I had a chance to see Bob Dylan for a second time last night, in a fantastic show at Frost Amphitheater on Stanford’s campus. He’s still going strong, but you never know when he’ll give up touring for good: I’m definitely in “this could be the last chance!” mode, even more than I was for KISS when I was much younger and dumber. He’s one of the few artists that I think I’d get tickets for every time he comes back to town.
Yes, he’s a little harder to understand at times; the gravelly voice has only gotten gravelly-er. But darn if he and his tight band don’t put on a hell of a good show. And yes, the newest material is now from 2012’s ‘Tempest,’ a great album but one that’s seven years old. But the fact that he’s STILL rearranging every song so that it sounds different from the original has gotta be worth something. He’s legitimately working at this job, which has gotta impress even the staunchest of the “it’s just not like it used to be” moaners in the crowd.
Many of the alternate versions actually work great: “Not Dark Yet” was probably my favorite in the “wait, which song is this?” category. The song isn’t getting dark. It’s already there. I loved that one when I first heard it after buying a copy of the “Time Out of Mind” CD during my first year of teaching high school, back in 1997. I was 23. Dylan was 56. I’ve caught up a little. It’s such a powerful song and still resonates: the weirdly-timed pauses that the band throws in between Dylan growling “It’s not dark yet…” and “…but it’s gettin’ there” work beautifully. The song has actually sped up compared to the original, which isn’t always the case for revamped versions of old tunes, and the guitar lick is dark and foreboding. It’s fantastic.
Some of the arrangements do, of course, leave you sort of wishing you could hear him do the song the original way: “It Ain’t Me, Babe” is drastically different in an interesting but maybe not-quite-melodic way. I also remember hearing a version of “Tangled up in Blue” about seven or eight years ago that was just downright weird.
Still: who cares? You want the classics played the “right” way? Maybe go to a Beach Boys greatest hits revival instead. If you are going to a Dylan show in hopes of hearing him do “Like a Rolling Stone” exactly as-is on the album, you’ll be disappointed. First, because he’s not actually going to play it. But second, because even if he did, he’s doing a version that you wouldn’t recognize. And, for me, he’s earned the right to do just about whatever he wants: the fact that he’s still playing guitar and piano and harmonica and dancing around the stage while the band jams is worth every penny. The dude is almost 80.
It’s a little crazy to think that Dylan’s “new” stuff, starting with 1997’s amazing “Time Out of Mind” is now old enough to legally drink. He played four songs from that album and another four from “Tempest,” but also mixed in a fair number of the classics people expect/want to hear: “Highway ’61 Revisited,” “Girl from the North Country,” “Ballad of a Thin Man,” “Gotta Serve Somebody,” etc. An early-set version of “When I Paint my Masterpiece” was masterful. “Lenny Bruce,” from 1981’s “Shot of Love” was ridiculously good, and a song that Dylan hasn’t been playing at live shows for over a decade now.
The other expectation you have to put on hold is the one where you want Bob Dylan to regale the crowd with fun stories and political diatribes and hidden meanings behind the songs. Because he’s not going to do ANYTHING other than play music. One song after another, with very little break in between and zero banter. One time he said “Thank you!” and toward the end he took a minute to introduce the band, to rousing applause. Other than that, the only thing you’re getting in terms of interaction is the music itself. Do I want to hear what Bob has on his mind these days? Yeah, that would actually be cool. But do I care that all he wants to do is play great music? Nope.
The newly-revamped Frost is a great venue; the sound is excellent and the seating is as comfortable as you’d expect for being, you know, the ground. But the cool little concrete risers that fan out toward the top provide for a place to squat in relative comfort. I did find myself stretching out my cramped legs more and more often as the show went on, but I’m old now. That’s just a thing you do, I guess. I kept thinking if that old geezer on the stage could bounce around for two hours, I could certainly sit on a blanket without complaining. And at 45, I was happy to be in what I’m guessing was the youngest demographic represented at the show.
It took a while to snake our way into the venue but security was relatively smooth and there weren’t many lines at the concession stands. The $12 beer selection at Frost is pretty solid, although the $12 sandwiches are not great, particularly the veggie sandwich, which was…well…gross.
But we weren’t there for veggie sandwiches. We were there solely for Bob Dylan, and he was there solely to play music.
And he delivered.