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Dave Van Ronk interview, Jan. 21, 1999

January 21, 1999 interview by

Dave Van Ronk Eighth Step Coffeehouse Jan. 1999
Dave Van Ronk Eighth Step Coffeehouse Jan. 1999
We spoke with Dave Van Ronk the day before he was to perform at the Eighth Step Coffeehouse in Albany, NY. After congratulating him on receiving ASCAP’S Lifetime Achievement Award, we mentioned that Ramblin’ Jack Elliott had been honored recently at the White House. Typically, Dave was ready with an anecdote:

“Yeah, at the reception he tried to convince Clinton to sneak off and come with him to a Dylan concert. Bobby was in DC giving a concert that night, and Jack was trying to get Clinton to ditch his secret service and come with him to the concert.”

the importance of teaching to Dave Van Ronk

You give the lie to the adage that “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” You’ve been a teacher your entire career; how has teaching affected your career as an artist?

“You can’t teach without learning. The first thing you have to do when you start teaching is to organize what you know. In the course of organizing what you know into a coherent body, you discover that you know alot more than you thought you thought you did.

“Also, you discover gaps and holes which you can set about filling. So, in systematizing what you’ve picked up here and there and in fragmented ways – incorporating it into a coherent whole – you learn a great deal.

“And students are a stimulus. I’ve had students sort of gang up on me, and get me to work out this or that or the other piece, pieces I wouldn’t have done. And in one or two cases, things have subsequently become mainstays of my repertoire.

“For example, the Entertainer – the classic rag, which I was just reviewing with a student this week. Much more than just a useful performance piece, as it turned out, it became a seminal piece in learning more and more about how to play guitar in drop-D-tuning.

“In terms of spinoffs, that led to possibly ten or fifteen different arrangements. And that was because 2 or 3 of my students wanted to learn how to play the piece. Initially, I didn’t want to work that out – it seemed to me like a great deal of work for a very, very small gain. I was wrong. Things like that are constantly happening.”

Dave Van Ronk moved from jazz to blues

You began your career as a jazz musician; how did your move to the folk scene come about?

“My committment to jazz also led, on the side, to listen to country blues. And since I was already playin the guitar – I had a guitar in my hand – I wanted to figure out how people like john Hurt and Lemon Jefferson did what they did. To begin with, it was a side-line. Most of what I was actively performing was working in the rhythm section of a traditional jazz band.”

“As the folk music revival gained momentum in the mid-50s, my emphasis gradually shifted, so that by 54-55 or 55-56, I was primarily working as a solo entertainer.”
Dave’s musical education

Would you call yourself self-taught?

“To a certain extent. I studied jazz guitar with a man named Jack Norton in Queens in the early 50s. I learned a great deal from him. Then in the mid-50s I met Rev. Gary Davis, although at that point I had learned to finger-pick, sort-of, with an assist from Tom Paley. So I could do some finger-picking already when I met Gary Davis, and I learned a great deal from him, too.”

His brilliant songwriting in addition to his great muicianship?

“Very much so.”

Cocaine Blues, Rev. Gary Davis, Jackson Browne

At a recent Tanglewood concert, Jackson Browne talked about Rev. Gary Davis.

“Jackson recorded Cocaine Blues and he thought it was mine when he learned it. Eight months after he recorded it, he came down to catch me at aclub in Los Angeles. He came back to the dressing room and he said, “You know, I recorded that song of your’s “Cocaine Blues,” and I’d like to know where do I send the royalties?”

“So I said, ‘What you do, is you send them to Rev. Gary Davis’ estate and you get out of here, unless you want to see a grown man cry.'”

Dave Van Ronk’s advice to a young musician today

If you were to addressing the young up-and-coming singer/songwriter, What would you say to someone who wants to go on to have a 50 year career?

“The way you have a career is by doing it – you just have to keep on performing, any possible pretext. The main problem people have now is there are so many performers, and so few places to work it’s very hard to It takes a very long time for a performer to get enough stage experience to be knowledgeable about stagecraft.

“That’s the one thing you can’t practice at home; you can practice singing and you an practice the guitar all by yourself. But the only way you can practice stagecraft is on the stage witha n audience.

“It takes a long time the way things are set up currently for a young performer to get that experience. So the main thing that you have to do is to find every possible excuse to get on that stage.

Dave Van Ronk recommends the Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music

What record would you recommend to someone wanting to learn folk music?

The Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music“The Harry Smith anthology, that’s where you start, there is no better collection of American traditional music anywhere. It cost a lot but there’s alot of music too – 80 or 90 cuts on that anthology. Familiarity with that will take you a long way.”

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Bob Dylan concert review – Pittsfield, MA August 26, 2006

Aug. 26, 2006; concert review by

Bob Dylan Show poster Wahconah Park PittsfieldBob Dylan delivered as even and as excellent a show as you could imagine Saturday night at Wahconah Park in Pittsfield, MA; it felt like this was a big deal for him rather than another run through a list of old songs in front of a mass of faceless people in another nameless town. It was a remarkable performance of a predictable setlist; he’s done so many shows that I’m sure this list was predicted by someone’s software program.

Here’s how it broke down chronologically: middle, early, recent, early, early, recent, early, early, early, recent, early, recent, early, early.

Mr. Dylan’s voice rang clear over a rocking rendition of “Cat’s in the Well,” getting the show off to a fast start at 9:00, setting a tight, energized tone that would carry throughout the hour and three quarters show. Following a day off, the band were playing their tenth show in two weeks on this leg of the Never-EndingTour – they were in perfect sync, seeming eager to do the jobs they’ve got so much time, talent, and soul invested in.

No need for me to rank this lineup among the various ones I’ve seen dating back to 1975, here’s what Dylan himself told Rolling Stone about them last week: “This is the best band I’ve ever been in, I’ve ever had, man for man. When you play with guys a hundred times a year, you know what you can and can’t do, what they’re good at, whether you want ’em there.”

In the same interview, he decried the state of music recording in these modern times, which thinking may account for the inclusion in tonight’s setlist of two songs that came out of his 1967 Big Pink jam sessions in nearby Saugerties, NY with the Hawks (soon to be renamed The Band), “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” in the second spot, and, in the the eleventh, “I Shall Be Released.”

The former could serve as a template for the whole set: really clear vocals from Dylan, his keyboard fairly high in the mix, and a solid harmonica coda (which, coincidentally, brought the huge diamond ring on his left hand to everybody’s attention), and notably tasty pedal steel licks from Donny Herron, as every song had at least one star turn from the band.

Herron and guitarist Denny Freeman each had several, always augmented by the brilliance of the rhythm section. There were exciting elements to the arrangements throughout. For instance, the fourth number, “Just Like a Woman,” opened with something of a duet between Herron’s pedal steel and Dylan’s organ and closed with Herron echoing Dylan’s harp. In between were sweet, sublime solos by Freeman and the audience’s filling the gaps left by Dylan for them to sing “just like a woman” before he did.

Vocal highlights included “Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum,” which sounded way better than we’d heard before. We may have been too quick to dismiss it earlier because of the silly name and its surface cartoonishness, but upon further reflection, it may be on a par with the mid-60s’ ballads in terms of substance, only that went unrecognized because his later song writing style is spare where it once was florid. Anyway, Dylan sang it with relish, the band played it with flair, and now I’m wondering what Christopher Ricks thinks about it!

The soloing Freeman did on the next song, “Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again,” was apparently a highlight for Dylan because it had him wiggling his eyebrows and waggling his tail, simple gestures that become hilarious when done by this most stoical performer. A very cool reading of “Million Miles” came next, sounding more like the official recorded version than any song on the set list.

Having called the setlist predictable earlier, we ought note now that that doesn’t imply inferior, because any setlist that has “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” and “Desolation Row” back to back is a good one. And what a great time to lay those gems side by side, with truly rejeuvenating and re-revealing arrangements inspired by how charged-up Dylan is these days and having these cats in his band.

The setup for “Don’t Think Twice…” was semi-acoustic, with Tony Garnier laying down a hypnotic, pulsing beat on the double bass over which Freeman and Dylan interwove juiced-up melodic lines against which the lyric bounced. (There were times tonight when Dylan’s keyboard emerged from the mix just enough to remind one of Al Kooper.) The song ended with a hot solo by Freeman giving way to a cool one on harp by Dylan.

Best rendition of Desolation Row

The arrangement of “Desolation Row” was simply spectacular – it was a sound ballet. There was luscious acoustic work between Garnier and Freeman, laying down swinging, jazzy lines and then doubling them. Geroge Recile was all over his drum kit, making thunder and great brassy noise. And Herron pinned down every phrase of Dylan’s with hot rivets of electric mandolin; a wicked cool effect.

By now these guys have got it all going on, they’re deep in a glorious groove, loosed from the bonds of gravity. Eight songs down and six to go. Dylan had a blast singing “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight;” a purely playful number, a delightful interlude before the freighted “Cold Irons Bound,” another one off Time Out of Mind. Tonight it had a crazy feel to it, dictated by Recile who crafted a beat that sounded somewhat martial and/or reminiscent of a score from an old detective movie.

We’d been listening to Time Out of Mind alot lately and are coming to think that it merits placement in the upper echelon of Dylan albums, alongside Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde, and Blood on theTracks. It differs from those in its literary sensibility and is less complex musically, but it is so audibly affable that frequent listening starts to reveal subtle profundities – and isn’t that what we’re in search of, after all?

The other Big Pink number “I Shall Be Released,” notable for the interplay between Freeman and Herron, set the stage for the set closing “Summer Days,” which first we loved and then grew tired of, and tonight got a whole new appreciation for, as it was done, as everything tonight was done, in Watermelon Sugar.

The stage went dark for a couple minutes before Dylan and his Band returned for the first encore, “Like A Rolling Stone,” a great celebratory rave-up that featured Herron’s steel guitar riffs sounding like Al Kooper’s Hammond B3 on the original recording.

Dylan then responded to the riotous applause with “Thank yahhh, I’d like to introduce my band …”

The show ended with “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35;” despite a longtime predilection for a variety of stoning substances, this has always been among my least favorite songs, but, tonight – you guessed it…totally fuggin awesome!

Everybody just got goofy, including Dylan, who had Recile cracking up on L.A.R.S. and who, himself, was cracking up on the closer, doing his little boogie-in-place and exhorting the fans on the rail. A swell night it was in Wahconah Park.

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August 26, 2006 setlist: All song lyrics available on: bobdylan.com

1. Cat’s in the Well (Under the Red Sky, 1990)
2. You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere (1967, First release: Greatest Hits Vol. 2, 1971)
3. Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum (Love and Theft, 2001)
4. Just Like A Woman (Blonde on Blonde,1966)
5. Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again (Blonde on Blonde,1966
6. Million Miles (Time Out Of Mind, 1997)
7. Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right (The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan,1963)
8. Desolation Row (Highway 61 Revisited, 1965)
9. I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight (John Wesley Harding,1967)
10. Cold Irons Bound (Time Out Of Mind, 1997)
11. I Shall Be Released (1967, First release: Greatest Hits Vol. 2, 1971)
12. Summer Days (Love and Theft ’01)
(encore)
13. Like A Rolling Stone (Highway 61 Revisited 1965)
14. Rainy Day Women #12 & 35 (Blonde on Blonde,1966)

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Bob Dylan concert review – Wahconah Park, Pittsfield, MA June 23, 2005

June 23, 2005; concert review by

The setlist for Bob Dylan’s June 23 concert in Pittsfield’s worn green wooden Wahconah Park (built in 1919) was old, with 9 songs from 1967 and earlier, and the playing was more jazz blues than blues rock, reflecting the presence of newcomers Denny Freeman (guitar) and Donny Herron (steel guitars, banjo, fiddle, mandolin), who joined Dylan’s band in March 2005. Bob Dylan at Amazon.com

Together with lead guitarist Stu Kimball (joined June 2004), their leads and solos, rooted in a raft of genres, provided apt accompaniment to Mr. Dylan, whose singing was strong and varied, whose keyboard playing was high in the mix, and whose center stage harmonica solos included some that made him resemble a wooing suitor.

Knowing Bob Dylan’s lyrics is not a requirement to enjoying his shows, but it’ll give you a leg up. The best way to learn them is to listen to the albums. You’re not going to learn them at the shows, where they take on an extra-literal dimension, with Dylan often treating lines of lyric as if they were strings on a guitar.

A big, broad rendition of “Drifter’s Escape” (John Wesley Harding ’67) that gave everybody in the band time to get limber was the opener, followed by “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” which had the band laying low while Dylan sang, intoned, and crooned the beatnik-crazy lyric all the way down to the penultimate stanza,

“Now all the authorities
They just stand around and boast
How they blackmailed the sergeant-at-arms
Into leaving his post
And picking up Angel who
Just arrived here from the coast
Who looked so fine at first
But left looking just like a ghost”

after which Herron let loose a wailing steel guitar riff that sent the band off on a rollicking ride that Dylan finally whistled to a stop with a center stage bended-knee harmonica coda.

That was the first of three songs from Highway 61 Revisited (August 1965) and the next on this setlist comes from Bringing It All Back Home (April, 1965), a rendition of “It’s All Right, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” that was worth the price of admission all by itself. While the band took their stellar turns weaving the melody and waxing the groove, Dylan kept his focus square on the audience, leaning over the keyboard to deliver the song that contains the line that always gets a loud response, “But even the president of the United States/Sometimes must have/To stand naked.”

Bass player and musical director Tony Garnier and drummer George Recile underpin the whole operation with masterly playing, adding accents, embellishment, and punctuation in all the right spots. Garnier, a fellow Minnisotan, has been on Dylan’s Never-Ending Tour since its second year, 1989; Recile, from New Orleans, has been Dylan’s drummer since 2001 (which frequently, but not tonight, requires being the object of Dylan’s silly dumb-drummer jokes).

An interesting bit of business at the Pittsfield concert was Garnier reaching up and slapping one of Recile’s cymbals, to signal the start of “Chimes of Freedom,” from the 1964 album Another Side of Bob Dylan, which, in a multi-layered acoustic rendition, was one of the show’s most affecting numbers.

What a piece of writing that song is! From the opening lines,

“Far between sundown’s finish an’ midnight’s broken toll
We ducked inside the doorway, thunder crashing…

to the closing verse,

“Tolling for the aching ones whose wounds cannot be nursed
For the countless confused, accused, misused, strung-out ones an’ worse.”

The first of 2 encores came from that album, too, “It Ain’t Me, Babe,” Dylan opening and closing it on harmonica. The Turtles had a huge hit with it in 1965, and the genius of Dylan the composer can be glimpsed by scanning the range of artists who have covered the song: Hugo Montenegro, Nancy Sinatra, Flatt & Scruggs, Sebastian Cabot, Glenn Campbell, The Mike Curb Congregation, Duane Eddy, and Johnny Cash, to name just a few!

The only song that didn’t seem to work this night was the set-closing “Summer Days,” (Love and Theft ’01) which sounded earnest but fatigued. The other 2 songs from Highway 61 Revisited were the title song, given a thundering reading an hour into the show and “Like A Rolling Stone,” the grand finale, the song so grand it has its own biography! (Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads, by Griel Marcus)

See also? our story about Bob Dylan’s performance as Joan Baez’s unannounced guest at her 1963 Pittsfield Boy’s Club concert.

June 23, 2005 setlist: All song lyrics available on: bobdylan.com.

1. Drifter’s Escape (John Wesley Harding ’67)
2. Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues (Highway 61 Revisited ’65)
3. It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding) (Bringing It All Back Home ’65)
4. Moonlight (Love and Theft ’01)
5. Down Along The Cove (John Wesley Harding ’67)
6. Girl Of The North Country (acoustic) (The Freewheelin Bob Dylan ’63)
7. High Water (For Charley Patton) (Love and Theft ’01)
8. Every Grain Of Sand (ShotOfLove ’81)
9. Highway 61 Revisited (Highway 61 Revisited ’65)
10. Blind Willie McTell (The Bootleg Series, Vols. 1-3 ’91(recorded ’83))
11. Chimes Of Freedom (Another Side of Bob Dylan ’64)
12. Summer Days (Love and Theft ’01)
(encore)
13. It Ain’t Me, Babe (Another Side of Bob Dylan ’64)
14. Like A Rolling Stone (Highway 61 Revisited ’65)

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Bob Dylan concert review, Newport Folk Festival, Aug. 3, 2002

Aug. 3, 2002; concert review by

With his highly anticipated return to the Newport Folk Festival, Bob Dylan presented his audience not with a musical masterpiece nor any acknowledgment that this was a special gig, but rather the silly sight of himself wearing a wig that could have been styled by ex-congressman Jim Traficant.

Was this an indication that Mr. Dylan has a new cause to champion, having found something redeeming about Traficant unseen by the public and the press? Or was it just a goof to see how much palaver the wig (and fake beard) will generate in the media and elsewhere, his Newport ’65 performance having established the gold standard for much ado about nothing much?

Bob Dylan at 2002 Newport Folk Festival concert review by Dave Conlin Read
Bob Dylan at 2002 Newport Folk Festival concert review by Dave Conlin Read

The setlist itself was a highlight, including “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” “Desolation Row,” “Positively 4th Street,” and “The Wicked Messenger;” plus two of the five songs he played here in 1965, “Like A Rolling Stone” and “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Anyone looking for special significance could sift through those lyrics, playful, querulous, and redolent as they are, cut and paste a bit, and posit “Dylan’s nod to Newport.”

The Newport ’65 story percolated along through the decades without Dylan’s input, got a big boost after the recent death of Alan Lomax, and culminated Saturday on the op-ed page of the New York Times with a piece by festival founder George Wein. Our 2 cents worth: If Mr. Lomax and Pete Seeger had been more polite and composed that day, we probably would have been spared the hysterical story that wouldn’t die.

So unless there’s some significance to the applied hair, for Dylan it was just another gig on his “never-ending tour,” rather than his triumphal return to the Newport Folk Festival.

Indeed, his seemed to be an extra-festival set, as before he came onstage the Apple and Eve Newport Fok Festival backdrop was removed and the press area near the stage was evacuated.

Today’s was a typically generous 2 hour show of 19 songs, the second gig after a 12 week touring hiatus, which left an overall impression of being under-rehearsed. It lacked the seamless brilliance of last November’s tour finale in Boston, which was a masterpiece.

Bob Dylan at 2002 Newport Folk Festival concert review by Dave Conlin Read
Bob Dylan at 2002 Newport Folk Festival concert review by Dave Conlin Read

That his setlists are built around songs written decades ago is testament to the fact that what Dylan created then is as fresh and welcome today as a sea breeze. But over the past several years, he has displayed a genius for performance, adding to his own incomparable song catalogue the works of other artists, blending the old and the new, his songs and others,’ cool costumes, crazy choreography, grimaces and grins, to present concerts that amount to fresh pieces of art.

Today, however, there were only artful segments, such as the electric, rollicking “Summer Days,” which followed the acoustic “Mr. Tambourine Man.” On the latter, Dylan’s delivery seemed narrational, which may have seemed apt to him as his audience at that moment actually was “…Silhouetted by the sea” and if not exactly “…circled by the circus sands,” then surely circled by the carnival tents of falafel and t-shirt vendors.

After a swig of water and strapping on his Stratocaster, Dylan then cut loose on a searing rendition of “Summer Days,” nodding his head and looking quizzically at his flanking guitar mates, Charlie Sexton and Larry Campbell. This is an infectiously swinging tune, with a wild pastiche of lyrics, including an excerpt from The Great Gatsby, “She says, “You can’t repeat the past.” I say, “You can’t? What do you mean, you can’t? Of course you can.””

Bob Dylan at 2002 Newport Folk Festival concert review by Dave Conlin Read
Bob Dylan at 2002 Newport Folk Festival concert review by Dave Conlin Read

Bob Dylan has never seemed interested in repeating the past; and it doesn’t seem likely there’ll be a repeat of all the Newport ’65 malarkey in the wake of Dylan Newport ’02. One thing for certain about it: there were no boos, but there were plenty of fruit juice.

Setlist (thanks to Bill Pagel at BobLinks):

1. Roving Gambler (acoustic)
2. The Times They Are A-Changin’ (acoustic) (Larry on cittern)
3. Desolation Row (acoustic)
4. Mama, You Been On My Mind (acoustic) (Bob on harp)
5. Down In The Flood
6. Positively 4th Street
7. Subterranean Homesick Blues (Larry on slide guitar)
8. Cry A While (Larry on slide guitar)
9. Girl Of The North Country (acoustic) (Bob on harp)
10. Tangled Up In Blue (acoustic) (Bob on harp)
11. Mr. Tambourine Man (acoustic)
12. Summer Days (Tony on standup bass)
13. You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere (Larry on pedal steel)
14. The Wicked Messenger (Bob on harp)
15. Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat

(encore)
16. Not Fade Away
17. Like A Rolling Stone
18. Blowin’ In The Wind (acoustic)
19. All Along The Watchtower

the now-obsolete Trafficant reference

From Representative Traficant’s final speech in the House of Representatives. Shortly after this speech, the House voted 420 to 1 to expel Traficant. Congressional Record, 24 July 2002, pages H5385–H5392.

“Am I different? Yeah. Have I changed my pants? No. Deep down my colleagues know they want to wear wider bottoms; they are just not secure enough to do it. I do wear skinny ties. Yeah, wide ties make me look heavier than I am and I am heavy enough.

Do I do my hair with a weed whacker? I admit.” ^ return top.

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Bob Dylan concert review – Boston, Nov. 24, 2001

Nov. 24, 2001 concert review by

Decked out in a sparkling white suit, Bob Dylan took the stage of Boston’s Fleet Center at 8:15 on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, bounding up to the mic on the balls of his feet, and laid into Hank Williams’ Wait For the light to Shine, beginning a 2½ hour concert that closed the first “Love and Theft” leg of his never-ending tour.

Including six songs from the already-gold “Love and Theft” mixed in with “standards” that are older than many of the 14,000+ in attendance, it was a memorable performance – displaying many facets of Dylan’s genius: poet, composer, guitar slinger, talent scout, vocalist, and nimble-footed knee-waggler.

The opener had a playful feel to it and was followed by It Ain’t Me, Babe, begun a capella and then laid against the quiet sound of acoustic guitars and bass with rhythmic highlights from drummer David Kemper’s brushwork. Dylan delivered the verses without much variation, saving his emphasis for the refrains.

Coming to the end of the lyric, he fairly barked out a “babe” full of derision, but then repeated the last lines in a melodious fashion, tip-toed backwards to get his harmonica and light-footed it back to the mic where he delivered a coda almost on bended knee.

Next, on A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall, the band provided an expansive musical meadow, flowered by Larry Campbell’s bouzouki, for Dylan to romp through giving voice to this lyric that is remarkable for so many reasons, not the least of which is that he wrote it when he was barely out of his teens.

The replies to “Oh, where have you been…?, Oh, what did you see…?, Oh, what did you hear…?, Oh, who did you meet…?,” were variously recited, chanted, and intoned. The song’s final question, “Oh, what’ll you do now…?” was answered in exhortation, Dylan adding a syllable-full of angst at the end – “yea-as, it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.”

Another cover song, the plaintive Searching for a Soldier’s Grave, featuring vocal harmonies and Campbell’s mandolin playing, was followed by the first song from “Love and Theft,” Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum, a hugely fun rollicking tune jammed full of little aural treats.

The band was back-lighted on this number and the lighting played a role on the next tune, too, helping to show that the essence of Just Like a Woman, which has no trouble standing alone on the printed page as an integral work of art, lays in just a few simple notes, which convey effortlessly all the bittersweet emotion that is spelled out in the lyric.

Focusing on the dozen or so notes of the jaunty, descending melodic hook (which follows “…But you break just like a little girl” on the original recording) – the stage lights went down while Dylan repeated the melody a few times, then back up for another run through, now augmented by Campbell’s pedal steel guitar.

It was on this number, too, that Dylan threw all his dance moves into the performance. Almost always facing the audience, he’d move up to and away from the mic, using little hopping steps on the balls of his feet – like he didn’t want his footsteps to be heard. Was he being furtive? Coming like a thief in the night?

Having the new Lonesome Day Blues follow that newly-revealed old chestnut was felicitous; it is straight forward and all-of-a-piece, driven by a hypnotic rhythm overlaid with some nifty guitar-slinging. The sound is very heavy and the lyric, which appears to be linear, contains this perplexing juxtaposition:

“Well, I’m forty miles from the mill I’m dropping it into overdrive,
I’m forty miles from the mill I’m dropping it into overdrive,
Set my dial on the radio I wish my mother was still alive.

I seen ya loverman coming, coming across the barren fields,
I see ya loverman coming, coming across the barren fields,
He’s not a gentleman at all, he’s rotten to the core, he’s a coward and he steals.”

Also new, Highwater (for Charley Patton) came next, begun with Dylan racing through the opening lines before the band joined in, led by Campbell on banjo. The music built up and around the lyric, which is full of direct references and a variety of allusions. The performance had something of a tribal feeling to it, and the ad hoc Fleet Center tribe responded with big hand-thunder.

Next, it was back into acoustic mode for Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right, another gem mined decades ago, back during the Kennedy administration, three years before Bobby Orr became the darling of all Bostonians, and two years before the folk mafia wigged-out down the highway at the Newport Folk Festival. (review of Dylan at Newport, August 3, 2002)

Appearing like a youngster on stage tonight, like he’s having way more fun than anybody else in town, just how could Dylan have been so old so long ago that he knew so well how to handle heartbreak? Or did he just know how to write about it – writing a prescription and dosing himself with each performance?

To expand the medicinal metaphor, Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right, offers physical therapy too, by way of finger-picking, and Dylan, Campbell, and Charlie Sexton all cut loose for quite a display of acoustic wizardry, continuing to pluck away for a couple minutes after the song’s closing lines.

Next was John Brown from the MTV Unplugged record, with Campbell on bouzouki again, followed by a spirited acoustic Tangled Up in Blue, with royal red lights flooding the arena, then two more new songs, the jook-joint feeling Summer Days with Tony Garnier spinning his upright bass and then the lugubrious Sugar Baby. And before the set-ending Rainy Day Women #12 & 35, they played a southern-rock styled The Wicked Messenger, which Dylan wrapped up with a little harmonica riff.

Like a Rolling Stone came after Things Have Changed, and tonight’s performance was another sweet-hot rocker that flowed freely, dis-encumbered of the barnacles of a thousand trips. That party piece was followed by the psalm, Forever Young, tonight given a transcendent reading with beautiful vocal harmonies, and then the new Honest With Me, featuring Campbell’s slide guitar licks, a song that would’ve fit nicely on the 1965 album “Highway 61 Revisited.”

Then, after a disguised introduction, Blowin’ in the Wind got a spirited playing with the band adding vocal harmonies on the refrain. Dylan and his band plugged in again for All Along the Watchtower, invoking the spirit of Jimi Hendrix with plenty of stellar guitar riffs and runs. Roy Orbison was brought to mind too, when Dylan mimiced his Pretty Woman growl on the penultimate line “Outside in the distance a wildcat did growl…”

Before the stage went dark again, Dylan held his guitar up in front of his face and bowed slightly. A moment later, over the din in the dark arena, we heard the band humming the chorus of Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door, followed soon by the cleanly enunciated: “Mama, take this badge off of me/ I can’t use it anymore./It’s gettin’ dark, too dark for me to see/I feel like I’m knockin’ on heaven’s door.”

And so, on the Saturday after Thanksgiving 2001, good ole’ Bob Dylan came to the Hub of the universe, acting like he’d copped more than just a moniker from Dylan Thomas, who wrote this Note to his “Collected Poems”:

“These poems, with all their crudities, doubts, and confusions, are written for the love of Man and in praise of God, and I’d be a damn’ fool if they weren’t.”

Setlist (thanks to Bill Pagel at BobLinks):

1. Wait For The Light To Shine (acoustic) (Larry on mandolin) (song by Fred Rose)
2. It Ain’t Me, Babe (acoustic) (Bob on harp)
3. A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall (acoustic) (Larry on bouzouki)
4. Searching For A Soldier’s Grave (acoustic) (Larry on mandolin)
(song by Johnnie Wright, Jim Anglin and Jack Anglin)
5. Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum
6. Just Like A Woman (Larry on pedal steel)
7. Lonesome Day Blues
8. High Water (For Charley Patton) (Larry on banjo)
9. Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right (acoustic)
10. John Brown (acoustic) (Larry on bouzouki)
11. Tangled Up In Blue (acoustic)
12. Summer Days (Tony on standup bass)
13. Sugar Baby (Tony on standup bass)
14. The Wicked Messenger (Bob on harp)
15. Rainy Day Women #12 & 35 (Larry on steel guitar)

(encore)
16. Things Have Changed
17. Like A Rolling Stone
18. Forever Young (acoustic)
19. Honest With Me (Larry on slide guitar)
20. Blowin’ In The Wind (acoustic)
21. All Along The Watchtower
22. Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door (acoustic)

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Bob Dylan concert review – Saratoga, NY Aug. 17, 2008

Aug. 17, 2008; concert review by

Bob Dylan concert Aug. 17, 2008 at SPACDesolation Row, that crazy poem, is perhaps the most thoroughly satisfying song in all of Bob Dylan’s songbook. It was first released in 1965 on Highway 61 Revisted and that studio version seems to be a perfectly realized work of art. You’re hooked from the opening lines; Dylan’s quiet, clean guitar introducing a melody that within seconds has you expecting something, it feels ominous, and you are swept along by the ambling bass.

The sound is so compelling that you don’t notice how nutty the lyric is; rather the neatly-knit lines drown one’s sensibility with slug after slug of sensual imagery.

By the time we’re half-way through the song, by the fifth verse, not only have we been introduced to an improbable cast of characters, including:

  • the blind commissioner,
  • the tight-rope walker,
  • the riot squad,
  • Cinderella,
  • Romeo,
  • the hunchback of Notre Dame,
  • Cain,
  • Abel,
  • the Good Samaritan,
  • Ophelia,
  • Noah,
  • and Einstein,

but Dylan’s singing has become a mnemonic pattern buttressed by his own insistent guitar strumming that lopes along atop rumbling waves of bass notes, all accented by sweet little mandolin-sounding riffs that lurk just beneath the surface.

I am confident that if I awoke some day totally ignorant of the English language, I still could be amazed by the power and beauty of Desolation Row.

Most of the tricks in the poet’s bag are designed to get your attention; after all he has given you a piece of his art and left you alone to ponder it.

Bob Dylan is not limited to the poet’s bag. They’ve got onomotopaeia, synechtoche, rhyme, meter, and consonance, etc. Bob Dylan’s got all that PLUS a fantastic collection of fancy western hats and suits and a half-dozen musicians on retainer so that it seems natural for him to give a hundred shows a year where he presents fifteen or sixteen of his songs, some of which could stand alone on the page and have a poem’s way with you.

And if you’re a faithful fan, sometimes you get lucky and catch such a show as the one August 17, 2008 at Saratoga Performing Arts Center. Sometimes wildly lucky, like you’ve been singled out as a special beneficiary.

I’d been anticipating the trip to SPAC all the rainy Berkshires’ summer and that morning rifled through my collection to find the CD with a dozen versions of Desolation Row bootlegged by anonymous BobCats accross the decades. Couldn’t find it.

If memory were a better friend than it is, I could’ve retreived a few versions I’ve been present for: last June at Pines Theatre in Northampton, or the summer before at Wahconah Park in Pittsfield, or even 2002 at Newport.

Perhaps it was his cognizance of the fickleness of memory that impelled Bob Dylan to give the unforgettable Desolation Row the reading he did at Saratoga. It began familiar enough, in the fourth slot of a setlist that already contained a stunning rendition of It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue, another song from 1965 that hardly ever gets performed.

To digress just a bit, hearing … Baby Blue recalled the comment 2 hours earlier by Glen Hansard of the Swell Season who enthused about being on a bill with Bob Dylan, one of his personal Holy Trinity along with Leonard Cohen and Van Morrison. The connection is that one of my favorite Dylan covers is the one of Baby Blue done by Van Morrison and Them.

So Dylan and his superb band get in to a bright and lively Desolation Row, have the audience bobbing and weaving along, when, way before the time the door-knob broke, he suddenly morphs into a nursery school teacher and starts singing the song as clearly as he can in a melodic yet metronomic manner.

I got the feeling that, although there was affection for the audience, it was colored not a little by frustration that they’re not quite ready for the show.

The beautiful thing of it is that you can get an idea of how this version sounded by listening to the original studio cut. On it, each verse has two places where the lyric gets special emphasis, in the middle and at the end, where it changes from narrative to exhortation.

At this show, after following that pattern for the first five verses, Dylan goes for all exhortation (and also repeats a few couplets, intentionally or not).

This is his genius, to fashion fresh art on the spot, to the delight of old fans who now can feel more assured as well as to new ones, who would not think, to look at him, that he was famous long ago…

P.S. At SPAC, that was Donnie Herron playing electric mandolin (not violin)!

Setlist (thanks to Bill Pagel at BobLinks):

1. Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat (Bob on keyboard)
2. It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue (Bob on keyboard)
3. Rollin’ And Tumblin’ (Bob on keyboard, Donnie on electric mandolin)
4. Desolation Row (Bob on keyboard and harp, Donnie on electric mandolin)
5. Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again (Bob on keyboard and harp)
6. Million Miles (Bob on keyboard and harp)
7. Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine) (Bob on keyboard)
8. Highway 61 Revisited (Bob on keyboard)
9. I Believe In You (Bob on keyboard)
10. It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding) (Bob on keyboard, Donnie on banjo)
11. When The Deal Goes Down (Bob on keyboard)
12. Thunder On The Moutain (Bob on keyboard)
13. Ballad Of A Thin Man (Bob on keyboard and harp)
(encore)
14. Like A Rolling Stone (Bob on keyboard)
15. Blowin’ In The Wind (Bob on keyboard and harp, Donnie on violin)

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Bob Dylan concert review – Troy, NY Feb. 22, 1999

Feb. 22, 1999; concert review by

The concert Bob Dylan gave at R.P.I.’s Houston Fieldhouse in Troy, NY was the best of the eight that I’ve attended (except for the two Rolling Thunder Revue shows I attended in 1975), for three reasons: the singing, the set list, the musicianship. Thanks to the never-ending tour, gone is the overwhemling BIG DEAL aspect of a concert of his, so that you’re able to just focus on the show, rather than remain dumb-struck at the prospect of being in the same room with the demigod from Hibbing.

After opening the show with Gotta Serve Somebody and Million Miles, and one of Dylan’s few remarks to the audience “Thanks everybody, that was a song called Million Miles,” the band raced into a hot, fast Maggie’s Farm. As he would throughout the night, Dylan picked lines, phrases and other fragments from the song, and almost turned them into micro-songs, making them stand apart, and seem like something brand new.

This is a trick available only to Dylan, because a phrase like “but she says she’s twenty-four,” bland by itself, begins to take on motto status when Dylan croons it out over the frenetic, jangling rock ‘n roll song that set the tone for the gig. Despite the immense energy of the number, the band and Dylan remained almost stoic all through it. The contrast between the aural and the ocular experience was sharp.

Tears of Rage was given the full melancholic treatment, in the most positive sense, and again the Dylan effect: making trite lines like “what kind of love is this/it goes from bad to worse” seem elegaic. The sidemen harmonized nicely, but I was clear-headed enough to notice that the harmonies weren’t coming from Manuel, Danko, Helms, and Hudson.

Whatever wistfulness lingered was blown away by Silvio, which I hadn’t realized was such a great tune. The three guys with guitars huddled together a few times, as if spraying the audience with bullets, and Dylan added several grimace-notes with his face.

Masters of War was the coup de grace. The appearance and demeanor was of the quintessential, cool, professional musicans giving the people their money’s worth, without getting too excited about the whole thing, because it’s just another day’s work. But thanks to the material and Dylan’s deliberate delivery, the effect was stunning.

Other bright spots: Tangled up in Blue, done in Dylan’s best imitation-Dylan voice; The Times They Are a-Changin given an almost martial introduction; Dylan’s footwork – a little Fred Astaire, a little Marcel Marceau; another riposte: “Everybody’s been too kind – you really are too kind”; brilliant, throbbing Highway 61 Revisited; the two closing songs, Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right, and Not Fade Away, sent everybody home refreshed in the knowledge that rock ‘n roll is all about romance, nothing more, nothing less.

Setlist (thanks to Bill Pagel at BobLinks):

  • 1.Gotta Serve Somebody
  • 2.Million Miles
  • 3.Maggie’s Farm
  • 4.Tears Of Rage
  • 5.Silvio
  • 6.Masters Of War (acoustic)
  • 7.Boots Of Spanish Leather (acoustic)
  • 8.Tangled Up In Blue (acoustic)
  • 9.The Times They Are A-Changin’ (acoustic)
  • 10.Cold Irons Bound
  • 11.I Shall Be Released
  • 12.Highway 61 Revisited (encore)
  • 13.Love Sick
  • 14.To Be Alone With You
  • 15.Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right (acoustic)
  • 16.Not Fade Away
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Doc Watson at the Mahaiwe Theatre, Gt. Barrington, MA

March 30, 2002 concert review by

Doc Watson set up shop on the stage of the Mahaiwe Theatre the night before Easter and delivered a generous dose of good music, wry humor, and tender insight to a sell-out audience. It was a bravura performance by the 79 year old Hall of Famer, memorable almost as much for his talking as for his nonpareil flat-picking and singing.

Doc Watson does more than give a performance; he becomes your companion along the way, stepping aside for a moment during a song to alert you to what’s coming up in the next verse. And although much of the between-tunes patter has been been said a thousand times, some of it comes across with a freshness and intimacy that makes you feel as if he’s sharing an insight with you for the first time. Doc’s bag tonight contained the expected range of songs from Jimmy Rodgers, Merle Haggard, Homer and Jethro, Flatt and Scruggs, et al, but he also brought along a few single doses from an unusual mix of sources: Tim Hardin, George Gershwin, and the Moody Blues.

His introduction to a fresh and heartfelt rendition of Hardin’s If I Were a Carpenter left off with the remark, “He must’ve really loved her.” Gershwin’s Summtime was given a jazzy reading and came just before Haggard’s Working Man Blues, which Doc introduced by talking about his blindness.

After averring that he had done work harder than “pickin this ole guitar,” he said that he had had “a persecution complex about my handicap for a long time,” but that he one day came to accept it – “the Lord said you need a handicap to calm you down.”

Doc’s introduction to the Moody Blues’ Nights in White Satin was as sweet and poignant as “patter” gets; addressing the “young gals and young fellas” in the audience, he talked about feeling so much in love with someone “you can’t hardly breathe” and knowing circumstances will keep you apart.

Doc Watson concert March 2002 Mahaiwe Theatre Gt. Barrington, MA; photo Dave Conlin Read
Doc Watson concert March 2002 Mahaiwe Theatre Gt. Barrington, MA; photo Dave Conlin Read

Treating songs like he does, selecting ones whose meanings set them apart and taking care to see that his audience is ready to hear them, shows Doc Watson to be more than merely a guitar virtuoso. He’s a remarkable man, a pretty energetic one to boot: he played two full hour-long sets, joined for half of each set by his grandson Richard (Merle’s son) and Jack Lawrence, alternately. They each took turns on the lead in their duets with Doc, and Lawrence featured a few numbers from his own CDs.

The Beartown Mountain Ramblers warmed up the capacity audience with an entertaining sampler of traditional Bluegrass. True to the essence of the genre, their performance was marked by crisp, restrained, brief solos that blended together seamlessly. They were dressed like New England gentlemen, and somehow managed to project a feeling that a bit of slapstick was imminent.

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Blind Boys of Alabama & Holmes Brothers at the Mahaiwe PAC

February 10, 2002 performance; by Dave Read

The Holmes Brothers
The Holmes Brothers, Photo: Kurt "Doc" Huot
The Blind Boys of Alabama and The Holmes Brothers inaugurated the W.E.B. DuBois concert series with thrilling shows in the Mahaiwe Theatre on February 10, 2002. Whether or not the town of Great Barrington ever decides to embrace the memory of its native son DuBois, it owes kudos to Club Helsinki for producing a concert that moved the town to the epicenter of the Gospel and Rhythm and Blues world, if only for one evening. NB: Blind Boys of Alabama on the Mahaiwe’s March 2012 schedule.)

When you enter the Mahaiwe, the slick of modernity slips away and you’re in a place with no straight lines, no shiny surfaces, almost no separation between the performing space and the audience. It’s small enough for whispers, but big enough to hold a whole lotta music; and it has electricity too, which was put to good use by The Holmes Brothers, three masterful blues rockers whose express purpose is to “make a joyful noise to the rock of their salvation.”

Led by Wendell Holmes’s raspy ecstatic vocals and fanciful electric piano, kicked along by the sharp drumming of Popsy Dixon and throbbing bass of Sherman Holmes, who also harmonize to such effect that you’re thinking there must be a choir offstage, the Holmes Brothers opened with King Jesus Will Roll All Burdens Away, setting the tone for an evening of music that would reach unimaginable heights.

That song was one of several they played from “Speaking in Tongues,” widely regarded as one of the best albums of 2001. After three numbers at the keyboard, Wendell played electric guita the rest of the way, delivering a little country twang, some straight ahead rock, and some searing, eccentric riffs of his own creation.

On the third tune, “one from our youth, called “Precious Lord,” Popsy Dixon stepped away from his drumkit, donned his sports jacket, and took the vocal lead with a haunting voice and a penetrating gaze.

Wendell’s big brother Sherman also contributed nicely to the verbal mix in addition to maintaining a tastefully varied electric pulse throughout, especially on “Thank You Jesus,” where he and Wendell swapped lines back and forth.

The oddest thing of the night was that during intermission, while the Holmes Brothers were mingling and signing autographs in the crowded lobby, I was rueing the fate of the group that had to follow such an exciting and satisfying set. I soon learned though, that relative to a performance by the Blind Boys of Alabama, there is no opening act, everything theretofore is prologue.

Mahaiwe PAC schedules concert by the Blind Boys of Alabama
Mahaiwe PAC schedules concert by the Blind Boys of Alabama
Their performance centered on their latest release, the Grammy-nominated “Spirit of the Century.” “Run On For a Long Time” was the energetic opener, with leader Clarence Fountain belting out the verses and the others harmonizing on the chorus over a driving rhythm section. About sixty minutes later, Fountain introduced the a capella finale: “One mo’- one mo’- the Rolling Stones cut it, but it wasn’t a Rolling Stones song, it’s my song. Listen as I tell you… ‘This May Be The Last Time’…”

Fountain was an entertaining leader throughout, displaying an impish side when he would rise from his usual seated position, shrug his jacket off one shoulder, put his hand on his hip and mimic an Elvis move or two. He delighted in mentioning Great Barrington, Massachusetts, and reminded the audience to watch the group on the upcoming Grammy telecast. Introducing one number, he said, “I didn’t come all the way from Alabama looking for Jesus, I brought Him along.”

twenty minutes of ecstatic singing

The most stunning part of this astounding concert was Jimmy Carter’s twenty minutes of ecstatic singing, testifying, and witnessing among the audience, having been guided down from the stage by one of the sighted band members. It was a breathtaking, spellbinding performance by Carter, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Lateshow bandleader Paul Shaffer. His facial expressions showed the range of human emotions and his singing included holding a single note for what seemed to be as long as some entire pop tunes.

Meanwhile, the other Blind Boys were fully engaged with him in their own vocal ecstasy and the band was rocking ever more fervently, and loud enough to get the attention of sinners many miles away. Another highlight was the group’s Amazing Grace, set to the tune of House of the Rising Sun. (The popular arrangement of House of the Rising Sun has been credited to Dave Van Ronk, who passed away the day of this concert. Here is our 1999interview with Dave Van Ronk.)

The evening began with a presentation in celebration of the life and work of Great Barrington native W.E.B. DuBois by children from the Jubilee School of Philadelphia, an alternative community school that grew out of a neighborhood reading program. In addition to reading their own tributes and poems, as well as some Langston Hughes poetry, the students talked about their own social studies research project; DuBois is recognized as a founder of sociology for his study of urban blacks in Philadelphia in 1896 and 1897. The children ended their presentation with a stirring rendition of Amazing Grace.