Ames IA, Mankata MN, Milwaukee WI -- Oct 23, 24, 26, 2019

I became enthralled with Bob Dylan's music in my teens. In the months leading up to my first concert in the spring of 2000, I remember thinking "I can't believe Bob Dylan is still alive. I should go see him while he's still around."

The '90s were a time when the questions that rattled around your brain couldn't be so easily and quickly answered. Some things could still be mysterious. You only have to rewind 20 years. Remember rewinding?

When I decided to go see Bob Dylan for the first time, I remember wondering all sorts of things. I wondered what he looked and sounded like now. I wondered what the venue would be like. I wondered what his audiences were like. I wondered if he played with a band or if he just played solo acoustic the entire show. I wondered what songs he would play. At that point, he'd probably released about 400 songs over the course of the previous 40 years, and I knew at most a few dozen of them, mostly the ones recorded more than three decades earlier.

The internet was young and offered answers to very few of these questions. I was going to have to go find these things out myself.

Bob played 18 songs that night, some I knew, most I didn't. What I remember most are the smell of Nag Champa in the air and the visual of Bob standing center stage with his guitar, looking much older than I'd imagined he would. He was in his late 50s, but so was Mick Jagger. What gives? I still had a lot to learn.

As far as the show itself, nothing groundbreaking happened that night in Sioux Falls. But something did happen in my brain. It was a continuation of the spark that caused me, an unambitious 16-year-old with no real opinions on music, art or poetry, to buy a bunch of tickets for my family attend a concert 90 minutes away to see a musician who hadn't had a radio hit in 25 years.

This was the start of something big. I was getting hooked on Bob Dylan.

Fast forward 20 years. Remember fast forwarding?

Seemingly everything in my life has changed. Once a high-school slacker with minimal responsibilities, I'm now a husband and father of four with a real job, a house, a dog, and real things to worry about.

But Bob Dylan is still the same. He's still steering the great ship that is the Never-Ending Tour, about to compete its 31st lap around the globe. He continues to draw from what he called his "wellspring of creativity" that has yet to run dry over the course of thousands of live performances over the last 60 years. He's still capable of delivering magical musical moments that can't be fully captured by a grainy YouTube video or audience recording. It's something you have to be there to feel.

When I attended that first show in 2000, I never imagined it would be the first of more than 50 - mostly because it would have seemed preposterous to think that Bob would continue touring for this long. Among the upper tier of shows I've seen in terms of quality were ones in Kearney, Neb. (4-20-01), Sioux City, Iowa (10-23-01), Ames, Iowa (10-29-02), and Sun City, Arizona (4-8-06). But I tend to think of the highlights of all these shows in terms of moments: When Bob high-fived me from the stage, when I met my wife at the rail, when Willie Nelson threw me his bandana, when Bob played Johnny B. Goode with the Dead, when we threw candy on the stage on Halloween and Bob said "Look at all this stuff!" when I imitated his hand gesture and he laughed at me, when Bob led a crowd sing-along to Just Like a Woman, when he played rarities like Tough Mama and Suzie Baby, when he talked about Obama and Pearl Harbor on election night, when he sang Chimes of Freedom after Obama was elected, the list goes on and on.

At this point, I find every show enjoyable. Just being back in the same room with Bob and the band is a treat. Reviewers haven't always been so kind, and I get where they're coming from. Despite Bob being engaged with his music, I think his growly vocal approach specifically from around 2008 to 2012 was difficult for a lot of people to get past. Fortunately, since the stylistic change in his shows in 2014 and the introduction of the Frank Sinatra covers, I find his vocals to be vastly improved. I can safely say the three-show run at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis in November of 2014 and the three shows we attended this year (Ames, Mankato, Milwaukee) are my favorite shows since 2006.

One of the main reasons for this is Bob's renewed dedication to clear vocals. The quiet, deliberate arrangements on songs like Girl from the North Country, When I Paint My Masterpiece, Lenny Bruce and Not Dark Yet really allowed for some more nuanced singing and clarity. He was just as clear and focused during fiery versions of Can't Wait, Pay in Blood, Early Roman Kings and Ballad of a Thin Man.

I think the contrast between these two groups of songs is what made the recent shows stand out. The slow songs got really slow while the faster songs took on even punchier arrangements. I've read past negative reviews that have complained that all the songs run together and sound the same. That definitely wasn't an issue in the fall of 2019.

These shows are also much more visually interesting. During the mid-2000s there were some years where Bob played strictly keyboard for 20 songs. Now he's center stage for about half the show, bending down and singing into the hand-held mic, playing harmonica, and alternating between standing and sitting at a center-stage piano. There's simply a lot more to look at – even mannequins!

The current setlist itself is also a welcome change. Over the last decade, the set had gone from being heavy on newer songs to being heavy on Sinatra songs. Now it's back to being all Bob originals, with a nice mix of classics (It Ain't Me, Babe, Highway 61, Simple Twist of Fate, Ballad of a Thin Man) and newer material. The first six songs are great and everything from Pay in Blood onward I really enjoyed. My only nitpicks: Honest with Me has been around a bit too long now (the vocals tend to get rushed and sloppy) and Tryin' to get to Heaven, a song I love, doesn't seem to have much of an identity. A couple more classics with updated, fresh arrangements a la Girl from the North Country would do wonders for keeping up the show's momentum during that middle section.

Highlights from this tour were all the Can't Waits and Not Dark Yets, Masterpiece and North Country in Mankato, Ballad of a Thin Man in Ames, and Early Roman Kings in Milwaukee.

My wife and I brought three of our sons to Mankato and Milwaukee. It was a lifetime highlight. I can't believe it's almost the year 2020 and I still get to go to Bob Dylan shows.

Review Location: 
Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin
Review Date: 
Wednesday, October 23, 2019
Review Author: 
Matt Steichen