On this night, Bob Dylan once again proved he was no fan of history. And that’s why I’ve been a fan of his for so long.
See, I’ve always loved the in-concert head fake. After all, I already own the albums. Alas, showgoers in the modern age want the hits, and they want them note for teeth-splinteringly boring note. My response: You could hardly blame someone for not wanting to play a 25-year-old song the same old way. (In fact, to be honest, you could hardly blame him for not wanting to play them at all.) Well, some folks around me during this performance — right up front, third row — certainly did. Too bad. If you wanted to hear “Like a Rolling Stone” simply regurgitated, Dylan’s hard-eyed message was this: Buy the record. All night, he played with structure, changing the tempo (and sometimes the key) of most every tune. I was enthralled.
The set, to be sure, included its share of evergreens — “Tangled Up in Blue,” “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “All Along the Watchtower,” “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” and “It’s Ain’t Me” among them — he was steadfast in exploring some of his then-newer releases, as well. Included were two gems from 1989′s Oh Mercy, and three from his then-current release of traditional folk tunes, Good As I Been To You. But you had to pay close attention to pick them out sometimes, in particular at first.
Dylan, ever improvisational, even changed the prepared setlist — right there, during the show — creating one of the more subtle pleasures of the night: Dylan strums, and bassist Tony Garnier looks over at guitarist John Jackson. Both shrug, as if to say: What’s this? Well, it’s “Mr. Tambourine Man,” out of place and, at this point, still unrecognizable to almost everyone. Even the guys on stage. Garnier seems to pick up on it first, and he starts laughing. Soon, Dylan’s band — sometimes, understated; other times, rumbling and groovy — is rolling right along behind him again.
It was that kind of show.
“Mr. Tambourine Man” appeared as part of a jaunty acoustic set, positioned right in the concert’s center and dotted with simple instrumentation and the pull of Dylan’s memorable whine. The final electric third then bounded out with “It Takes a Train To Cry” and, from there on out, this band — which also included Bucky Baxter on pedal steel and assorted other stringed instruments; and propulsive drummer Winston Watson — really began to feel it. Most songs ended in lengthy, swinging blues jams. In fact, Dylan would often turn around to hush Watson, who responded immediately. Jackson made for an intuitive, moving sideman. He was seamless as a lead guitarist, but backed off perceptively when Bob felt the urge to pluck. Baxter set the tone with his deft shadings.
Sitting in front of them was a strange mix of folks, something I’ve continued to witness of Dylan concerts. Back then, the kids were all 1990s chic — replete with clunky boots and funky haircuts. This was met headlong by the diehards, scraggly longhairs who knew all the words. (Well, eventually.) Lastly, it was all leavened by a few dozen guys in incongruous business suits. Sort of like Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” meets Douglas Coupland’s “Generation X” meets Donald Trump’s “Art of the Deal.” But very reserved. Other than a smattering of whoops, and a few dullards who insisted on yelling out some completely (of course) ignored requests, nobody moved from their seats until the show crashed to a halt with “Everything is Broken.”
Dylan seemed to lose interest with a harrumph then, quickly pulling off his guitar and exiting stage right. Moments later, the band returned for a trio of encores — a sped-up “What Good Am I?,” a completely retooled “Highway 61″ and then a snarling “It Ain’t Me, Babe.” Then, Dylan bowed and left. He was probably in his bus and gone, as what was left of this jumbled amalgam of an audience was still clapping.
Setlist, April 21, 1993 in Monroe Civic Center, Monroe, Louisiana
Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again
All Along The Watchtower
You’re A Big Girl Now
Tangled Up In Blue
Positively 4th Street
Watching The River Flow
Mr. Tambourine Man
It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue
It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry
I And I
Simple Twist Of Fate
Everything Is Broken
What Good Am I?
Highway 61 Revisited
It Ain’t Me, Babe