North Charleston, South Carolina

North Charleston Performing Arts Center

April 17, 2015

[Jim Lundy]

Review by Jim Lundy

It has been only two years since Dylan played in the Charleston area and I
was interested to see how much things have changed since that blustery
night when he had to hold his hat on his head while he sang in the rain at
the Family Circle tennis stadium. I had been watching the set list for the
5 other dates he has played so far this year and knew that over half the
songs (10 out of 19) would be repeats from that 2013 concert. But true to
what he wrote in his book Chronicles, he has indeed reinvented the look,
feel, sound, and flow of the show enough for anyone who is paying
attention to notice whenever he returns to a city. At this concert I was
reminded of his famous quote from 1965: “I think of myself more as a song
and dance man.” It may have been a joke back when he said it but nearly 50
years later he has made it come true with a carefully planned and
wonderfully executed cohesive show, not just a bunch of songs. 

A word about the venue: the North Charleston Performing Arts Center (PAC)
is a very nice concert theater that is the most formal setting at which
I’ve ever seen Dylan play over the last 24 years. The setting became as
much of an influence on the vibe of the show as anything that was going on
on-stage that night. The PAC is located in the center of a
hotel/shopping/big-box Mecca of sprawl that has been built up in the last
20 years in the middle of the blight of North Charleston, a city that has
become world famous lately for the police shooting earlier this month of
Walter Scott. You can also literally throw something from there – like a
rolling stone, for example – and hit the North Charleston Coliseum, which
was hosting a hockey game at the same time sharing the same parking lot.
Since I was unsure of the traffic and parking situation for those two
events, I left my house way too early and arrived at 6:30 for an 8:00
“sharp” start time. This got me a great parking spot a hundred feet from
the door but I had a lot of time to while away before the gong sounded and
Stu Kimball’s very sweet-sounding, adept strumming started the show at

It was certainly not the opening to “Things Have Changed” so I thought
there might be a set list substitution. But as the band took their places
in the near-dark stage it morphed into the recognizable intro and the
lights came up (sort of) and there was Dylan standing center stage just 30
feet from my excellent seat in row G (that cost nearly a hundred bucks by
the time all the fees were tacked on). There was some confusion at first
on the part of the audience, many of whom assumed we’d all be standing
through the whole concert just as they had every other time they’d seen
Dylan. But this was the first instance of the theater itself taking
control of the vibe of the show. The majority middle-aged audience members
were looking forward to sitting in their comfy seats and started shouting
“Down in front!” to those who were still on their feet after the initial
rush of euphoria subsided a minute or so into the song. And even the
die-hards still on their feet after most everyone else had sunk back down
had to finally give in to all the boos and jeers they were getting as they
“stood” their ground.

Once all that commotion was cleared up I could finally concentrate on
“Things Have Changed” and how it was different from two years before.
First and foremost, George Recile’s powerhouse drumming that has long been
a favorite feature of Dylan shows for me is so downplayed now as to be a
minor component of the overall sound. He was even using “soft sticks”
(like the felt mallets used on tympani) for many songs. The overall sound
of the band for this tour seems to be country swing – or at least
noticeably tinged with it – heavy on the steel guitar, and is as subdued
and beautiful as the stage lighting which is as close to candlelight as
possible. I am convinced that this is due first and foremost to Dylan’s
near paranoia of being videoed or photographed. But it has taken on a life
of its own and it is so beautifully done with so many artful variations of
shapes and shadows that it seems to affect the songs and the audience’s
behavior and lack of rowdiness.

And just as I had immediately noticed at the last concert, Dylan was
singing and expressive in a way that he hadn’t appeared capable of 10
years ago when he whispered and recited his songs in what seemed like an
irretrievably ruined monotone voice. His apparent vigor and physical
presence also seems to be better now than it was in years past with his
movements less marionette-like and shuffling. He is definitely younger
than that now.

“She belongs to Me,” one of only 2 songs from his 1960s output in the
show, was next and it was largely reinvented musically other than the
lyrics. It featured some deft harmonica work and this mostly long-lost
talent for being tuneful and evocative was maintained throughout the night
on the songs where he soloed. At this point I also noticed that he was
giving far more attention to the audience than I have ever seen him give
before, which is to say some attention compared to zero attention. He
seemed to almost be pandering for applause when he struck a pose with his
left hand on his hip and his right hand grasping the lapel of his white
suit during the instrumental sections of this and other songs. He repeated
this pose many times throughout the show very deliberately while staring
at the audience. On other songs, he sprang up off the piano bench and made
a movement just short of taking a bow right before the end while the rest
of the band was still applying the final flourishes to the outro.

With Bob’s rediscovered singing voice now available for live performances
I was sorry that so much of the concert featured the songs from his most
recent albums – songs that were produced at a time when he seemed to have
less than a half-octave range. For example, more than half (6 out of 10)
of the songs from Tempest were included (a third of the entire set list!)
and I am not a fan of the album although I’ve tried to like it. 

Together with the country/swing/soft rock sound of the night I was bored
through some or most of “Beyond Here Lies Nothing,” “Pay in Blood,” and
“Workingman’s Blues #2” during the first set. The fun waltz “Waiting for
You” was a new song to me and I looked it up afterward to find out that it
is on the soundtrack of the Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood movie.
It’s nice that Bob is still mining his obscure back catalog to keep
surprising people even if he is no longer changing the set list from
concert to concert. “Tangled Up In Blue” got my attention again with
another generation of substituted lyrics keeping it fresh after 40 years
(“Simple Twist of Fate” got the same rewritten treatment during the second
set). “Duquesne Whistle” had a fun start from intentionally random
doodling by the band that quickly coalesced into a tight song that
thundered down the tracks, but more like light rail than a freight train.
And this would be as good a place as any to say that Bob has this band
operating like a well-oiled machine and he knows it and is flourishing in
the confidence. Even his own contributions on piano and harmonica are
harmonious with the band rather than trampling over it roughshod as in
years past.

A rather uninspired and muted version of “Love Sick” ended the first set
at 8:55 when Dylan said “Thaaaaankyou! We’re going to slip away for a
minute,” but the intermission lasted almost 25 minutes. They returned with
a banjo-heavy version of “High Water” that was fun enough. But for me,
much of the second set was a bust with dreadfully boring but eminently
skilled songs like “Early Roman Kings,” “Spirit on the Water,” and “Soon
After Midnight” dragging down my interest level. But the absolute
highlight was “Forgetful Heart.” It was beautifully sung and hauntingly
arranged. Bob seemed to mean and feel every word and the audience seemed
to be feeling it as well. As the second set elapsed the stage lighting
seemed to get more and more beautiful although never getting beyond the
intensity of a candelabra. To quote a phrase, “The light in this place is
so bad, making me sick in the head…”  But kudos to the lighting
designer(s) for doing such beautiful work. I’m sure they’re just following
orders in keeping it lit like dusk. 

The second set ended right before 10:00 and Bob and the band left the
stage for the requisite 4 minutes of suspense before coming back for a 10
minute encore. “Blowin’ in the Wind” seemed to please the audience greatly
as a song they actually recognized. A stunningly sung “Stay with Me”
clocking in at a whole 2 minutes ended the concert.  My guess is that many
in the audience were not familiar with Bob’s post-Blood on the Tracks
output and were hearing 15 of the 19 songs of the concert for the first
time. Which brings me back to the audience and venue. Of all the times
I’ve seen Dylan live, this was by far the quietest audience I’ve ever had
the pleasure to be a part of. While there was some talking here and there,
for the most part people were sitting and intently listening with minimal
shouting of requests, texting and phone calls (i.e. “Dude, guess where I
am? I’m seeing Bob Dylan right now!”). This really enhanced my experience
and although I’ve seen him in concerts where I enjoyed the set list or
style more, I have never enjoyed the concert setting and audience more
than I did on this night. 


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