April 30, 2015
Review by James Sullivan
When I planned this road trip I'm glad I chose Memphis as part of it. The
Orpheum Theater is a beautiful venue that had me staring at the ceiling
before the show. They sure don't build them like that anymore. Just the
right type of place for Bob and the band to play. The lighting, back drops
and sound were right on the money. Bob and his band are one well oiled
machine. Can't do a song by song review but I do find Bob fascinating to
watch when he's center stage and Love Sick, Forgetful Heart, Long And
Wasted Years and Autumn Leaves were wonderful. Back at the piano for Soon
After Midnight was my favorite of them all tonight. Perfect just the way
it was done. Just an all around great show and I'm thankful for my freedom
to be able to get up and go. Happiness sometimes is a state of mind and
tomorrow I will cross the state line. On to Thackerville.
Review by Frances Downing Hunter
Well, here it is in all its redundant glory. You know the old saying, "If I'd had
more time, I could have made it shorter."
"The stiff brocades of fame"
Bob Dylan's Never Ending Tour at Memphis's Orpheum Theater April 30, 2015
"Never cross my path with robes and draw the lightning
Never-only the gods deserve the pomps of honor
And the stiff brocades of fame.
Give me the tributes of a man
And not a god, a little earth to walk on
Not this gorgeous work." (Aeschylus, The Agamemnon, lines 430-437.)
Agamemnon's words were false. They did not measure up to his actions, but
on Thursday night, Bob Dylan's performance was honest beyond words. That
night at the downtown Memphis Orpheum Theater, sandwiched between
Beale Street and the Mississippi River, I witnessed a performance that split the
veil and provided a glimpse of paradise. It's like Dylan was saying "It's All Good"
and meaning it, no irony intended. I would characterize the performance as
abounding in grace, that grace that comes from self- acceptance and ends
separation as he had made his peace with a ragged old world and moved to
a Zen like detachment. The wrath, the anger, the bitter edge: nowhere to
be found. Musically every song was embraced by a plaintive distant blues
swaddled in velvet jazz. Dylan didn't step on the purple carpets, but his set
director streamed them fifty feet down from the stage ceiling and billowed
them across the side and back walls. The set was almost as much a part of
the performance as the set list itself. And Dylan, the elf man in boots of
Spanish leather was "a colossus who strove with gods." As he once said,
"All I know is, I'm doing God's work," and that night, he was. The universe
gave him a new voice, a fine voice, laced with forgiveness.
The restored Orpheum Theater is a jewel box, the jewel in the city's crown
where 5000 people turn out to fill the house for a Sunday afternoon
performance. And she never looked more beautiful. The stage set--with wall
hangings of stiff taffeta, strong satin, and festooning silk ruched in strong yet
subtle tones of mocha, chocolate, taupe, steel gray, ancient and edgy and
modern-- enhanced the Orpheum's elegance and brought a radiance to the
stage as exotic and mystical as a sultan's temple, as flamboyant as a Moroccan
bazaar. Like a beautiful opera diva, those gorgeous curtains did a costume
change with every song. Dylan, on the other hand, wore his gaucho suit,
pencil moustache, and straw hat throughout the performance, but it and he
were as elegant as the drapes. And all the trappings were rewarded. There
was not an empty seat in the house
I'm listening now to a band outside my window prepare for tonight's Memphis
in May performance as a giant six sectioned barge trudges slowly up river. I
remember a few years ago at Memphis in May, Dylan's performance stage was
shoved so far back from the center of things that, had the lower bluff not
been there, you could have splashed your feet in the river. Not so Thursday
night. It was Hannibal and his elephants marching through Gaul.
The set list included:
1. "Things have Changed"
2. "She Belongs to Me"
3. "Beyond Here Lies Nothing"
4. "Workingman's Blues"
5. "Duquesne Whistle"*
6. "Waiting for You"
7. "Pay in Blood"*
8. "Tangled up in Blue"
9. "Love Sick"
10. "High Water (for Charley Parton)" a song he always does when he comes
to Memphis, but the other night, it was a happy flood.
"I'm gonna take a little break, but we'll be right back," he said in a soft woo
pitching voice announcing intermission. And kind and melodiously generous
was the theme of the evening, from the soft billowing drapes to the jazzy
signature on every tune and the peerless love songs. "I'm a jazz man," he's
often said, and tonight he proved it once again.
11. "Simple Twist of Fate"
12. "Early Roman Kings"*
13. "Forgetful Heart"
14. "Spirit on the Water" (God knows there is one, and she's no "Old Man").
15. "Scarlet Town"*
16. "Soon after Midnight"*
17. "Long and Wasted Years"*(The six asterisked songs are from Tempest).
18. "Autumn Leaves" ( a cover of an Yves Montand version).
19. "Blowing in the Wind" ( encore).
20. "Stay with Me" ( a cover of Frank Sinatra's version so filled with gospel
urgency, I wept ,heeding the altar call and ready to convert were I not
already a disciple).
That magic night, I felt that I was witnessing creation on the spot, and it
was spot on. But some people in the audience weren't having any of it. I
over- heard one man in the parking lot after the concert say to his much
younger audience of three, "There was a time I knew every song he did
three bars in." His voice slurred like he might have been in three bars before
the concert. "Tonight the song was half over before I recognized "Blowing
in the Wind. What's the man smoking?" He wizened skin looked as if he
might have toked a hit or two before he arrived. He looked like one of
those who had never moved on past the green joy juice of Rainy Day
Women's creation. No matter how much Dylan has pleaded: "I'm not there,
" the sixties he was never part of have dogged him like a blood hound.
Twenty five years ago, after a Dylan concert in Macon. Georgia, I felt the
same way as the aging hippy. I couldn't sing along with anything on the set
list and was resentful of all the teenagers on his trail who applauded Dylan
and followed him through every creative twist and turn. They weren't
married to "Blowing in the Wind" done the sixties way. And Thursday night
it was done with love and theft. I'm speaking literally. It was as if a grid of
lightly plaintive blues was overlaid with soft, joyful jazz, the sounds that
characterize Love and Theft .Thursday night the new musical score was
gently placed over the lyrics of Tempest to replace or enhance the sand
papered sheets of the original music. On the cutting edge, the performance
held no cutting edges in any song. A benign, detachment, a universal
harmony hung over every song and reinformed its meaning. Great art is a
mirror of where we find ourselves at any given moment in our lives, and
Dylan's lyrics reflect our every face. When he has gone, we will not see his
like again-maybe for centuries.
I was much impressed with the early twenties couple from Little Rock who
sat beside us and were driving back home for two hours after the concert
ended. I asked: "How'd you get to be a Dylan fan?"
"I bought an old album at a flea market," she said.
"Yeah, he said. It was "Bringing it all Back Home."
"How'd you like it?"
"Well, I played it over and over. I think it took a couple of years before I finally
got it. Then I explained it to her. We've been fans ever since."
I wanted to offer them a bed for the night, bring them back home with me,
but I didn't, and I was off the good Samaritan hook when they both said
that they had to work Friday morning.
I was least impressed with the over fifty spiked blonde who sat in front of me
until intermission. It's been a long time since I've seen smoke wafting above
in an indoor arena. My view improved considerably when she disappeared
after intermission. I surmised that she went "one toke over the line" and
either had to go home or was asked to.
The academic crowd, the dean of the downtown cathedral, who speaks
Dylan from the pulpit, he and his wife were there. A cotton broker from east
Memphis and his wife, several of my present and former students, and overall,
an everyman looking crowd-- grayer than the Memphis in May group down by
the river-- made up most of the audience.
As to the voice itself, rich with detached nuance and vibrato, it has traveled
a long way over choppy water from 2012's shipwrecked and ratchet sounding
Tempest. Where did it come from? It may have been left under Dylan's pillow
the night before by the tooth fairy, but I prefer to think it's a gift for giving
up all the old habits and attitudes that tie us to earth and keep our spirits
The persona Dylan presented to that crowd that night was as lofty and
luxurious as those damned drapes I can't get out of my head. In the first
song, they were opened to medieval arches, old Europe, North Africa. Bokhara
rugs and gypsy carts all free associated in the mind like a Dylan song before the
song even begins. The only beggars at the gate were the audience, who like
Oliver Twist of his porridge, asked "Could I please have some more?"
The audience was reminded of Dylan's own lifelong association with world
history and literature and art and theater. We moved through the night from
Moroccan arches to Roman arches shot through with strobes of white light
embraced by arras of purple in "Early Roman Kings," a song sung as detached
and humorously as a Phil Harris version of Ding Dong Daddy from Dumas." I
keep coming back to Tempest because Dylan included six songs from it in the
set list of twenty. Some critics say that Tempest is the best album Dylan has
done in years. Having listened to it fifty times, I think so too, but, after hearing
Thursday night's performance, I would rerecord it underpinned by the softer,
gentler music of Love and Theft.
In this newest version, the upbeat tempo of "Duquesne Whistle," emerges
from a background set of black drapes and golden street lamps, like an empty
train station at midnight. But this is no death train. This whistle stop is a happy
place to hop on for a fun ride. The anticipatory joy of adventure is captured
and not released until the next stop. "Soon after Midnight" too is embraced by
shimmering black drapes and oozes the romance that only great guitar music
can bring. "Long and Wasted Years" was sung with rue, but not resentment.
The set of steel gray taffeta, rigid and still, may have conveyed a different
impression. But everything with Dylan is ambiguous, isn't it? Otherwise, we
heard a forgiving "Scarlet Town" and a benevolent version of "Pay in Blood."
This tempest is not set on the high seas, but is lost and found again in the
gentle melody of "Mississippi" which Dylan did not play except in every song.
Throughout the performance, Agamemnon's hubris was nowhere present.
Dylan appeared humble and grateful. He said in Chronicles that he never played
music for himself. " I only come alive on the stage playing with and for others,"
I gently paraphrase since I'm working from memory, both because I'm in a
hurry and because Chronicles is not blessed with an index. Please forgive as
well my lack of attention to some of the individual songs. My performance
notes were made in deep purple dark with a snub nosed pencil on the backs
and later, in my exuberance, on the fronts of our printed out ticket sheets.
Unintentionally, I wrote over my original indecipherable hand scrawl two or
three times. The result was something like retrieving Sanskrit off temple walls,
so neither memory nor notes have held up enough for me to mention on
what songs Dylan played guitar or piano or harmonica, but he was lovely on
all of them.
The tight, tight band of three guitars, drums, a bass, and maybe a saxophone
in the background stage right, never missed a beat. (I thought I'd tuck in
one last cliché before I quit. No, wait. I have more coming up). And now I
offer up the last words in my feeble defense: I'm an English teacher, not a
musician, and a deep Dylan fan, not a music critic. I have studied interior
design, and I do love drapes, here passed off as elegant symbols.Shamelessly,
I'm one of those outliers who sees Dylan as the postmodern world's
Shakespeare and Tempest, as his belated response to The Tempest. We
must remember always that even Aristotle thought set design a major part
of stagecraft. And everything was stagecraft in an evening of high
Grand design, the universal kind, is Dylan's chess move here. He must have
dumped the last of his personal garbage in his Music Cares speech at the
Grammys. (Merle Haggard's "I've always loved you Bobby" response was so
gracious), and he's moved on again, shape shifting into the man he has aged
into but no longer masked nor anonymous. His humble honesty rocks the
stage, and he is vulnerable before his fans and the universe. He's out there
exposed, making art on the spot.
Reconciliation has occurred. The spirit in the water has reunited with his
Gemini twin. The elegant elf man has entered a new age of grace and
self- acceptance. The moon may be blue, and an Egyptian ring may yet
decode more things, but he knows that the muse, moon goddess Diana has
come to stay. There are no abandonment issues here. Unlike the Suzes and
the Saras and the others, she will go the distance, in this world or the next.
The Never Ending Tour will never end. I" m not there" because he's
everywhere and always will be, and his gift to us is his music, not himself.
And we have no right to demand it.
Lest anyone might yet think that Dylan suffers from the arrogance of
Agamemnon, I'm including the lyrics from the concert's final song, a Frank
Sinatra cover of "Stay with Me" from The Cardinal. Dylan's pleading version
makes me tear up every time I hear or read it. He knows that "genie" originally
meant gift, and that its derivative, "genius" is also a gift. For Dylan, human ego
is powerless without the blessing of the god of creation and the muses of
poetry and song. He knows that Agamemnon's hubris, his believing in his own
greatness, derailed his work and cost him his life, and that ego can over take
gratitude in a heart beat.
"Stay With Me" (Main Theme from The Cardinal)
Should my heart not be humble, should my eyes fail to see,
Should my feet sometimes stumble on the way, stay with me.
Like the lamb that in springtime wanders far from fold,
Comes the darkness and the frost, I get lost, I grow cold.
I grow cold, I grow weary, and I know I have sinned,
And I go seeking shelter and I cry in the wind,
And though I grope and I blunder and I kneel and I'm wrong,
Though the rose buckles under where I walk, walk along
Till I find to my wonder every task least to see,
Or that I can do it, pray, stay with me.
Stay with me.*
-- In reversal, Dylan's Invocation to the Muse appears here as Benediction
with one request. Guide me to "every task least to see," and to see "that
I can do it." Creation never ends nor does the labor of the artist who lives
in fear, humility and "wonder" at his own abilities. Like Elvis and in the
southern blues and rock traditions, Dylan depends on that great gospel
urgency to summon the spirit because he knows that his work was all no
accident nor was it ever done alone.
-- Written in 1963 by Carolyn Leigh and Jerome Moross, "Stay with Me" was
recorded by Frank Sinatra in December of that year. In 2014, it became the
set closer for Dylan's Never Ending Tour, followong "Blowing in the Wind" in
the Encore. So far, it is the only song from Dylan's Shadows in the Night
tribute album to Frank Sinatra that has appeared on the tour set list.
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