Bob Dylan's fall American tour doesn't officially get underway until this Monday at Seattle's WAMU Theatre. But for a few Seattle fans lucky enough to get tickets, Christmas came a day early as Dylan and his band performed an intimate warm-up show at the 1,300-seat Moore Theatre on Sunday night, October 4.
As someone who has seen Dylan live numerous times over the years, I can tell you from experience that his shows can be hit or miss affairs — sometimes wildly so. The last time I saw him play with his current band, for example — back in 2006 at Seattle's much larger Key Arena — the show felt rushed, and Dylan only played one song, "Thunder On The Mountain," from his then current (and still brilliant) album, Modern Times.
Tonight however was a completely different story. Playing in the much more intimate confines of the Moore Theatre, Dylan was about as loose as I think I've ever seen him. Rather than stay behind his keyboard as he has on recent tours, Dylan prowled the stage, singing several songs without playing any accompanying instrument other than his mic.
He was also uncharacteristically animated, waving his arms about as he sang, and giving cues to the rest of the band by pointing his fingers at them. Dressed from head to toe in black, this was a much showier Dylan than you'd normally expect. On several songs, he also played his signature harmonica, which made for a nice touch on songs like "Shooting Star," "Ballad Of A Thin Man," and "Not Dark Yet."
Speaking of the band, they sounded simply amazing playing in such an acoustically perfect venue as the Moore. Returning lead guitarist Charlie Sexton, in particular, was a house of fire — he literally tore the joint down on rockers like "Highway 61 Revisited" and "Thunder On The Mountain."
Bassist Tony Garnier and drummer George Recile made for a rock-solid rhythm section, although Garnier seemed to be having some sound problems during the early going (which were eventually ironed out). Rounding out Dylan's band were second guitarist Stu Kimball and multi-instrumentalist Donnie Herron (banjo, electric mandolin, pedal steel, lap steel, trumpet).
Dylan himself was in great form, reinventing his songs as he so often does in his concerts, but this time doing so more through his vocal inflections than with the actual arrangements.
On a stunning version of "Nettie Moore" from Modern Times, for example, Dylan's voice went from a deep, low register to a high-pitched wail. He bit off the lyrics with rapid fire delivery, sometimes going from single to double phrases within a single line. The way Dylan emphasized the word "black" in particular — from the line, "The world has gone BLACK before my eyes" — gave this song a much darker feel than the recorded version. If there are any bootlegs out there of this, I would love to get my hands on one. It was a standout even on a night where there were so many of them.
Even such Dylan standards as "Ballad Of A Thin Man" and the warhorse that is "Like A Rolling Stone" took on new urgency as Dylan's phrasing breathed new fire into them. When Dylan sang the familiar line, "Something is happening here, but you don't know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones," he once again double-phrased the lyrics, giving the song even more of an angry feel than the original. Anyone who says Dylan is a lousy singer obviously knows very little about vocal phrasing — an art Dylan has mastered like very few singers around, outside of maybe the likes of Sinatra himself.
Dylan also did something on this night that he hasn't done in awhile — he picked up the guitar for a few songs. Although you could see he was clearly struggling with it somewhat (Dylan rarely plays guitar live anymore, reportedly due to an arthritis condition), he sounded just fine trading licks with Sexton on "Don't Think Twice, Its Alright" and "High Water (For Charley Patton)."
Other highlights included a letter-perfect "Beyond Here Lies Nothin'" from this year's Together Through Life album, and a fierce sounding "Gonna Change My Way Of Thinking," a song from Dylan's Born-again period which made for a very surprising choice to open the show.
Dylan and his band played for two solid hours — which is a little long by his usual standards, and seemed to have a great time for the duration. Dylan even smiled a few times.
Here is the complete setlist courtesy of Boblinks.com:
1. Gonna Change My Way Of Thinking
2. Shooting Star
3. Beyond Here Lies Nothin'
4. Don't Think Twice, It's All Right [Bob on guitar]
5. Lonesome Day Blues
6. I Don't Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met)
7. Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum
8. Not Dark Yet
9. High Water (For Charley Patton) [Bob on guitar]
10. When The Deal Goes Down
11. Highway 61 Revisited
12. Nettie Moore
13. Thunder On The Mountain
14. Ballad Of A Thin Man
15. Like A Rolling Stone