July 12, 2017
Review by Paul Friesen
Call it my Bob Dylan vacation: two shows in the first week of my holiday,
one in my hometown, another eight hours down the road. It doesn't get any
better than that.
The weeks leading up to these Canadian gigs weren't without some nerves,
after Bob cancelled a show in Medicine Hat, Alberta, and another in
Victoria, B.C. Ticket sales weren't exactly on fire in Winnipeg, so our
group was fearing the worst leading up to July 12.
But at around 8:05 p.m., the greatest songwriter of our time took to the
stage with his band, seated himself at a baby grand and launched into the
Oscar-winner, Things Have Changed, his standard opener these days.
My view was four rows back, right in front of his piano.
I had a great view of the man's face, but couldn't see his playing. My
wife could. She hates floor seats and was four rows up the near side of
the 15,000-seat arena. She described his playing more as banging on the
I didn't care.
I'm a relatively recent convert. Age 55, this was my fifth time seeing
Bob, all in the last 10 years or so. So I knew what to expect. My wife
I'd tried to prepare my older brother and younger sister as best I could,
lowering their expectations of their first Bob show and describing
in-concert Bob as an "acquired taste."
The second song, Don't Think Twice, It's All Right was terrific, the band
bouncing along under Bob's trademark growl.
It quickly became apparent multi-instrumentalist Donnie Herron, standing
just behind and to Bob's right, was going to be his shadow all night. He
watched Bob's hands like a hawk, playing off the piano, often
note-for-note, mostly with his pedal steel guitar and occasionally with
The band in general watches Bob closely, but this was new to me.
Song 3, Highway 61 Revisited, was a full-out rocker, a highlight for my
Unfortunately, we couldn't see lead guitarist Charlie Sexton at all, our
view blocked by the baby grand.
Next it was time to slow things down, Bob taking centre stage for Why Try
to Change Me Now, the first of six covers from his recent foray into
American classics. I liked it. Many people probably didn't.
Unfortunately, the piano blocked our view of Bob whenever he took centre
stage, which he does for most of the covers. He's not FRONT-and-centre at
all, staying well back, with his band. Those three vintage microphones set
up at the front of the stage: window dressing. Bob never went near them.
The entire stage set was vintage, oozing a 1920s theme and vibe, Edison
bulbs and old-fashioned spotlights bathing the band in a rich, muted,
almost amber hue. My wife described the scene as sepia-like, transforming
this modern-day hockey arena into a 1920's theatre, or at least as close
as you could hope to get.
The sound was pristine, much better than Bob's last appearance here five
years earlier, when his keyboard banging was, at times, painful to listen
Next up was Summer Days, from 2001's Love and Theft, not my favourite song
but a high point on this night, the country-tinged version marked by
Herron's fast fiddling. Make You Feel My Love was pretty good, then the
band launched into the vintage-sounding intro to Duquesne Whistle, one of
my brother's favourite Dylan songs. I was pleasantly surprised to hear the
intro, as they weren't doing it the last time I'd seen them, in
Minneapolis a year ago, instead launching straight into the meat of the
song. The meat, as was the case the last time, left me wanting. Something
was missing: Charlie's train-whistle guitar riffs that mark the version
recorded on the album Tempest. Still, it was good, Bob doing every verse,
as far as I could tell. He went back to Sinatra mode for a couple,
Melancholy Mood and Stormy Weather -- again, I couldn't see him -- before
tackling Pay in Blood. This was the same version I'd seen last year,
slightly softer than the Tempest recording, but excellent all the same.
For my money, Once Upon A Time is one of his best covers, and he sang it
with the voice of someone with a thousand regrets. Tangled Up In Blue,
like many of Bob's songs, old and new, saw him switching lyrics and
skipping verses altogether, while Early Roman Kings was a fairly faithful
reproduction of the album recording, George Recile's bluesy drum beat
leading the way. It was all great stuff for the dyed-in-the-wool Dylan
fan, but then came a show highlight: a meandering version of Desolation
Row, with Bob at his piano, Tony Garnier on standup bass and Herron on
electric mandolin. Doing eight of the 10 verses -- he left out "Einstein
disguised as Robin Hood" and "Praise be to Nero's Neptune," from what I
recall -- Bob still appears engaged with this 52-year-old tune (think
about that for a minute), even while playing with the melody at times. A
faithful reading of Soon After Midnight followed, after which came a
revealing moment that I didn't even see. Taking centre stage with the
microphone stand in his hands, he performed the jazzy That Old Black Magic
with an enthusiasm you rarely see these days. You could tell everybody in
the band had a blast with it. No one more than Bob, apparently. I only
caught slight glimpses of it, the piano blocking my view. But my wife says
Bob was almost dancing, and when I had a better angle two days and 500
miles down the road, I saw what she meant. Shuffling his feet a few steps
forward, then back, then to the side -- you could see he was into it. And
when an artist is into it, that's really all you can ask. My personal
highlight probably came next, the magnificent Long and Wasted Years, a
fifth song from 2012's Tempest, and probably the best. The band played a
gentle, swaying version, if that makes sense, stretching out the musical
parts between the verses on occasion, and Bob nailed every line from the
original. This had been his main-set closer a year earlier. Clearly, he
believes it worthy. It probably should have been his closer this time,
too. But it was time for one more cover, the haunting Autumn Leaves, sung
as sadly as Once Upon A Time had been. The crowd of maybe 4,000,
applauding politely, had no idea the main set was over until Bob and the
band began leaving the back of the stage. It was as low-key a show-ending
moment as you'll ever see. Classic Dylan, at least today. Eventually fans
got the idea, and brought the 76-year-old icon back for an encore of the
classics Blowin' In the Wind and Ballad Of A Thin Man, the former of which
was good, the latter great. When it was over, my brother said it was
better than he thought it would be. My sister apparently preferred a Dylan
cover band she'd seen a couple summers ago. I guess that Bob tutorial I'd
been guiding her through (listen to this; OK, now download that) fell
short. Two nights later I drove a 1966 Oldsmobile to Saskatoon, where I
saw the same set list before another small crowd, again from the fourth
row, but from the other side of the stage, just off-centre, left. Bob's
line of vision while seated at the baby grand was directly at me, it
seemed, while I had a perfect view of Charlie on guitar and Bob when he
took centre stage. I could also see the replica Oscar off to the right. I
saw Bob have conversations with both Donnie and rhythm guitarist Stu
Kimball between songs. And I saw the Black Magic shuffle for myself. But
it's the last thing I saw that'll probably stick with me the longest.
After the encore, the band lined up, as they did in Winnipeg, for what
seemed like a photo opp. Perfect lighting, straight faces -- it was a
picture-perfect moment. Except everybody had been told no photos were
allowed. Bob, who hadn't said a word to the crowd on either night, held
out his hands at his sides in a thank-you gesture of sorts. Then he
touched his hand to his heart and walked off the stage with his band for
the next stop on what people like to call the Never Ending Tour. Some day
it will end, of course. If I never see Bob Dylan again, I'll remember that
moment. If I do, I'm sure I'll experience a few more.
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