October 16 2023
Review by Adam Selzer
I swear it happened just like this:
I first started hanging out with Michael Glover Smith before shows in
2004. Outside of the Tabernacle in Atlanta, nearly 20 years ago now, we
talking about his recent cover of "Ball and Biscuit." Mike remarked it was
a cover of a song from the 21st century. "I'll bet that'll never happen
again," he said. We probably didn't imagine he'd still be touring 20 years
on, but it wasn't until just this year that he covered "Bad Actor," a
Merle Haggard song from this century, and "Only a River," which Bob Weir
put out this century (though co-writer Ritter said he wrote it in '98 so
it gets an asterisk).
Anyway we cut now to the north side of Chicago, 19 years and some change
later. I picked Mike up to go to Indianapolis. This trip hadn't been on
the agenda, but right after Chicago we'd noticed that, for some reason,
tickets for Indy were dirt cheap on resale sites. You could get them for
under ten bucks. No other night on the tour is like that, so we decided to
take advantage. As we got onto Lake Shore Drive we gamed out
possibilities for surprise songs that night. It looked like regional
covers had ended - there was nothing in Milwaukee or Grand Rapids - but in
case they hadn't, he could always do "Little Green Apples," which mentions
Indianapolis by name and is just corny enough to come true.
Mike mentioned Mellencamp, which seemed plausible. "They've been friends
for years," Mike noted. "I'll bet Mellecamp is at least AT the show."
"He had a live album out a few years back that I thought was great," I
said. "He sounds like Tom Waits now."
We looked up a current picture of him. He looked like Paul Williams - both
Paul Wiliams the critic AND Paul Williams the song writer, strangely
enough. We ran through a couple of songs that Dylan could cover. "Dance
Naked," I joked. Then, more seriously, "I Fight Authority." We reminisced
a bit about the days when he was all over MTV; I was pretty young but
about my earliest memory of MTV was seeming to see "Paper in Fire" every
time I turned it on. "They were sort of marketing him as the Great Value
brand Springsteen," I noted. He never deserved to be brushed off that way.
Mike suggested "Rain on the Scarecow," which could really rock if he
rehearsed as well as he has "Truckin'," but I figured that Dylan wouldn't
do some heartland classic - he'd probably pick something more recent. I
thought of "Longest Days," a song Mellencamp put out in 2008. I first saw
Mellencamp do it on the TV show "Roadies," in character as himself. After
telling a kid about Woody Guthrie he tells him a story about his
grandmother. "She told me 'life is short, even on its longest days.' I
thought all the good songs had been written until I heard that line." Then
he sings a bit of it. It's a plain-spoken and simple, but timeless, song;
if you told me it was one of those songs from a Woody Guthrie notebook I'd
totally believe it.
"Yeah," said Mike. "Isn't that the one Dylan mentioned in his 'Musicares'
"Did he? I don't remember."
"I think so; he said it was one of the best songs of recent years or
And we sort of left it at that - it seemed like it'd be a good pick, but
that was probably just a guarantee that it wouldn't happen. It was also
Bob Weir's birthday, so a Dead cover was on the table, but more likely
we'd just get "That Old Black Magic" in the surprise song slot, and the
closest thing to a local shout-out would be the line about Indiana Jones.
Anyway, "Longest Days" is an excellent, timeless sort of song.
The Old National Centre is in a part of Indianapolis that looks like a
midwestern D.C. The theater is a gorgeous old place built by the Shriners,
those guys who wear Fezzes and hang out with your grandpa. Apparently they
still have a hall there, as we saw a guy in one of the hats walking into a
side door. He looked like he was about our age, which would be one of
those "I knew we were old" moments except that I don't recall ever seen a
guy in one of those hats in YEARS, and when I did as a kid they always
seemed like older guys, the kind of guys who would be in Merle Haggard's
band. If I was one for omens I'd say that seeing a shriner under 70 had to
be a sign of something strange. In 2023, that much moreso.
The show - hat included - was a playful one, for the most part. Dylan was
messing with the phrasing a lot, as he did on Chicago night 3, but he
didn't seem like he was searching for a new way to do the songs so much as
just goofing off tonight. He did "twenty years I been gone" in "Crossing
the Rubicon" just the same way.
I'd seen the roadie marking something onto Bob's cue sheet, and once or
twice Bob was glancing at the sheet and flipping through his lyric book,
but when "Old Black Magic" started we figured we were just in for the
standard setlist, as we expected.
But after it ended, Lancio started strumming something. Properly STRUMMING
in a way you seldom hear at Dylan shows, and it didn't sound like "Mother
of Muses." For a minute we thought it was "Only a River" for Bob Weir's
birthday, but a few lines in I realized it was happenin: Bob Dylan was, in
fact, covering Mellencamp's "Longest Days," his first stateside 21st
century cover since 2004, if I'm not mistaken.
And it was gorgeously sung. The acoustic guitar was prominent in the
arrangement and Bob seemed to be singing carefully and clearly, largely
sticking the melody. No mention of the songwriter or anything at all - one
woman down the row seemed thrilled but I'm not sure how many other people
even knew what it was. After the show a lot of people were asking what it
was in the lobby and outside.
I was still in shock from it when Bob further surprised us by ALSO
launching into "Truckin," before another standout "Mother of Muses." The
harmonica coda was back again in "Every Grain of Sand" for the third night
in a row, and got the same reaction as it did the last two nights.
A Dylan show doesn't need any surprises to be great - some of the best
shows I've seen had what was, at the time, the most mundane setlist. But
to see him surprise us with a cover like "Longest Days" made this one of
those nights I would have kicked myself. Those old posters weren't kidding
when they said "Don't you dare miss it."
After six shows in four states, that's likely it for me until Brooklyn
next month, and it's going to be hard coming down. Only thing I know how
to do is keep on keepin' on.
Shout-out to Bailey, whom I met in Chicago and saw in Grand Rapids, and
made the last minute trip from his college in Kalamazoo to bring his
partner to her first show. I was proud of him for coming - you'll forget
all your midterms, but you won't forget a Dylan show. Quality is
remembered when cost is forgotten. And tonight the cost, including all
fees, was only $18
Comments by Mike
Last night Indiana opened up its arms to Bob and his band. Detached from
our phones the Murat crowd was attached to Bob Dylan's every word. The
band came out cooking and never looked back. False Prophet rumbled and
Key West became trance-like . Bob's piano playing was extraordinary.
Every song seemed reinvented. How he does it night in and night out is
beyond me but he does.
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