The Final Word (Seeing Dylan in Cleveland)

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Part way through this project I realized that none of it would make sense unless I saw Bob Dylan perform live this year. For someone who tours as relentlessly as he does, this seemed like it would be likely to happen but I worried a bit that it might not. Dylan began his touring this year with a couple dozen shows in Japan in March and April, ending in Hawaii. Nice places to visit, but I wasn’t flying that far. In June he went to Europe: Ireland, Turkey, Greece, Romania. I was in Europe (London) in July, but Dylan was in Eastern Germany at that time. It was a possible trip but it seemed to be a major logistics headache. In August and September he went to New Zealand and Australia. At this point I started to worry a lot more. Was it possible that he wasn’t going to tour North America this year? The tour finally came in October and November, beginning in Seattle and ending in New York. I actually missed the initial announcement – I had stopped checking his site for a bit around the beginning of the school year because I was busy. Finally, however, I got my act together and tried to figure out where I would see him play.
My plan was to see him only once. I didn’t want to see multiple shows – I figured once would be the magic number. I also wanted, if possible, a direct flight from Calgary and a minimal disruption to my life. The problem was that I had already booked a lot of fall travel for work. Seattle was out because my wife was away that weekend so I needed to stay home. LA was possible but it meant three straight weekends of travel for either my wife or me. Some thought was given to Denver, although I had just been there in June. Minneapolis would have been great – home town show (sort of) – but the three shows were midweek, and, thus, maximally disruptive. Chicago was on a free weekend, but I was travelling each of the next two weeks. Toronto’s shows were on a Monday and Tuesday, and I teach Mondays. They were out.
In the end, the best option was Cleveland. I had to be in Columbus the day after the Cleveland show to give the kick-off keynote at a conference at The Ohio State University, but it seemed very easy to fly to Cleveland a day early and then rent a car and get down to Columbus. Tickets were purchased, plans were made. A minor wrinkle was thrown into the works when the conference schedule was announced and I learned that I was speaking at 9:00 the morning after the concert – which meant either driving to Columbus immediately after the concert in the dark of night and getting little sleep, or getting up around 5:30 and driving to the campus. Since I didn’t know the route, I opted to do the night drive in case things went horribly awry – the thought of desperately trying to find where I was speaking while running out of time was scary to me.
I flew into Cleveland on November 11, arriving late at night – I got to my hotel just before they discontinued room service. In the morning I awoke, did some work, and headed out to see Cleveland. My first stop was the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, of which, Dylan is an inductee.
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I have to say: I did not think much of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It’s $23.50 to get in, and it’s just a hot mess. It’s like the Experience Music Project in Seattle, which I also didn’t like when I visited it a few years ago. The problem with venues like this is that it is very hard to do a good job with audio in a museum. It can be done fantastically, but you need to really think it through and give over the space. They haven’t done that. You can stand at a wall with a display on “The Motown Sound” and there’s a tv looping a VH1 quality doc about it, but ten feet away is another wall about “New York Punk” and you can hear both at the same time. The sound was generally awful. So then you’re left looking at Jimi Hendrix’s guitars and clothes, which is pretty much all they can show. I did like how inclusive the whole thing was – the Seattle grunge area is not just Nirvana, and Pearl Jam, but about twenty different bands – so kudos on that – but the layout is awful and the sound is atrocious. It’s like they just purchased plans for “Generic Postmodern Museum Building” and built it beside the lake and plunked in the exhibits with no thoughts given at all to sound design. Not recommended. Also, there is very little Dylan material – he is the most significant figure who does not have his own dedicated area and they had maybe two or three pieces of memorabilia for him. I think that is because he has hasn’t given them any. Most of the stuff is “collection of X” where X is the actual person (or a relative if the person is dead). Dylan probably doesn’t like to share. So that was a disappointment.
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So then I went to downtown Cleveland where it was cold and windy and I got a headache and I tried to determine if it was a) lack of sleep, b) lack of coffee, c) caught a cold on the plane, d) low pressure system. I bought Tylenol, coffee and Guinness in that order and it got sorted out.
Cleveland. Well, what is there to say? It’s a weird midwestern town with some great old stone buildings. Sort of half way between Minneapolis (which is bigger, newer, nicer) and Green Bay. It was fine. They have a nice restaurant and bar area that would be fun for 24 hours if I were going with friends to see a Browns game. I mostly just wandered around the downtown area window-shopping. At one point I wondered to myself: Where is Dylan’s tour bus? While walking around the block to find it, I suddenly heard music coming from the loading dock. I stood there in the cold – a storm rolled in the next day – and listened to the sound check. It was super muddled. I mean, you could hear that Dylan was singing but you could never have made out the words. You could hear that it was a blues song, but that was about it. Dylan talked a bit to the band or the sound man, but I have no idea what he said. People walking by me probably thought I was nuts. When that was over I went and stared at his two buses hoping to see him walk out to one, but I didn’t see that.
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I ate dinner at a place beside the State Theatre and chatted with a lot of people who had arrived in town following Dylan from Chicago. I had to sit at the bar because I had no reservation – hadn’t even occurred to me – and that was fine because it was a little more social. People think you’re a hardcore when they find out you’ve come from Calgary to Cleveland to see a Dylan show, but there were people far more hardcore than me all over the place. About a half hour before the show I walked next door.
The State Theatre on Euclid Avenue is really gorgeous. The State Theate is behind the Ohio Theatre (which was running the play Newsies), but in order to have the address be Euclid Avenue you enter and then the lobby is long and thin and more than 300 feet long. Apparently it’s the longest theatre lobby in the world. The whole venue opened in 1921 as the flagship Ohio Loew’s Theatre. It must have been something. Apparently the venue fell into disrepair by the end of the 1960s, and was almost razed for a parking lot in the early-1970s. Eventually it was bought by the county and renovated at the end of the 1970s and into the 1980s (you can tell this without looking it up just by reading the names of the donors). It’s in great condition now, and holds about 3,200 people.
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I got my ticket and found my seat, about twenty rows back and on the left side. This was the preferable side to be able to see Dylan face on when he was at the piano, and that was simply fortuitous. The stage had a beautiful set up with a series of lamps that gave the whole thing a very “old timey” feel. The grand piano was on the right, drums centre and the band gathered in a semi-circle.
The crowd was primarily older. The two couples directly behind me were clearly in their 70s (one of the men was talking about his experiences in the Vietnam War) and had seen Dylan many times. The couple immediately beside me were the same, but clearly hadn’t seen him often or recently. There were younger people, to be sure, but they were a small minority (I recently saw Loretta Lynn play live and I think that there was a higher percentage of twenty-somethings in that crowd than in this one). The “young” people tended to be like me – in their 40s – but the typical concert goer was 60s or older. There was also a largish group down front who seemed to be composed of the people following the tour in from Chicago and heading on to points east afterward. I would break the crowd up this ways: Five per cent people who had seen other shows on this tour. Forty-five per cent people like me who had a strong sense of what they were about to see (I knew exactly what I was going to see – I had read the reviews from Minneapolis and Chicago and I knew that Dylan was playing the exact same set every night – so I knew what song was next every single time he played something). Fifty per cent were people who used to know Dylan and were upset by the show. The people beside me were in this category. After a few songs they stopped clapping. They didn’t know the songs. They didn’t want to know. They wanted “Like a Rolling Stone”. They pouted. Even when he did “Blowin’ in the Wind” in the encore they pouted. A sizeable number of people walked out during the show – maybe ten per cent? Those people were idiots, by the way.
If you’ve read anything at all about Dylan’s 2014 US tour you will know that he essentially played the same show every night of the tour. The differences were extremely small. In some earliest shows he played “All Along the Watchtower”, but that got dropped after a short time. In some of the early shows he didn’t play “Blowin’ in the Wind” as part of the encore. By the time he hit Minneapolis the set was set in stone and unvarying. This seemed particular to the US shows, and, to a lesser extent, to the Australia/NZ ones. The shows that he played in Europe had a lot of contemporary-ish (i.e. post-2000) material, but he was still playing “To Ramona” and “Shelter From the Storm” and other older pieces. This was not the case by the time he got to Cleveland. Two things were important: first, the set was always the same, and, second, there were two songs from the 1960s, two from the 1970s, and everything else was post-2000, including several songs from Tempest.
In his 2012 Rolling Stone interview, Dylan said this about Modern Times:
Well . . . the Time Out of Mind record, that was the beginning of me making records for an audience that I was playing to night after night. They were different people from different walks of life, different environments and ages. There was no reason for these new people to hear songs I’d written 30 years earlier for different purposes. If I was going to continue on, what I needed were new songs, and I had to write them, not necessarily to make records, but to play for the public.
This was definitely what this 2014 US tour was about – Dylan needed “new songs” to play for the public. It is, presumably, what so angered my seat neighbours and others who walked out. If you thought you were going to get a greatest hits show, well, you probably haven’t paid much attention to Bob Dylan in a couple of decades. I feel bad for people who buy something and don’t get what they want, although at this point I do think people should have some sense of what Dylan is doing. This is what we heard:
1. “Things Have Changed”. Dylan arrived on stage about a minute after his band did and he stood at the mic at centre stage. They did a lively and spare version of this song that had a western swing vibe. Dylan’s vocals weren’t entirely clear in the passages where the lyrics float by quickly, but he was singing much more than talking through this one.
2. “She Belongs to Me”. A very slow version of this one, again very minimalist. Dylan played harmonica (twice) on this, which brought a big ovation. This was the only song from the 1960s in the main portion of the show. This was an incredibly lovely version of this song, and I thought it was much stronger than the version of “Things Have Changed”.
3. “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’”. Dylan moved over to the piano at this point. This was a dark version of this, somewhat subdued, but better than the album version. Nice, crisp guitar fills from Charlie Sexton. This was more talk-sung than sung.
4. “Workingman’s Blues #2”. This one foregrounded the slide guitar, and Dylan definitely talk-sung this one in the verses, but he did interesting things with the chorus. I was critical of this song when I wrote about Modern Times, but I did like this version live. The crowd clapped mid-song for this one at the end of the chorus, which was the highlight of the presentation.
5. “Waiting for You”. The most obscure song in the set is this waltz from the soundtrack of The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. Dylan danced a step or two. Nicely done.
6. “Duquesne Whistle”. First song from Tempest. Dylan was back on piano. This was the first up tempo number that they played. This version was a lot less aggressive than the (great) album version version – a lot of piano and brush drum. Dylan was strongly singing at this point.
7. “Pay in Blood”. And the second from Tempest. Dylan was at the centre stage mic again for this. This was very similar to the album version – certainly the closest to the album version of any song that we had yet heard.
8. “Tangled Up in Blue”. This was the first time I thought that I was going to lose it. This song really got to me. It’s been one of my absolute favourites for so long and it just really, really hit me. He sang this so well. When he drops his voice to sing “I helped her out of a jam I guess” I had never heard him do anything similar to it. The place applauded loudly after “Early one morning” because this was a song that everyone in the venue knew. I had been enjoying the show a great deal up to this point, but this song took it to another level for me. Dylan has, once again, crafted new lyrics for this (though I don’t know when he debuted these new lyrics, or if it was even 2014): the car is abandoned “somewhere in the wilderness”. Third and fourth verses were skipped. The whole fifth verse was changed. The most important part, it seemed to me, was: “She lit a burner on the stove / and swept away the dust / You look like someone I used to know she said / You look like someone I used to trust”. Harmonica solo! What a great harmonica solo! Huge applause. Sixth verse was also skipped. The seventh verse is also changed: “Yesterday is dead and gone / and tomorrow might as well be now”. This was just so amazingly great. So, so great.
9. “Love Sick”. This sounded a lot like it does on Time Out of Mind. Sort of whisper-sung with some menace. Nice, tight version of this. At the end of this the band and Dylan left the stage (smoke break?) and Dylan talked to us for the only time, basically saying “We’ll be right back”
Some people left at intermission, or went to buy a drink. I was sort of in a daze a bit, so I just sat in my seat and waited for him to come back.
10. “High Water (For Charley Patton)”. Dylan’s site notes that he has now done this song live 563 times, making it one of the more stable parts of his repertoire over the past decade and a half. This was a different version than what he was playing a few years ago, although it still has the banjo, so I was happy. The phrasing is quite different though, while the music sounds pretty similar to how it’s always been. I thought this was interesting.
11. “Simple Twist of Fate”. Second song from Blood on the Tracks, and only the third from pre-2000. This was a slightly altered version of a song whose lyrics Dylan has long toyed with. Three nice harmonica solos here too – the second one especially. This was appropriately plaintive.
12. “Early Roman Kings”. Third song from Tempest. Really only the second up tempo song of the evening. This was much better live than it is on the album. It still has the very basic blues structure, but it worked a lot better here than the recorded version – there was more musical variation, and Dylan added quite a bit on piano.
13. “Forgetful Heart”. This one was played very slowly, even more slowly than it is on Together Through Life. Some fiddle, some harmonica, almost no guitar, like one drum beat every twenty seconds. This was fantastic – hypnotic – revelatory. This was one of the best things that they did all night.
14. “Spirit on the Water”. Dylan has also really taken to this song from Modern Times. Not only has he played it more than 400 times, but he has a t-shirt featuring it. I think that this is a song that he sees as really important to the performer that he is now. He played lively piano on this, and sang it in a really upbeat mode. The final verse: “You think I’m over the hill / You think I’m past my prime / Let me see what you got / We can have a whoppin’ good time” was met with howls from the audience, who screamed “Noooooo” loudly at the suggestion that Dylan was over the hill or past his prime. I know I’m repeating myself, but this was great too. Super fun.
15. “Scarlet Town”. Fourth song from Tempest. This one was semi-chanted at us. Quite similar to the album version, really.
16. “Soon After Midnight”. Fifth song from Tempest. This is a crooning song, with some beautiful slide guitar and Dylan on the piano. A lovely version. I think highly of this song, and I thought that this was a wonderful version.
17. “Long and Wasted Years””. Sixth song from Tempest. Last song of the show before the encore. I am not going to lie – I almost cried. Seriously, you try to write a blog about someone for ten and a half months and name it after one of that person’s songs, and then have that same person sing that to you at the end of a tremendous show. I mean, I knew from the set lists that it was coming, but when that descending guitar piece came, well, it was a gut punch. This was one of the best things that happened to me all year. I really felt like the guy from Experiment Ensam – like Dylan was singing this one just for me. It couldn’t have been any better.
Dylan took a while before the encore. He got a standing ovation from most, but some people – including my seat neighbours – sat stoically to show their displeasure at so much Tempest, Modern Times, and Together Through Life.
18. “Blowin’ in the Wind”. This was a really different version of this anthem, making it a lot less anthemic and more fitting with the show that we’d just seen. Dylan played piano and the phrasing was very jazzy. Some fiddle here too. The whole place was standing for this – except for the haters. Huge cheers at the end of the chorus.
19. “Stay With Me”. This will be the third song on the new album, and if it sounds like it did here all will be right with Shadows in the Night.
All in all, I thought that this was a tremendous show. Certainly the best Dylan show I have ever seen. The band was really skilled. It was an interesting use of the band – they were so restrained. Dylan allows them very few showcase moments or flourishes. It is clear how skillful they are, even when they don’t get a real opportunity to demonstrate that. The focus is all on Dylan, and all on the songs themselves.
This is the most consistently unchanging set that Dylan has played since his earliest gospel tours thirty-five years ago. It is clear that Dylan really believes in this sequence of songs – that he feels he has put together an ideal Dylan show for the current moment, otherwise he wouldn’t be doing this same thing again and again. “What I needed were new songs”, he told Mikal Gilmore, and these are those songs.
Over the next couple of days in Columbus I spoke to a number of people who had seen this tour in Oakland and Chicago and elsewhere. Everyone, without exception, agreed that the show had been among the best Dylan shows that they had ever seen. His singing was tremendous, and he did things with his voice that he rarely does. I really felt that we were seeing a Dylan that deeply, deeply cared about the songs he was performing. It was fantastic.
There is no doubt in my mind that going to Cleveland to see Bob Dylan was the best part of this blog for me and that the experience would have been hollow if I hadn’t had the opportunity. I spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about Dylan this year – learning about him and his music, and trying to come to terms with it. It was at the State Theatre that I really felt that I had accomplished that – it was there that I realized that I “got” what Dylan was doing. Or at least that I got it as much as anyone can get someone as inscrutable as Bob Dylan.
A colleague wrote to me the other day to comment on this project and one thing that he said really struck me. He noted that the one year – one week constraint had the effect of levelling Dylan’s career. He noted that so many Dylan writers construct Dylan from within their own constraints. Read Greil Marcus, for example, who writes as if everything Dylan did in the 1970s and 1980s is a personal betrayal of Greil Marcus, and that then Dylan mysteriously returned to him around 1997. For a lot of music writers, Dylan is 1963 to 1966 and a little bit of the 1970s. By placing no more emphasis on 1966 than I did on 1986 or 2006, I do think I got to see Dylan in a different light – perhaps one that is a bit more dispassionate. I’m surprised by a lot of the things that I thought were the highpoints of the year. Yes, I like 1963 to 1966 too, and I love Blood on the Tracks, but I have a huge affection for some of the early 1970s material and I think that his gospel tours rank right at the top of anything he ever did. I think Infidels (and its outtakes) might be my favourite Dylan period at the moment (the rumours that there is a tape of Dylan playing all of Infidels solo on the piano makes me want a Bootleg Series release of that right now). Going a week at a time means that the dead spots aren’t as deadening.
I also think that listening to so much – and reading so much – in such a compressed time made me pay more attention to the moments of coherence rather than the moments of difference. Dylan is always written about as a chameleon who constantly changes (see I’m Not There for a great version of this Dylan). Yet taking it all in makes me think that he’s been remarkably consistent in his musical interests over five decades. The covers of old pop songs on Basement Tapes Complete fit nicely with Theme Time Radio Hour which fits nicely with an album of Sinatra songs. Marcus, to his credit, was on the right track when he wrote that Dylan was fixated on the music of an “old, weird America”. Listening to him in Cleveland, where the show seemed all of one piece, it was striking how songs written over five decades were able to sound like they were all of the same moment. There seems to be a core Dylan that is sometimes overshadowed by writers who want to suggest that he is ever-changing.
Driving out of Cleveland to Columbus in the dark, I listened to Bob Dylan play on my iPhone. I don’t like to drive with earphones in and I couldn’t link to the car stereo by bluetooth, so I used the tinny speakers of my phone on the seat next to me and I got one Dylan phrase stuck in my head:
Outside the lights were shining
On the river of tears

I watched them from the distance
With music in my ears
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In this long and wasted year I went to see my own gypsy.
You know what?
It was a great.