Hillbilly Highway – Dylan rumbles through Boomerville

by Sheldon Birnie

I hit the Bob Dylan show at the MTS Centre last week when he cruised into town on the Hillbilly Highway, and I’m sure glad I did. It’s the third time I’ve seen ol’ Bob, and it was possibly the best performance I’ve seen him churn out in the nine years that span those three dates, and certainly more enjoyable than Dylan’s last Winnipeg date, back around 2009.

Coverage of the event in Winnipeg’s mainstream entertainment pages was lacking in any detail of Dylan’s set or the band’s arrangements of both classic Dylan tracks or recent cuts off Tempest, Modern Times or Love & Theft, and more reminiscent of Gordon Sinclair Jr’s ramblings than genuine music criticism. Which is disappointing, though not surprising. For those serious Dylan nerds who couldn’t make the gig, here’s some thoughts and recollections on the night in question.

Bobby opened with “Watching the River Flow,” a puzzler of a single from the early 1970s. Like all Dylan’s arrangements these days, it sounds next to nothing like the original, and frankly had me puzzled for the bulk of its playing time. Next up was the classic “It Ain’t Me, Babe,” which despite the full band arrangement, should be recognizable to even the most fly-by-night of Dylan enthusiasts, followed by “Things Have Changed.” While not a classic by any means, this is one Dylan’s most popular and regularly played tracks of recent years, which featured prominently in the film Wonder Boys and won the man an Oscar AND a Golden Globe for best original song of 2000.

It was at this point that the band and the soundman really hit home. Those first three tunes were decidedly rough, the mixes muddy, but from here on in the groove was set, the levels leveled (with the exception of an occasionally over zealous growl on Dylan’s part). A truncated version of “Tangled Up in Blue” was followed by the rollicking “Tweedlee Dum and Tweedlee Dee.” For the most part, Dylan stuck to the piano from here on in, having picked up a Telecaster for “It Ain’t Me” and plunking at an organ on “Watching the River.” Bob stepped out from behind the keys occasionally to wail on the mouth harp or conduct his skin-tight band in the fashion of a 1950s blues master.

Together Through Life’s “This Dream of You” was followed by Love & Theft’s “Summer Days,” both (relatively) bopping new numbers that had the bulk of the boomers scratching their heads muttering, “what the hell? this ain’t off Freewheelin’!” (though, to be fair, many were doing the same for Bob’s classic tracks as well). Bob and the band then dipped into an impassioned take on “Desolation Row,” followed by a blistering rendition of “Highway 61 Revisited” and the darkly disturbing new track “Scarlet Town.”  This little triptych turned out to be the high water mark of the evening. “Desolation Row” has always been a favourite of mine, and unlike the early version of “Tangled Up in Blue,” Bob and the boys plowed through every last verse on this one, damning the disinterested to the devil.

They rumbled through “Thunder on the Mountain,” from 2005’s Modern Times and a regular staple of Dylan’s show since, next, followed by a very dark “Ballad of a Thin Man” before plowing into “Like a Rolling Stone.” For the encore, the band blasted into the Hendrix-inspired version of “All Along the Watchtower” that Bob has favoured for decades, and capped the night off with an almost dirge-like “Blowin’ in the Wind.”

By that point, the crowd itself had thinned considerably. Those remaining took to their feet and applauded heartily the aged, gravel voiced sage until the house lights came up. Many of those who left early bemoaned the “incomprehensible” vocals and foreign arrangements, scratched their heads at Dylan’s inability to churn out laid back, pitch-perfect reproductions of their myopic memories of “Dylan in his prime.”

Most of the elderly I talked to following the show echoed these sentiments, even if they had stuck it out to the bittersweet end; all preferring the dulcet tones of Mark Knopfler that preceded Dylan & Co. Personally, I almost puked from boredom during Knopfler’s set. Sure, sure, his band was impeccable and Knopfler’s know-how on the fret-boards is formidable, to say the least. But it would have taken an overdose of sedatives and mood-enhancers to make that shit enjoyable to my palate. I prefer something with grit and gristle; something you have to chew hard on to get the most out of. Which Dylan and his buddies delivered in spades.

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