Bob Dylan At Forest Hills Stadium, Friday, July 8th, 2016, Review
Bob Dylan’s last two releases not part of the bootleg series were Frank Sinatra cover albums, rearrangements of 1930s to 1950s populist pop songs for Americana style rock bands. There were no strings, no trumpets, it wasn’t really jazz, but they were precisely those songs in a manner his rocking encore of “Blowin’ In The Wind” last night was not precisely “Blowin’ In The Wind”, Dylan honored the songs before the style. At Forest Hills Stadium, seven of the twenty songs he performed in a two set, two hour performance, were from those cover albums, Shadow In The Night and Fallen Angels. This wasn’t exactly a problem, though it was certainly overkill, the change of pace less quietened down the set and more changed the momentum. As far as Dylan’s performance is concerned, while not entirely integrated into the set, the lyrically content seemed to poke out sideways, they were integrated enough.Me? I loved both those albums, and while I didn’t love his last album of new songs, Tempest, of the five songs from Tempest, “Long And Wasted Years”, “Duquesne Whistle” and especially “Early Roman Kings” were among the best of the show.
In patent leather shoes, and a wide brimmed Rolling Thunder Tour lookalike chapeau, called the Thunderclap, the man was quite a dashing figure. The hat didn’t hide his face in shade the way the 2012 hat did. Dylan was dapper without being hippie or gypsy, he looked his age and ageless and his reticience, his thus far and no further lack of interaction with the audience, only added to the mystique. It is a neat trick, being at the pinnacle of popular music for at least 51 years, the last time he played Forest Hills, and yet remaining positively inscrutable, no one else has ever done it. Dylan smiled often enough and while he didn’t speak much, he wasn’t ill mannered. Any sense of moment for his first performance at Forest Hills since the 1960s was nonexistent (as Costello noted in his autobiography, Dylan was no longer ever nervous before a performance, “I wish I was” he had said). Dylan didn’t pick up his guitar once, he sang many songs mid-stage into a mic, dancing backwards towards Charlie Sexton during the instrumental breaks. Dylan moved steadily between the mic and the piano, breaking out his harp for a couple of songs. Unlike the 1990s when he had a coupla 100 songs rehearsed and chose which ones to perform on the day of, the setlist has been set in stone all year, and he didn’t veer off it.
This all, more or less, appealed greatly to me, but not so much to the audience. If they had come for the hits, they weren’t there for the most part. An early “She Belongs To Me”, a first set closing “Tangled Up In Blue”, and a first song of the encore “Blowin’ In The Wind” and on your bike. The audience was restless and talkative, it was hard to find something to cling on to: the roar for the opening chords to ” Tangled Up In Blue” -a really great performance with Dylan behind the mic, behind the harp and behind the piano, was almost a sigh of relief, while a superb vocal on “All Or Nothing At All” was met with tolerance, a sort of let the old coot have his way one, which didn’t fit the performance.
As mentioned, this was Dylan’s first time back at the venue since 1965, a month after going electric. There is a similarity between the times, the civil rights wars of the 1960s and the #blacklivematters of the 2010s, mold the two performances together. So does Mavis Staples, who joined the walk on Selma besides her father, Pop Staples, and her father figure, Dr. Martin Luther King. As Helen Bach noted the other day, “Mavis Staples at age 76 has a set of pipes that will blow your toupee off.” Well, quite, and with a three piece band behind her, Mavis parsed the line between then and now, she covered both Buffalo Springfield (a pointed “For What It’s Worth”) and Talking Heads “Slippery People”, and then connected the dots with “Freedom Highway” before a terrific “I’ll Take You There” to take us there -keep your eyes out if she plays a headlining gig, well worth your time.
Dylan opened with one of his very best songs, “Things Have Changed” -the past couple of years he has brought it out of mothballs and let it take “Silvio”‘s place in the repertoire, it is hard to deny it, and it is like a warning shot across the bow. So was a spirited “Spirit On The Water” where Dylan jumped hard on “You think I’m over the hill, you think I’m past my prime, let me see what you got”. It was an intoxicating swing song, with Dylan so fast on his feet, so committed. to the performance.
But in the last five times I’ve seen him, this was the least good. The Sinatra songs… he couldn’t quite fit them in, maybe if he had cut it to four, even for fans (as opposed to meet the legend that way lie giants rubberneckers) may have had whiplash. Even if you love, or at least know, “Beyond Here Lies Nothin'”, you might not want to hear it followed by “The Night We Called It A Day” , he couldn’t pull off from Robert Hunter to Tom Adair, the former weakened the latter. And while “Lost And Wasted Years” was a complete shock to me, the lick explodes on stage, “Scarlett Town” sure wasn’t. All his late 1990s masterpiece, with the exception of evening closer “Lovesick”, were non persona grata.
Having said all that, I loved Dylan’s performance, he was in fine voice, his band, a small, tight little unit, know the songs backwards, and yet between the misplaced pacing and an audience shut out and patiently waiting to love him, it wasn’t a great concert.
(ps: No pictures allowed and strictly enforced where I was sitting, so the one above is of the concession stand)