An Early Christmas

The Dylan Concert, Thursday October 22, 1998
Duluth, Minnesota

It was a great concert. I will start with that.

Let's put things in perspective. Duluth has been waiting for Dylan a long long time. Even though he's been said to hail from Hibbing, everyone here knows he was born here and lived in Duluth's Central HIllside till he was six.

Native Duluthians have lobbied hard to bring him home again, but with no such luck. Some even sought to name a street after him a few years back, but the City Council voted against it. The arguments against ran along this line: He has never sung here or come here or tried to make a tie with us here, why should he be honored here?

Well, the Faithful were rewarded. Dylan played a wonderful concert for the 8,000 loyalists present on Thursday night, October 22. The tickets for this Homecoming were snapped up in approximately 5 and a half hours nearly six weeks previous and I was one of those who got lucky.

A little background on the reviewer:
For me, it was like having an early Christmas. Yes, I was counting the days. Yes, I have been a longtime fan. There is a Dylan poster on the door to my office, that one from his 1960 concert at the Underground Cavern in Greenwich Village. And a framed Saturday Evening Post cover featuring "a rare picture of Bob Dylan in seclusion" (November 2, 1968) hangs on my office wall. For Christmas last year I asked for, and received in my stocking, the Time Out of Mind CD. I listened to it nearly every day the first month of 1998. (It is a habit of mine to attempt to "internalize" my favorite music.) In short, I was pumped, expectant of a special evening. As it turns out, my high expectations were not disappointed.

The concert was held in the arena of the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center. The arena floor was festival-style seating, which means no seats at all, so the crowd mashes up to the stage or dances or does whatever else there is space to do. A lot of the time they enthusiastically waved their raised arms.

Before the show I walked down to the railing directly overlooking the side of the stage and studied the racks of guitars. There must have been nearly a dozen guitars in racks on both sides of the stage which would be used during the show. The soundboards were enormous, and the men who were operating the equipment seemed so small in comparison.

The lights dimmed at precisely 7:30 and I returned to my aisle seat in the third row of Section 12.

You could still see a lot of empty seats when the warm up band, David Allen and the Guilty Men, took the stage. I'm not sure where these guys came from or who lined them up, but they did not seem totally inappropriate. They had a tough job because they had to make music for a crowd that clearly had one purpose in being present at this event: to revere the Legend.

I personally enjoyed them. The sound system was good. Their rockabilly energy was palpable and by the end of their set they successfully made me forget, albeit only temporarily, why I had come here this night. That is to say, they were talented, played with vitality and didn't shrink from their task.

It was a short, efficient exhibition, and they quickly took their leave. Preparations were made, equipment swept away, new mikes re-arranged. Lights came down, and the crowd was roaring as the Master and his group walked in from the back of the stage.

As he did in Saskatchewan, Dylan opened with Gotta Serve Somebody from his Slow Train Coming album. The crowd was excited. It was Dylan, live. The Man. The real thing. But I think there was also a bit of reserve in the air. The opening bars were not familiar to everyone. And for those who knew the song, it was different than we knew it. It was rockier... and, even though I personally know the words, I wanted to have the crowd hear and understand the words, too. So I had simultaneous emotions: an emotional rush from Dylan's presence, and a niggling concern about where the concert was going. As it turns out, I should not have been concerned.

The next day's newspaper headlines pretty much tell the story: "Legend makes fans' dreams come true," and (subhead) "Homecoming concert puts diehard followers into a nostalgic swoon," and "Dylan brings it home to packed DECC," and "Legendary singer gives his birthplaces a historic performance." The front page head proclaimed, simply, "Dylan brings it home." Dylan played 12 songs before leaving the stage and being "forced" back for an encore. The encore set went five songs. The crowd was pumped, screaming, beside themselves, ecstatic... and Dylan appeared to clearly enjoy the warmth and appreciation.

General comments on a few facets of the performance and then commentary on the songs.

A. Sound quality.... I do not know how many concerts they have at the DECC, but I was impressed by the fullness of the sound without it being annoyingly overpowering. The sound, from where I sat, was excellent.

B. Dylan's Mannerisms
The man himself... what a strange combination of moves. I saw a lot of things in his movement and expression that seemed, well, different. I mean, he does that usual guitar player schtick, but some of the moves seem like he's striking poses according to an inward script... Then there were some of those effeminate flourishes which no one seems to say anything about. And the almost shy manner in which he conducts himself. And, well, he is a character. Sometimes intense, sometimes amusing, always Dylan.

C. Song Selection
I thought it a wonderful mix of past and present. Of course, I loved all of his material... but, wow, like he played some of my favorites and in new ways that we haven't heard before. Ballad of a Thin Man, Don't Think Twice, Just Like a Woman.... and all the new stuff from his Time Out of Mind.... The encore selections were perfect... and when he did Blowing In The Wind, I felt like I was no longer at a music concert, but at a Master's Presentation. Seriously, I was moved up to another level ... Then, Dylan's Benediction: "May You Stay Forever Young."

D. The Bands
The papers had only a single sentence of commetary on the warm up band. (They "played real loud.") I'm still curious where these guys came from.

The guy seated next to me said Dylan's band members are the same guys who played with him in Green Bay six years ago, which produced a fabulous concert for a small crowd... absolutely leveled the place with venom and vibes. (Opened with Jokerman and never slowed down). The Duluth concert, happily, was not that concert, because I personally loved both the hard stuff and the acoustic stuff, and was impressed by the range of sounds, from subdued to pugnacious.

E. The Crowd
I think the papers did a good job of covering the crowd. I used my binocs to survey the audience and saw a fair number of unimpressed people in the seats above, though there were many dancing in the aisles as well. The floor crowd seemed more with it, swaying and swooning,... and yes, there were those like me in the upper sections who had big smiles on their faces, soaking it in.

F. No Talking?
The local papers made a big deal of a comical issue with regards to whether Dylan would acknowledge that he was born here. Would he say anything like, "Hello, Duluth" or some kind of statement to that effect? He did not say anything other than to introduce the members of his band.
The few words he said were unintelligible for me. I intended to write down the names of the band members as they were introduced. I did not catch a one.

It didn't bother me. As far as I am concerned, let his lyrics speak. Listen to what he sang. Maybe something was happening there and a few people didn't know what it was.

Oh, and I should mention that after the first number, I actually did catch most of the lyrics. Of course, I already know the songs, so maybe it is easier for me.

At this point, I will remind you that I am only telling what I saw and experienced, not what the papers interpreted for me.

G. Biggest Surprise
I guess for me, personally, the biggest surprise was how much Dylan loved to play guitar and that he is a guitar player who can really wail. I mean, I have always type-cast the guy as a poet/songwriter/artist. But I realized this night that he is an emminent musician and a unique performer. It was a fabulous experience and a rare treat for Duluth.

The audience was high on Dylan from the start, but there were places during the concert where it bumped up a notch. He opened with Gotta Serve Somebody in a fuller rock style than his original album, followed by I'll Remember You, from Empire Burlesque. My guess is that a lot of the crowd did not have these albums and was not familiar with the songs. Then came Cold Irons Bound, which was cranking. This one, from his Time Out of Mind album is one of my favorites, and the strange chord progression is tantalizing, tormenting, truly original, piercing.

Nevertheless, the crowd, not as familiar with these tunes, did not break loose till the harmonica intro to Just Like A Woman. He played that harm with loud delight, repeating the chords almost a few times too many, just rubbing it in our faces, and the crowd drank it up.

The song Can't Wait, which followed, is also from his newest album, and it is another favorite of mine. There is this little guitar piece in there that he also kept repeating. He seemed to enjoy the whole process of performing, and pushing the limits. He appeared to be having fun as he did slow, twisting knee bends, getting down inside the sound he was making.

The last electric tune of this first segment was Silvio.... not a favorite of mine, but it makes a lively showpiece. On his Greatest HIts #3 album (which selects one song from each album since Blood on the Tracks) Silvio is the selection from his Down In The Groove album, and one that he purportedly enjoys playing in concerts. (I checked his playlists from five years ago, and Silvio is there, too.) "Find out something only dead men know."

At this point, the electric guitars were put away and acoustic guitars brought out. The slide guitar guy switched to mandolin and electric bass was replaced with stand up bass cello. I found the sound to be extremely satisfying, well produced.

Tomorrow Is A Long Time opened the acoustic portion of the program followed by Masters Of War. While singing Masters of War I thought about the messages he sings, the prophetic challenges, the put downs, the biting insightful commentary in his lyrics, and how out of character it would be for him to smile while singing much of this material. His pointed, scorching words were perfectly released.

Tangled Up In Blue proved to be catalyst that turned the crowd ballistic. The energy moved higher still with each verse and the excitation continued as he entered into Don't Think Twice, It's All Right. The band executed like a top notch bluegrass jam session. They were tight, volcanic and alive.

Guitars were exchanged and the sound turned electric again for Ballad Of A Thin Man. Wow. Wow! Did I say wow? This was powerful stuff and he laid it all right out there.

Til I Fell In Love With You closed the "official" program and the place was reelin' and a rockin'... the crowd dancing all over the arena... (except the sourpussed, non-plussed and disappointed remnant who do not know the Man or his music.)

Suddenly, it was over....though I don't think anyone believed it would end there. The crowd roared for more, and they got it. A gracious Dylan soon returned to the stage.

The encore set began with Love Sick. It's yet another great song from his new album and the crowd was not familiar with it. They respectfully listened to the haunting lyrics, which were well enunciated right through to its twist ending.

Then the dam burst. Rainy Day Women #12 & 35 has got to be the ultimate party song and a boisterous, celebratory mood permeated the arena.

Guitars were exchanged and a wondrous Blowin' In The Wind followed and something I did not expect happened. It was somewhat akin to an epiphany. The crowd was there soaking it in, the music was dynamic and fully present, but I was absent. I had moved to a higher plane, transcendant, somehow saw myself watching the concert, recognized that I, yet not I, was in the presence of a man who has made an impact on a whole generation. This was a historical moment and a historical man. It was not just another entertainment venue, just another concert. Dylan's importance came through to me as he sang Blowin' In The Wind, with the crowd joining in on the choruses.

And finally, we went to Highway 61 Revisited. This is real homeboy stuff. Highway 61 is Minnesota, is here and now and yet was back then. Through the music of this man it is now a symbol of something more than a mere thoroughfare. It's fun, fume and fame. It's a symbol of place and promise and possibility. And the audience continued to drink from the well, with reverential joy.

The final number was performed after Dylan again left the stage and returned. It served as both a second encore and a benediction. It began as a rock concert, but now, with sermons ended and anthems sung, we received his parting words of hope and promise.

May God bless and keep you always
May your wishes all come true
May you always do for others
And let others do for you
May you build a ladder to the stars
And climb on every rung
And may you stay forever young
May you stay forever young

It was a great concert. I will end with the same closing. May you stay forever young.