Bob Dylan, bard for the ages, brought his never-ending tour to Convention Hall in Asbury Park, New Jersey, on the torrential evening of Sunday, August 14, and reinforced his prowess as the key observer and interpreter of our ever-distressing modern times.
The 15-song, 90-minute show that followed Leon Russell’s spry opening set stayed true to Bob’s main 2011 setlist framework. Anyone expecting Greatest Hits-style arrangements of the Dylan classics sprinkled throughout the set — and from the idle chatter I overheard both before and after the gig, there were plenty who did — missed the point of what the man’s been doing for, oh, the last half-century or so.
I’ve seen Bruce Springsteen do two separate tour-warm-up gigs at this fairly intimate venue, which isn’t much bigger than a high-school gymnasium. The sound was relatively clear from my vantage point (four rows up and stage-right in the center bleachers), given the hall’s potential limitations, but Bob’s seasoned growl, Charlie Sexton’s stinging lead-guitar lines, Stu Kimball’s steady rollin’ rhythm guitar, Donnie Herron’s tasty banjo and mandolin, Tony Garnier’s bottom end, and George Recile’s drums were about as good as could be expected.
Bob, perpetually sharp-dressed in a three-button black suit coat and wide-brimmed white hat, mainly stood perched behind his stage-left keyboard, but he did venture center stage to don a guitar for two groove-driven songs (Together Through Life’s "Beyond Here Lies Nothin,’" Blood on the Tracks’ "Simple Twist of Fate") and blew a mean harmonica through quite a few others, his harp tone quite reminiscent of his soloing in the studio version of 1983’s "Jokerman." Whenever he was center stage, Bob hunched over and crouched like a sideways carat — i.e., like this: > — with his head cocked to his right whenever he delivered a lyric, his right hand usually clutching the mike stand.
Tip for the uninitiated: If you’re not familiar with Bob and his ace band’s change-'em-all-up live M.O., you may have to pick phrases out of the air to follow along. Once in sync, you can join the rest of us in marveling at the power and impact of latter-day standards like “Things Have Changed,” “Mississippi,” and “High Water (for Charley Patton)” mixed with reworked perennials like “Tangled Up in Blue” and “Highway 61 Revisited.”
I was most taken with the set-ending drama of “Ballad of a Thin Man,” which is as poignant and biting today as it was back in 1965. Dylan, again center stage, seethed and sneered through the pivotal lines, “And something is happening here / but you don’t know what it is / Do YOU, Mister Jones?” — even throwing his hands out to his sides for emphasis. Many of us perplexed and angered by today’s spiraling economy and continual Wall Street woes could only nod along at just how apropos the song remains (and will probably continue to remain as this century unfolds).
With Bob back behind his keyboard, a victory-lap “Like a Rolling Stone” and breakneck “All Along the Watchtower” comprised the encore, and by 10:36 p.m., the lights came up, and off we went to contemplate our respective fates as the hour was getting late.
Mike Mettler has been Editor-In-Chief of Sound & Vision since January 2006, and has been on staff since (gulp) 1989. An unrepentant audiophile, he spends many a sleepless night trying to reconcile his undying love for vinyl records and surround sound with his iPod and iPad obsessions. Someday, he hopes to own a turquoise 1967 Mustang fastback.
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