Talk From The Rock Room: November 2021

Wednesday, November 10, 2021

Rock Room on the Road - Bob Dylan - Rough and Rowdy Ways Tour: Cleveland November 5, 2021

Bob Dylan and his ‘Rough and Rowdy’ band of musicians made their third tour stop in Cleveland, Ohio on November 52021. Dylan, never one to pander to any sort of expectation real or imagined has taken to the road for a tour that is earmarked to run through 2024. Following a strikingly consistent and critically acclaimed 2019 tour that found Dylan in fine fettle. Dylan now hits the road with a sheath of new compositions hailing from his stellar 2020 record Rough and Rowdy Ways.

The 3,200 seat KeyBank State Theatre in Cleveland hosted Dylan and his group providing wonderful sightlines, intimate seating and crystalline sonics. Dylan played for an hour and forty minutes and while like the tour moniker suggests, focused on his recent songbook he also sprinkled in a variety of older classics that fit into the evenings aesthetic hand in glove.

Dylan ‘band leader’ Tony Garnier returned to his usual bass duties along with guitarist Bob Britt and long time instrumentalist Donnie Herron. Former Dylan fixture and guitarist Charlie Sexton was not present for this evening or the tour. He was replaced by guitarist Doug Lancio who is now learning trial by fire. Dylan also newly added dynamic drummer Charley Drayton who offers the group a series of tasteful and unique percussive approaches.

In typical early tour Dylan fashion his band was swinging, slightly rickety but offered an undulating canvas on which Dylan’s endlessly creative vocals could nestle. A hallmark for the evening was Dylan’s obvious investment in his new songs, while also injecting his catalog numbers with soulful singing and poetic dictation.  While on his 2019 tour Dylan played both guitar and piano, on this evening, he stayed close to his stand-up piano unless coming center stage with a silver bullet mic, legs astride and steely eyes for a bit of focused crooning. There was a stack of lyric sheets on the piano top which Dylan would thumb through prior to each number. Throughout the evening the band kept their respective eyes on Dylan’s black and whites, with Garnier using dynamic bass plucks to signal changes that his recent bandmates may not be familiar with.

Dylan has been enjoying a slowly ascending late era peak as he begins his 80’s. Starting with his triad of ‘Sinatra’ and ‘standard’ records in 2015, Dylan’s stage shows, vocals and then finally a full LP of original music has cemented his current renaissance. In addition, Dylan’s 2020 pay per view Shadow Kingdom also assisted in fueling his current inspiration and fresh tour with rearranged readings of songs from Dylan’s back catalog.

Dylan and band took to the underlit and stately stage opening the show with a percolating and rolling over rock’s rendition of ‘Watching the River Flow’. A fitting opener for what Dylan may or may not have been doing during his pandemic time off. The sound was dialed in quickly just in time for the following ‘Most Likely You’ll Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine’ from 1966’s Blonde On Blonde. The band’s playing is brisk, slightly funky and disseminates the new arrangements of old warhorses dynamically. A musical framework in which Dylan’s newly improved vocals can be the focus.

The first two songs from Rough and Rowdy Ways followed the band’s well received opening numbers. ‘I Contain Multitudes’ and ‘False Prophet’ are a well thought out one, two punch as successful on stage as on the grooves of the LP. Silence, space and breath are key for ‘Multitudes’ which drifts drumlessly on Dylan’s vocal melody. In complete biographical contrast the jump blues ‘False Prophet’ grooves at a higher tempo than the official recording. Dylan is already exploring the nuances and clandestine opportunities for conjured melodies and unique approaches to the recently immortalized songs. Dylan digs his heels in for this one, kicking up dirt and causing a ruckus.

‘When I Paint My Masterpiece’ follows in a fun countryfied rendition highlighted by Dylan’s only harp playing of the evening. Deftly setting the table for another new song, Dylan shuffles to center stage for ‘Black Rider’. The band’s strength for this song is restraint. Each sung line is its own encapsulated moment, the airy instrumentation allowing for a singular focus on Dylan’s imagery. Dylan, breathy, gruff, and melodic all at the same time. A highlight of the evening for this listener.

The spooky waltz of the newly created ‘My Own Version of You’ is bracketed by an acoustic based and violin dressed ‘To Be Alone With You’ from 1969’s Nashville Skyline, as well as a churning version of the John Wesley Harding closer “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight’ and in an anticipatory and high tempo performance. The triad of tracks, similarly to the construction of the entire set list have a silver thread of resonance that connect them in some sort of ambiguous way. While having a couple of minor lyrical stumbles on the sinister ‘My Own Version of You’ (forgiven as these songs are brand new), Dylan still emitted a shady attitude. His searching and singing obviously interested in birthing something new from his approach. The band followed his moves deftly hitting well times exclamations and pulling back when appropriate.

                                 Photo: Nate AC

Over the last few years of Dylan tours the blues of the ‘Early Roman Kings' has been a standard of his sets and here it acts as a token blues cut. Dylan, in what is a theme for the evening tries on and discards a plethora of vocal approaches to the 12 bars adding up to a version that kept my interest and kept the excitement high.

‘Key West’, the major number from Rough and Rowdy Ways is an epic and a cut that excites with its sonic possibilities. On LP the song emits a warm drift and a hazy view. In concert the song in in a state of becoming. Dylan played piano for this reading, whereas according to reports this was not the case at the preceding two shows. An additional welcome inclusion was an accordion part, aptly played by Donnie Herron and lending welcome instrumental detail.

Similarly to Dylan’s instrumental exploits on guitar during his ‘Never Ending Tour’ Dylan will hit on a melodic lick on piano and then pass it’s smoking embers around the stage. Sometimes his aural creations turn to flame, sometimes they smolder to ash. But such is the ramshackle creative energy that Dylan has emanated since his earliest coffee house days. He did this a few notable times in Cleveland, once at the conclusion of ‘My Own Version of You’ and again experimenting with the flow of ‘Key West’.

Part of the dramatics of the song and performance is the feeling that Dylan’s aged and fragile musical ship may be busted apart on the creative rocks. But that’s where Dylan works the best, the razors edge, running the red light toward high-speed artistic expression. The closing song from 2020’s Rough and Rowdy Ways, ‘Key West’ is the perfect recipient of this familiar approach. Part of this can be attributed to new band members but the other bit is Dylan’s refusal to stay stationary musically. An obvious factor in his longevity and creativity.

This was a peak for me as a listener at the concert as it seemed from this point on in the show every single performance topped the last. ‘Gotta Serve Somebody’ followed ‘Key West’ in a white-hot guitar attack, a highlight of the evening. The arrangement which is like the 2019 version also recalls the incendiary 1981 live renditions. Dylan has also updated the lyrics as he is apt to do. The crowd responded in kind to such a substantial reading of the ‘gospel trilogy’ classic.

‘I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You’ appears as if out of a mist, it’s weightless central melody a highlight of the Rough and Rowdy Ways record. Dylan sings as if he’s trying not to wake a baby. In the middle of the verses, he unexpectedly stretches the warmed syllables while gently rising his voice into the honey of the sun; before ending the line in his lowest light of the moon. Small stumbles and tentative changes are forgiven as once again the effort for inspiration and dissemination of these new songs is notable. As Dylan states in the song, ‘My heart’s like a river, a river that sings’.

The one song to remain from his ‘standards’ set is Frank Sinatra’s ‘Melancholy Mood’, somehow also fitting perfectly into the context of the set. The song being one of the more important standards to inspire Dylan’s current vocal approach. In Cleveland, Dylan stands up front with microphone in hand, other hand outstretched, prowling the stage during a typically wonderful reading.

A second pairing of Rough and Rowdy Ways conclude the set proper with the anthemic vocal ballad ‘Mother of Muses’. A dramatic sermon sung to influence and inspiration and quite unlike anything in Dylan’s canon. The song contained some of Dylan’s most emotive vocals of the evening. The crowd realized this and listened in assembled silence as Dylan closed his delicate series of lines with the perfect finale, “I’m travelin’ light and I’m a-slow coming home’. Before the applause had faded for ‘Muses’ the band cracked open the intro to a fizzing ‘Goodbye Jimmy Reed’.

‘Jimmy Reed’ acts as a cathartic release from the prayer like dictation of ‘Mother of Muses’. Dylan attempts several bluesy meters and vocal twists that expand on the official recording. The only blemish on the song’s attempt this evening being a microphone missing half of the opening line. The song soon starts a slow roll over the edge and picks up intensity as it gains momentum. Dylan feels his way around the new song, finding comfortable places to put up his feet.

What happened next was a highlight of my previous 24 Bob Dylan concerts. The two earlier Rough and Rowdy performances had concluded per usual with the expected two song encores.  But on this evening in Cleveland we were in for a different approach. Dylan and band didn’t leave the stage prior for an encore call. Instead, Dylan stayed on stage for band introductions and then gathered the group around his piano in a tighter than previous formation.

Dylan then began to play the opening chords to his ‘Every Grain of Sand’, played for the first time since 2013. The closing song off Dylan’s 1981 LP Shot of Love was perfection in its chosen place. Tony Garnier nodded his bass to the band members signaling important changes. The song’s original melody was still discernable and delicately expressed by Dylan’s emotional vocals. I, as well as others sat in stunned silence. It’s moments like this that cannot be adequately explained. Nothing else could be said by Dylan and band. Any additional music would certainly be welcome, but superfluous.  

Since this night in Cleveland the setlist has slotted into comfortable positions first explored on November 5, 2021. Dylan had to have felt he got the set right. As Dylan continues to take his Rough and Rowdy Ways performances to venues around the world the new songs are already expanding and morphing into unique and different disseminations. Only a week removed from this concert and the nuts and bolts of the performances are already being tightened down. The constant allure and mystery of Dylan concerts are his continuing search for alternate ways of musical expression. The pandemic break did nothing to Dylan but strengthen his resolve and his need for creativity on the live performance tight rope. The music on the Rough and Rowdy Ways tour is going to get better and better and Dylan is going to keep chiseling away at the arrangements with the chance that he may finally paint his masterpiece.