October 27, 2023
Review by Tom McHale
I just finished seeing Bob Dylan at Massey Hall in Toronto (Oct. 26 & 27) and I’m
feeling so grateful. I have worked at Massey Hall for over 12 years and in all
that time I was hopeful that sometime while I worked there, he might play again
in my favourite concert hall. His first two shows ever in Toronto was at Massey
Hall in 1965. Of course, we have his well documented four nights at Massey in 1980
and the most recent time was 1992. I wasn't born yet or wasn't around for those
earlier shows but I wasn't going to miss him there now.
I had the pleasure of attending both nights (Oct. 26 & 27) as a patron. I chose
not to work the shows so I could stay attentive as an audience member and really
experience the show. It’s a great place to work and I’ve seen some great shows
there but working a show and attending a show are two very different things.
As expected, both nights were near identical setlists that leaned heavily on
songs from his great Rough and Rowdy Ways album released in 2020. Half of the
songs he played were from that album - what other artist does that!
Hearing him do newer songs like I Contain Multitudes, I’ve Made Up My Mind To
Give Myself To You, Key West and Mother of Muses tell you that his songwriting
is as great as ever. These tunes will eventually take their place with the long
list of songs he’s given us that are timeless. He also sounds better than he has
in recent years, his voice has always been the one thing no one can agree on but
truthfully it was / is better than it has been in recent touring years. We now
have an 82 year old singing recent songs with lines like:
-I’m not what I was, things aren’t what they were;
-I go right to the heart- I go right to the end, I go right where all things
lost - are made good again.
-I’m traveling light-and I’m slow going home.
The old saying goes that when someone shows you who they are, believe them and
Dylan throughout his journey has always shown you who he is at whatever artistic
phase he was in. However, are these lines autobiographical? Prophetic? Sung in
character? The answer is yes, maybe and who the hell knows. We know he’s
reflecting on a long life filled with experiences that have shaped him and taken
him to places where he is (to quote the man himself) - “still on the road,
heading for another joint”. He’s still out there, still making us ponder the
important things like love, pain, justice/injustice, mortality, faith, and
seeking the elusive creative muse and wondering where it comes from and what it
all means. He’s still hoping that someday he’ll “Paint My Masterpiece” and in
Every Grain of Sand (a 1981 song and the final song performed of the night) he
is reflecting that “Onward in my journey I’ve come to understand that every hair
is numbered just like Every Grain of Sand" and that he is “hanging in the balance
of a perfect finished plan.” He is showing us where he’s been and where he’s
going and where we’ve all hopefully been and where we’ll all go.
He also sings in False Prophet that “I’m first among equals, second to none, I’m
the last of the best - you can bury the rest.” Again, is he telling us something
truthful, some partial truth or something to keep us guessing? Who knows? That’s
Dylan - raising so many questions without giving us the answers and that’s just
the way I like it.
I believe he is without peer, there is no one like him nor will there ever be
anyone like him.
I could go on and on with all the superlatives and I could never really get to
the bottom of where he fits within the pantheon of great artists but I think he
is the greatest songwriter that has ever lived and for me he continues to move,
challenge, baffle, perplex, inspire and leave me in awe - what more do you want
from an artist?
Seeing him at Massey Hall over these last two nights has been an indescribable
feeling. He may never come back this way again but I feel honoured to have seen
and heard him play and sing in one of my favourite buildings. Having him sweep
through there a couple more times adds another chapter to the storied history
of Massey Hall.
A timeless artist. A historic, hallowed hall - what more do you want?
Review by Vish Khanna
My third show this week was always going to be a sentimental one for me, because
it’s the last Rough and Rowdy Ways Tour stop I have tickets for (currently). I
flew into Ontario from Edmonton, Alberta last Sunday with my Massey Hall tickets
secure for both nights Toronto, but then a friend and I got a pair of great seats
for Rochester, NY on Tuesday, the day before that show.
So yes, I’ve had a remarkable week and the good fortune to process and compare
three different shows with very similar sets, in close succession. I was assigned
to review the first Massey Hall show for Exclaim! Magazine and, as you can see,
part of my experience in Rochester informed what I saw go down in Toronto on
I’ll talk about the weird sense of finality that came over me on night two at
Massey Hall in a moment. It came further into focus after the show, as I spoke
with my friends Mick and Steve about what we saw, and Mick observed something
that I now can’t shake. First though, bullet points about Friday night at
Hats. We’ve been having some fun making note of Bob’s small white and
black hats, which he seems to be alternating between, one night to the next.
Tonight, he had his black hat with him when he walked on stage, but he
didn’t actually put it on until just before “Gotta Serve Somebody,” which
was the twelfth song of the night (on Thursday, white hat, on by song #4,
“False Prophet”). Here’s a weird thing about hats too: in Rochester, Bob
Britt wore a kinda newsboy flat hat, while Doug Lancio was hatless. In
Toronto? Doug wore that same kind of hat, Bob was hatless. I swear, it was
the exact same hat. I think they’re having fun with us, using hats.
There was considerable speculation about what regional covers Bob might
add to the set in Toronto. We all assumed a Gordon Lightfoot number or,
to honour Robbie Robertson, something by The Band. But what’d we get in
the traditional homage slots? “Stella Blue” on Thursday and “Brokedown
Palace” on Friday, both by the Grateful Dead. Hmmm, a bit more on these
From what I can tell, everyone who attended the Massey Hall shows spoke
with Elvis Costello and Diana Krall, who had the same floor seats on
both nights. I keep seeing and hearing stories about people having nice,
friendly talks with them. Still seems unlikely that Diana Krall will
ever make a record with Steve Albini, though.
Bob is playing the hell out of the piano, man. He’s doing some wild shit
and it’s big and loud and he’s all in. It’s rather awe-inspiring to hear
and see him flying around a baby grand piano and he looks like he’s
enjoying playing the thing. Tonight, he was so into it, he realized he
forgot to grab his harmonica ahead of “Every Grain of Sand.” He knew
the harmonica solo section was coming, so he grabbed one and put it in
front of him, all while playing piano with the other hand. But then he
just left it and played the song on the keys and it was cool (especially
if you’d been lucky to already see him receive these huge roars for his
harp solos in Rochester and during his first night in Toronto).
Ok, so what did Mick notice? We were talking about the set list generally and
y’know, what eras and album songs we missed, or thought were curiously absent
for these almost entirely static sets.
Pondering this further, Mick recognized some interconnections between these
songs, where almost all of them seem to incorporate messages of love and
appreciation but also reflect upon a life of work and effort and inspired
creativity, whose window might finally be closing. A lot of it is also about
being on the road, and how that road also must end at some point.
It’s a night full of celebration and looking back but also, saying farewell
to a world that will keep spinning no matter what.
“Watching the River Flow” is a strong opener in this regard as, Bob sings
about being tapped out (“I don’t have much to say”) and how some foolish
communication breakdown fruitlessness doesn’t really matter so much, because
life goes on for those who keep living (note: I’m actually not sure Bob sang
the original first two lines of this song tonight; I couldn’t catch it, but
it sounded different).
“Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine)” is about as obvious a
goodbye song as there is, and Bob sang it beautifully tonight, with amazing
phrasing that stretched the chorus out. “I Contain Multitudes” too, is a
stock-taking of oneself, but it’s also a checklist and reminder for those who
will remain and may wish to keep its spirit alive. “Tell me what’s next, what
shall we do / Half my soul baby belongs to you.”
I think where this conversation between my friends and I got to was that Bob
is doing a meta thing with this set, where the love songs and revealing
admissions about who he is, are really directed at us—his loyal, live audience
that have given him this remarkable life, while he humbly promises to one day
live up to our faith, by painting his masterpiece.
What if “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” and “To be Alone with You” and “I’ve Made
Up My Mind to Give Myself to You” and “Black Rider” are inspired by a
relentless road dog who will go to the ends of the Earth to perform for and
please (and challenge or possibly even battle) his audience?
What if “Gotta Serve Somebody” and “Mother of Muses” and “That Old Black Magic”
and “Every Grain of Sand” might now stand for the creative connection between an
artist and their audience and the mystical forces that bind them for as long as
And what if “Crossing the Rubicon” and “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” and
“Stella Blue” and “Brokedown Palace” tell stories about how time passes until
it doesn’t anymore, it slows down and slows down and slows down, until you
enter some new plain, where your creative impulses might even just stop cold,
like you “can’t play the record, because the needle got stuck” (from “Goodbye
Jimmy Reed”) because you really “don’t have much to say.”
I think what hit me after and even during the second night at Massey Hall was
that, after more than 20 years of doing so, I was sad that this might be the
last time I see Bob Dylan play live in Toronto. And realizing afterwards that
maybe he was really, really trying to tell us something with this set—namely,
I’ve done a lot, I’m winding down, thank you and goodbye—made me even sadder.
But also, grateful as hell.
The band he has right now is managing these complex arrangements while keeping
a close eye on Bob, who is singing and playing wonderfully. It was all so
inspiring. The night, but also everything Bob Dylan has done. So, I’m thinking
about it all and savouring it. I think he is too.
Flagging Down the Double E's
Review by Sergi Fabregat
I felt two very different experiences in Toronto during each one of
the Massey Hall shows, but I'll try to combine both in a review that
goes a bit detoured from the usual song to song comment. There's this
part in 'Key West' that's been haunting me for quite a long time now:
I heard the news, I heard your last request
Fly around, my pretty little Miss
I don't love nobody, give me a kiss
I have this image in my head of me leaving the hospital on the day
my father died. He was really sick in that moment, so it was just a
matter of time, but at the same time we had no clue he could be
departing that very night. Fortunately, my mother was besides him
when he went, but I wasn't. This was in 2014, but since 'Key West'
came out and specially on the moment Bob resumed touring, I've been
obssessed with this line: "I heard your last request". I don't know
what was my dad's last request, if in fact there was any kind of
request he would have given me. We never said goodbye, and we never
said many other things to each other, so when I hear 'Key West' is
like I can turn back the years and go back to that day and ammend in
a way a conversation that never took and will never take place.
'Key West' starts with that "Doctor said, "McKinley, death is on the
wall. Say it to me, if you got something to confess", a line that
also resonates a lot within me for my frequent relationship with
death and doctors giving bad news (I also joke that I've been to
quite some more funerals than weddings), and that "something to
confess" of course makes me think a lot about my dad and me. However,
it was not until last night when something clicked in my mind when
Bob sang "I heard the news"; my mum is an extremely informed person,
I'd say even a bit obssessive with current events, watches the news
every day and when she's around she often is hearing the radio. It's
a bit of a simplistic thing, but to me 'Key West' had been up to this
very moment a song about my father, and suddenly, bam, my mother is
also talked about in the song, and it's like some kind of miracle
happened, as if the song is now a living thing, a three dimensional
one, because then comes this line that frightens me so much because
I've been fearing is about me: "I don't love nobody, give me a kiss".
It's such a cruel line, a reward in exchange for the void, the
Of course this long reasoning is coming to mind now, last night it
happened in a matter of seconds, but the thing that shook me to the
core was that, while I could still clearly see, from my balcony seat,
Bob and the band playing the song, a mental image clearly appeared
before me, an image formed of concepts and emotions, past lives and
a deformed reality. It sounds stupid, but it was kind of a blurry
moment, and suddenly Bob did the most amazing thing ever, he switched
the order (I think that by mistake) of the last chorus' lines and
Key West is fine and fair
If you lost your mind, you'll find it there
Key West is paradise divine
Key West is the gateway key
To innocence and purity
Key West is on the horizon line
On the moment I needed it the most, with that strange pirate image
somewhere in between my mind and the stage, Bob unconsciously patted
my back: "is fine and fair, if you lost your mind, you'll find it
there". I felt something unspeakable, unprovable and impossible, now
I'll write it like this because it reads cool but in a way is what I
feel: that my dad somehow spoke
to me last night, he told me his last request: "is fine and fair, if
you lost your mind, you'll find it there". Nevermore, dad.
In Akron I wrote about how these precise moments in Bob's shows
elevate you and unveil these depths within you that you can be even
unaware of, and how during this tour these moments come one after
the other, ready for anybody to pick them and help oneself to carry
on. I think I had never written so much about one specific instant,
but I can't manage to ignore what I felt last night during that 'Key
West' ending, beautifully punctuated by a sweet melody that Bob
improvised at the piano and Tony joining on the upright bass and
making himself amazingly heard thanks to the outstanding acoustics
of Massey Hall (I mean it, when I clapped I could hear my own echo).
Massey Hall's second night had for me this profound personal impact
that just kept evolving during an spectacular semi-restraint version
of 'Gotta Serve Somebody' that distanced the performance from the
crowd pleaser and turned it into a half-menacing, half-joking warning
for this mundane times, then followed by this kind of new 'Old Black
Magic' in which Bob sings it like a cheesy outdated teenager, honest
and simple, lovable in the sincerity of his emotions and the lightness
of his music. I was prepared for another 'Stella Blue' (more on this a
bit later) or a new canadian cover, but not for 'Brokedown Palace'.
Again, a very specific moment during the performance destroyed me:
In a bed, in a bed
By the waterside I will lay my head
Listen to the river sing sweet songs
To rock my soul
The frail tenderness, almost abandonment that Bob invoked to deliver
these lines was really hard to endure, sang as a dying person would
sing them, which touched me particularly given the previous thoughts
during 'Key West'. "Rock my soul" is such a literally solid and
powerful expression, a life-affirming one, but preceded by these
images of one's own body laying down by the waterside "in a bed",
transforms it into a kind of final moments of content before the
inevitable. Again, it was how Bob sang those lines, it was really a
hurting moment, but when "rock my soul" came I felt so life-infused,
not yet ready to fade away. That's always the thing with Bob: there's
always this constant tension between presence and absence, and the
whole show seems to be built in between both.
Last night I noticed that behind Jerry Pentecost there was this big
squared wooden black box, different from the rest of road cases and
much bigger. I thought that it had more or less the size of the piano,
and I'm pretty sure it is Bob's piano's case. The funny thing is that
it equally resembles a magician's case, like the one one would use to
make people disappear and those things, and I thought it was so
fitting to the whole presence-absence dinamic, as the rest of the
cases and, in Massey Hall's case, a beautiful wooden wall at the back
of the stage that gave a big tabernacle atmosphere.
So night #2 was one of pirate radio signals picked up and projected,
but night #1 was one in which Bob toyed with something even more
unfathomable: the distance between him and his own dissolution. Such
a pedantic statement, I know, but I'll try to explain myself and,
specially, why this take owed everything to my very particular point
of view that almost no one else had in the venue. I was fortunate to
be seating at the most left seat in the first row in Massey Hall. To
my absolute amazement, as Bob is placing the piano a bit more forward
than on previous legs this year, I could see him head (or hat) to
toes all the time, either seated or standing, and
also both his hands playing the piano all the time. All this from a
really close distance. I couldn't believe my luck.
What unfolded was this 1h50 of me having the time of my life as the
seat at my right was empty (unexplainably) so I had a bit more freedom
than usual. During some moments, I just concentrated on watching at
Bob and how he moved and how fast he played the piano. Hearing him is
something, but actually seeing him all the time changing melodies,
trying new things and having such a blast is a treat I felt so
fortunate to enjoy. Enough with the bragging, I want to state why I
feel this is important to report.
While looking parapeted behind the piano, Bob is a very physical
performer, he plays the piano almost non-stop for two hours while
singing his heart-out at 82 years old, but what is incredible to
behold is how much he moves the upper part of his body. Either seated
or standing, he moves a lot, specially his head, which keeps getting
closer or farther from the microphone depending on who knows what.
It's almost an hypnotic thing to look at, this iconic face you've
been seeing all your life singing word after word in such expressive
ways, trying for real to convey the deep meanings of the words that
lay in his chest and lend them to the audience so they (we) can
create their own. After the second show, I was talking to fellow
bobcats of the differences that some of Bob's lyrics, like for
example 'Just Like a Woman', may have for people like me, in my 30s,
and people now in their 60s or 70s. That makes me thing of the
relevance and importance of this shows for younger audiences, and how
important it is that we reivindicate Bob's music and capacity to
inspire and spring stories and emotions that will outlive him, thus
in a way he will live through them.
I'm saying this because during Toronto's first show I had this
feeling of connection between the man that was literally in front of
me pouring his sould and words, the microphone were he was directing
all his efforts, and the impact that the result might have on every
specific person receiving them. The very standing presence of Bob
there, his silhouette cut against the black void that surrounded the
stage, my vision of it all only lit by high focus at his left, felt
revelatory, the reality of man as opposed to the ungraspable essence
of the songs, which ironically are in the end all that matters. The
body was there, but his soul was not there, where it was supposed to
be at (and indeed for the last 50 years they've been searching for
that), it was already let loose during each and every second of the
show for anyone who cared to keep it and turn it into their own
version. Like Sisyphus, Bob seems condemned to climb the mountain of
swords night after night, and I can tell that I've seen him close to
fulfilling the miracle of merging body and song into one, but he will
always be one grain of sand too far.
Along with the Japan shows, going to a Bob Dylan concert never felt
so important and meaningful to me than in these two unforgettable
nights in Toronto, the amount of things I've learned, the amazing
people I've met (and re-met) and the realization that this (whatever
it is) is an ongoing, neverending quest has made up my mind that if
all this life is just a dream, it is a dream worth living.
PS: Again, Massey Hall's second night's 'Crossing the Rubicon' is one
of the best performances in the whole R&RW Tour, and the image when
opening my eyes while I was purely enjoying the instrumental break in
'Jimmy Reed' because the whole venue was cheering and seeing Bob's
body half-bended on the piano having the time of his life... That one
is for the ages.
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