In 2002 Bob Dylan returned to the Newport Folk Festival, the famous locale where he “went electric” in 1965, and the playful bard showed up incognito wearing a blondish beard. On Friday night in Queens he historically returned to Forest Hills Stadium which, back in August ‘65, hosted the second “electric show” from Dylan, finding a hip hometown crowd divided. This time there were no silly costumes or statements just a solid performance from the 75 year old focusing on his recent releases of standards while still mining his amazing back catalog of songs in his constantly reinventive style.
Before Dylan however another legend, Mavis Staples and her young funky band delivered an excellent short opening set. A few songs from her recent Livin’ On A High Note were featured such as “Love and Trust” and the easy grooving “Take Us Back” which allowed Mavis to show off her pipes in the light rain. It was her unique and timely cover choices that really delivered above and beyond as both her energetic take on the Talking Heads “Slippery People” and her heartfelt delivery of “For What It’s Worth” originally by Buffalo Springfield were pleas to focus on love during trying times. Ending with her mighty Staples Singers track “I’ll Take You There,” Mavis seemed as excited for Dylan’s set as the sold out crowd was.
The rain ended and Dylan strolled on stage minus any introduction and easily spun out “Things Have Changed”. They certainly have since he last played Forest Hills; his voice has gotten raspier, his band is tighter and they are all on the Never Ending Tour together which has seen Dylan become the consummate blues showman he always really was. His five piece backing band (Tony Garnier – bass, George Recile – drums, Stu Kimball – rhythm guitar, maracas, Charlie Sexton on lead guitar, Donnie Herron – violin, banjo, electric mandolin, pedal steel, lap steel) has been the same for a few years now and fluidly follow their front-man.
For this show the first set was more energetic with classics like “She Belongs To Me” mixing wonderfully with even older classics (if more recently recorded by Dylan) like “The Night We Called It A Day”. The swinging “Duquesne Whistle” got some older fannies off the seats to shimmy while the folk-rock-with-a-sharp-edge from “Pay In Blood” felt ominous and powerful. The show highlight closed the first set, a reconstructed take on “Tangled Up In Blue” with Dylan contributing not only his timeless lyrics but descending runs on both harmonica and baby grand piano.
The second set was more relaxed after opening with the bluegrass banjo of “High Water (For Charley Patton)”. The band then dipped down for easy offerings from his last two albums (Shadows In The Night & Fallen Angels) that deal with the American Songbook, “Why Try To Change Me Now” “All Or Nothing At All” and set closer “Autumn Leaves”. All were fine, but the mellow mood established became drowsy and it took a pair of all-time Dylan originals, one from the ‘60’s and one from the 90’s, to seal the deal in the encore.
“Blowin’ In The Wind” never gets old, especially when Dylan and company play around with its presentation as they did on this night. The spectacularly eerie “Love Sick” closed and did so with violins and determined finality. Dylan didn’t make a reference to that long gone show, he didn’t have to. He is confident in his playing, performance and songs; there has never been anyone better at crafting those than Bob Dylan.