Monday, November 23, 2009

Review of 3 Bob Dylan shows, United Palace Theatre, New York, November 2009

As is often the case during the American Fall, I found myself this week taking in a few U.S. Bob Dylan shows. Well, with the dollar so weak, and flights reasonable, it would have almost been reckless not to(!), so off I flew last Tuesday to New York.

This time, I was at the final three shows of what has become an already much celebrated tour, with Dylan finally playing most of the songs from his new album. This album, Together Through Life, is one of three he has released in the last year or so. The others having been both roundly ignored in concert, ie the Tell Tale Signs outtake collection, and the oh-so controversial Christmas in the Heart.

But this tour was notable for more than just new song premieres. Firstly, the return of Charlie Sexton to the band has added much more than I thought it would. I liked Denny Freeman, but Bob had all but stopped him playing in recent times, whereas Charlie has been given a much wider remit. Having said that, like all the best Dylan sidemen over the years, he knows when to hold back, and when to play a bit more, pending what his eccentric boss is up to. Also, one could argue Charlie is a better guitar player than he was 8 years ago.

The second development of note, is the return proper of Dylan to the centre of the stage. Having spent a few years hiding behind that keyboard, recent 2008/2009 tours have seen him dabbling with the front of the stage again, but this Fall, he seemed to throw caution to the wind, and is now playing 1-2 songs a night on guitar, plus another 4 or 5 right out front sans instrument, just Bob, his microphone stand, a lot of expressive (!) hand and arm gestures, and some exquisite harmonica.

The overall effect was both visual and musical. The visual, given Bob’s bizarre way of moving, his ever more elaborate suits, AND the hand gestures, seemed to combine in presenting a sort of Sinatra-esque demented cowboy appearance, but one which the crowd loved and responded to.

Musically, the lack of a keyboard or guitar on these songs, meant that Bob can concentrate on both his vocals and the audience, and his manner of achieving both certainly suggests an artist with a new found self-confidence.

And so, to the songs themselves. Where to start? Well, with show opener, Gonna Change My Way of Thinking, I suppose. A classic bluesy slab of gospel and a nice statement of intent from this reinvigorated band and artist, albeit he only plays it every 3rd show or so. And it’s always good to see him re-introduce songs from his Christian albums, especially in a venue that doubles as a Church.

The new songs are, to a man, very well performed. My favourite song on the album, I Feel a Change Coming on, is done very well, and the line about having ‘the blood of the land in my voice’ gets a good response. However, the most successful interpretation has got to be Forgetful Heart. Already fairly radically re-arranged (and it’s only out few months), this song is the first genuinely VERY slow, VERY quiet performance/arrangement we’ve had in a long time. Absolutely perfectly phrased, it’s true to say that even in a somewhat boisterous New York audience, you could hear a pin drop. Well, almost!

There were excellent performances too of things like Beyond Here Lies Nothing (fantastic to see and hear a trumpet in a live Bob Dylan band) and If You Ever go to Houston. Even songs that I thought were pretty mediocre on the album, such as It’s All Good and My Wife’s Hometown, were transformed in a live setting. And Jolene swings accordingly – a good choice for the mid encore song.

However, it’s not just the new songs that fare well. Virtually everything is good at the moment, a few dull moments notwithstanding (Ain’t Talking – I’m looking at you!) but I must especially single out Cold Irons Bound, Desolation Row, Workingman’s Blues (he puts in such a good vocal on this one that you wonder is it the same artist who is croaking his way around that Christmas album), and the current shows’ undisputed tour de force, the set closing Ballad of a Thin Man. Sung and performed with an intensity and passion, and at a perfect stately pace, that for me it topped any versions of this song, well, except 1966 I suppose. Worth googling on YouTube I suggest.

Overall, a really excellent tour, which it could be argued, saw some of the best shows since 2001. Or, if that's too controversial, I would at least say that 2009 was a good step up on 2008, with this Fall tour the year's best.

Before I sign off, a couple of quick points to mention – firstly, the venue, (the United Palace Theater up in Spanish Harlem) was stunning. Originally designed as an incredibly ornate 1920s movie theatre, it is now mainly used as a Church. Or the Church of Bob, as it transpired this week..

Secondly, a few of us went to Ray Davies the night after the Dylan shows. Ray was playing in the equally gorgeous New York Town Hall, a historic mid town venue. It was a good show, by an underrated songwriter who, for me, is pretty close to Dylan’s league. The most notable thing about this tour is the addition of a choir to the band, adding a fine extra dimension to all those classic Kinks songs.

Finally, the Dylan show on the 17th was a bit of a landmark for me, so thanks to Susan for the front row seat!

See everybody next year hopefully..