A spry, playful Dylan gives a masterful performance in San Franisco
When Bob Dylan & His Band strode onto the stage at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, the audience wasn’t quite sure what to expect. After all, this was Dylan, who can be notoriously spotty live. As a veteran of many a stop on The Never Ending Tour (now in its 24th straight year), I knew not to get my hopes up — I’ve seen some true clunkers over the past two decades. On the other hand, I’ve also been fortunate to witness several soul-scorching shows that transported the band and the audience to a higher plane of existence.
Where would tonight’s concert fall on the Dylan continuum?
As the band kicked into a rollicking version of “Watching the River Flow,” there was cause for optimism. For starters, Charlie Sexton is back in the band. Not only is he one of the greatest guitarists on the planet, fluent in every genre of American music, but he was born to play guitar with Bob Dylan — the two share a telepathic connection that allows them to anticipate and build on each others’ musical explorations. In addition, Dylan’s voice — which in recent years had gone from a raspy growl to a throaty croak — appeared to be in serviceable shape. Plus, this is San Francisco — surely The Bard had fond memories of the City by the Bay from the 60s that he’d want to channel into a kick-ass rock show.
As the band powered through a haunting version of 1989’s “Man in the Long Black Coat,” then segued into “Things Have Changed,” with Dylan emerging from behind the organ to step out front, it became clear that we were in for something special. As the band was forming a tight (yet jaunty and loose) blues groove behind him, Dylan shape-shifted into a sultry carnival barker, tempting the audience to follow him into his tent of mystery where dark, steamy secrets awaited. Ever the trickster figure, Dylan crooned knowingly through a sly smile, assuring us that “I feel like falling in love with the first woman I meet / putting her in a wheelbarrow and wheeling her down the street.” But even amidst the playfulness, shadows loom: we’re reminded that “there’s a lot of water under the bridge / lot of other stuff too” and in the final analysis, “all the truth in the world adds up to one big lie.”
Dylan’s done enough shows to know that he now had the audience — a blend of aging Boomers, curious hipsters, parents with their kids, and even three (!) black guys — entranced. As he and the band kicked into a muscular version off “Tangled Up in Blue” from 1974’s Blood on the Tracks, the crowd chanted along with every word as if reciting sacred scripture. His voice had loosened up completely, and compared to the beginning of the show, now sounded thick as honey (albeit honey poured over shards of glass). Things took off from there, as the band launched into live staples like “Highway 61 Revisited,” “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Thunder On the Mountain” in which he grinned as he bragged that “I been to St. Herman’s Church and I’ve said my religious vows / I’ve sucked the milk out of a thousand cows.”
Oh mercy — Dylan actually appears to be having, dare I say it… fun! And the band was smiling and laughing along as well because they knew they were lighting the place on fire with their blend of Delta blues, ragtime, Texas swing, and R&B. Before long, Bob was back out front, playing soulful, note-perfect harmonica and dancing. Yes, Bob Dylan danced on the stage in San Francisco!
This was Dylan the Jester, throwing himself into the joy of the moment. During “Ballad of a Thin Man,” he was at his most animated, interspersing some Jagger like moves with the sweeping arm gestures of a prosecutor during his public indictment of the song’s main character. There was “something happening” all right. And while Mr. Jones “don’t know what it is,” the audience in the Civic Auditorium — which by now was completely engulfed in a medical marijuana haze — certainly did.
The show ended with “All Along the Watchtower,” which even after performing it live 2,027 times (according to www.hisbobness.info), he still seems to enjoy playing. He came back out to encore with a roadhouse version of “Blowin’ in the Wind” then stood on the front of the stage with the band, basking in the adulation of the crowd.
As he peered out into the audience, he nodded in appreciation and savored the moment, seeming to acknowledge that at 71 years of age, The Never Ending Tour can’t go on forever.
Then something happened: Bob Dylan smiled. Not ironically, but knowingly. It was a smile that seemed to suggest that despite the inevitability of mortality, there are moments in life that are eternal. Indeed, as he sang earlier in the evening during “Visions of Johanna”: “the all-night girls” still “whisper of escapades out on the D-train” and the lights will always “flicker from the opposite loft / in this room the heat pipes just cough / the country music station plays soft / but there’s nothing, really nothing, to turn off…”