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.

Photo by Kevin Winter | Credit: Getty Images

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.

  1. Tim Cahill says

    Mike, congrats on the great seat and the excellent review. I was in the balcony and couldn’t see Bobby smile. That was a sweet detail.

  2. Rob says

    That sounds great. I was in the front row (standing) to see him at the RPI Fieldhouse a number of years ago. Watching a legend up close is really special.

  3. carol says

    Superb review as usual. Glad to hear it was a great Dylan show. He always keeps one guessing on how he will reinterpret his songs and I’m happy to hear it was a fabulous one.

  4. Mark Hafter says

    Very disappointed in the entire show..only 90 minutes. I wanted to hear more older stuff. Wished he played guitar an harmonica.I know he’s 82, but last month saw Willie Nelson who is 92, and was so much better. I treated my family and was a complete waste of $400.00 and our time.

  5. Fred says

    Apparently seating position was critical after reading this review. I sat in the orchestra row U and Dylan’s lyrics were completely incomprehensible. The band played well and Dylan surprised with his piano playing. Honestly, I couldn’t even tell if he was speaking English during most of the concert. People next to me said the same thing.

  6. Teri Calloway says

    All I needed was to hear and see Bob Dylan yes from the balcony where we shook and grooved to the music Maybe not hearing the lyrics but it didn’t matter
    The idol of my youth sang to me his band rocked and the piano honey tonked each moment a thrill and a concert to be remembered

  7. Ellen says

    We were towards the back, center right with a vacant seat right in front of us. Fabulous sound! Seen him many times before and this was one of the best. (Not counting seeing him up close at the SUNYA gym years ago) I felt I was in the presence of greatness! My husband had the foresight to print out the words to songs from Rough snd Rowdy Ways so we listened the previous evening. A treat to hear Truckin which obviously the audience loved. Great tribute to Jerry.. Don’t understand why binoculars were not permitted!
    Thanks for your review.

  8. Marc says

    Sat center in the very last row of the balcony….sound and visuals were spot on! I thoroughly enjoy how Bob retrofits the older stuff he probably is sick of doing. Shit, I missed “Truckin” to see Dr. Leaky….. Mike your review was verbatim on what I saw and heard! Twas a beauty buddy…..great ink.

  9. Don E. Wilcock says

    Proof again that you’re the best overnight reviewer in the business. Almost made me wish I were there.

  10. Ed Horst says

    An awesome review of another legend in the music.. front row seats probably helped tremendously hearing Bob.. being there would of been icing on the cake..

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