Review

Winnipeg, Manitoba

MTS Centre

November 2, 2008


[Aaron Graham]

Review by Aaron Graham



The first time I saw Bob Dylan in concert was Summer 2002 at the Halifax
Metro Centre in Nova Scotia. After some energetic introductory music (a
bootleg of the show confirms what I'd always thought: it *was* Elmer
Bernstein's theme from THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN emanating from the speakers),
Dylan strutted out center-stage to much applause with a guitar already
strapped on, strumming the opening notes to The Stanley Brothers' "I Am
The Man, Thomas". This cover became something of a constant opener with
that leg of the so-called 'Neverending Tour', but I'd not yet heard it on
any bootlegs, or knew of the song's background: so, here I was, thirty
seconds into the show, already thrown for a loop by lyrics of a number I
couldn't detect the name of, but blissfully unaware of the religious
connotations of what *was* being said -- and glad to be hearing such a
confidant, rousing chorus sung by the one performer I'd been looking
forward to seeing live since my teenage years (which, now that I think
about it, I guess I was still in). It was practically a chant from one of
my heroes  strike that, * the* hero: "*I Am The Man*", indeed.

A great show to be sure ("Blind Willie McTell" and a striking rendition of
"Senor" were the highlights), it was hampered only by where I was sitting
(and the incessant cloud of pot-smoke to my immediate left) -- on the main
floor, but so far back in Row 30 with lights so dark that I could only
detect the hard-lined shapes of the band on-stage. Still, Dylan performed
with a guitar throughout (concluding the main set with an exploratory,
emboldened "Drifter's Escape"), and I feel privileged to have witnessed
such a show in light of how much his performances have changed in recent
years.

As for last night, I was sitting in a prime spot: second row on the floor
of the MTS Centre here in Winnipeg, Manitoba, a hockey arena altered with
bucket seats for big-ticket concerts like this one. When I was escorted to
my seat, I took note that I was directly in line with Dylan's keyboards,
and quickly spotted the ubiquitous Oscar for "Times Have changed" standing
on an amp. This was going to be something special, no matter what -- even
if it turned out to be one of his dreadfully substandard shows, I was
still part of a rapturous company reveling to be his audience for that
evening, and, in addition, I was close enough to witness the minutiae of
decisions being made and movements being worked out as Dylan toe-tapped
around the stage (more on that later).

Dylan emerged from the wings right on time, and the band -- Tony Garnier
on Bass, George Recile on Drums, Stu Kimball on Rhythm Guitar, Denny
Freeman on Lead, and multi-instrumentalist Donnie Herron on whatever was
needed for any given song -- erupted into the regular opener, "Rainy Day
Women #12 and 35". Up next was a curiously jaunty version of "The Times
They Are A-Changin'", which had everyone singing along, but it was the
rollicking "The Levee's Gonna Break" that first gripped me (beyond the
immediate emotions of the realization that I was seeing Dylan so up
close).

The opening strains for a quicker-paced "Don't Think Twice, It's All
Right" sounded a lot like "Mama, You've Been On My Mind" to these ears,
but once the lyrics broke out, it was unmistakably nothing but this
galvanizing (non-)love song from THE FREEWHEELIN' BOB DYLAN. Upon
realizing what it was, many of the younger members of the crowd in the
first few rows cheered giddily, and it was heartening to see that the same
Dylan tracks that drew me to his work still had their charms over new
admirers.

With my gaze affixed centrally, all I could take in was Dylan's profile,
with Herron behind him on a pedal steel guitar. After about a minute into
"Don't Think Twice", something or other malfunctioned on the keyboards,
and a technician came out to assist; Dylan kept up with the number,
walking over to the old-style microphone and crooning the next few stanzas
(apparently something he's been wont to do for recent shows). His slick,
pointy-tipped shoes glided all the way there, and his small, sprightly
frame called to mind Chaplin's Little Tramp with its very deliberate
movements (it's not lost on me that the comparison's been made elsewhere).
At one point, he turned his back to Recile on Drums, and as his
gold-striped pants were obfuscated momentarily, and the warm light
stripped away the years, I had instant recall of photographs of the man in
1965, recording BRINGING IT ALL BACK HOME in a black suit (here, sans dark
shades), unkempt hair poking out from the back of his white cowboy hat;
ditto, later during "I Believe in You", when an orange-y light played
tricks on his face, removing the wrinkles and pencil-thin moustache enough
to call to mind his younger self during any decade. Fact is, time has been
kind.

A lighting effect came on that loosely resembled stars in the nighttime
sky (after a very solid and assured "'Til I Fell In Love With You"), so I
figured, out of left field, here would come "Shooting Star" -- but not so,
logic was defied, and we were treated (and I, delighted) to hear a
mid-tempo reworking of "Simple Twist of Fate". Dylan's reading came out in
rushed spurts, but the words enunciated and rung out clearly, his raspy
voice giving off a calming effect as opposed to the pained voice heard on
BLOOD ON THE TRACKS. This was to be one of the major highlights.

A more faithful, if tricked-up, "Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis
Blues Again" was up next, with SLOW TRAIN COMING's striking "I Believe in
You" providing a respite from its transient whimsy. During "Mobile", Dylan
came out from his keyboards, strolled over to a guitar lying dormant in
front of the drums, chewed tentatively on what must have been a hangnail
-- unmistakably deep in contemplation. He returned to the keyboards, then
back again, picking up the guitar to finish the song off properly, roaring
through a few chords before placing it on its back. (I couldn't help but
instinctually clap, my motor functions seemingly already engaged before my
brain had told them to act.)

Literal gasps cascaded over the audience as "Desolation Row" was
recognized next (I think most, like myself, were expecting either a number
from LOVE AND THEFT or MODERN TIMES to be interjected here, after the
three old favorites). The starkness continued with "Blind Willie McTell",
two chilly, foreboding evocations performed pitch-perfect (I'll be excited
to hear a bootleg of this concert to compare the two "McTell"'s I've seen
live; right now, the 2002 Halifax version has a slight edge for its even
barer, slower-paced performance.)

"Summer Days" offered up playful nostalgia, and Dylan, once again, emerged
from the back of his keyboards, while "Nettie Moore" (exempting
"Workingman's Blues #2", my favorite track from MODERN TIMES) carried
forth in all of its tender glory (the *Oh, I  Miss You Nettie Moore /And
My Happiness is O'er* lines can't help cut to the bone). (Incidentally,
this was my girlfriend's favorite number all night -- ruined only slightly
by the patrons to her left who decided to spark on their bright cell
phones and check for missed calls!)

"Highway 61 Revisited" exploded out in all of its forthrightness as the
true electric number of the evening, while "Ain't Talkin'" cooled things
down a notch, almost occupying a code of honor for its singer. Here, the
mystical lyricism Dylan employs can't help but captivate, and it's a song
that gains ingrained meaning when performed live, much like "Tangled Up in
Blue" and the lines: *But Me, I'm Still on the Road* / *Headin' for
Another Joint*.

"Thunder on the Mountain" and two crowd-pleasing encores later (his
anthem: "Like a Rolling Stone", and an electrified tip of the hat to
Hendrix's cover of his own "All Along the Watchtower") and Dylan left the
stage, the band trailing behind him, his Oscar still beaming brightly
amidst cacophonous applause.

So, was it an exemplary show or something in-between? Defiantly something
in-between, with Dylan not exactly on auto-pilot, but only really showing
brief glimmers of innovativeness in the reworkings of songs from his
legendary oeuvre. While plunking on his keyboards, briefly strumming the
guitar, or howling through his harmonica, Dylan never fails to impress,
and his selection for which to employ those instruments last night caught
on fire rarely, but modestly blazed throughout. The fire in his performing
soul has not gone out.

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