Concert Review: Bob Dylan @ Proctors, 10/30/2023
Thanks, Barbara; thanks, Tony; thanks, Bob.
Barbara texted me around dinner time Monday: “Want a front row seat for Bob Dylan at Proctors? Our treat.” (Her treat and husband Tony’s; old friends.)
I had given up on that one. It sold out in three hours, Proctors’ chief Philip Morris told me as we watched excited fans flow past in the arcade.
Sitting and standing THAT close felt immediate, intimate, powerful. I’d never seen Dylan smile so much onstage, never heard his voice so clear.
Clad in black, his band took the stark stage at eight sharp. Four lights on tall stands at the stage corners, one big barrel light at each stage apron and small accent lights onstage were the utilitarian opposite of a light show. Ladders stood against the back, black wall, exposed by raised curtains. Dylan, also in black, walked on last and sat behind a grand piano; like looking at us over the imposing hood of an old Pontiac as he changed a tire.
Word from the road suggested he’d play new tunes from “Rough and Rowdy Ways,” his 2020 39th album. So it was, later—he played almost the whole thing. But Dylan reached back fairly far to open with a 1971 stoical/serene blues-rock shuffle, “Watching the River Flow” (which appears only on compilations); then even further next for the wistful, deceptively upbeat breakup song “Most Likely You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine” (1966). Both moved at low-pressure mid-tempos, each featured a Dylan piano break and reworked melodies, and, in “Most Likely,” an extra-low note Dylan sang.
Superb audio quality (at least up close) delivered Dylan’s words as clearly as if we were all reading them, though his words would look odd—dense, then sparse—on a page.
Dylan launched some songs himself, with just piano punctuated by short guitar and bass accents until the whole band formed a song’s full force; then they often faded back to quiet codas, echoing the intros. Early on, things felt subdued; later, things rocked, shuffled blues-style or simmered down into mellow or romantic moods. A similar bell-curve symmetry shaped Dylan’s vocal phrasing; compressing lyric phrases into dense nuggets of meaning, separated by short silences, as if letting us think about them.
“I Contain Multitudes,” first “Rough and Rowdy Ways” song, followed “Most Likely,” defiantly proclaiming, “I have no apologies to make.” Then he smiled in wry irony, singing the unlikely pledge, “I’ll show you my heart.”
Also new, the rocking “False Prophet” issued a firm denial—”I ain’t no false prophet”—over a mid-tempo groove.
Dylan paced the show shrewdly, so blues-shuffle grooves or rock eruptions hit dramatically among simmering slower numbers. Familiar numbers brought shouts of happy recognition, stacked among fresher material. Fans loved the self-doubting “When I Paint My Masterpiece” (’71) between the emphatic, smoky rock of (the new) “False Prophet” and (also new) “Black Rider,” Dylan (symbolically?) donning a white Panama hat and electronically repeating its title couplet, echoing apocalyptically into the ozone.
Thematically, the new and emotionally complex “My Own Version of You” fit just right with the simpler vintage (1967) pledge “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight,” before “Crossing the Rubicon” set a meditative, abstract mood and the familiar “To Be Alone With You” (1969) went way more earthy.
“Key West” molded the same mood as “Crossing the Rubicon,” using repeats the same way; then “Gotta Serve Somebody” (’79) focused the band into an inexorable gospel force. Another slow one, the new “I’ve Made My Mind Up to Give Myself to You,” mixed deliberate thoughtfulness with quiet lust.
Then, Dylan summoned his players close to call an audible, yanking an antique Frank Sinatra romance from the set to plug in the Grateful Dead’s “Truckin’.” The place went nuts, or at least in my neighborhood, folks lost their minds. And the band earned it, rocking for fun and soul. It swung like the Dead did, but sounded thoroughly like Dylan, thanks to Tony Garnier’s busier-than-Phil-Lesh’s bass runs.
Bob Britt’s guitar used more Jerry Garcia-like chiming tone in the slow, thoughtful new “Mother of Muses” than he had in “Truckin’.” Subtle, smart and sweet.
Dylan invited us up to the blues-club penthouse again with the rocking shuffle “Goodbye Jimmy Reed,” then again went all infinite on “Every Grain of Sand.” Then, letting us know this really was the end, he stood and walked to a center-stage mic, didn’t say anything, and left.
Time and again, songs showed his writing flows free of any specific era. The overused “timeless” misses the point. For all the references to train tracks and Cadillacs; to putting on a suit, forced to marry a prostitute, everything is now AND then, like The Band; of course, that’s no coincidence. The only lyric tied to time and place was the Grateful Dead’s “Truckin’;” everything else floated somewhere in Bob Standard Time.
He sometimes stood to sing, sat to play brief breaks and bridges. He won’t scare the ghosts of R&B piano giants Art Neville or Allen Toussaint, but he got around the keyboard just fine, with grace or gravity as the songs required, especially rocking on bluesy numbers.
His band seldom soloed, but made everything fit just right; strong, simple and elemental as 1950s Chuck Berry radio hits.
They seemed genuinely surprised, exchanging startled looks, as Dylan invited “play something, Tony—play anything!” as he introduced them. Bassist Tony Garnier (standup acoustic and 6- and 4-string bass guitars) and Donnie Herron (pedal steel, lap steel, electric mandolin and fiddle) are the longest-tenured players on this endless (we can only hope) tour; while guitarists Doug Lancio (mostly acoustic) and Bob Britt (mostly electric) have been aboard for a few years each and drummer Jerry Pentecost is the new kid. Dylan, the old dog, up to his old and new tricks, enjoyed them like we all did.