When Bob Dylan was bestowed with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama in 2012 (while wearing shades), I recalled seeing him in concert in my hometown of Thunder Bay, Ontario in August 1992 and concluded my reminiscing in this manner:
So perhaps the time has come to see Dylan again — or perhaps not. Like a Presidential Medal of Freedom (or a Rolling Stone), some once in a lifetime experiences are best experienced once.
Well, sometimes once in a lifetime just isn’t enough. Last week, I received the following voice mail from my Dad, “Bob Dylan is playing at the Beacon Theatre. I’m going to the box office to get tickets for the both of us.” Usually when I want to go to a concert, I’m the one who has to persuade him to come along. Not this time.
We had been to the Beacon Theater to see Dion at the Seventh Annual Ultimate Doo-Wop Show on Father’s Day Weekend. It nearly turned out to be the last time I would ever go to a concert with him. Seven weeks ago, Dad underwent emergency triple bypass surgery at Mount Sinai Hospital. Three of his arteries were completely blocked and his fourth was barely functioning. He had not been feeling well for weeks with a persistent pain in his back. Dad thought it might be a gall bladder problem and went to see his gastroenterologist. However, the gastroenterologist didn’t any problems with the gall bladder and thought the trouble might be with his heart and referred him to a cardiologist for a stress test. When the cardiologist saw the results of the stress test, he was so alarmed that he instructed my Mom and my sister to take Dad to Mount Sinai and that there would be people waiting for him. Twenty-four hours later, the surgery took place and Dad is here to tell the story. BTW, he still has the pain in his back. Well, better to feel something than to have no feeling at all. Better also to have a second chance than no chance at all.
Needless to say, Dad wants to make the most of that second chance. A few days ago, Dad and a couple of his former colleagues at Lakehead University were discussing the wonders of smart phones. It would be my duty mock this, but I don’t have a smart phone myself. (Yes, I’ll get around to it eventually.) But they were playing around with it and Dad said, “Bob Dylan in concert.” The smart phone returned an upcoming concert date in New Jersey. Dad’s colleague asked, “Are you going to go?” “If it was at the Beacon Theatre, I’d go.” Well, sure enough, the following day Dad is walking up to Broadway & 74th and sees under the marquee, “Bob Dylan & His Band.” Now he had to go.
As with me, this is also Dad’s second time seeing Dylan perform. He saw him play an outdoor concert in Dylan’s birthplace of Duluth, Minnesota with Paul Simon on Fourth of July Weekend in 1999. Dad recalled Dylan talking about having a girlfriend named Mimi. “Could that be Mimi Farina?” I asked. Mimi Baez was the younger sister of Joan Baez and Dylan was sweet on her before becoming romantically involved with her elder sister. Mimi Baez would become Mimi Farina upon marrying Richard Farina and they would make some pretty good music of their own before he was killed in a motorcycle accident in 1966 at the age of 29. But could there have been a Mimi in Minnesota? With Dylan anything is possible.
Dylan actually reminds me of my Dad especially when I look at the Blood on the Tracks album cover. Dad had long curly dark hair and when he wore sunglasses I would be instantly tangled up in blue. Dylan would include two tracks from Blood on the Tracks — the aforementioned “Tangled Up in Blue” and “A Simple of Twist of Fate.” They are also both 73 with my Dad a little over a month older than Dylan. Although Dad is well on the road to recovery, the road isn’t always smooth. One good day is often followed by a day where he is completely exhausted. On the day of the concert Dad was experiencing stomach cramps. A combination of rest and chamomile tea gave him just the boost he needed to go to the concert. For me it was a nice warm bowl of Manhattan clam chowder from Utopia on Amsterdam between 72nd and 73rd.
In the latest leg of the popularly dubbed Never Ending Tour, Dylan is focusing on the present rather than the past. Two-thirds of the songs he performed were released after the Millennium. Half of these songs were from his 2012 album Tempest. Aside from the two songs from Blood on the Tracks, the only other material he performed from his early days was “She Belongs to Me” from Bringin’ It All Back Home and, in the encore, “Blowin’ In The Wind.”
Although Dylan came out decked in a beige hat and long coat, it took a while for him to get into his rhythm. After his first set, Dad described Dylan as “inarticulate.” It’s not the first time he’s been described in this manner and it won’t be the last. Following the intermission, there were noticeably fewer people in our section of the audience. It could be that they found better seats. Or maybe they decided to move on to something else.
There were some annoying things about the concert that had nothing to do with Dylan, but rather with the facility and the crowd itself. It was a late-arriving crowd. People were constantly being seated through a good chunk of Dylan’s first set. With people constantly standing up it was hard to see the show. Dad pointed out that when you go to Lincoln Center if you don’t arrive by the opening curtain you don’t get in until after intermission. He further observed that it was like being at a ballgame. There were a lot of people getting up and going to the concessions to get food and drink. It’s one of the reasons he prefers to watch ballgames on TV.
Fortunately, Dylan’s second set was stronger and did much to offset these annoyances (as demonstrated by my Dad yelling “Zimmy” after each song, in reference to his birth name, Robert Zimmerman). Although Dylan no longer plays guitar, he does play piano and his harmonica playing now has a Toots Thielemann quality to it. The highlight of the show was “Forgetful Heart” from his 2009 album Together Through Life. His vocals were a lot clearer and they were augmented by Tony Garnier on upright bass. Dylan’s band is a solid unit led by Charlie Sexton on lead guitar. I remember when Sexton was a teen guitar sensation with a Top 10 hit in 1986 called “Beat’s So Lonely.” Although he did not attain superstardom, he has become a highly respected session player and concert performer, his reputation cemented by his long association with Dylan. I particularly enjoyed Donnie Herron’s work on violin during “Blowin’ in the Wind” and on pedal steel guitar during Dylan’s homage to Frank Sinatra.
Yes, you heard right. Dylan went from singing “Tangled Up in Blue” to singing Blue Eyes. The final song of the evening was both a blast to the past and a new way forward for Dylan. He sang a cover of a Frank Sinatra song “Stay With Me,” which he introduced into his set list in late October. Dylan is due to release his new album Shadows in the Night sometime in 2015. Although it isn’t official, it appears this album will be full of Sinatra covers. Earlier in 2014, Dylan put another Sinatra cover “Full Moon & Empty Arms” out on his website. Well, if Dylan can sing Santa, then why not Sinatra?
It wasn’t the best concert I’ve ever seen, but it was far from the worst. That distinction belongs to David Cassidy, but that’s a story for another time. The more important thing is that we were there to experience it together for better or for worse. When I told a friend I was going to see Dylan, she asked me why Dylan doesn’t just retire. He most certainly could, but as he sings in “Tangled Up in Blue” he’s still on the road headed for another joint. What else does he know? The only thing I knew how to do was to keep on keepin’ on like a bird that flew. The same could be said for my Dad.
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