Milwaukee, WI -- July 1, 2009

Yesterday, Michael G. Smith officially wrapped the short movie we've been filming, AT LAST OKEMAH! ( )What better way to celebrate than with a Bob Dylan concert? We piled into my car with his wife, Jill, and left Chicago early enough to beat rush hour and hit the Mars Cheese Castle in Kenosha , where we picked up some curds (when in Wisconsin ...) and a local "butterscotch root beer" called Dang. It was fantastic. I had imagined summerfest as one of those music festivals like Music Midwtown, River Stages, etc, but it was really more of a state fair vibe - everywhere you looked, people were selling food on a stick. There was a guy on a unicycle juggling fire. Nice way to kill time before a concert. The trouble with the circus atmosphere was it almost seemed like the concert was an afterthought (and Willie played appropriately), but the minute Dylan stepped on stage, everything changed. Those first three songs on guitar were fairly pedestrian. There was nothign WRONG with them - no upsinging or anything - but they all seemed like warm-ups, really. Moving to organ for Mobile upped the ante considerably. Bob sang the HELL out of this. As he often does these days, he found an organ part he liked and built the vocal around it. Sometimes I wish he'd base the vocal around a narrative point of view (I'm pretty sure he USED to - I used to hear a different story in the same song night after night and now I only occasionally pick up a new bit of narrative perspective), but it lends itself to some very exciting vocals. This was a GREAT Mobile , and there are only so many of those. Bob's vocals throughout were strong, by 2009 standards. The voice is a little rougher (sometimes a lot rougher) than it used to be, but the singing was as strong as it's been in years - he was putting just as much effort into the singing as he was ten or eleven years ago (moreso, in many cases - Mobile and Desolation Row rarely sounded this good back then). Desolation Row was the first real "worth the trip" moment in the show - opening with just acoustic guitar and organ, Bob sang like he was narrating a radio program, seeing the scene as the program opened. Then the intensity built and built - even some lyric flub couldn't stop it (there were a bunch of these tonight - but he always covered instead of just slurring his way through, which is progress - and one way the shows ARE better than they used to be). One particularly interesting thing that all of us noticed here was that the riff from "If You Ever go to Houston " was all over this arrangement. It worked. Trust me. Po Boy was just dynamite - same arrangement as spring, same strong, thoughtful vocals. But it was at this point, that I turned to Mike and said "man, we aren't gonna be getting any new songs." This was a rare thing - a show when we had no IDEA what was going to happen. It was natural to expect some of those live premieres that we all like to have under our belts (don't tell me you're immune to that collector mentality - I'm sure not!), but, on the other hand, it was the kick-off of a Summer stadium tour - those are almost always greatest-hits affairs (and have been for years and years). It was starting to look like we would be lucky to get the third-ever " Houston ." But then Bob wandered away from the organ, harp in hand, for an INCREDIBLE version of "Forgetful Heart." Live premiere! Score! And not just any live premiere, but a fantastic one. Bob stayed on center stage (no one played the organ/accordion part), playing harp between verses, while the band set out a stark, acoustic arrangement that sort of called to mind "What Was it You Wanted." This was a cut above the album version - can't wait for the mp3. It was one of those moments (and performances) you pray for when you go to show after show (Mike and I have both cut back, but more moments like this might have has both hitting the pawn shop and scraping up cash for more shows, just like in our college days). "Summer Days" sounded the same as ever, except that Donnie was on a more-or-less inaudible trumpet. After the song ended, Bob started playing an organ riff that turned into a full-blown instrumental (during which the trumpet was loud and clear). We'll have to debate whether it was a unique song (which it sounded like) or an extended Summer Days outro (which it also sounded like). Once the instrumental was cooking, Bob walked away to wander the stage, clowning around and introducing the band, clearly having a good time as he introduced Donnie as "Donnie Herron on the trumpet." Back to the organ for a fine Like a Rolling Stone (fun organ), then no formation before the encore. Nice to get another premiere with "Jolene," but it wasn't much special - as on the record, it's a fun dance tune that has nothing WRONG with it, but not a song of any particular consequence. Watchtower and a formation closed things out. I don't always walk out of a Dylan show feeling like I know the meaning of life anymore - maybe I'm just older or maybe I already figured it out. I'm not going to go around claiming that the shows these days are quite on the level of the shows in 99, but, they ARE superior in some ways (the arrangements are often tighter and less jammy, the melodies often more apparent) and this was a terrific show. Bob put a lot into the singing (and if we've learned anything from Bob, it's that it's not how your voice sounds, it's how you use what you've got), the arrangements were well-thought out and sometimes adventurous. For the most part this was less a "new show" than a continuation of the Spring shows, but the trumpet, the instrumental, and the wonderful "Forgetful Heart" shows that the experimentation and resultant evolution that was apparent in those spring mp3s is still going on. Things are looking good for the future. It was high fives all around on the way out, and even a stop at the saddest soup and salad bar in the midwest couldn't kill the mood.
Review Location: 
Milwaukee Summerfest
Review Date: 
Wednesday, July 1, 2009
Review Author: 
Adam Selzer