This past Sunday I was gathering my things after the worship service as my friend Gary, who plays bass for our worship band, was packing up his gear. Gary, an accomplished musician with an encyclopedic knowledge of rock and roll, is one of the only people in the church that can catch me singing a Pink Floyd lyric and know which album it came from.
And it goes both ways. Usually I can identify the song whatever bass line he’s warming up with comes from.
So it wasn’t completely out of the blue for Gary to see if I wanted to go see Bob Dylan with him tonight in Montgomery. And of course i did! I knew there wouldn’t likely be many more opportunities to see Dylan, who turns 82 this year.
I had no idea what to expect. Did Dylan have a new album? Was it a greatest hits tour? I knew all the songs on his three Greatest Hits albums; knew Slow Train Coming by heart; and count “Tangled Up in Blue” as one of my favorite songs by any artist ever. But I couldn’t name a Bob Dylan song from the last thirty years.
I found an incredible website called Setlist that tells you the setlist for every show, maybe ever. I checked Bob’s set list for the show he did last night in New Orleans. Nine of the 17 songs were from his 2020 album Rough and Rowdy Ways.
I spent the day getting familiar with the album. In a lot of ways it reminds me of Johnny Cash’s The Man Comes Around. Haunting, introspective. With lyrics like, “I’ve grown so tired of chasing lies/Mother of Muses, wherever you are / I’ve already outlived my life by far”
Take me to the river, release your charms
Let me lay down a while in your sweet, loving arms
Wake me, shake me, free me from sin
Make me invisible, like the wind
Got a mind that ramble, got a mind that roam
I’m travelin’ light and I’m a-slow coming home“Mother of Muses”
But a big difference between Johnny Cash and Dylan is that Cash’s American Recordings albums were covers. This album from Dylan is all new music.
And the man is touring in support of a new album. Ponder that for a moment, in this age of nostalgia tours.
Dylan could have taken that track. He probably could have filled a venue three times the size of the Montgomery Performing Arts Center and not played a single song from this millennium.
Instead, I had the joy of watching one of the most creative artists of my lifetime still creating.
With no light show, no pyrotechnics, no banter between songs. Dylan stepped out from behind the piano to take a bow maybe three times in the short (hour and a half) set. He held on to a mic stand for support and acknowledged the crowd. Then back to the piano to sing the next song. No encore. The only time he spoke was to introduce his band.
Would I have enjoyed a nostalgia show more? Well, sure. That would have been the more crowd pleasing route. But my already high respect for Dylan as an artist hit a new level tonight. Not only did he play almost all new songs, but he reinvented the old ones. “Gotta Serve Somebody” was probably the best known of the set.
And he rewrote it. What is a low key, driving but somewhat subdued song as a studio version was a high energy, bluesy rocker live. The song was halfway over when Gary turned to me and said, “Holy cow! That’s “Gotta Serve Somebody!”
That was one of two high points of the show. The other was his gorgeous, mournful, elegiac “Mother of Muses.”
Tonight was amazing. Not because I heard all my favorite Bob Dylan standards from when he was in his prime, but because I heard new music from a legend who is still doing what made him a legend in the first place.
I bought a sticker at the merch table. It simply says “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’. I wasn’t sure what it meant. I’ve since learned it’s a title of a song from 2009. If it means there won’t be another tour after this one, then I’m so grateful I saw Dylan tonight.