Bob Dylan in Berlin
Concert Shared by Dylanistas, 6 October, 2022
A generous acquaintance on Twitter sent me a download of Bob Dylan's concert in Berlin October 6. I appreciate the work these superfans and scholars do: I call them Dylanistas. I can talk trash with the some of them, but when it comes to drilling into the earth's crust to do carbon dating of set lists on every show of the Never Ending Tour, they go their way and I go mine. They're like Greenpeace. I encourage their mission, but I'm not getting on the ship.
The last time I saw Bob was at the Beacon Theater around Thanksgiving 2019. It was a great show, Dylan playing mostly piano, a little guitar, singing well for a then 78-year-old man. There's a reason for Dylan's recent adoption of Frank Sinatra as a person of interest. I've been reading Dylan's captivating book, The Philosophy of Modern Song, to be published November 1. He suggests all the ways that "Mack the Knife" would fall short in Bobby Darin's attempt to be the next Sinatra.
"Whereas Sinatra just about invented the Roman Catholic Church, Darin was merely an altar boy," Dylan writes. And Dylan really respects Bobby Darin, but more so, a few short chapters later when he writes about "Beyond the Sea": "His phrasing...is the driving wheel of the production. Time and time again he'll slip the first few words of a line upstairs into the end of the previous line. He's very subtle, and you don't realize he's doing this...He's a playful melodist and he doesn't need words...It all floats, it never touches the ground."
BD Bob Dylan may be envious of BD Bobby Darin in one way only here. Bob Dylan does need words. He's a song and dance man. You can't be a trickster without some patter. You don't need a jokerman to know which way the wind blows. You need him to set up a punch line. People who don't appreciate his singing voice tend to be people who've come to Dylan later in life, the generations since the baby boomers, or as he writes in his brilliant and funny essay on the Who's "My Generation": "Gen X, the Fragile Generation, the Intermediates, the Neutrals, the Dependable, the Unshaken, and the Clean Slate." I’m a boomer. Who are you?
In Berlin, Bob talks his way through a whole lot of songs. But he's had practice. He learned from Woody Guthrie's "Talkin' Dust Bowl Blues," "Talkin' Fishing Blues." Pete Seeger made it simple in his "Talking Blues," another template for the phrasing of Dylan's "Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues," "Talkin' Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues," "Talkin' New York." He's been "talking" blues since his apprenticeships; now that Dylan's instrument, the voice, rumbles like a coal train, he does what Sinatra did when time took its inevitable toll: lean on the phrasing.
02. Watching the River Flow
03. Most Likely You Go Your Way (and I'll Go Mine)
04. I Contain Multitudes
05. False Prophet
06. When I Paint My Masterpiece
07. Black Rider
08. My Own Version of You
09. I'll Be Your Baby Tonight
10. Crossing the Rubicon
11. To Be Alone with You
12. Key West (Philosopher Pirate)
13. Gotta Serve Somebody
14. I've Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You
15. That Old Black Magic
16. Mother of Muses
17. Goodbye Jimmy Reed
18. Band introductions
19. Every Grain of Sand
Bob Dylan - piano
Tony Garnier - bass
Charley Drayton - drums
Bob Britt - guitar
Doug Lancio - guitar
Donnie Herron - violin, electric mandolin, pedal steel, lap steel
Introduction: Bobby Byrd, longtime James Brown compatriot and hype man, rises from the dead and begins: "guten Abend, mein Damen und Herren! Now here he is, the second hardest working man in show business, folk singer, rock star, Nobel laureate, let's give a great big Berlin greeting to Mis-tuh Bob Dylan!" No. That doesn't happen. Just a little tuning of instruments.
There is almost never an introduction. The distinguished man of arts and letters, Howard A. Rodman, took his son to see Dylan recently at the Pantages Theater in Los Angeles. He knew that "endearing himself to the audience was not on his agenda. We settled in. We came to Bob."
2. "Watching the River Flow." To me this sounds like Buster Brown's "Fannie Mae," as heard on the radio of a 1953 Ford Crestline convertible. Trying not to get pulled over by the cops, but gig in Kansas City over, they need to get to East St. Louis to perform the next night.
3. "Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I'll Go Mine)." From Blonde on Blonde. On the way to East St. Louis, there's an all-night Esso station not in the Green Book, but the pump man fills the tank, charging double the advertised price. If you note the credits, Dylan's only instrument is piano. No guitar. No harmonica listed. Bob Britt and Doug Lancio are the guitarists, with longtime band member Donnie Herron adding more strings. The rhythm section of Charley Drayton and Tony Garnier maintain their flexibility, ready to follow bandleader on his percussive piano, through any unexpected chord or mood changes.
4. "I Contain Multitudes." This being the Rough and Rowdy Ways tour, Dylan performs every song from that album, except for the 17-minute "Murder Most Foul." That dark meditation on the John F. Kennedy assassination and the (redemptive?) power of Wolfman Jack's radio signal is echoed on other songs, though. "I Contain Multitudes," is one of them. The line comes from Walt Whitman; the vocal performance could be Whitman reciting a poem to instrumental backing. Whitman was America's most famous poet because of the inclusion of one of his greatest hits in every grade school anthology for decades through the 20th century. The poem is "O Captain! My Captain!" written in 1865 about the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. My mother could recite it by heart.
5. "False Prophet." The piano player is playing at an outdoor cafe in the city plaza. People can't quite understand the words, but he delivers them with panache. An attractive woman is watching him, she catches his eye but his glance is quick. She is watching him play from a sidewalk table, drinks some shots of tequila, decides to make her move. She goes to the ladies room to freshen up, but when she comes out, the piano player is gone.
6. "When I Paint My Masterpiece." It's a later that night at a cafe in Marseilles. It's a quiet, rainy night, the piano player almost finished with his long night at the keyboard. One of the stragglers sends him a pastis, which the piano player quietly accepts.
7. "Black Rider." In the concert hall in Berlin, the audience is taking pictures with their phones. It's not clear if Dylan is miffed. I think he asks them to stop. The music also comes to a stop, very briefly. Then it picks up where it left off...I think, and not sure if Dylan was rattled by the abrupt pause, or forgot the words to reboot. But it appears here that the band is following a soloist, a spoken word recital, with a series of quick riffs, light licks, solos fragments. Not really a rock band, but musical notes floating in air.
8. "My Own Version of You," or, Bob's retelling the story of the creation of Frankenstein's monster. It's Screamin' Jay Hawkins without the screaming. What stands out is the line: “Pick a number between one and two/What would Julius Caesar do.” Caesar will return in a moment.
9. "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight." It feels like Halloween in Graceland. The vandals who took the handles have dug up Elvis Presley's grave and found it empty. Something's got to give, and the band jells behind the riff to Roy Head's "Treat Her Right," while a trick-or-treat skeleton dangles above the stage.
10. "Crossing the Rubicon." It sounds to me like Bobby "Blue" Bland singing "Drifting and Drifting" in a recording found by archaeologists from more than 2000 years ago. In the year 49 B.C.E., Julius Caesar crossed this small river from Gaul (now a part of Italy), to Rome, whose empire he ruled for five years until his assassination by the Roman Senate. You've heard all about it, Caesar's betrayal by even his allies. As Shakespeare put it, "Et tu, Brute?" As Bob Dylan put it: "You've got a lot of nerve, to say you are my friend." "Positively Fourth Street" would be a neat segue. It is not in tonight’s repertory.
11. "To Be Alone With You." Though part of "Nashville Skyline," I place this version around 1914, where 5-year-old Johnny Mercer is listening to a piano recital, some woogie boogie, that makes him feel like he's going up a lazy river. At the end of the song, Dylan breaks from tradition and responds to the applause. "Why thank you," he says.
12. "Key West (Philosopher Pirate)." More dead presidents. In the first lines, our philosopher pirate in Key West is listening to the news on the radio that President William McKinley had been shot, in 1901. "I heard it on the wireless radio...he was going down slow." This is not likely, since 1901 is generally considered the year that Marconi invented the radio. The first few lines are an adaptation of Charlie Poole's "White House Blues." It's true that McKinley went down slow, dying of his wounds a short time later, assassinated at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, N.Y. by an anarchist. At the exposition's Temple of Music.
13. "Gotta Serve Somebody" rocks: Bob's got his voice, singing strong, and guitarists Britt and Lancio sound like Lynyrd Skynyrd, relatively speaking.
14. "I've Got My Mind Made Up." The most romantic song on the willfully unromantic Rough and Rowdy Ways.
15. "That Old Black Magic." Written by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer in 1942, covered by Dylan on Fallen Angels (2016). Dylan associates it with Frank Sinatra, no doubt. But I've always dug the hepcats most smokin' rendition, Louis Prima and Keely Smith. Their 1958 version was the song I most looked forward to hearing on the radio when being taken to doctor's appointments to find out why I was having trouble walking and waking during the night with fierce ankle and calf pain. Diagnosis: polio. "Thanks a lot," Dylan says again to the audience. "We just had to get that in there." Dylan does a long take on Peter Green's "Black Magic Woman" and its myriad versions in The Philosophy of American Song, which I will write about here in a few days.
16. "Mother of Muses." This is one of those songs that is very entertaining for Dylanists to write about. I recommend the "Untold Dylan" website article by Tony Attwood. https://bob-dylan.org.uk/archives/15786.
17. "Goodbye Jimmy Reed." And hello, Mary Lou. Good Rick Nelson story by Bob in Philosophy.
18. Band introductions.
19. "Every Grain of Sand." The tempo is slow; the recitation is fast, words compressed and coiled. The parlor piano playing becomes emotional. Then there's some harmonica, which I don't recall hearing on any other song here in Berlin.
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