A Nightly Ritual: Bob Dylan's Never-Changing Set List

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Bob Dylan's current show is a book musical without the book, crafted by the American Shakespeare.

Set Two: The Lovely and the Cornball

Set Two: The Lovely and the Cornball

From another singer's mouth, even with the nuance, the emotion would seem like a lie without the restraint and constrictions of Dylan's voice.
"High Water (for Charley Patton)"—The only song in the set from "Love and Theft", Dylan's 2001 masterpiece. I don't throw that word around. This time it's either Kimball or Sexton serving up a bit of intro blues. A snap of the drums, then Herron—tonight's ace in the hole—is rolling the banjo. This version finds a middle ground between the album version and the heavy groove of the live version you can hear on The Bootleg Series vol. 108: Tell-Tale Signs. (If Columbia doesn't release a Bootleg Series of the Supper Club shows soon, I'm going to… well, I guess I'm going to write them a letter.) The band throws in an off-beat accent under the verses as Dylan sings with understatement and intensity. During one of the refrains, he points to the front rows as he sings "high water everywhere." As in, even here, even for you. "Love and Theft" always strikes me as a vaudevillian revue with Dylan gleefully playing every role, despite the plot's many, many disasters.

"Simple Twist of Fate"—Hey, have you heard the godawful version of this on 1979's Bob Dylan at Budokan? Dylan's vocals are tough, but everything behind him sounds like clever AOR (Album Oriented Rock) hell. "Somewhere a saxophone far-off played"—a sax rears up. "He hears the ticking of the clocks"—the drummer taps his sticks on the snare rim. Yeeeaaaargh!

Fast forward to 2015 and Donnie Herron's pedal steel wipes that all away. In the context of the show, the song's descending guitar figure and Dylan's tender improvisations with the song's melody evoke subtle connections to the standards he's soon to play. The singing in particular; he jumps some notes higher, holds out soft moans, oscillates between notes, never so beautifully than the penultimate time he sings the title. The harmonica solos stumble and burst. I write something stupid in my notes about the performance sounding like a lazy summer day punctuated by blasts from an angel. Not that I'd ever publish anything like that. Sensing the approaching end of the show, I want it to last forever.

"Early Roman Kings"—Stu Kimball works the maracas like he's a bookie shaking down some loser for change. The band overlays a lead part that drips and whines with vertigo. With Dylan back at the piano, the unison playing is out of sight, just ragged enough.

Another song from Tempest, "Early Roman Kings" combines what might be economic apocalypse, historical foreshadowing, and more threats from Dylan: "I can strip you of life, strip you of breath/Ship you down to the house of death." His tale would cure deafness, indeed. Occasionally Dylan steps back and puts his hand on his hip, as if to say, "Ain't this band hot?" Somewhere, Muddy Waters is smiling. The curtains and lighting combine for a Hollywood kind of look, turning the song into a noir tale of gangsters, Dylan playing the everyman who'll make his stand in the third act…

"Forgetful Heart"— …and then the plot turns sour and we fall into a fifth act, because Shakespeare's plays always have a fifth act. "Forgetful heart, like a walking shadow in my brain," sings Dylan, playing Hamlet. With Herron now on viola and Tony Garnier sawing his upright bass, the song sounds like a final testimony. Dylan stands center stage with his harp, bleating out eighth notes in one solo, and in another teetering between two notes, and "Forgetful Heart" becomes a simpler version of "Blind Willie McTell". The set is now truly brooding, a word I've seen used to describe entire show. Well, you leave with what the band leaves you with, and most of the second set will indeed brood. But in "Forgetful Heart" there's a delicate sense of finality, not rumination. A choice has been made.

"Spirit on the Water"—The most explicitly antique and jazzy song in the set so far. The tune wanders. After "Forgetful Heart", it's nice. Too nice, like the host of the party trying to distract everyone from the fight going on in the kitchen.

"Scarlet Town"/"Soon After Midnight"/"Long and Wasted Years"—When Tempest first came out, it didn't hit me. "Scarlet Town", which tonight picks up where "Forgetful Heart" left off in mood, was one of the few songs that did. You tell me there's a town under a hill and I'm hooked.

"Scarlet Town" is a good example of why Dylan's songs feel like speech, either dialogues or soliloquies. Here, the latter: a man on stage explaining where he's from, for some reason you'll figure out later. "Set 'em up, Joe, play 'Walkin' the Floor" sings the narrator, referencing Ernest Tubbs' "Walking the Floor Over You", a jaunty tune of betrayal, and then the narrator drops the hammer: "Play it for my flat-chested junkie whore." Okay then.

The next two songs were reasons I couldn't get into Tempest. "Soon After Midnight" was lovely but cornball, as it is tonight, and "Long and Wasted Years" kept hammering away on that cascading riff. Tonight the band saves the riff for the head of each verse, Sexton alone echoing it quietly during the first line. Maybe it's just the dynamics of the room, or just a slight adjustment not worth mentioning, but the revision makes the music less insistent, which allows all of the urgency to come out of Dylan's vocals. He gets so wound up at the end: "We cried on that cold and frosty morn! We cried because our souls were torn! So much for tears, so much for these long and wasted years!"

"Autumn Leaves"—As Donnie Herron finishes the weeping introduction to the song, Sexton's guitar wavering underneath, a handful people across the theatre applaud. This might have been the most dramatic minute of the night; the audience seems to sense what's coming, whether they know the song or not, and Herron and Sexton create a feeling of total suspension. Unlike the full-throated launch into the song on Shadows in the Night, Dylan edges his way in. As the French song called "Les feuilles mortes" ("The Dead Leaves"), its lyrics were ham-handedly symbolic ("Fallen leaves can be picked up by the shovelful/So can memories and regrets"), but then Johnny Mercer stripped the words bare.

On paper, they don't seem like much until the line about the "sun-burned hands I used to hold." As Dylan sings them tonight, each word is saturated in tragedy. "Since you went away, the days grow long," he sings, climbing to "and then I hear," reaching higher to "win-" in "old winter's song," fluttering "-ter" so gracefully you forget it's heartbreaking, and finally gliding the song back down into its minor chord resolution. From another singer's mouth, even with the nuance, the emotion would seem like a lie without the restraint and constrictions of Dylan's voice.

Encore: A Communal Climax

"Blowin' in the Wind"—After the shock of "Autumn Leaves", this anthem of protest and social justice is a celebration of the night, a communal climax, like the end of Shakespeare's comedies when everyone who belongs together finally are joined. Leavened by its waltz rhythm, "Blowin' in the Wind" is pleasing enough, but Herron, on violin, and Dylan, on piano, each seem stuck on the same notes.

"Stay With Me"—Though it's not as surprising or tenderly sung as "Autumn Leaves", "Stay With Me" is a passionate epilogue. Dylan even gives it a little twang. The song is a confession that the nights are cold and the path is dark and a plea for patience. Who is it sung to? A lover? The audience? Music? That's up to you. Judging by the message boards, most take it as a request of the audience. It is a Prospero kind of moment, the actor as the magician asking for the audience's prayers—"'Til I find to my wonder every path leads to thee," sings Dylan, "All that I can do is pray: stay with me"—as if Dylan needs our forgiveness for leaving tonight and heading to South Bend, Indiana.

The performance feels like the exchanging of a blessing, a word that means, simply, "more life". I like to think of the song as a plea for more life, more music. "(U)nlike a book, the theatre has one special characteristic," wrote the director Peter Brook. "It is always possible to start again." The nightly ritual over, the company packs up and moves on.

Now I want

Spirits to enforce, art to enchant,

And my ending is despair,

Unless I be relieved by prayer

Which pierces so that it assaults

Mercy itself and frees all faults.

As you from crimes would pardon'd be,

Let your indulgence set me free.

-- Prospero in The Tempest

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