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By Chris Moore:
Willie Nelson sounded as good as he ever has, and John Mellencamp brought a tremendous amount of energy to the stage with his talented band (he described them as being built for playing in garages and bars, but they handled a ballpark quite nicely).
But then Bob Dylan broke the roof in and set fire to the place as a parting gift.
(Well, there wasn’t a roof to begin with, but let’s not quabble over details…)
After more than three hours of opening acts and transitions between sets, Dylan came out just after 9pm on Wednesday, July 15th, 2009 at the Rock Cats’ baseball stadium in New Britain, CT. At the precise moment the lights came up, I also took in my first breath of a suspicious smelling smoke…
Anyway, Dylan kicked off the first two songs on electric guitar, soloing along with his band members. (There’s a great photo in a recent online Rolling Stone article that looks just like what I saw tonight.) He added new lines to “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” — “Everybody must get stoned,” for the layperson — and rollicked through “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” — a true Fusco-Moore favorite — as if it were a new song on his most recent album.
There’s always something special about seeing Dylan play guitar, but he wasn’t the only one in the band whose skills on the axe were highlighted. Both of the other guitarists in his Never-Ending Tour band were allowed to bring more of their guitar work into the mix than in past concerts — take the infectious new guitar riff in “Tryin’ To Get To Heaven” or the simple but catchy licks in “Jolene.” More than once throughout the evening, an acoustic guitar could be heard high in the mix, which has become a rarity in recent years.
By the time Dylan retreated to his keyboard, the momentum had already been established and only continued to build. He romped through “The Levee’s Gonna Break” and soon after beat out a typically heavy version of “High Water (For Charley Patton).” Although his set included mid-tempo (“I Feel a Change Comin’ On”) and slower (“When the Deal Goes Down”) songs, Dylan’s predilections certainly lay in the in-your-face, bass-pounding-through-your-chest, guitar-and-harmonica-solos-wailing variety.
Last year was a great show. But what impressed me this year was just how clear Dylan’s vocals were tonight. Now, I’m not suggesting a possible vocal cord surgery has occurred to restore him to his Nashville Skyline crooning, but he annunciated each word and clearly showed more respect for the tunes and melodies of his songs than he has in the past decade or more.
For years, I have been defending the gruffness of Dylan’s voice as simply one more of the many voices he has taken on over the years. However, I have never been able to justify his oftentimes uniform low-to-high singing of each line of every song.
Tonight, with only a couple exceptions, he truly broke that mold all over the place.
Although the show was heavily weighted toward his newer material — 8 of the 14 songs were from his most recent four albums — the crowd seemed to enjoy the concert as much as I did, and although it was difficult to see from the outfield where we were standing, it looked as if most people stayed until almost the very end. (Why anyone leaves before the encore, I’ll never know. Dylan by now famously leaves “Like A Rolling Stone” and “All Along The Watchtower” for the additional set.)
I can’t believe it’s over. It was an excellent concert, made all the better for having someone to go with this year. Now, I have only to set the timer and wait in anticipation for next year’s Dylan tour schedule.
Until then, I’ll have to be content to continue listening to Together Through Life and revisit Modern Times, Love & Theft, Time Out of Mind, or, as I did on the long ride home through traffic, the Bootleg Series recording of the 1966 Royal Albert Hall electric set with Dylan and the Band (my favorite concert recording of all time)!