I had last seen Bob at UMass Amherst in November, play six months before he celebrated his 70th birthday. Could turning 70 possibly make Bob Dylan’s voice better? Did a vocal coach do some work with him, or does he have a new sound engineer?
On Tuesday night, he played with his band in Canandaigua at CMAC, a great venue. I love seeing him at CMAC. It is a miniature SPAC, with every seat a good one and with an easy-going approach to letting people drink their reasonably priced wine and beers without excessive hassle or oversight. Compact, no hassles, nice people, easy and nice bathrooms, Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, plenty of beer and wine kiosks and a fine intimate close-to-the-stage arena. Pretty nice!
Leon Russell opened with a set of songs that were entertaining and solid, but not much of a match for what was coming next from Bob and band.
The Bob Dylan show started strongly with the opening volley of “Leopard Skin Pill-Box Hat” and “Love Minus Zero/No Limit.” A welcome and promising start. Bob was in great voice, the best I have heard in years. What stood out during the entire show is how up-front Bob was in every song, in every way. The vocals seemed to be mixed to bring them forward, to have them be the point of the songs. How nice to clearly hear the words. Dylan has never been a renowned vocalist, but at his best, he sings very convincingly. His songs are more about phrasing, atmosphere and meaning.
During the third tune, “Things Have Changed,” something else was clearly evident – Dylan’s body language portrayed a man who was totally into the performance. Coming out from behind the keyboards, Dylan became something else. He was the singer. With little cat-like stutter steps straight ahead toward the microphone as each verse started, Dylan had the body English of a very cool cat indeed. Dressed in his black styled suit with red cuff and collar-trim accents and his pants with red piping down the legs, Dylan has added a goatee beard to his facial hair. He’s lost the big fat diamond rings he wore at this venue three years ago. Especially sharp were his mostly white, black tipped, cowboy boots. He was a sharp dressed man!
In recent years, I thought he was using the keyboards as a crutch, appearing to have lyric sheets set up to turn the pages from song to song, never picking up the guitar that was always set out for him, and rarely coming forward to be the singer. But on Tuesday, he split his time between keyboards, guitar [with some key leads thrown in], and as the singer in the band. There were no lyric sheets. He sang the songs, instead, from deep inside where they must reside.
Throughout his performance, while playing guitar and singing, Dylan would cock his knees in subtle dips projecting the appearance of a good kind of tension and urgency. Between songs I noticed a nervous energy contributing to the overall high-octane performance. During “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’,” Dylan played guitar dipping with the grove and bouncing with the beat. Nifty indeed!
Even his light show was noteworthy. Picture lots of parallel lines converged from both sides of the stage into an oblique angle that gave the stage an appearance of receding into a corner off to one side. But there was no corner. Another song used lots of curved lines, and for “Blind Willlie McTell,” blobs of little white things floated against black. Is that what one might “see” if they were blind? Very effective – the background of light-projected shapes changed for each song, and seemed simultaneously retro and timeless.
During “Ballad of a Thin Man,” his 13th song of the evening, there was an added echo of key words that Dylan sang. It’s true, and very unusual, very engaging, and for Dylan, very daring.
“Like A Rolling Stone” and “All Along The Watchtower,” the last two songs of the night, comprised the encore. As they do, his band joined around him at the end to face the crowd and soak in the appreciation and adulation. They departed with the audience wanting much more, as is the Dylan philosophy of performing. Give them a reason to want to come back next time. Always leave with the audience wanting more.
Here is the news flash of the evening: Bob Dylan has his vocal prowess back and he used his vocals as the most important element of the performance at CMAC Tuesday night. Who could have predicted this?
Review and photograph by Martin Benjamin, Nippertown’s Senior Dylan Correspondent
BOB DYLAN SET LIST
Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat
Love Minus Zero/No Limit
Things Have Changed
Tangled Up In Blue
Beyond Here Lies Nothin’ (Bob on guitar)
Blind Willie McTell
Highway 61 Revisited
Simple Twist Of Fate (Bob on guitar)
Thunder On The Mountain
Ballad Of A Thin Man
Like A Rolling Stone
All Along The Watchtower