Every year at the end of November, Bob Dylan pushes pause on the Never Ending Tour to rest his bones for winter before returning to the stage in early April. Most years Dylan tries to end things in his adopted hometown of NYC around Thanksgiving (perhaps he secretly dresses as a clown to wrangle a giant balloon down Fifth Avenue) and on Monday, November, 20th Bob and his steadfast band played the first of four shows on the Upper West Side of Manhattan to wrap up their 2017.
The Beacon Theater was a nightmare to enter because of heightened security resulting in a half-full house for another legend opening the concert. Mavis Staples was a bundle of soulful energy, heartily clapping and singing with vigor throughout her forty five minute set. Opening with the Staples Singer classic “If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me)” the band mixed her past with covers (a killer rendition of “For What It’s Worth”) and only a few new tunes, highlighted by the positive vibration filled “Build A Bridge”. Staples jovially chatted with the crowd between songs and gave a history lesson during the gospel send up “Freedom Highway” written by her father way back in 1962 and (unfortunately) still relevant today. A funky extended “I’ll Take You there” closed the set with crowd sing-alongs and excellent guitar work from bandleader Rick Holmstrom.
Bob Dylan and his dapper backing band (black suits with silver sparkled lapels) strolled onto the stage with little fanfare. For those who have not caught Bob on this Never Ending Tour (which started in about 1988) it can be difficult. His singing has notoriously been mixed and even when he plays songs fans may know, they usually are unrecognizable sonically. To keep things fresh the band will wildly alter the backing of tracks while Dylan constantly plays with his phrasing of stanzas and choruses, with various degrees of success.
Some of the glorious arraignments on this night were the opening “Things Have Changed” with its huge mid-song breaks, the gorgeous pedal steel/piano lead on “It Ain’t Me Babe” and the fast grooving drum propelled “Thunder On The Mountain”. Songs whose experiments underwhelmed were the disjointed stop/start of “Summer Days” and the adult contemporary pop styling of “Tryin’ To Get To Heaven”, both were odd, but nowhere near as strange as the marching/waltz version of “Tangled Up In Blue” which ended up more head-scratching than disappointing.
The players (Tony Garnier on bass, George Recelli drums, Donnie Herron pedal steel/fiddle/banjo/mandolin with Stu Kimball and Charlie Sexton guitar) have been backing Dylan for years now and fluidly move with him into each unique phrasing. This night the pacing of the set was excellent, Dylan would drop his recently recorded American songbook tunes like “Why Try To Change Me Now?” in-between the more upbeat numbers. A perfect example arrived when a hoedown/rave-up version of “Summer Days” (featuring a scorching guitar solo from Sexton), dripped right into “Melancholy Mood” where Sexton transferred to soothingly precise jazz guitar with aplomb.
The show had numerous highlights as Dylan played the role of baby grand piano playing bandleader and 50’s wannabe crooner with equal ease. His lead piano work on the driving version of “Desolation Row” was powerful while the eerie atmospherics of “Love Sick” were haunting to close the main set. The two song encore of “Blowin’ In The Wind” and peak/valley grooves of “Ballad Of A Thin Man” ended the night with a dynamite finish.
With the band clicking, the well-paced setlist, and the constant experimentation in arraignments, Dylan proves he still has more to elegantly say with those raspy pipes.