I always stretch out my birthday as long as I can.
Thursday, the actual birthday, we watched Sam play Stanley Kowalski in his theater class’s presentation of scenes from three Tennessee Williams plays. It's a proud and scary moment to see how well your 15-year-old can portray an angry drunk.
Friday, Kit and Susan threw me a wine tasting party. Tim and Susan, Betsy, and Todd and his newish girlfriend Fiddlin’. The instructions were for everyone to bring two bottles of a favorite wine, one to taste and one to send home with me. The rigor of observing, swirling, sniffing, sipping, and note taking broke down before the wine ran out, but the company and the party were great. I have a talent for making friends.
Saturday night was one for the ages. After much hemming and hawing, I decided on Bob Dylan tickets for my birthday presents. It’s a risky proposition. Last time he played Durham, at the ballpark, the show was by all accounts horrible. People joke about his “what is he playing?” nights.
I was a bit apprehensive about asking Bebe to drop 200 bucks on the show – the StubHub price for waiting so long – but the guy is 74 and as several friends mentioned, it’s like going to church – you get to be in the same room as (perhaps) the most important figure in the past half-century of music.
After I nearly set the kitchen on fire – Bebe got new drip pans and burners for the stovetop, and the wok got hotter than it has in a long while – we ate a fine chicken stir fry and headed out to DPAC, the Durham Performing Arts Center.
Our indecision cost us about a football field. Our seats were way up in the balcony. But the sight lines were good and the acoustics were better. And he was great. The band, featuring Tony Garnier on bass and Charlie Sexton on guitar, was seamless. Listening to them reminded me of the E Street Band stretching out on “Kitty’s Back” at the Meadowlands in 2009 – old pros enjoying themselves and entertaining everyone at the same time.
Remarkably, through a feat of acoustical design or septuagenarian vigor, every word Bob sang was recognizable. And he mostly sang. Sure, he growls, barks and generally sounds like gravel in a rusty cement mixer. But he was fully present, engaged with his band, and committed to giving us a show. He played a decent boogie-woogie piano and his harmonica was biting and pure.
I got teary during the old stuff. “She Belongs to Me” was the second song and it was wonderful, gruff but beautiful. I read some reviews and knew he had been playing "Simple Twist of Fate" and "Tangled Up in Blue," so I had my fingers crossed he would play them. He did, and they were great. He sings “hit him like a freight train” gently now, without the shocked yelp of the original, but it works.
Dylanologists are always on the lookout for the varied tempos, tricky cadences, and altered words Dylan has long employed to keep his concerts from becoming Bon Jovi sing-alongs. The arrangements were faithful, but he threw a few change-ups. The saxophone he sings about in “A Simple Twist of Fate” played softly instead of far off, and on Tangled Up in Blue, “We always did feel the same / we just saw it from a different point of view” became “We always did feel the same / depending on your point of view.” Fun stuff.
But the focus of this concert wasn’t the classics and twists thereon. On this tour, the set list draws mainly from the last handful of albums, the ones after he nearly died of a heart infection a dozen or so years ago.
They aren’t stand-up-and-flock-to-the-stage anthems like “Like a Rolling Stone,” but they all stand up on their own. “Duquesne Whistle” would make a dead man tap his foot, and “High Water Everywhere” (from one of the endless “Bootleg” compilations) had everyone rolling up their pant legs.
These songs hold the essence of Dylan, in whose bones live the whole of American popular music, from Stephen Foster on. Maybe he don’t sing pretty, but to listen to him is to stand waist deep in history, from the murder ballad to the American songbook. He can do Charlie Patton and, as he showed on the last song, “Stay with Me” from the recent collection of Frank Sinatra songs, he can tap into the same mix of sentimentality, lyricism and longing that made Old Blue Eyes indelible.
Perhaps best of all, Bob was having fun. From “Time Out of Mind” on (“It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there”), the last few albums have been largely grim, toes on the edge of the grave grim. But light peeks from the shadows – wry, wistful observations on love and the kind of fun you have when you and your band can, with ease, play with the conventions of every idiom from Tin Pan Alley to the marital rhythms of the Clash.
These were pros at the top of their games, and it was a joy to behold. Thanks for a memorable birthday present, Bebe (and Sam and family and friends).