page by Bill Pagel
Review by Stephen Walter
The New Jersey Performing Arts Center is a drop-dead gorgeous venue, and I
have the fondest memories of Bob Dylan's first concert there in 1998. I
went in tonight with foolishly high expectations after what appears to
have been an extraordinary weekend run, and came out thoroughly chastened.
My response is less generous than the Times' Jon Pareles, I'm afraid; I
was surprised to find myself seated directly behind him, watching as he
worked up his Haggard review on his laptop before Dylan's set and then
took notes throughout. Yet I can't quite defer to the professionals on
this one. The setlist alone would have been disappointing after Boston,
I'll admit, but a better performance would have easily redeemed it.
Whereas most recent shows have been a mix of frustration and hope for me,
this one -- with the exception of a few standouts like a somberly dramatic
"John Brown" and a gently haunting "Shooting Star" -- just left me cold.
Blame it partly on the sound, I suppose; we had excellent twelfth-row
seats and the theater is known for its acoustics, but up here the mix
seemed terrible: overloud and fluctuating wildly, so that at one moment
you'd hear guitar and fiddle in pristine separation, while at the next,
one instrument would be ear-piercing and other wholly inaudible; finally,
everything would melt into a sludgy, impenetrable blob of sound and the
cycle would begin anew. A shame insofar as, from what I could hear, Denny
Freeman plays beautifully, laying down angular yet restrained solos like a
much more disciplined Koella, and the two young members bring a welcome
freshness and enthusiasm to the road-tested, and sometimes road-weary,
Unfortunately none of this could compensate for Dylan's generally weak and
noncommittal vocals, peppered with flubs, missed cues, and slurred lines.
A stark contrast to some of the fine performances I've heard from earlier
in the tour. I swear, with every new tour the microphone seems to be
positioned even lower; tonight, whenever he stooped to sing, he looked as
if he were bobbing for apples -- and coming up with a mouthful of briars.
"Thick and raspy" doesn't quite do it justice. More like thin and
At times he held his own, on "Under the Red Sky" for example, and on a
reasonably compelling "Masters of War"; but more often he either could not
or would not keep up with the band's rapid changes, as on a driving,
potentially exhilarating version of "Sweet Marie" ruined by mealy-mouthed
delivery. His singing on "Wheel's on Fire" and "Bye and Bye," among
others, was simply dire, unrelieved by harmonica work that was competent
at best, meandering and gratingly off-key at worst.
The quip about guitar-playing at the end, while funny, seemed to reflect a
latent tension, if not hostility, in the air. The natives are getting
restless, tired of seeing Dylan try to fade away into his own parade up
there, retreating on nights like this from bandleader to freeloader,
lazily riding the band's current of energy without contributing enough of
his own. Of course any such advice from the groundlings will only
strengthen his obstinacy, but since we've got nothing to lose, how about
calling out, "why don't you straighten up your mike and sing like a human
Here's hoping for better at the Beacon.
Review by Adam Dean
It was the venue that got me out of my house near Philly and onto the NJ
Turnpike for the cruise to that flower of the Garden State, Newark. Never
been too crazy about Jersey, thank you very much, but I had heard that the
NJPAC was a grand orchestra hall with incredible sound – and I was not
disappointed! Made the trip in just under 2 hours and hung out in the
sunshine until just before 7 PM when we went inside (unmolested by the
usual security you see at concerts in NJ) to catch the opening acts.
NJPAC is one of the finest concert venues I have ever been to – right up
there with Lincoln Center, The Academy Of Music (in Philly) or the Kimmel
Center (also Philly). The chairs are plush and comfortable, the sight
lines almost perfect from every seat, and the full rich sound rises from
the stage to bathe the listener’s ears, never harsh or dissonant. This was
one incredible place!
Enjoyed Amos Lee – he is from Philly and really seems to be finding his
voice during this national tour with Bob & Merle. His short set was well
received by the crowd.
Merle & The Strangers were really a trip back in time! The 8 musicians in
The Strangers were some of the more interesting faces you will ever see in
a band, they have seen some miles on the road! Merle has a great stage
presence and mixes up his set lists so that they are only playing a few of
the same songs every night – the crowd loved Unforgettable (one of the
repeats) and gave him a standing ovation after that song. Merle plays
country western (with an emphasis on western) and should not be
categorized with what is known as “country music” today.
Dylan played one of his Tuesday Night Specials – looking back through this
tour he has played the same set list the last 3 Tuesdays in a row (with
exception of Shooting Star) – but there is a strong message in this
Tuesday set, and it is anti-war! The combination of This Wheels On Fire,
John Brown, Under The Red Sky, and Masters Of War serve to remind the
audience that our country remains a country at war- songs written about
Vietnam have become even more poignant now that they are being sung about
First time hearing the new band, and I really enjoyed them. Elena was back
tonight, and her parts add to the fullness and richness of the sound of
this band. She didn’t seem lost (as some have commented) and played her
solo parts quite well, especially during Bye & Bye and Absolutely Sweet
Dylan’s message? He’s happy to be here, playing for us! He changed the
line in Lonesome Day Blues from “wish my father was still alive” to “I’m
just happy to be alive”.
Not the greatest show ever, but a good show and an awesome venue and worth
Review by Ali Veazy
This was the fourth show in five nights for me, as I had been to all three of the Boston shows.
I've now been to 23 shows since 1996, twelve of them just in the last year. I didn't think that
I would ever be able to relive the glories of the old Sexton-Campbell configuration, but these
guys are damned impressive. Elena (whom I hadn't seen before; she wasn't at the Boston shows)
played violin on every song, and Donnie Herron was on steel guitar for most of the set. Here's
1. Tombstone Blues. Nice rocking start to the evening.
2. I Remember You. A lovely version with harp.
3. Lonesome Day Blues. A great version of this song, which is usually one of the highlights for
me. Dylan even came out to the center for a harp solo.
4. This Wheel's on Fire. Instantly recognizable and nicely done. Another center harp solo.
Did I mention that Dylan was enunciating for most of the songs? I could understand almost
everything he sang (although not everything he said-see below).
5. Tweedle Dee. Truly great in this new arrangement with dueling guitar (Stu) and violin.
6. Watching the River Flow. A nice surprise for me, with beautiful solos from Elena, Donnie,
Denny Freeman, and a final harp solo in the center.
7. John Brown. Stu on acoustic, Donnie on banjo, Tony on upright (no harp, though). Nicely done.
8. Under the Red Sky. A great version of a song I didn't love before. This was gorgeous and had
lovely solos from Elena, Donnie on steel, Denny, and Stu. The starry sky backdrop on the back
wall of the stage was completely appropriate.
9. Highway 61. Very well done. Good but not great.
10. Bye and Bye. One of my least favorite live songs (I agree with Patrick Boyle's thoughts
from the Boston show), but Donnie broke out a second violin, Dylan was on harp, and the whole
thing was fine. Not a highlight by any means, but certainly not a yawn.
11. Absolutely Sweet Marie. Fantastic. Donnie stayed on the violin, which he even plucked at
one point, and the whole thing was stunning. Clearly one of my personal highlights of the week.
12. Masters of War. Electric (except for Tony on upright bass with bow) and great. Not usually
a favorite of mine, but this time around it was.
After they came back for the encore, somebody way up front yelled at Dylan to play a guitar, and
to my amazement he actually responded, "If you can play this, I'll play a guitar." He actually
said it with a half-grin; it didn't come across as nasty. (Incidentally, even though I was in
the second row center orchestra, with Dylan about 20 feet straight ahead of me, I could not tell
who made the comment.)
13. Shooting Star. Very nice, with another center harp solo.
14. Watchtower. Nice again. The violin is a welcome addition. Just before starting the song,
Dylan mumbled some comments, but I could not understand a thing he said.
These four shows have been some of the very best I've ever seen. If I'm counting correctly, they
did 50 different songs in these four shows. Amazing.
Review by Bret Faeder
After reading the reviews from Boston and in anticipation of hearing the
"new" band I got to Newark several hours before the show to soak up the
unique ambiance found there. I didn't want to hear famous Amos but Merle
was considerably better than the last time I saw him. Dylan, on the
otherhand had a subpar night. Uninspired setlist, overemphasis on the two
step shuffle (which can become tedious)and the band never really gelled
for my ears. Elana (?) is soft on the eyes but I was not overly impressed
with her playing. Highlight was John Brown. Tombstone opener was nice
but we got a "tweener" last night. Wish I'd gotten Beacon tix when I had
the chance. All artists produce work of varying quality - if nothing else
going to the show last night was paying homage to one of my favorites.
Tickets could have been a little cheaper though. Hope you all get a
better one next.
page by Bill Pagel
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