July 1, 2009
Review by Adam Selzer
Yesterday, Michael G. Smith officially wrapped the short movie we've
been filming, AT LAST OKEMAH. What better way to celebrate than with
a Bob Dylan concert?
We piled into my car with his wife, Jill, and left Chicago early
enough to beat rush hour and hit the Mars Cheese Castle in Kenosha,
where we picked up some curds (when in Wisconsin...) and a local
"butterscotch root beer" called Dang. It was fantastic.
I had imagined summerfest as one of those music festivals like Music
Midwtown, River Stages, etc, but it was really more of a state fair
vibe - everywhere you looked, people were selling food on a stick.
There was a guy on a unicycle juggling fire. Nice way to kill time
before a concert. The trouble with the circus atmosphere was it almost
seemed like the concert was an afterthought (and Willie played
appropriately), but the minute Dylan stepped on stage, everything
Those first three songs on guitar were fairly pedestrian. There was
nothign WRONG with them - no upsinging or anything - but they all
seemed like warm-ups, really.
Moving to organ for Mobile upped the ante considerably. Bob sang the
HELL out of this. As he often does these days, he found an organ part
he liked and built the vocal around it. Sometimes I wish he'd base the
vocal around a narrative point of view (I'm pretty sure he USED to - I
used to hear a different story in the same song night after night and
now I only occasionally pick up a new bit of narrative perspective),
but it lends itself to some very exciting vocals. This was a GREAT
Mobile, and there are only so many of those.
Bob's vocals throughout were strong, by 2009 standards. The voice is a
little rougher (sometimes a lot rougher) than it used to be, but the
singing was as strong as it's been in years - he was putting just as
much effort into the singing as he was ten or eleven years ago
(moreso, in many cases - Mobile and Desolation Row rarely sounded this
good back then).
Desolation Row was the first real "worth the trip" moment in the show
- opening with just acoustic guitar and organ, Bob sang like he was
narrating a radio program, seeing the scene as the program opened.
Then the intensity built and built - even some lyric flub couldn't
stop it (there were a bunch of these tonight - but he always covered
instead of just slurring his way through, which is progress - and one
way the shows ARE better than they used to be). One particularly
interesting thing that all of us noticed here was that the riff from
"If You Ever go to Houston" was all over this arrangement. It worked.
Po Boy was just dynamite - same arrangement as spring, same strong,
thoughtful vocals. But it was at this point, that I turned to Mike and
said "man, we aren't gonna be getting any new songs." This was a rare
thing - a show when we had no IDEA what was going to happen. It was
natural to expect some of those live premieres that we all like to
have under our belts (don't tell me you're immune to that collector
mentality - I'm sure not!), but, on the other hand, it was the kick-
off of a Summer stadium tour - those are almost always greatest-hits
affairs (and have been for years and years). It was starting to look
like we would be lucky to get the third-ever "Houston."
But then Bob wandered away from the organ, harp in hand, for an
INCREDIBLE version of "Forgetful Heart." Live premiere! Score! And not
just any live premiere, but a fantastic one. Bob stayed on center
stage (no one played the organ/accordion part), playing harp between
verses, while the band set out a stark, acoustic arrangement that sort
of called to mind "What Was it You Wanted." This was a cut above the
album version - can't wait for the mp3. It was one of those moments
(and performances) you pray for when you go to show after show (Mike
and I have both cut back, but more moments like this might have has
both hitting the pawn shop and scraping up cash for more shows, just
like in our college days).
"Summer Days" sounded the same as ever, except that Donnie was on a
more-or-less inaudible trumpet. After the song ended, Bob started
playing an organ riff that turned into a full-blown instrumental
(during which the trumpet was loud and clear). We'll have to debate
whether it was a unique song (which it sounded like) or an extended
Summer Days outro (which it also sounded like). Once the instrumental
was cooking, Bob walked away to wander the stage, clowning around and
introducing the band, clearly having a good time as he introduced
Donnie as "Donnie Herron on the trumpet."
Back to the organ for a fine Like a Rolling Stone (fun organ), then no
formation before the encore. Nice to get another premiere with
"Jolene," but it wasn't much special - as on the record, it's a fun
dance tune that has nothing WRONG with it, but not a song of any
particular consequence. Watchtower and a formation closed things out.
I don't always walk out of a Dylan show feeling like I know the
meaning of life anymore - maybe I'm just older or maybe I already
figured it out. I'm not going to go around claiming that the shows
these days are quite on the level of the shows in 99, but, they ARE
superior in some ways (the arrangements are often tighter and less
jammy, the melodies often more apparent) and this was a terrific show.
Bob put a lot into the singing (and if we've learned anything from
Bob, it's that it's not how your voice sounds, it's how you use what
you've got), the arrangements were well-thought out and sometimes
adventurous. For the most part this was less a "new show" than a
continuation of the Spring shows, but the trumpet, the instrumental,
and the wonderful "Forgetful Heart" shows that the experimentation and
resultant evolution that was apparent in those spring mp3s is still
going on. Things are looking good for the future. It was high fives
all around on the way out, and even a stop at the saddest soup and
salad bar in the midwest couldn't kill the mood.
Review by Gary Baughn
The summer leg of the 2009 version of Bob Dylan's Neverending Tour began
last night in the Marcus Ampitheatre on the lakefront grounds of Milwaukee's
annual Summerfest, a ten day celebration of food, beer and music.
After enjoying some appetizers plucked from the cowboy/outlaw section of
opening act Willie Nelson's Great American Songbook, the crowd welcomed
Bob and His Band with a full appetite. On the basis of the warm applause
throughout, the ovation at the end, and the slim but convincing evidence
of the young guy two rows back who punctuated the moments between
songs by yelling out "Thank you, Bob," I conclude the crowd went home
After the soundcheck song of "Cat's in the Well," the band blazed through
crisp versions of "It Ain't Me, Babe," I'll Be Your Baby Tonight" and "Stuck
Inside of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again." For the Dylan faithful,
these were all done differently from before, but the treat for the veterans
and the newcomers alike was the strength of Bob's voice. It was the
clearest and strongest I have heard in over ten years. Dylan can't sing his
standards the way he used to, but his magical words deserve to be sung
with a strong voice, and in the past sometimes the sound mix and/or his
vocal cords have failed his beautiful words.
But last night the voice was out front and commanding. There was variation
in that voice not discernable in recent memory, including several times when
he dropped down into a lower pitch for emphasis.
Sandwiched between the above three greatest hits and another (the stark
but powerful "Desolation Row") was the once lost, but now found "Blind
Willie McTell." This song is one of my favorites, and last night's concert
version heightened the dirge-like melody of the original and combined it with
Bob's commanding voice to lend even more power to one of his most
meaningful lyrics. Bob should go right into the studio with this band and
recut this former throwaway from the Original Bootleg Series, Vol. 1-3 just
like he rerecorded some songs for Greatest Hits Vol. Two. This song
deserves a studio-quality single.
The two other highlights of the night were deliciously poignant musical
paintings of "Po' Boy" and "Forgetful Heart." The originals were perfect
marriages of music and mood, and to modify the arrangements slightly and
play them beautifully in concert is a testament to the musicianship and
flexibility of this incredible band, along with Bob's knowledge of what is
important and communicable in his own artistry.
Of shows I have seen in the last ten years, this was one of the best, simply
because when Bob's voice is strongly mixed he seems more engaged, and
the words sparkle the way they should. Even someone new to Dylan's
concerts, and since this is Summerfest there would certainly have been
many, would have found much in this performance to possibly bring them
The question always is, just how many does Bob want back?
In the days before Dylan comes to town there is usually speculation among
the faithful regarding what songs he will sprinkle among us. The inescapable
media firestorm resulting from Michael Jackson's death caused me to wonder
aloud, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, whether Bob might somehow
acknowledge the King of Pop, given his long-standing penchant for saluting
the recently deceased by performing their songs in concert. If so, I
wondered, is he practicing the moonwalk in his tour bus as it heads for
Milwaukee, or has he simply ordered some white socks and/or gloves?
There probably are few Michael Jackson fans reading this, but if they did,
they would probably be as outraged as Dylan fans are by the implicit pairing
of Michael and Bob in the above paragraph. Musical excellence is defined
quite differently by the two groups, to the point where it is not too
far-fetched to imagine that each might say the other's music is not music,
or at least not very good.
But Michael Jackson's death and last night's concert highlight one common
ground: fame. That is why the media has been in constant regurgitation
since MJ died; he was a celebrity. The recently deceased writer John Updike
once said that "Celebrity is the mask that eats into the face," and viewing
the photos of Michael's facial metamorphosis over the years is eerie proof of
that quote. The need to be loved by the masses, and the effects of that
received devotion, are doubly corrosive to the soul.
Dylan once famously joked during a Halloween concert that he was wearing
his "Bob Dylan mask" that night, but he has not always been comfortable
inside that mask. Dylan found out early in his career that a person can
become too famous. For an artist that fame is particularly damaging, as fame
demands a constant supply of the same thing you did to get famous. Give
us another "Blowing in the Wind" is the ravenous cry of the maw of celebrity,
and if you are foolish enough to do so, it will ask for another exactly the
same. Then you are a sausage-maker (a Milwaukee Metaphor), not an
artist. An artist must change and grow.
Dylan's career has been a highwire act where the artist has attempted to
amaze his audience while still keeping a psychological balance somewhat
predicated upon controlling the size of the tent. As Dylan has owned up
to in Chronicles, at one point in his career, he consciously tried to become
unfamous. He didn't quite succeed. But he did carve out a niche of artistic
freedom. He has taught his audiences not to expect his greatest hits to be
performed like they were on his records, or even at all. People who regularly
go to Dylan's shows do not expect that any more, and go for other pleasures,
most of all to see what he will do next with the old, and lately, what he will
do with the new.
Willie Nelson's opening act is an example of a perfect match between artist
and audience. Willie is marvelously comfortable with who he is, and so are his
fans. Time and Love and the IRS have branded him with their claws, and he
can shrug or give the finger, either action will do. He does what he wants,
and that's what his fans want as well. The guy actually got cheers each
time he sipped his beer. Of course, it was Milwaukee. I am only a casual
Willie Nelson fan. I probably would not pay to see him separately, but I
appreciated the chance to see his act, and I enjoyed some songs (especially
his tribute to Hank Williams) and most of all the sense that he is doing what
he feels like doing the way he feels like doing it.
Even people who don't go regularly to Dylan shows probably are at least dimly
aware that his shows are not like those of other aging stars. But every once
in a while, some people wander in, blissfully unaware, especially at a place like
Summerfest where a ticket to Bob gets you into all the other pleasures of the
World's Biggest Happy Hour, and the question is, how far will Bob stretch
towards their desire for greatest hits sounding like the record, given his own
need and desire not to be hemmed in by such an expectation?
In my opinion, last night's concert was more welcoming to the casual fan than
Bob's last performance at Summerfest. Yet, he pretty much still did what he
wanted to do, and played songs the way he wanted. The key to engaging
the casual fans and the aficionados alike are crisp, dynamic arrangements of
the music and making sure above all else that Bob's voice comes through loud
and clear. People who like Dylan and people who love Dylan do so because of
the words he has written. Those words deserve a strong voice.
That leads me to the only negative of the night. My friends Bill and Sandi sat
towards stage left and reported that the sound mix there was terrible. Either
Marcus Ampitheatre has design flaws, or Dylan's people need to do a better
sound check during the actual concert. Evidently, many people did not get
to hear the great concert I did.
Review by Dave Moyer
We planned to head up with a travel party of eight, but one couldn't make
it, and we met up with a young woman from Appleton, Erin, who gladly
joined our contingent.
I thought this was the best I have heard of this line up.
The organ was turned up in the mix all night. Summer Days featured a new
twist with Donnie on trumpet.
Two songs from Together through Life debuted, with Bob taking center stage
and masterfully delivering Forgetful Heart, and Jolene taking the first
slot of the encores. Bob's vocals were strong all night.
The set list was very good, three from Love and Theft, though I could have
done without Honest with Me. Considering the strength of the show, that
Bob opened up on guitar, and the second song, It Ain't Me, Babe, might
have been my favorite. About halfway through it, I remarked to my friend
that I thought we were in for a good one, and were certainly were.
The people behind us acted as though it was their first concert, doing
their best to wreck the show for everyone around us, yelling at the people
about six rows in front of us to sit down for about the first five songs
of the night, throwing objects at them. Sit down? It's a rock concert
for crying out loud! If someone wants to stand, deal with it. This is
the first time in 27 shows that I have been to a Bob concert and found any
portion of any audience disagreeable in any way. It was quite
disappointing (and that is not what I'd really like to say about it). They
should be banned from Bob for life.
But, it was not enough to interfere with the magic that was going on on
stage. Terrific show--a real keeper.
Review by Dewey J. Bjorkman
This was a strong show that had a truly awesome highlight. I want
to tell you about it, but first allow me to provide a little of the
background that led up to it.
Bob began his new tour in strong voice last night. After warming up
with the first three songs, he and the Band nailed a series of songs, using
their now almost perfectly developed (and unique) pounding, choppy,
staccato style that enables Bob's "lived in" voice to stand out in stark
relief. (I will leave it to music artists and critics to better describe
this musical style.) Last night was a first for me, in that Bob's
keyboard playing was much more prominent in the mix than I had ever
experienced before. It was a dramatic departure from any of the shows
that I have seen since he first turned to the keyboard in the fall of
2002. I don't know if this mix is brand new, or if it was introduced
during the European Tour.
Bob's keyboard was positioned stage left, angling 45 degrees from the
audience, rather than perpendicular to it as in the past. Also, while
Donnie was behind Bob as usual--Denny, Stu and Tony were positioned stage
right--all in a row and looking right at Bob throughout. The Band's main
focus seemed to be to watch Bob's every move and to blend with his now
central instrumental role due to the strong keyboard mix. It changes
the Band's sound in an important way.
Now the highlight.
Song #9 was Highway 61 Revisited. It radically departed from the style
described above, and was a full out Rock and Roll romp. This was clearly
meant to set up, by way of contrast, the live premiere of song #10,
Forgetful Heart, which was a wonderful moment in the on-going saga of
Dylan performances. After the long and heated HWY 61, the Band softly
began the opening chords of Forgetful Heart. The lights dimmed. Then it
happened. Bob moved out from behind the organ to center stage, walking
up to a free-standing microphone and facing his audience. He had his
harp in his left hand. The delivery of this beautiful song was
agonizingly direct and exquisite. It was a compassionate homage to the
human heart that has perhaps been hurt one too many times and can no
longer even recall the passion of past loves. Two harp interludes
punctuated the poignancy of the moment. This rendition conveyed a tender
vulnerability that is not expressed in quite as moving a fashion in
Together Through Life. Pray that the bootleg gods got a high quality
recording of this great performance.
Dewey J. Bjorkman
Review by Jerry Spanbauer
I had the opportunity to catch Bob Dylan last night at the Marcus
Amphitheatre in Milwaukee as part of Summerfest and thought I’d share a
few thoughts about the show. This was my 31st show dating back to a 1986
show with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers at Alpine Valley (about 30 miles
southwest of Milwaukee). Attended with my wife Karri (about 15 shows) and
buddy Tim (about 25 shows). There was aiport-like security entering the
grounds (emptying pockets, scanners, etc.) but things got much better once
inside. We all enjoyed Willie Nelson from the back rail with an excellent
view of the venue and of downtown Milwaukee. Very nice and enthusiastic
crowd on hand and the weather was cool enough that
we needed to wear pants and long sleeves but no wind at all.
As we moved to our seats in the center pretty far back, we were hoping for
some guitar, a setlist surprise or two, and a couple new songs. As the
setlist shows, Bob indeed played guitar on the first three songs. The Cats
vocal was a bit tough to decipher and I was nervous that the non-Bobheads
would be disappointed and struggle to hear the words all night. Those
fears proved to be unfounded, however, as Bob’s mic was hot and his
voice was as strong as I’ve heard in many years. It Ain’t Me, Babe was
an early highlight with a tough, funky vibe; very unlike any I’d heard.
It was as consistent of a Bob show as I’ve seen in ages with strong,
confident deliveries across the board and I was not surprised when I read
about Bob and the Band doing three days of rehearsal at the Barrymore
Threatre in Madison days before. Sound mix after Cats was terrific! Both
of the new songs were performed extremely well. Forgetful Heart had an
emotional, passionate delivery with fantastic harp throughout. Jolene was
much more effective live than I every would have guessed. It comes off as
a bit of a throwaway on TTL but packed a bit more punch live.
Love Sick was great but it was also part of the setlist when we most
recently saw Bob at the Riverside Theater in Milwaukee this past November,
so I would have preferred something like Cold Irons Bound or Cry Awhile
instead. Likewise, I’ve seen Blind Willie McTell on numerous occasions
and, though it is a great song, would have been better replaced in my
world with an I And I or Unbelievable or something of that nature.
We all loved the bit where Bob introduced the band during Summer Days. Bob
was jovial and animated during the intros and each band member played a
solo bit after their intro (including the awesome Donnie trumpet bits),
something I’ve never seen at a Bob show. I cannot wait the hear the
whole show and am looking forward to revisiting this part.
Most of the large crowd stayed put for the entire show, a testament to the
quality of Bob’s performance of tunes that many were probably not
familiar with. This was a fantastic way to start the summer concert season
and hopefully a sign of things to come if you’re a fan of Bob Dylan.
Review by John Ciske
This was the eight time that I saw Bob live, and the second time I saw Bob
and Willie perform together.
Willie came out at exactly 7:30pm and started with Whiskey River. He
played his normal classic setlist and was very good as usual. Willie was
often waving to the crowd and threw a his headband to one lucky fan.
Willie played for a little more than an hour. After about a half hour
intermission Bob's instruments were in place. The lights went down, the
standard intro was read, and they started...
The first couple of songs I could have done without. Cat's in the Well and
It ain't me Babe are not my favorites the only saving grace is that Bob
was playing the geetar. This is the first time I have seen him play the
guitar since 2001.
Blind Willie McTell was great. The stage lighting made it look like an old
vaudeville show. Donnie was playing the banjo but I couldn't even hear it.
Honest with Me rocked. The dueling solos between Denny and Stu were
excellent. It looked and sounded as if George banged his drums so hard
they almost broke.
Po' Boy and Highway 61 were good.
Forgetful Heart with Bob center stage was perfect. This was a highlight of
the show. Bob sounded good and the band played it good.
Love Sick also was great
Next Bob threw me a curveball. After Summer days was over the band kept
playing and Bob walked to center stage. Here he did the band intros and
each member played a little solo (Donnie did a solo on the Trumpet!). It
was a nice change of pace from what Bob had done the past 4-5 times I saw
Rolling Stone was OK
Encore started with Jolene. It was awesome, sounded perfect. Would have
preferred to hear Shake, Shake Mama but...
Then came Watchtower to close the show. I wish Bob would stop playing this
song for every encore. He has so many other songs that I would rather
All in all this was the best Dylan show I have attended so far. The band
sounded like they were completely on the same page. Bob's voice sounded
good, strong and most importantly CLEAR. Also the venue was excellent. It
was designed for music, not a sports arena, like the past couple of shows
Best Songs: Honest With Me and Forgetful Heart
Worst Songs: It ain't me babe and All Along the Watchtower
Can't wait until his next stop in Wisconsin.
Review by John Condon
This Milwaukee show was Bob’s opening show of the
summer ’09 tour. I love the summer ballpark
tours, but this date at Marcus Amphitheater was
the only one I could fit in my schedule. My
spouse and I celebrated our 26th wedding
anniversary on the Summerfest grounds, taking in
some pretty weak bands (on the 11 stages) during
the day, drinking $5 beer, and biding time until
Willie and Bob took the stage. One Milwaukee band,
the Barrettes, a female punk band, played on a
side stage and were entertaining and are highly
recommended. We have seen Willie many times and
his show hardly varies, so we didn’t get a thrill from
his set in the somewhat cavernous ampitheater. Just
before show time, Bob’s crew hurriedly made
changes to each musicians set lists. Bob and the
band played a very good set, with a couple of new
songs and a couple of choice cuts (“Love Sick”,
“Desolation Row”, “I Don’t Believe You”). “Summer
Days” was retooled as a big-band rave up,
complete with Donny’s trumpet and a brilliant
reprise where the band riffs in a jazzy way,
while Bob comes over to them and introduces each
player. Sweet! Other highlights were “Jolene”, a
nicely re-worked “Po’ Boy”, and a very tender and
atmospheric “Forgetful Heart”. Bob’s organ licks
and tone were excellent! He has been wood
–shedding and it shows. He keep practicing, and
he may get to Carnegie Hall someday!!
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