Tallinn, Estonia

Saku Suurhall (Saku Arena)

June 4, 2008

[Courtney Lobel], [Andres Roots]

Review by Courtney Lobel

Saku Suurhall is a pretty small arena when compared to the mammoth
stadiums teeming with fans that Dylan frequents in the States. As a
result, the setting was quite intimate. Estonians are not the "hoot
and holler" type, so it was easy to forget that you weren't in a café with
twenty friends, but rather one among thousands. There were chairs set up
on the floor, but a small group of die-hards gathered and stood belly up
to the stage railing for the whole show. Of course, this was my vantage
point. It was a rocking good concert and the band did a phenomenal job. As
a first timer at a Dylan concert I was shocked that there were none of the
acoustic and low-tech songs that had always been my favorites. The
socially-conscious anti-war songs like "God on Our Side" and John Brown"
or the soulful "Boots of Spanish Leather" and "Desolation Row" were all
absent. In their place were those electric Dylan tunes - some reworked and
some untouched.

By far the best songs of the evening were "When the Deal Goes Down"
and "Summer Days." Never having been a huge fan of either song, the
compelling performances of both have converted me and I'm sure I will be
crooning them in the shower in the near future. As a neophyte Dylan fan at
the age of 24, I am still discovering the wealth of his music. Although I
came prepared to hear "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall" and "Masters of War" –
songs that I have listened to while traveling by bus through the Serbian
and South African country sides on my journey to discover the world – I
was greeted with some songs of his that I haven't been acquainted with
until now. In retrospect, I am glad to have gained some new favorites
rather than heard some old faithfuls.

A moment I won't soon forget was during the performance of "Just Like a
Woman." The song was barely recognizable and Dylan spoke more than he
sang, but the song nonetheless had the same impact upon me that it always
does. There was a lonesome feather (no doubt a leftover from the previous
night's performance) that floated from the ceiling and glinted in the
yellow glow of the stage lights. It teetered and tottered its way down to
the beat of the song until it met its final resting place on center stage.
With a huge grin on my face I couldn't help but pinch myself to ensure
that I wasn't dreaming. The man whose songs I stayed up past my bedtime as
an adolescent listening to by candlelight on my bedroom floor so my
parents wouldn't know was really playing 20 feet in front of me.

All the band members had matching tan suits, black undershirts and
black fedoras. Dylan had a black double breasted vintage coat. A
flourish of yellow provided by his undershirt just peeked out and he
wore his own black fedora. He just seemed to be having a great time.
He looked much less weathered and much more vibrant in person than he
appears in pictures these days. It was great to see him looking so good.
He manned the keyboards for the whole show but hearing him play the
harmonica now and again was such a rush! He didn't talk to the crowd at
all nor was there an opening band. Instead of taking a big bow at the end,
Dylan and the band gathered in a row and stood the obligatory moment,
basquing in applause, and then nonchalantly filed offstage. It was very
classy. I am so glad there was no glitz or put-on thank you's to his fans.
That's not Dylan. Dylan is there for the music and seems to care less
about the people who buy it. He just wants to play and that's how I wanted
to remember him. A man who has stood by his convictions, always choose a
route contrary to his fan's expectations, and commands the respect of
countless generations past and new generations yet to come.

It would be amazing if Mr. Dylan could know how incredible last night was
for some of his fans! I feel proud being one among the faceless masses of
his supporters. Its kind of a badge of honor.

"Blowin in the Wind" was an especially appropriate final song. When
Dylan asks "how many years must a people exist before they're allowed to
be free" before a crowd of Estonians who have persevered through brutal
Nazi German and Soviet occupations and somehow come out the other end with
their culture intact– it resonates. When he sang those lines, I couldn't
help but conjure the image of a picture I'd seen that illustrates how one
Estonian family defied their persecutors and laid a white rug on the
floor, a black cloth on the table and blue curtains around the window – so
that the Estonian flag could be present in their home during the
oppressive years. As he sang I remembered a story told to me by my
friend's Grandfather, an Estonian captive of the Soviet Army, who stopped
to gather earth from his home country in an empty matchbook before being
marched across the border into Russia and a Siberian prison camp. How many
years, indeed.

Courtney Lobel
Estonian Special Youth Work Organization


Review by Andres Roots

No, they didn't take a bow. Instead, when it was all over, Bob Dylan And His Band 
lined up on the edge of the stage, arranging their ranks in the darkness. A hand 
gesture from the man brought the lights up - and there they stood in their sharp 
suits and black Stetsons, facing the spotlights, blinking but victorious, the crowd 
at their feet. "Take a good hard look at these faces," Dylan seemed to be saying, 
"and then go home and tell everybody it was Bob Dylan And His Gang." 

For someone rumoured to be not the greatest of actors, Dylan sure has a fine 
taste for the cinematic. Even without the backdrop of clearing gunsmoke and the 
remains of a rickety stagecoach, it was a wonderful image - a reminder of America 
that once was, the America most people seem only too eager to forget about in 
these politically enraging times. Indeed, I've often wondered if the term 
"Americana" was coined solely for the lack of an all-inclusive euphemism for 
"Dylan music"...

Thunder On The Mountain

But back to the show. There were six people on the stage, but most of the joy 
and music seemed to emanate from three: Bob Dylan on vocals, keyboard and 
harmonica, Tony Garnier on electric and upright bass, and George Receli on drums. 
In the case of Don Herron on guitar, lap steel, violin and banjo, it may have been 
that the odds were simply not in his favour - as an all-too-common surprise in 
Estonia, his contributions were mostly lost in the mix; while the lap steel was 
audible enough, the considerable number of tunes that featured him on violin 
left the audience wondering what they might have sounded like, had one 
actually been able to hear the violin...
Guitarists Stu Kimball and Denny Freeman were at their best on the more 
"complicated" tunes, the ones with a decidedly non-blues structure - a bit odd, 
really, considering Freeman's notable blues pedigree, but then Dylan has never 
been your average blues performer. One of the most haunting re-arrangements 
of the evening was undoubtedly "All Along The Watchtower", and it was intriguing 
to hear Freeman's take on it - namely, which bits from the Hendrix version he 
chose to include, as opposed to all the Dylan guitar slingers before him. 

Another number on which both Freeman and Kimball excelled was "Thunder On 
The Mountain": the rare sensation of six people on stage living, breathing and 
rocking as one is never short of mesmerizing. While Kimball stayed in the 
background for most of the show both visually and aurally, it was nevertheless his 
acoustic that lent the sound a large chunk of its definitive dylanesqueness - almost 
as if he was the Chosen One, called up to fill the sonic void left by Dylan's switch 
to keyboards. 

And yes, the second vital ingredient to that signature "wild mercury sound" was 
the man's own keyboard playing - admittedly, I'd heard contradicting rumours 
about Dylan's current command of his original instrument of choice, but at least 
for this night, it was all perfect, and by the morning after, it had become very, 
very hard for me to imagine any other versions of "Stuck Inside Of Mobile With 
The Memphis Blues Again", "Positively 4th Street", and "Just Like A Woman"...  
Except I vaguely seem to recall that there have been several. 

Stuck Inside Of Mobile

Yet another positive surprise was Dylan's extensive use of the harmonica, which 
has been scarcely in evidence on his more recent albums. No longer restricted by 
his legendary harmonica holder, Dylan's harp playing in Tallinn was skilful and 
arrestingly emotional. And then there were the vocals - just like Tom Waits, Dylan 
seems in complete control over the rasp in his voice, going from a harsh bark to 
crooning beauty at will. I may be reading too much into it, but it seems he has 
reserved his rawest voice for ballads he's grown slightly weary of performing - with 
"If You See Her, Say Hello", it took me four lines into the first verse to realize 
which song it was, and he hadn't even fiddled with the words much!

Throughout the show, the lines Dylan chose to emphasize seemed well-suited for 
the occasion - take "Honest With Me", for example: "I won't come here no more 
if it bothers you" - yes! For every member of the audience that had stormed out 
of the seats and was crowding the stage before the opening number was through, 
there was at least one prominent citizen looking on in horror, feeling cheated out 
of the sort of cabaret spectacle that passes for rock these days. "I'm not sorry for 
nothin' I've done" - even in Tallinn in 2008, a certain segment of the audience 
would  profess a distaste for most things Mr. Zimmerman has occupied himself 
with since 1964.

Ironically, not many of the Tallinn folkies would have caught the quote in his next 
line, "I'm glad I fought - I only wish we'd won", weaved in from the post-Civil War 
anti-Reconstruction Southern anthem "Good Old Rebel" that also includes notions 
such as "I hate the Yankee nation and everything they do, I hate the Declaration 
of Independence, too…" Oh - incidentally, Estonian folk music activists maintain 
that traditional American music other than that of Native Americans is a contradiction 
in terms, for there is no other American ethnicity - there are just people of various 
ethnic origins, living in the US of A, therefore all still fully and thoroughly represented 
by the music of the distant homeland their ancestors left behind 300-400 years ago. 

Rollin' & Tumblin'

Rant over - Dylan's improvisations in Tallinn had more to do with rhythm and phrasing 
than with rewriting the lyrics, and nowhere more exuberantly so than on "Summer 
Days". Facing the two veterans of his band, Garnier (since 1989) and Receli (since 
2001), the Lead Singer would alter the phrasing with each verse, with the rhythm 
section reacting instantly, thus propelling Dylan further and further into ever wilder 
variations of timing. By the end of song, the group had ran the textbook of 1950's 
rock'n'roll patterns cover to cover, from Bill Haley up, as the infectious joy at the 
noise they were creating filled the room - yes, there was no "official" stage show, 
but at this point even Garnier got lured into spinning his bass fiddle in grand Bill Black 

And Receli on the drums was just a monster. Adept at weaving quiet, intricate 
patterns into the slower stuff, he packed a punch that allowed him to use his left 
hand for adjusting his hat throughout the first song, the drum-heavy "Rainy Day 
Women". When Dylan stretched the structure of "Honest With Me" by adding 
extra pauses between most lines and yet insisting on keeping the inter-verse riff in 
standard time, Receli retorted by seemingly inserting a different rhythmic pattern 
over each bar of the shuffle. But it was "Rollin' And Tumblin'" that leaped the 
furthest of all - the recorded version on "Modern Times" had been appealingly 
ragged, but what ensued on stage was pure madness and magic. 

It seemed as if no two verses of the old blues standard contained the same 
number of bars, a feat rarely attempted even by one-man-and-a-guitar acts other 
than Kokomo Arnold or Robert Johnson, but to go for it with a six-piece band 
and to actually pull it off, with the occasional guitar player tangled in the changes 
only adding spice to the stew… No wonder Dylan calls it the best band he's ever
had! And at the centre of this miracle sat Receli, one eye on his boss, the other 
on Garnier, sounding the bell to call home the runaway herd, a split second ahead 
of each verse. It reminded me so much of the early 20th century New Orleans 
jazz drummers Mezz Mezzrow raved about, I had to Google the guy: "Receli, 
George - native of New Orleans". Right.

For Charley Patton

In 1962, the liner notes for Dylan's debut album described him as "one of the 
most compelling white blues singers ever recorded"; a year later he admitted on 
the sleeve of "Freewheelin' Bob Dylan": "I don't carry myself yet the way that 
Big Joe Williams, Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly and Lightnin' Hopkins have carried 
themselves. I hope to be able to someday, but they're older people." 

It's 2008 now, and the prophecy has come true. For Bob Dylan's Tallinn show 
was very much a blues show, a revue of American music if you please, and Dylan's 
now one of the few vocalists on the scene who can legitimately be termed a lead 
singer - like Muddy Waters, he directed and dictated the music and the tempo
with his voice, his timing, and like the blues bands of old, his group did not follow 
the drummer or the rhythm section or - God forbid - a written arrangement. It 
was all very loose and very much together, with each member of the band 
pitching in to comment and collaborate on the story he was telling. The way it 
ought to be done.

Of course, the questions remain: why wasn't Herron wearing a hat? How can you 
use the words, tune and instrumentation of "High Water" and end up with a 
different song? Why was Receli allowed to walk on stage with a lit cigarette when 
in Scotland, they almost arrested Keith Richards for that? Did Dylan choose to end 
the show with "Blowing In The Wind" because they told him it was the only Dylan 
song most of us Estonians know, even if only as a cover version translated into a 
strange Finno-Ugric language? Does he still have kin in Lithuania? Why did he 
choose to perform "John Brown" ("John Brown went off to war to fight on a 
foreign shore, his mama sure was proud of him…") for MTV Unplugged during the 
Gulf War and now again in St. Petersburg, Russia of all places? What does the 
huge Masonic Eye have to do with everything? And will he ever be back?

I sure hope so. Now go home and tell everybody that Bob Dylan And His Gang 
were here.

Andres Roots


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