November 2, 2012
Review by Michael Nave
TULSA LOVES DYLAN
How is it that Bob Dylan has played a relatively small, secondary city on
the plains of Oklahoma five times since 2004? After all, it sure isn't
Austin. Bob Dylan first played Tulsa, Oklahoma in September of 1990
during the 3rd year of the Never Ending Tour. He played the city for the
second time a mere 13 months later. After ignoring it again for over a
decade, beginning in 2004, Dylan played Tulsa 5 times in the next 8 years.
I have had the pleasure of seeing Dylan five of the seven total times he
has played Tulsa, at venues such as the River Parks Floating Stage
Amphitheater, the Brady Theater, the old Driller's Stadium, and the
historic Cain's Ballroom. Even though I have also seen Dylan 55 times in 9
different states, it never occurred to me until November 2, 2012 at the
BOK Center in downtown Tulsa just why it is that Dylan plays this city so
regularly in the 2000s.
But to understand this, let's look a bit at Dylan's relationship with
Tulsa. Growing up in Northeastern Oklahoma, I heard the stories all my
life about Dylan supposedly hanging out with George Harrison, Eric
Clapton, and others at Leon Russell's house and studio there in the mid
1970s. I have no way of knowing whether any of those stories are true,
but just perhaps they are. Of course Dylan has long histories with Jim
Keltner and Steve Ripley, both Oklahomans from the Tulsa area. But Dylan
has musician connections to many American cities so it doesn't seem this
would explain why Dylan in his later years has chosen to play so many
shows in Tulsa.
Which brings me to the 2012 Fall tour with Mark Knopfler. I have been
reading all the negative reviews that simply repeat the decades-old "news"
- Dylan's voice is bad, Dylan changes the arrangements of his songs, and
damn, did you hear he went electric? But I have seen my share of bad
shows; I have been less than impressed by some versions of songs in recent
years. So having not seen Dylan since the summer of '11 I was concerned
that perhaps the old man had lost it, perhaps senility had set in, perhaps
the tipping point had been reached and it was going to be a sad decline
that would mark the waning years of the NET.
Judging from Dylan's commitment to his performance art at the BOK Center,
he is not going to go gently into that goodnight. To borrow a Warren
Zevon line, Dylan does not "want to grow old gracefully", but rather he
wants to continue to reinvent himself and challenge his audience until the
very end. And he is doing it with a commitment and zeal that is very
visible in his performance. And the Tulsa audience gets it. This
audience that lives with the worst selection of radio stations in the
universe, that endures politics just to the right of Atilla the Hun, and
that is located in one of the most impoverished states in the Union, gets
it. In fact, this Tulsa audience reminded me a bit of Austin, though not
as sophisticated, not as hip or knowledgeable, but savy enough to get it.
Maybe the variety of truly great artists that the Cain's Ballroom
routinely brings to Tulsa is helping this to occur.
Dylan strode onto the BOK stage to the strains of Stu Kimballs guitar, no
introduction, no fanfare. After a few moments of the band vamping, Dylan
stepped behind his electric keyboard and roared into "You Ain't Goin'
Nowhere". Yes, I missed the Larry Campbell - Charlie Sexton harmony
vocals from the late '90s, but Dylan, unlike most of the rest of us,
prefers to continue to look forward, to change, to adjust. It was obvious
from the first notes that Dylan was invested heavily in this performance.
He was clearly enunciating and he was singing, albeit in a non-standard
way given the limitations of his voice - but he was working hard at
performing the song.
For the next tune, Dylan had a seat at the baby grand for "Don't Think
Twice" but something was wrong with Dylan's mix as he turned and spoke to
the monitor engineer a couple of times before getting up and moving back
to the keyboard. Dylan was a bit distracted by the technical snafu, but
remained focused on the song, and again delivered a heartfelt, full of
effort performance. He moved to the mic at center stage for "Things Have
Changed" and delivered another stunning performance. This was the
strongest 1-2-3 I have seen from Dylan since at least 2006. I quickly
realized that he was very much into his performance and was there to work
hard to entertain the crowd.
The intensity followed with the 2012 version of Tangled Up In Blue, a
version I found to be very satisfying, and Mark Knopfler on guitar really
added to the specialness. That was followed by Cry A While, which is not
one of my favorite tunes, but this has to be my favorite version of this
song I have heard, with a stop/start, energetic arrangement. The crowd
loved To Make You Feel My Love, but to me the energy level dropped and
never got back to the levels of the opening numbers. Yes, Dylan's piano
playing is like his guitar playing, but it didn't detract from the
arrangements like the circus keyboard of a few years ago.
Desolation Row and Highway 61 were good performances as well. I guess I
would characterize the set as consistent.
I am a big Mark Knopfler fan and don't like to compare the two, but I feel
I must because I have seen plenty of other reviewers do so in previous
reviews. I enjoyed Knopflers set - every note was perfect, he spoke to
the crowd, and he didn't radically rearrange his songs. And I loved his
set. However, Dylan created art before our eyes on the BOK stage this
Friday night. Mark Knopfler played some great music, but he recreated
art. While I enjoyed both sets, Dylan's set challenged me, pushed me, and
in the end, convinced me that Dylan, who has been one of the most creative
songwriters in history, is still one of the most creative live musicians
ever. If you came to hear an artist speak to the audience and not
rearrange his songs, then you would have preferred Knopflers set. And
while I, and the Tulsa audience, was satisfied with Knopfler's set, we
could get beyond the talking and non-rearranged songs, to an appreciation
of the performance.
No, Dylan didn't speak until the band introductions before All Along the
Watchtower (other than thanking Knopfler as he left the stage), and
Knopfler made a few throw away comments during his set, but Dylan
connected with the audience in a much more fundamental, genuine way, than
Knopfler, and most any other "big name" artist I have seen in the last 30
years. I have seen Dylan many times when he didn't connect to the
audience, when he just stood there, looked down and sang. I appreciate
him in his 71st year making the effort to connect to the audience in a
genuine, honest, heartfelt way, not with a "hello Tulsa, are you having a
good time tonight?". And even though judging from previous reviews, many
don't get that, the Tulsa audience was there with him all the way.
I did see a handful of people leave during the performance, and I did hear
some comments as I left the arena from people, that seemed to indicate
that some folks were sort of scratching their heads, not totally sure of
what they had seen, but who ultimately felt satisfied.
I really loved the roadhouse band of the late '90s. And while this band
never quite reaches a boil, it certainly simmers throughout the entire
performance. And the Tulsa audience appreciated it. The audience on the
floor, stood through most of the performance and were there with him all
Later highlights in the set included Desolation Row, Ain't Talking, and
Blowin' In The Wind. The version of BITW that I heard in 2011 in
Thackerville and New Braunfels was one that I could live without. But at
the BOK Center Dylan caressed the words, as if they were long lost,
elderly friends, that needed the compassion and caring of an old friend.
It was a moving performance.
And, as I said before, the Tulsa audience got it. Now I know why Dylan
repeatedly comes to this out of the way, windblown, city. In Corpus
Christi in 2009, like many other times when Dylan plays with popular
support acts, I saw "fans" streaming from Whataburger Field. I saw it
repeated in Grand Prairie the same year; but not in Tulsa. I'm not sure
any of these fans could verbalize why they love Dylan live in 2012, but
clearly they do. And in spite of the fact that there were a significant
number of empty seats, Dylan played to his largest crowd in Tulsa since
Driller's Stadium in 2005. I'm sure Mark Knopfler on the bill motivated
many to make the trek downtown to a large, antiseptic basketball arena to
see Dylan. But clearly they enjoyed the show. And as large, antiseptic
basketball arenas go, this has to be the nicest and most fan friendly ones
I have entered. The staff was friendly and helpful, but not overly so,
the arena was comfortable, and has the best sound I have heard in an arena
of comparable size. I had an equally positive experience at this venue
this past May when I saw Roger Waters.
While I have seen Dylan over 50 times over the years and count myself as a
true fan, I am not blind to his shortcomings. But all in all, I found his
Tulsa set very satisfying, even moving, in the way he chose to reach out
to the audience in a genuine, albeit idiosyncratic, Dylan, way. I look
forward to seeing him again soon, and if I'm lucky, in Tulsa.
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