Something was happening, but we’re not sure what it was

Nov 17, 2009

From the McAlester News-Capital (Oklahoma)

Something was happening, but we’re not sure what it was.
James Beaty has some insight into Dylan’s Tulsa show
By James Beaty
Senior Editor

“I’m just a song and dance man.”
Bob Dylan — 1965

Beneath a waxing moon on a crisp autumn night, Bob Dylan strode onto the stage at the Brady Theater in Tulsa and used his masterful musical mojo to reinvent himself once again.

For much of the performance, Dylan stepped from behind the keyboards where he’s spent most of his of time performing in recent years, and stood, sans guitar, behind a lone microphone on center stage.

Dressed in shiny black boots, black trousers with white piping, a round-rimmed black Goucho hat, a white shirt and — of course — a long, black coat, Dylan resembled a hipster Zorro, or maybe a more congenial phantom of the Brady, who might have swung down from one of the ropes backstage at the majestic old theater.

At times extolling the audience, pointing at them, holding his hand over his heart, or making sweeping grand gestures, Dylan continued his exploration of American music. He exuded a new stage presence, holding a microphone center stage and belting out tunes in the style of — yep — a song and dance man.

It’s fitting that he did it in a classic theater, such as the Brady. From where I sat, in the second row at stage right, I could see catwalks and ropes looming high behind him.

It seems as if two types of people go to see Dylan in concert these days — those who are seeing him for the first time and are hoping to hear “Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits,” and those who have seen him many times before and are hoping to hear a set filled with rarities and his remarkable newer songs.

I’m sure plenty of those who were jammed into the 2,800-seat capacity Brady Theater on the night of Oct. 24 were hard-core admirers of Dylan and were pumped because guitarist extraordinaire Charlie Sexton had rejoined the band just a few weeks earlier in Seattle, Washington — adding another dimension to an already outstanding ensemble.

And some were no doubt praying that Dylan would open the Brady concert with “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking,” a little-performed gem from his 1979 Christian music album “Slow Train Coming” — something he’d already done several times since the current tour started on Oct. 4.

Following an introduction which ended with “Ladies and gentlemen, Columbia recording artist Bob Dylan,” the stage lights arose and the band tore into a thunderous opening riff.

“As Dylan sang “Gonna change my way of thinkin,” a man to my right shot from his seat like he’d been jolted with electricity, with both fists extended high in the air — making it fairly obvious which song he’d hoped would open the concert.

Dylan does something few major recording artists do. He shuffles his set list every night. I once read a post from a guy who’d gone to see Dylan three nights in a row and heard 40 different songs.

Dylan also rearranges his songs in concert and sometimes changes the lyrics. In the recorded version of “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking,” Dylan, full of fire and brimstone, had sang “Jesus said ‘Be ready, for you know not the hour in which I come.”‘

At the Brady though, Dylan revised it to “Jesus is coming, coming to gather His jewels.”

Dylan whipped up another rarity on the concert’s second song, “The Man in Me,” from 1970s “New Morning.” He dispensed with singing the opening “la-la-las” which had been on the original recording and instead, on the new version, steel guitar player Donnie Herron blew a trumpet while Dylan wailed away on a harmonica.

Dylan gave his raspiest vocal performance of the night on the song, but the pipes had cleared by the time he and the band ripped into “Beyond Here Lies Nothing” — a minor-keyed journey “through boulevards of broken cars” from Dylan’s recent number one album “Together Through Life.”

With Dylan constantly rearranging his songs, it’s often difficult to guess what’s coming next from the instrumental introductions alone.

While Dylan and the band played what sounded like the opening to a lilting, winsome country waltz, he suddenly leaned forward and sang about poor Hattie Carroll, murdered by a wealthy man “with a cane that he twirled ’round his diamond ring finger.”

With Dylan’s performance of “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” his 1963 indictment of injustice in America following the revved up “Beyond Here Lies Nothing,” it began to sound like this might be a special concert indeed.

Dylan has what many of his admirers consider one of the best rhythm sections in music: His longtime bass guitarist Tony Garnier and drummer George Recile. As they started playing with a pounding, driving beat, Dylan sang the opening lines to “Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum,” a morality tale from his 2001 masterwork, “Love and Theft.”

Dylan stood behind his keyboards, bumping and grinding like some early-day Elvis, as Sexton stalked the stage like a panther, shooting stinging riffs right and left, up and down. The newly unleashed Stu Kimball, who’d been restricted to mostly playing rhythm guitar at some previous concerts I’d seen, released some lightning volleys himself, holding his own while going head-to-head with the great Sexton.

Although Dylan had made a brief trip to center stage earlier for “The Man in Me,” the maestro next decided to fully introduce the new Dylan to the Brady

With steel guitarist Herron picking a mandolin, Sexton playing a Dobro and Garnier now plucking a stand-up acoustic bass, the sounds of a Mexican cantina band emanated from the stage as Dylan used two microphones — one for his voice and another for harmonica — to give a poignant vocal and harp performance on the beguiling, Latin-tinged, “This Dream of You” — another new song from this year’s “Together Through Life.”

Following the gentle sounds of “This Dream,” Dylan and the boys now unfurled the fury of “Cold Irons Bound” from his 1997 Grammy-winning album “Time Out of Mind.”

With a cacophony of blues-grunge licks erupting from Sexton’s and Kimball’s guitars, and with Garnier and Recile beating out their own rhythmic dins, Dylan spat out his words in a soul-shaking rasp about aloneness and isolation, about being 20 miles out of town and “cold irons bound.”

Dylan stood stage-center and bent double, blowing a harmonica solo powerful enough to shake the bones of Howlin’ Wolf. Sexton crouched to the floor, carefully caressing notes from his guitar before catapulting them into the ether with timing so sharp that it seemed to split seconds.

While the crowd thundered its enthusiasm, Dylan started to calm things down once more.

Dylan doesn’t utilize a light show, per se, but instead uses more theatrical style of lighting, perfectly suited for the Brady. As the stage lights resembled hundreds of twinkling stars on the huge dark curtain behind him, Dylan returned to the keyboard for “Po’ Boy,” a song from “Love & Theft” with lyrics both poignant and humorous, about a “poor boy ‘neath the stars that shine, washin’ them dishes, feedin’ them swine.”

Dylan and the band were ready to roar, with Dylan staying behind the keyboard for powerful, dynamic-punched versions of “Honest With Me” and “Highway 61 Revisited.” The two blues-rockers bookended the lazy soul-romp of the 2009 song “I Feel a Change Comin’ On.”

“Some people they tell me, I’ve got the blood of the land in my voice,” Dylan sang — and a couple of songs later, he proved it.

Again standing center stage, holding just a microphone and a harmonica, Dylan gave one of the most heartfelt vocals I’ve ever heard — “Workingman’s Blues # 2,” a prophetic song from his 2006 masterpiece “Modern Times.”

Now, with Dylan looking like a world-weary circuit-riding preacher who’s just emgerged from the haunted woods, his voice floated through the Brady, filled with empathy for everyone with the ”workingman’s blues.”

With every word ringing clear, Dylan sang “The buyin’ power of the proletariat’s gone down, money’s getting shallow and weak,” followed a few lines later by “They say low wages are a reality, if we want to compete abroad.”

A lot of working men and women must have been seated in the Brady, because spontaneous cheers of agreement arose when Dylan sang “Some people never worked a day in their life, don’t know what work even means.”

When Dylan served up a double shot of “Modern Times” songs by breaking into a rocking version of “Thunder on the Mountain” that had much of the crowd (including many in the balcony) literally dancing in the aisles, I figured that might be the end of the main set.

Fortunately, I was wrong.

Dylan strode once more to center stage and proceeded to show the Brady why he’s the stuff of legend.

With the theatrical lighting shining an orange-yellowish glow on the performers and with lower lighting casting their dark, giant shadows on the curtain behind them like some group of rhythmically-inclined, bone-bending scarecrows, the band began the eerie, minor chord intro into 1965’s “Ballad of a Thin Man.”

Taking the stage with an evangelistic fervor, Dylan drew the listeners into a nightmare vision filled with geeks, freaks, sword swallowers and a bewildered protagonist who is unknowing and ignorant — but oh so far from being filled with bliss.

“And you know something’s happening, but you don’t know what it is, do you… Mr. Jones?” Dylan sang in the shimmering oranage and yellow hues as the minor chords slammed together and the looming shadows kept up their frantic, ghostly dance.

As the song ended, the Brady sat filled with silence for a few seconds, as some people around me literally sank back in their seats, momentarily overwhelmed by the performance.

Then, the Brady erupted into a huge roar, as those who weren’t already standing abruptly rose to their feet. Dylan and the band left the stage for several minutes before returning for a three-song encore of “Like a Rolling Stone,” the new rockabilly-spiced “Jolene” and a revelatory “All Along the Watchtower.”

As I left the Brady, I primarily saw two looks on many people’s faces — looks of either joy, or awe.

Not bad for a song and dance man.