The minstrel man was back in town last night, taking the stage like he stepped from the Manet painting with a vandalized face, a ravaged Salvation Army soldier boy in a brass-buttoned coat and red-seamed pants with a flat boater hat-a sartorial update of the mariachi-esque stage suit of last season's appearance.
The cynical sour-souled prophet came again to tell us how we feel.
We picnicked next to an Italian man who had flown from Venice to follow the 2010 Never Ending Tour from Lincoln, Nebraska to the West Coast. He says the songs are different every night.
In Sturgis, Dylan started with Rainy Day Women # 12 &35. Everybody must get stoned.
Was it a coincidence that Dylan's Deer Valley set, sung to the well-heeled ticket holders eating brie in their REI stadium chairs on the hill under the St. Regis and its silly funicular, started with Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat and ended with Mr. Jones (Ballad of a Thin Man)? This must be one of the most bourgeois of Bob's latter-day audiences.
Well, I'm not exactly pointing fingers without, you know, the other three pointing back at me. Here's our Deer Valley-supplied picnic basket.
But this is surely one of the most politically reactionary periods since he started singing in the sixties. Racist border wars. Anti-gay fascists. Nativist hate-mongers. And this is a songwriter whose metier is the zeitgeist, whatever that happens to be. Last night, he growled out Masters of War against the emphatic artillery of George Recile's drums and the migraine thump of Tony Garnier's bass, with Charlie Sexton's guitar not gently weeping but wailing and gnashing its teeth.
And most of the audience, except for those down in front of the stage, sat.
I've seen Bob Dylan play maybe ten times. It's always the same in that it's never the same. He only plays guitar or he never picks one up. He talks to the audience or keeps to himself. He's got 50 years of genius songwriting to choose from and in performance you can't tell Just Like a Woman from Things Have Changed. Every song sounds like Like a Rolling Stone or all the songs sound like The Levee's Gonna Break.
Last night's show was no different-as my new Italian friend said, Dylan's set list changes every night but they all sound the same. Every number is another round of Name That Song. Old fans mutter to each other in the dark, "Which one is this?" and whoop when they finally realize the chopped-up phrasing belongs to Tangled Up in Blue. This time. But This Wheel's On Fire was set to the same insistent pace in the same guttural tone.
Bob can mutter and grumble, swallow great lines and parody others as long as the band, like Lebowski's rug, ties the whole thing together. They hold the show up and let Dylan bounce around on their musical trampoline, always there when he lands and ready to send him soaring again. Amazingly tight and talented, they would have been worth a pricy ticket even without the Pulitzer-winning protest singer-poet out front.
And for the first time in years, since the Planet Waves tour, maybe, Dylan was having fun with his band (if not the audience) jumping from keyboard to guitar (which he seldom plays lately), wailing on his harmonica and trading licks with the incredibly gifted (yes, and super hot) Sexton.
The wild beat never slowed significantly; last night's show crescendoed in complexity, not intensity. Without slowing down, Donnie Herron picked up a violin. When Dylan sang Nettie Moore, there were notes of tenderness, even melancholy, in the middle of the rocking. He played classics like Highway 61 and All Along the Watchtower, songs now identified with other musicians-Johnny Winter and Jimi Hendrix-and made them Dylan songs again. He sang songs the audience couldn't sing along withâ€”semi-obscurities like Under the Red Sky and Cold Irons Bound. Does any other performer have such depth of their own material to pull from?
No wonder the tour is never ending. I'll probably never stop going to hear it, either. Bob's an old guy, now. He's what, 69. But I still want to be him when I grow up. He makes me proud to be part of the Boomer generation.
If you get the chance, go. Las Vegas isn't that far away.