RWB was fortunate enough to see Dylan’s (and Willie Nelson’s) show at Yogi Berra Stadium, in Montclair, NJ, on Friday night, June 24th . I’m not going to review it in any normal way, but here, if you like, is an appreciation of sorts.
Sitting back in the stands, rather than crowding up near the stage, gave me an angle on the audience that changed my perception of the event. I’m sure if you were up front that the crowd seemed fairly close in spirit to a usual Dylan concert audience. That’s probably where most of the people who trekked in from NYC were – this venue being about 30 miles from the city. Back in the seats and the bleachers, however, it felt a lot more than 30 miles from the metropolis. Mrs. RWB, who is considerably less taciturn than yours truly, traded remarks with someone who said,"The whole town of Montclair is here tonight." Someone else said that they’d come just because it was the first time anyone had ever played in the town, and that they’d walked to the gig. Just looking around told the story – here were a bunch of normal people, adults of all ages, kids in tow, out on a beautiful American evening at the local baseball park. Absent was the kind of intensity you see with serious Dylan fans. Expectations? I couldn’t tell, but they must have been all over the place, or nowhere at all. Warm weather, cold beer, some hot dogs, Willie Nelson and Family lilting away in the breeze, and who knows what from this Bob Dylan fella after the sun went down.
The portentous and hilarious introduction swiped years ago from that Buffalo News writer was intact, loud, and clear, "The poet laureate of rock ‘n’ roll … the guy who forced folk into bed with rock … disappeared into a haze of substance abuse … emerged to find Jesus … releasing some of the strongest work of his career beginning in the late nineties … ." What do people make of that, who haven’t heard it before? They probably forget it pretty fast. The pounding opening number cleared the air:
Ev’rything is always right
When I’m alone with you.
The next tune was Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You. So that’s two songs in a row from Nashville Skyline, an album released in 1969, plumb in the middle of the Vietnam War, burnt American flags, down with the establishment, the whole world seeming to say "Yankees go home." Yasser Arafat assumed command of the PLO that year, and James Earl Ray pleaded guilty to assassinating Martin Luther King. John and Yoko recorded "Give Peace A Chance." I could go on, but I’m starting to sound like Greil Marcus. I’m not saying that Nashville Skyline had anything to do with any of that. Of-course it didn’t. It’s an album that you could describe in a lot of ways – sweet country music, simple-seeming songs about a simple-seeming life -Dylan even crooning them in a voice he’d never revealed before. They are in some sense poems to the American heartland; songs about a land of love and loss and honest work and longing for the right girl and just the time and space to woo her, along with the regrets of a sin-stained conscience and the pain of promises broken. It never gets too complicated or too clever. People accused Dylan of not standing up and dealing with the real issues. I think he was dealing with them just fine.
It struck me, then, at Yogi Berra Stadium, how those songs seemed to fit the air and the faces out here. They didn’t seem like songs about some strange Brigadoon-type place; they seemed right on-topic and up-to-the-minute. Later, he sang New Morning too, a song I’d never heard him do in concert before, sweetly sounding the chords on his piano in the intro and outro. (mp3 here for a little while, may be unreliable)
So happy just to see you smile
Underneath the sky of blue
On this new morning, new morning
On this new morning with you.
Having last seen Dylan a couple of months ago in New York City, the contrast in just my own perceptions was fairly stark. There, it had been Desolation Row that seemed most relevant to the venue:
Then they’ll kill him with self-confidence
After poisoning him with words
Death by self-confidence – poisonous words – you can get all that and more in twenty different languages, any day of the week in the Big Apple. Free delivery on orders of $10 or more.
Here in the environs of Montclair, NJ ( a place that seemed to this jaded city slicker to be the heartland), Dylan also sang Desolation Row. But now, it seemed like something else – not a song about what waited right outside the exits, but intead a dose of exotic fantasy to take you away from the mundane surroundings. Or maybe a glimpse of the weirdness that exists in the country and the suburbs too, but that people are better at keeping locked up behind closed doors.
And so it went. The set list was not in its essence different to the one Dylan had played a couple of months earlier in the Beacon Theater on Broadway and 74th street – a similar mix of his heartfelt and seemingly simple songs, along with the strange, funny and nightmarish.
And, as at that show in the city, it worked, but in a different way. The alchemy of the songs, the performance, the venue and the air itself created a different but still precious kind of result. And the palpable presence of so many people who little knew what to expect of this Bob Dylan – this singer that they’d heard characterized so many times but perhaps rarely listened to themselves – provided a special and fertile soil for the songs to settle in on. Or so it seemed to this attendee. And what a Dylan they got; hunched over the keyboard in stage left, singing indescribably, or out in center stage, blowing a harmonica while stabbing the air with his hand and going down on one knee. Bandleader, soul singer, lunatic and country gentleman. "Thank you, friends," he said, like a Stanley Brother that time forgot. (Those were his first words of the show, with one song left to sing.)
This tour of minor league baseball stadiums across the country – so many of which have never even seen concerts before – is a unique* and remarkable odyssey that is leaving impressions likely to linger in unfathomable ways. Dylan is skipping the middle-man and taking it straight to the people.
And it’s a very nice thing indeed.
For tonight when I’ll be staying here with you.
* Yes, he did a tour of minor-league stadiums last year, and may do it again next year … so of-course this particular tour is not "unique" in that sense … but the concept itself is unique.