November 13 Dylan started to kibitz with the audience about an episode backstage before his gig at the Garden two nights earlier.
In his inimitable mumble Dylan mentioned how he was hanging with Al Gore, thank you very much, when he was about to be introduced to "Oh, I don't know, some talk show host. I forget his name." The teenager sitting next to me yelled out "Conan" [O' Brien]. Indeed, on his show the night before the "Late Late Show" host excitedly relayed the story about being backstage, all stoked up to meet Dylan, when, distracted by an overly chatty Gore, he was unable to exchange hellos with Dylan, who was quickly whisked away. Dylan went on to say "the same thing happened tonight so that's why we started late." The conversation was cryptic but for Dylan downright Dickensian, since he normally doesn't say boo in between tunes.
That's because Dylan (bless his heart) communicates strictly through his songs, as this show amply testified. Similar to the show I saw in Phoenix earlier in the tour he delivered most every song with a steely, almost frightening conviction. There were generous doses of wonderfully unrecognizable musical arrangements that morph into the familiar; lyrics that combine lacerating Jewish wit with the longings of a Hank Williams melody, tales of regret and rebirth, and a musical rawness that Dylan has alarmingly maintained for more than 40 years, give or take a decade.
With Dylan on piano the show opened with a fiery "Seeing the Real You at Last" from the woefully underrated Empire Burlesque album (1985). Revisiting the oft-theme of romance gone to wreck Dylan spit and snarled out, Well, I’m gonna quit this baby talk now/I guess I should have known/I got troubles, I think maybe you got troubles/I think maybe we’d better leave each other alone. At the previous Garden show Dylan premiered "Yea, Heavy and a Bottle of Bread," from the seminal Basement Tapes collection, in the second slot, and I held my breath for another such gem —- there would be nobody to peel me off my seat were he to break into "Clothes Line Saga" — but instead he backed into a sluggish version of Van Morrison's "Carrying A Torch," arguably the evening's lowlight.
However, the band started to flex its musical muscle with a snaky "Tombstone Blues," as the cockroaches were — not coincidentally — ironed out of the soundboard, followed by a honky-tonk inspired "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere" anchored by Larry Cambells' twangy slide guitar. In what has become this tour's anthem the band played a rousing version of the Rolling Stones' "Brown Sugar" although Bob seemed to disappoint when he deferred the "Yea Yea" harmonies to guitarists Larry Campbell and Charlie Sexton.
As always, Dylan served up an evening of haunting contrasts. A whispery, hopeful "Forever Young" followed by a pitch black "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" with the timeless stanza, Old lady judges watch people in pairs/Limited in sex, they dare/ To push fake morals, insult and stare/While money doesn't talk, it swears/Obscenity, who really cares
Propaganda, all is phony. The sweet, bouncy "One Too Many Mornings" was followed by the blistering "Cold Irons Bound" while the Carny-like "Honest with Me" melded into an acoustic and countrified "The Times They Are A-Changin.'" Throughout the show Sexton shined, whether laying down Chet Atkins-like licks during "The Times…." or doing his best Robby Krieger during "High Water" later in the evening. Sexton, of course, has solid company in Campbell, who dexterously switched from acoustic to electric guitar to pedal steel guitar to mandolin the entire show; Tony Garnier with a thick backbeat and George Receli rocking steady on drums.
The show's beauty was in its musical build, and, as always, the potential for surprise or at the least, the idea of surprise, which, with Dylan, is good enough. During "Shelter from the Storm," for example, the band lathered up a distinct tease from "The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest" from the John Wesley Harding album, Dylan's best according to some afficionados. By the time the band got to the reckless "Summer Days " to close the show, the stage was pure molten. "Summer Days" was straight-up Electric Dixieland.
Dylan encored, as he's been doing most every night recently, with "Blowing in the Wind" and a jagged, barn-burning "All Along the Watchtower." A hush then came over the Garden crowd, and the spotlight appeared on Dylan, who said he was gong to London after he finishes up the tour in the States to play at a tribute concert for the late George Harrison. He plunked a few keys and then, almost embarrassingly, said he wanted to "play this because George and I were such close buddies." The band then broke into "Something" from the Beatles' Abbey Road album, which Frank Sinatra said was the best love song ever written. The musical interpretation wasn't quite there it was choppy and uneven but it didn't matter. There was enough sincerity there to float everybody home on a cloud nine of joy.