Bob Dylan / Mavis Staples. Red Rocks. 06.19.16
“You think I’m over the hill
You think I’m past my prime
Let me see what you got
We can have a whoppin’ good time”
Robert Allen Zimmerman was born on May 24th, 1941 in Duluth, Minnesota, which just happened to be a month before the Red Rocks Amphitheatre was opened to the public in Morrison, Colorado; making both the man and the music venue 75 years old. Neither of them achieved legendary status until the 1960’s though. Black-and-white images and recordings from that era will prove that the artist and the amphitheater have changed quite a bit over the past half century, but I have never heard anyone claim Red Rocks is over the hill or past its prime. The same cannot be said for the man who calls himself Bob Dylan. His most passionate fans (like the woman who claimed 101 shows on Sunday night) will continue to have a whoppin’ good time at every show, but the skeptics make a pretty good case as well. I can only speak to my own experiences, but the shows I have attended over the years have ranged from tolerable to downright awful. That being said, I think managing expectations is key when attending a Bob Dylan concert. My expectations didn’t go further than a fun evening at Red Rocks with my family. With those expectations in mind, I was rewarded with my best Dylan experience yet.
Low expectations weren’t the only reason I found the show so enjoyable. Red Rocks is literally one of the best places on Earth to see live music, but when the weather cooperates as well as it did on Sunday night, it is nothing less than magical. Temperatures peaked in the mid-90’s during the day, but dropped down to the mid-70’s as night fell over the Rocks. Mother Nature provided the ultimate light show as flashes of electricity cracked between clouds in the distance, while the sky above the monoliths transitioned through many hues of blues and oranges, before darkness allowed the stars to shine down.
The capacity crowd had more than its fair share of multigenerational family members, ranging from those who remember Red Rocks being built, to those so young they will never remember being there. Kids attended with their fathers and their fathers’ fathers. For many of those people, including myself, the music was secondary to the overall experience of sharing Red Rocks with loved ones on Father’s Day.
Mavis Staples opened the night with a roaring performance of old-fashioned blues, soul, and R&B. A common complaint about Dylan shows is a lack of personality, so it was fitting that Staples projected enough personality for both of them during her short (but oh-so-sweet) set. Backed by a formal band of five, the 76-year-old singer strutted around the stage like she was 10 feet tall; rousing the crowd in physical and verbal participation every chance she got. The Staple Singers’ “If You’re Ready” started a fire that burned until Ms. Mavis proved she still had the pipes to compete with 9,500 voices during the closer, “I’ll Take You There”. A few cuts from the excellent Livin’ On a High Note and a cover of the Talking Heads’ “Slippery People” found themselves right at home among the classics, but the real energy came in between songs. “Respect Yourself” was followed by a history of the blues. And “Freedom Highway” wouldn’t be complete without mention of her father, the late great Pop Staples. He wrote that song for the marches from Selma to Montgomery. “I was there! And I’m still here!” It was at that moment I could picture her as an impassioned civil rights activist in 1965. She would have been in her mid-20’s back then. It was great to see she hadn’t lost any of her fire in the intervening years. Mavis Staples is one of those truly remarkable talents that don’t come along very often. We are lucky she is still out there doing what she does so well.
After the exhilarating performance from Staples, I had concerns about Dylan. The last time I saw him, in Louisville, Kentucky, Willie Nelson and John Mellencamp worked the crowd into such a frenzy that he didn’t stand a chance; especially when he decided (as he so often does) to mangle his most well-known songs into unrecognizable compositions no one can even sing along with. That would not be a problem on Sunday night though, because his most well-known songs were almost completely absent. There would be no “Like a Rolling Stone”. “Highway 61 Revisited” would not be performed either. And if you were hoping to hear “Maggie’s Farm”, “Mr. Tambourine Man”, “It Ain’t Me, Babe”, or “Rainy Day Women”, you were going to be disappointed. I understand why that might frustrate some people, but I think the absence of those songs made for a better show. Bob Dylan has never been one to go out of his way to please a crowd (especially those who are just out to hear him play ‘hits’ from the 60’s and 70’s), so if his heart isn’t in those tracks, I would rather him leave them in the past. When given the choice of not hearing certain songs or having him dissect them and put them back together like some kind of Frankenstein, I will always choose the former. That is why his current (surprisingly unchanging) setlist of Sinatra standards mixed with original material from the 21st century is so refreshing. For the first time ever, I witnessed Bob Dylan performing the songs he wanted to be performing. And in my opinion, an artist doing what they want to do is always going to make for a superior show.
Bob Dylan, the man in black, followed his band onto the stage around 9:00pm. The sound came across a little muffled during “Things Have Changed”, but was corrected before the song transitioned into “She Belongs to Me” (one of only two songs from the 60’s…and yes, it was modified quite a bit). Switching it up between standing at the mic and sitting at the piano, he left the majority of the guitar, percussion, and (lots of) pedal steel to the men in grey suits. At 75 years old, it is amazing the man is still performing at all, but I swear his voice is aging twice as fast as his body. I am a huge Tom Waits fan, so I have no problem with gasoline-soaked, unintelligible vocals, but late-career Dylan is giving Waits a run for his money when it comes to brutalizing vocal chords when on stage. Selections from Tempest would have been right at home on Bone Machine or Real Gone. What might sound like a heartbroken hound dog on record, can come across as the last breath of a dying bull frog on stage. I mean that in the best way possible though. The built-up grit and grime in his throat tells stories the same way his lyrics do.
There are many differences between Bob Dylan and Tom Waits, but when it comes to the stage, there are two that are most obvious. Tom Waits is known for his banter, while Dylan is known for his almost complete disregard for the audience. The only time he spoke to the crowd on Sunday night was to mumble a few words of appreciation before intermission. The other difference, which I didn’t realize until the Sinatra songs started to appear in the set, is that Dylan is fully capable of washing the rust away to sing clean vocals. The transformation was unbelievable as “I’m A Fool to Want You” would follow “Duquesne Whistle”, or “I Could Have Told You” would follow “Early Roman Kings”. Decades would peel away like reptilian skin. Tribute was paid to the old standards by his band in multiple ways, but hearing Dylan pay respect to those classic tunes by enunciating every word was something I didn’t think possible in 2016. But then he’d follow “All or Nothing At All” by barking “Long and Wasted Years” at the bright moon above. He might not be the most dynamic performer living today, but the fact that he can mix such diverse sounds into a single, cohesive set speaks volumes about his ability to curate a show.
“Tangled Up in Blue” closed out the first set. “Blowin’ in the Wind” came as an encore. For many people, those performances would be the highlights of the night. I appreciated those two songs as well, but having heard them a million times before, they were not my personal highlights. I really enjoyed the Sinatra interpretations. I also thought all five Tempest selections were extremely strong.
Overall, it was a mellow show. People sat down most of the night, and the lamps and dull spotlights made for a ‘songs around the campfire’ stage aesthetic. If I were attending with a bunch of friends looking for a rowdy night on the Rocks, I think I may have been disappointed. For an evening on the Rocks with my wife and daughter, it really was perfect though. Even my 13-year-old enjoyed the show. We had a game where she’d guess if the song was Sinatra or Dylan. She achieved a perfect score (only hesitating on “Autumn Leaves”).
The only negative thing I can say about the whole night is regarding the photography and phone policy. People come to Red Rocks from around the country (and world) to see shows at the iconic venue, so for Dylan to ban all photography and phone use, even when nobody was on stage, was extremely out of line. I understand the desire to have people enjoy the show without the distraction of technology, but when security is running around threatening ejection all night, it becomes a distraction itself.
The performance lasted two hours (including the intermission) and covered twenty songs. It was exactly the same set the band has been performing for the past year or so. The lack of improvisation and interaction with the crowd could have made for a stale ‘going through the motions’ performance, but it didn’t come across that way at all. Every musician on the stage was a master of his craft, including Bob Dylan. Everyone has the right to their own opinion, but Dylan will always be known as one of the greatest songwriters of all time. He is over the hill and (when it comes to performing his songs from the 60’s and 70’s) he is past his prime, but if your expectations are set correctly, you can still have a whoppin’ good time. If you weren’t there, you’ll just have to take my word for it though, because there will be no pictures or video to prove I’m telling the truth.
If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me)
Take Us Back
Can You Get to That
I’ll Take You There
Bob Dylan and His Band:
Things Have Changed
She Belongs to Me
Beyond Here Lies Nothin’
What’ll I Do
Pay in Blood
I’m a Fool to Want You
Tangled Up in Blue
High Water (For Charley Patton)
Why Try to Change Me Now
Early Roman Kings
I Could Have Told You
Spirit on the Water
All or Nothing at All
Long and Wasted Years
Blowin’ in the Wind