Reflections on 2019 U.S. Tour

When it comes to Bob Dylan it's all about transitions. The man's artistic vision is constantly evolving so when you look at a particular album in order to fully appreciate it one needs not only to regard it as a thing-in-itself but also look at the direction it is taking him. Joan Baez says as long as she knew Dylan he was always planning to "go electric." So that means that even before he released FREEWHEELIN Dylan was planning to transition from folk music. Dylan says initially he was drawn to folk music from rock 'n' roll because there was a lot more depth there and even allowances for the supernatural. As much as he loved "Be-Bop-A-Lula" Dylan had a little bit more to say. And folk music allowed him to go deeper. But the plan was always to return to rock and with the transition bring the depth of folk. Create a new music. BRINGING IT ALL BACK HOME is quite literally the turning point with one side of the album rock and the other folk. One can look at Dylan's BIABH as a thing-in-itself but in order to fully appreciate it you need to look at the direction it was taking him.
Many fans were disappointed with Dylan's acoustic albums in the mid-nineties exploring folk and country blues classics. Then came TIME OUT OF MIND.  When it comes to Bob Dylan it's all about transitions. I don't have enough fingers and toes to count how many times Dylan has disappointed me with an album, --and I have all twenty, --but today looking back over the span of his career I can see how sometimes he had to take a step backward in order to take two steps forward with the next offering, i.e. TOGETHER THROUGH LIFE to TEMPEST. Transitions.
Dylan's 2019 tour of the United States of which I caught one concert on November 19th at Lowell, Massachusetts, represents a stunning culmination of everything for which Dylan has been striving during his entire career. Here I want to make a case that the quote unquote Sinatra albums are what made that possible. It was on those albums that the band learned that backing up Dylan means doing whatever you can do with your instrument to serve the song; to deliver the song. And in order to replace the original arrangements with their own, the band learned that by listening closely to each other they could achieve a much bigger sound. And when they played the songs, --around which Dylan planned the set list, --in concert the songs were delivered so well to the audience they really stood out.

I missed the 2018 tour but I could tell from listening to the leaked audio files that the band was discovering a new sound. The way I look at it today, all the work was paying off. After so many years of playing together and then learning how to sublimate their individual contributions into a singular delivery of the song as a unit, a sound that they hadn't been able to achieve before was coming together in a radical way.  And judging from the audio files that leaked from the California shows, right from the beginning of the 2019 tour that new sound had jelled and was in full effect. The quote unquote Sinatra songs were gone. The band had found a way, by continuing to sublimate their individual contributions into the singular delivery of the song as a unit, to play that way for the whole set. They no longer needed the Sinatra songs. And Dylan's songs were coming across like never before. The leaked audio files of "Lenny Bruce," "Girl from The North Country" and "When I Paint My Masterpiece" were stunning. And then I heard "Not Dark Yet."

In 2015 Dylan told former Rolling Stone Managing Editor, Robert Love, "I've been trying for years to come up with songs that have the feeling of a Shakespearean drama." In his book "Why Bob Dylan Matters" Richard F. Thomas puts forward that the reason Dylan doesn't banter with the audience in between songs is that his concerts are designed to be experienced like plays. Thomas suggests that this is the reason the lights dim in between songs, the way they do at a play in between scenes. And now that the band had figured out how to deliver the songs, the drama that Dylan was talking about was coming through. In "Pay In Blood" audience members who had been near the stage reviewing the concert online said they could see the anger in Dylan's face as he spewed out the lines. The song is about a confrontation of White America by all the people of color who have been slaughtered throughout the history of the nation:
I pay in blood but not my own...
You bastard! I'm supposed to respect YOU?

So the band had learned how to deliver the songs and Dylan was delivering. His voice strong and clear. But the delivery of "Not Dark Yet" was up on a whole other level.

A total wizard in the recording studio Danny Lanois is known for the atmospheric effects he creates. Never was this so true as on TIME OUT OF MIND's "Not Dark Yet." There have been some stellar live performances recorded of the song, notably a duet with Eric Clapton at Madison Square Garden in 1999, but none that matched the in-studio magic that Dylan and Lanois managed, with Danny's unearthly cascading lead guitar riffs. Until the 2019 U.S. tour.

I knew from the leaked audio files from earlier dates on the tour, the performances of "Not Dark Yet" were unlike anything Dylan had ever done before. The sound of the band was so grand, expansive, powerful and dramatic. For someone who hasn't experienced it for her or himself there actually are no words to describe it. But the new arrangement brings out the tragic drama inherent to the song. In the past the arrangements have been laid back and gentle with tragic undertones. But in the arrangement I witnessed on November 19, 2019, at UMASS/Lowell's hockey arena, and I will never forget, "Not Dark Yet" was the monstrous white whale that Captain Ahab never could conquer but Dylan slayed. He sings "it's not dark yet," and pauses and the music stops until Dylan finishes the line, "but it's gettin there!" and the band comes back in on beat, in force and in unison. The drama of it was stupefying. 

In his review of one of the Beacon Theatre concerts Raymond Foye wrote, "this is Dylan in the Bardo," riffing on the title of the George Saunders' novel around Abraham Lincoln's struggles after his assassination. In Tibetan cosmology the Bardo is the intermediate space between life and rebirth:

I was born here and I'll die here, against my will
I know it looks like I'm movin but I'm standin still
Every nerve in my body is so naked and numb
I can't even remember what it was I came here to get away from
Don't even hear the murmur of a prayer
It's not dark yet... but it's gettin there!

It's all about the transitions. Dylan is always in transition. We are all always in transition. We are all stuck inside the Bardo with Dylan. It only looks like we're moving. 

Review Location: 
United States
Review Date: 
Tuesday, November 19, 2019
Review Author: 
Tom Snow