LIVE: Bob Dylan & His Band @ Tanglewood, 7/2/16
Review and photographs by Martin Benjamin
What a gorgeous evening it was at Tanglewood. Perfect breeze, perfect temp, perfect humidity and crystal clear out. The crowd was mostly boomer with some 30-40 somethings sprinkled in. Mavis Staples opened with a spirited set backed by her integrated band of three white guys and two black back-up singers. The musicians were a tight unit, playing softly when called upon and incredibly rocking when justified. Guitarist Rick Holmstrom was a standout, full of the energy of youth backing the energetic 76-year-old singer.
Mavis hit her stride beautifully on the third song, Talking Heads’ “Spirited People.” At the end of this song Mavis chatted about Bob. “We’re happy to be here with our good friend Bob Dylan. That Bob, he’s something, you know. I love listening to him, but I really love watching him. He’s got this move [to his step], he’s so cool.”
Stories about Dylan proposing marriage to her in the early 1960’s are prevalent. The Guardian quoted her in an interview earlier this year: “Bobby would always say, ‘Pops has a velvety voice, but Mavis gets rough sometimes,’” Staples says. She also states that she and Dylan did “court awhile,” after meeting on a TV show in New York in the early ’60s. “We would write letters back and forth, because we wouldn’t see each other until we were on a festival together,” she adds. “And we’d smooch!”
Dylan also proposed to her, but Staples turned him down, feeling she was too young. They’ve stayed in touch through the years, duetting on the gospel song “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking” on Dylan’s 1979 album, Slow Train Coming; they last met in person in 2002. “I often think about what would have happened if I’d married Bobby, though,” she says. “If we’d had some little plum-crushers, how our lives would be. The kids would be singing now, and Bobby and I would be holding each other up.” – The Guardian, February 12, 2016.
Another highlight of the Mavis set was “Freedom Highway” that Mavis said “was written by my father, Pop Staples, in 1962 for the big march from Selma to Montgomery, Georgia.” Mavis exclaimed at the conclusion “I was there. I’m a witness. I’m gonna keep on fighting. I’m a soldier. I’m a soldier in this army of love. I’m fighting for peace.” This was not just a performance. I believe her.
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Bob Dylan opened his first set as a total rock star with “Things Have Changed”, his 2000 Academy Award and Golden Globe award-winning song. Resplendent in his black pants with white stripes, jacket with embroidered Dylan-like ‘brand’ designs on the front, and black shirt with white piping and white buttons, both of his sets came across as more black & white than color.
The lighting on the sparse stage set resembled film-noir, which physically existed as basement-type utility lights with the protecting metal basket and what looked like a single tungsten light bulb. Like a dream, I reflect back on the performance and recollect it in black & white, alternating between the basement-like ambience and cabaret lighting.
Dylan’s second selection was “She Belongs To Me” with harmonica and an intense reading, emphasizing and extending certain words like “She never stumbles, she’s got not place to FALLLLLLLL.” It was a spirited vocal.
At the end of “Beyond Here Lies Nothing,” which Dylan delivered from the piano, he turned to the band and conducted them through his body language only, stopping at the moment the song ends with a move like Mavis referred to – “very cool.” This continued during “Pay in Blood” when, during an instrumental interlude, he half-pranced in a circle to return to the mic and continue singing.
Just how gnarly can a man sing the word ‘ocean.’ Dylan tested that on “How Deep Is the Ocean?” and it might have topped any other attempt ever made – Bob Gnarly singing the 1932 Irving Berlin classic first made popular by singer Rudy Vallee and re-popularized later by Frank Sinatra recordings in 1946 and 1960.
After Dylan, the star of the night was guitarist Charlie Sexton. Sexton has led some of Dylan’s most rocking back-up ensembles over the past 25 years or so, and he was at the forefront of a great band jam during “Early Roman Kings.” Not long after this, at 9:45pm, fans started filtering out, and 10 minutes later during “Scarlett Town” [song 15 of 20], it seemed like a full-blown exodus. These people should not have left! They missed two of the gems from the evening, but their leaving also had the benefit of allowing a lot of people to move down front for a closer view. “Long and Wasted Years” was a faithful and heartfelt reading, aided considerably by closer contact and the better sound from being 20 rows closer. “Blowin’ in the Wind” [the first of a two-song encore] was transcendent, and the instrumental ferociousness at the climax helped the night’s performance peak at the ideal moment. This was the goose bumps moment.
Alas, I do remember those shows from the ’90s that were like that almost entirely throughout, beginning to end. At this point, the finale, “Lovesick,” was just a bonus.
The other star of the evening was Dylan’s 2012 album, The Tempest. Of the 20 songs performed, five were from The Tempest. (Half the songs on The Tempest comprised 25% of the night’s set-list.)
Sexton, who has left the band from time to time, played guitar on that album along with the same band members touring behind Dylan now. Long live this line-up, which 75-year-old Dylan has described as “the best band I’ve ever been in, I’ve ever had, man for man.” Thank you all – Tony Garnier (bass), George Receli (drums), Donnie Herron (steel guitar, banjo, violin, mandolin), Stu Kimball (guitar) and Charlie Sexton (lead guitar).
BOB DYLAN SET LIST
Things Have Changed
She Belongs to Me
Beyond Here Lies Nothin’
The Night We Called It a Day (Frank Sinatra)
Pay in Blood
Melancholy Mood (Frank Sinatra)
How Deep Is the Ocean? (How High Is the Sky?) (Paul Whiteman & His Orchestra)
Tangled Up in Blue
High Water (For Charley Patton)
Why Try to Change Me Now (Cy Coleman)
Early Roman Kings
I Could Have Told You (Frank Sinatra)
Spirit on the Water
All or Nothing at All (Frank Sinatra)
Long and Wasted Years
Autumn Leaves (Yves Montand)
Blowin’ in the Wind