Bob Dylan And Mavis Staples At the Beacon Theatre, Friday, November 24th, 2017, Reviewed
Yesterday was a good show where Dylan 2016 wasn’t and some of the acclaim must go to an audience in tune with his endeavors. At the third of a four night Beacon Theatre residency, with Gospel singer Mavis Staple opening, the response was much more than the bemused shoulder shrugs or worse that greeted Dylan at Forest Hill (my review here). Perhaps the a third of the size venue meant you really must have wanted a seat to buy one, perhaps the zipcode is perfect for the older super-fan. Dylan was a little better as well. He’d been selling his mix and match Sinatra meets Dylan songbook for 18 months and he had it down where last time the transitions between forms were jarring. While Dylan was alarmingly cold to the audience even by his standards, still the connection was powerful.
Mavis Staples was excellent though I wish we had gotten “Freedom Highway”. As a live act, Mavis is an anti-Dylan, a joyful and kind woman who cracks jokes, talks to her band members and reaches out to us over and over again, shaking hands with the front row, making fun with the way Dylan dances, and belting out every song with pipes that, as Helen Bach noted, blow your toupee off. I recently dismissed Staples new Jeff Tweedy collaboration If All I Was Was Black, I don’t care for Jeff’s pretentious seriousness and moribund Americana, but both of the songs she performed from the album, especially “Build A Bridge” were good enough for a set that opened with “Touch A Hand, Make A Friend” and closed with “I’ll Take You There”. The small band, with only two backing singers, were first rate and guitarist Rick Holmstrom’s solo on “Ain’t No Doubt ABout It” stopped the show and had Mavis thinking of taking up the instrument herself, as Rick noted, with Pop Staples as her father she sure has the genes for it.
Bob Dylan started at the top last night, “All the truth in the world adds up to ONE BIG LIE” he thundered at us. Everything you want to know about his political and otherwise feelings summed up in a thundering nolle prosequi. Opening the evening behind a grand piano, and spending three quarters of the evening right there, Dylan’s answer song to “The Times They Are A-Changin'” is as pessimistic and overwhelmed as ever and was performed with a cliffhanger battering ram. The second best moment of the evening though, his take on the Tony Bennett classic “Once Upon A Time,” comes close. During Dylan songs, he remained behind the piano, during the Great American Songbook Triplicate, etc songs, he stood to the back, next to Charlie Sexton, and swung his microphone with confidence before standing legs agape with his right hand on his hip. It was odd, eccentric , and while I preferred the Sinatra, et al songs to the 2016 takes, I miss his free form dancing. Speaking of which, have you seen the Trouble No More DVD? Dylan was quite literally jumping for joy in 1979.
Not everything worked. The re-written “Tangled Up In Blue” -with a martial beat and his rhymes in tatters, was a personal worse. One of his best new songs “Early Roman Kings” was messed with and not as good as the original. If those two didn’t work, “Highway 61 Revisited” was Americana rockabilly, “Autumn Leaves” bereft and old and aging, while “Honest With Me,” “Desolation Row,” and a “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven” (he kills the “I went to sugar town, I shook the sugar down” line -we always wait for that one!) that reminded you once again how great Time Out Of Mind was -listen to Lucinda William’s excellent take, I missed “Duquesne Whistle” though I did get three songs off Tempest.
The set itself was brilliantly conceived. Five American Songbook, five golden age, nine late 20th and through 21st century songs and one off a movie soundtrack. At 105 minutes in length it was a consistently pleasurable experience with a couple of songs more than that. But why so gnomic with the audience? Let our former President Barack Obama explain it for you: “He came in and played ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’.’…Finishes the song, steps off the stage – I’m sitting right in the front row – comes up, shakes my hand, sort of tips his head, gives me just a little grin, and then leaves. And that was it – then he left. That was our only interaction with him. And I thought: That’s how you want Bob Dylan, right? You don’t want him to be all cheesin’ and grinnin’ with you. You want him to be a little skeptical about the whole enterprise. So that was a real treat.”