Grand Rapids, Michigan
DeVos Performance Hall
October 14, 2023
Review by Adam Selzer
One pleasure of Bob Dylan concerts is how lines jump out at you in new ways.
I'd always thought of "I've traveled the long road of despair / I met no
other traveler there" as a line about isolation. But one night in Chicago
last week, as he sang that line I suddenly heard it another way: as a note
that people who are travelers don't usually end up on the dark road of
despair. So, take me out travelin', you're a travelin' man. Ricky Nelson
sure doesn't sound like he's in much despair in that song, after all; it's
all about having a girl in every port. (The girls probably have a traveling
man on every bus - and good for them).
Traveling to Grand Rapids was a last minute move for me. At 3pm in Chicago
I was at an event at a cemetery, the sort of event where you're surrounded
by people whose family names you know from local streets. The free food was
excellent and I kept thinking that if I held somebody's horse and didn't
cheat them even if I could, they'd build my fortune. But all the while I
was checking ticket sites. If I left by 3:30, I'd probably make it in time.
Good seats were affordable. I'd kick myself if I missed it. Even if it was
"just another show" it would be one more show in a city I'd never been to.
Traveling will keep me from the dark road of despair. And I'll get to write
another rambling travelogue of a review. All of these things might have
been the devil in my ear, but you gotta serve somebody.
So I managed to duck out with minutes to spare, and traveled right out from
the cemetery around the edge of Lake Michigan, through a land where
billboards advertised guns and virginity, and into Michigan, which looks
just like it does on all those "Pure Michigan" signs on bus stops: Lots of
Grand Rapids looked like a nice town, though if the rapids are the ones I
crossed over on that bridge from the parking lot to the Devos Center, they
aren't THAT grand. The hall was much more modern than most of the theaters
I've been to for this tour, which gave it a slightly different vibe. The
ladder was no longer on the stage, but the setup was about the same. The
guy next to me was chatty and amiable; he hadn't seen Dylan before and
wasn't a huge fan, but liked him and seemed open to whatever was about to
happen. All in all he seemed like a much more promising next seat neighbor
than the "Telly Savalas in Packers shirt" guy in Milwaukee, who had leaned
over to me during "I contain multitudes" and said "Now, this is a MAN song.
We contain multitudes!" I was really glad that guy spent most of the show
sneaking into other seats. Random people sitting by me at concerts have
become some of my best friends; others aren't anyone you'd ever want to be
in the same room with again, but at least you can eat out on stories about
them for years. This guy was open enough to what might happen in the show
that seeing his reaction would be interesting.
Dylan came out in the white hat again, and "Watching the River Flow" was
about back to normal after hitting on a new, higher octane melody the
other night in Milwaukee. But it was a strong start to a strong show. It's
so interesting to get to see how the songs differ subtly night to night.
The singing was great, and the crowd was really appreciative, given to
spontanous applause after verses and instrumental breaks.
There were no real revalotry new versions tonight, though towards the end
"My Own Version Of You" hit a riif/groove that I'm not sure was here
before, but seemed like it was sucking you into a funhouse and built up
the intensity to a fever pitch. "Black Rider" seemed to be using the echo
effect quite a bit more frequently. Some highlights to me this night for
me were "Crossing the Rubicon" (especialyy "Twenty yeeeearrrrrs I. Been.
Gone.") and "Mother of Muses." Simply a solid show, an excellent
representation of the tour as it stands this week. Tons of great
individual lines and moments. Hear for yourself; a great recording was
floating around before I even got home.
After one song Bob called Doug Lancio over and told him something; after
another he leaned over and said something to Donnie or Britt on the other
side of the stage. Most likely he was passing on the word that the
surprise song slot would be "Nadine," the first "regional shout out"
song from the tour to be repeated in another town (unless you count the
"Chicago" shoutout in "Truckin'").
A few songs in, the guy next to me leaned over and said "This isn't so much
a concert as an EXPERIENCE." It was interesting to watch him laugh at
various funny lines in the songs (obviously he wasn't have much trouble
understanding what Dylan was saying), and reacting to lines like the
"prositute" verse in "Key West." "Key West" was a very quiet, almost
whispered, and damned effective version tonight. It made me think of "Key
West" as a town like Willoughby, the outside-of-time town in The Twlight
Zone where it turns out that you're dead. Or, you know, one of the other
magical towns in that show that the train will stop at now and then, but
not every time. Only when you're in the Twilight Zone. Only when you've
found in Ferlighetti's "lost locality" where you might "catch once more a
sunday subway for some Far Rockaway of the Heart."
The woman next to me, dressed as a flapper, had been silent the whole show,
but leaned over and said "Oh my god. I didn't know this song. But I know
JUST where he's talking about."
At one point the guy next to me leaned over to me and said "You know who
else I think is great? Adam Duritz." This is a position I fully respect;
some of us are ashamed to admit we love Counting Crows, who started getting
lumped in as a "90s band" before the 90s were even over, but I find that
they're almost like a secret handshake among those of us who never stopped
thinking of them as an artsy-fartsy Americana band who, in concert, might
add a new coda based on a "Cracker" song that would rip somehow rip your
heart out. It explained a bit of why the guy was open to this show; right
from the start Counting Crowd would rearrange and rewrite their hits,
frustrating a large portion of the audience but fascinating some of us. If
you're open to that, it makes sense that you'd be open to this. I thought
this all over in my head enough on the drive home that I felt like jotting
it down here, but that's a whole 'nother essay.
My seat-mate was damn right: this concert is an experience. It sucks you in
and makes you take it on its own terms and it gets you cheering for certain
lines and verses and even piano breaks that might be full of wrong notes.
it's worth the drive even when you already saw the show several times in
the last week. There aren't many people at this point in their career
making their concerts something totally new, another important part of
their overall body of work, distinct from the other parts, traveling
around enough to make sure every fan who's open to it gets to see it. His
comment reminded me of something I think I saw on a message board during
the tour with Paul Simon in 1999: One -thoroughly enjoys- a Paul Simon
concert, and -experiences- a Bob Dylan concert. I said something similar to
the flapper-dressed woman to my right after the show when she said "That was
incredible; i'd pay WAY more to see that than to see Taylor Swift's three
hour show." (I wish people my age would be more open to Taylor Swift instead
of clinging to the opinions they formed when she was 17, but no point in
getting further off topic).
Outside I chatted with Jake and Bailey, a couple of Michigan students I'd
met at the Chicago shows. They were with some first-timers who also seemed
to have a great experience, too, and we all agreed that the harmonica at
the last moments of the show (back again tonight after appearing in
Milwaukee) was an intense emotional coda. There was no harmonica in Chicago,
or anywhere after night 1 of this leg as I understand it, until the last
few bars of "Every Grain of Sand" on the second night in Milwaukee, and the
crowd simply roared - perhaps because this was the first moment that Dylan,
singing new songs and new arrangements at a piano - appeared as the
"classic" Bob Dylan, blowing into the harp, right at the end, as if to say
"Yes, it's been me, that same guy from the 60s, this whole time. Don't
mistake this for a concession to nostalgia, but I'm still him." It worked
like mad in Milwaukee and it worked like mad again tonight. I tried to lure
everyone out to more shows. There are a few more coming up in the midwest,
and it sounds like a lot of people who came to Chicago are coming back for
Evansville at the end of the tour in December.
As I left a man walked up to me and said "Yo, man, what happened here
tonight?" "Bob Dylan concert," I said. He nodded thoughtfully, looked
around, and said, "All right. That's what's up. I thought that n--a was dead.
Cool." And he walked off into the Grand Rapids night.
Review by Nicholas James Thomasma
Gruff and Enigmatic Ways: Bob Dylan's star still shines in Grand Rapids show
You would think that after seeing him at least 15 times in concert that I'd
have a pretty good idea of what to expect, however, I try not to go into Dylan
shows with expectations. For a lot of people, Bob Dylan is a bucket-list show.
A lot of people just want to see the greatest songwriter of all time while
he's still around. He is 82, after all.
But one thing I've learned for sure is that if you expect Dylan to come out
with an acoustic guitar and play a greatest hits set, he most certainly
A quick look at the set lists for this tour was enough to know that it was
going to be mostly songs from the latest album Rough and Rowdy Ways. I put
the album on earlier in the afternoon in anticipation, and felt ready for the
show. I arrived early enough to make sure I could get a photo of myself in
front of the marquee which unfortunately was broken. No marquee photo.
One of the more unique aspects of the show was the fact that you were not
allowed to use your cell phone once inside the venue. All concertgoers had
to lock their phones in Yondr bags, a new device for preventing cell phone
use. You basically put your phone in the bag and they lock it and then they
unlock it for you on the way out. Great. No photos and no videos.
I snapped a quick pic of myself and my guest Dan Hildebrandt, the bass
player in my band, Nicholas James and the Bandwagon and then we locked our
phones up and went inside. (EDITOR'S NOTE: As is Dylan's long-held policy,
his tour does not provide media credentials or allow professional
photography at concerts.)
The stage set-up was simple with minimal lighting and no fancy technology.
Noticeably, the back curtain to the stage was not drawn, exposing the
industrial wall and various roadie cases, as well as the lighting rigging
behind the band. It almost seemed like an oversight, as though they forgot
to close the curtain, but you could see that the cases were clearly lit so
it must have been the presentation the band was trying to give.
Four spotlights that look like they came from a 1930s movie set, as well
as a couple of floor lamps were the only lights on stage. It was a strange
set-up, but I've come to expect strange from Bob Dylan.
The lights went down at 8 p.m. sharp and the band took the stage all
dressed in black suits. They started playing the intro to "Watching the
River Flow" and moments later, Dylan appeared to a thunderous applause
from the audience.
SHARPLY DRESSED, IN GOOD SPIRITS AND GRAVELLY AS EVER
Clad head to toe in a black-sequined suit with the exception of his
white-tipped shoes and white hat, Dylan at 82 was as sharply dressed as
ever and his performance was full of style and swagger.
Alternating between standing while singing and sitting while jamming,
Dylan was rocking center stage all night behind a black baby grand piano.
I found his piano playing to be exploratory and riveting, with Dylan
himself taking most of the leads and solo sections, deferring to his
band only a few times.
His voice - smokey, garbled and grumbled - was unfortunately difficult to
understand at times. I've come to expect this. As a hard-core Dylan fan,
I know most of the lyrics anyway, but I can see how it would be
distracting for someone who's not familiar with the songs.
He focused mostly on songs from "Rough and Rowdy Ways," his latest album,
released in June 2020. There were a few gems from the gospel era,
including a delightful version of "Gotta Serve Somebody" and also a few
classics from The Band era, including "When I Paint My Masterpiece" and
"Most Likely You'll Go Your Way (and I'll Go Mine)."
Another highlight was an unexpected cover of Chuck Berry's "Nadine,"
which Dylan played for only the third time in his career. I particularly
enjoyed the new arrangements of "To Be Alone With You" and "I'll Be Your
Baby Tonight," but overall the show stayed away from the hits.
Dylan seemed to be in particularly good spirits, considering he thanked
the audience no less than four times. The audience was engaged and
attentive for most of the show and it was delightful to watch an entire
concert without a bunch of cellphones in the air.
I've seen Dylan shows where he doesn't say a single word to the audience,
so to hear him introduce the band was a treat, too: Jerry Pentecost on
drums, Bob Britt on electric guitar, Doug Lancio on acoustic and electric
guitars and Donnie Herron on violin, electric mandolin, pedal steel and
lap steel, and Tony Garnier, the longest-servingg member of Dylan's band
on electric and upright bass.
The show's climax came during the finale, "Every Grain of Sand," when at
long last, Dylan picked up a harmonica from top of the grand piano, and
stood with pride while he belted out the only harmonica solo of the
Afterward, he took a few steps towards the front of the stage and stood
there while the near-capacity crowd lauded him with praise, cheers and
applause. He looked unsteady after nearly 2 hours on stage, and after a
few moments, he nodded and bowed his head.
His shadowy figure took a few steps backward into the darkness, the
lights went dim and he was gone.
Did the audience expect an encore? Perhaps, but Bob Dylan does not care
about what you might expect of him.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
is a veteran Grand Rapids
singer-songwriter and leader of the band Nicholas James & The Bandwagon.
He also has long hosted an annual Bob Dylan tribute show.
Nicholas James Thomasma
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