Bob Dylan Concerts at Terminal 5

Earlier this week at Terminal 5 in New York, Bob Dylan played one of his best shows in years, says Sean Wilentz—and showed how he’s still reinventing himself.

Bob Dylan and his band returned to New York this Thanksgiving week for three sold-out shows at the unfrilly, three-thousand capacity rock venue Terminal 5. Dylan has made a habit of closing his U.S. fall tours in New York in late November, which makes perfect sense: the holidays are beginning; Dylan and the musicians have been out on the road for weeks; and Manhattan, where Dylan’s career began 50 years ago, seems the natural place for a festive annual homecoming. Not for nothing did his opening night set list at Terminal 5 include “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” with its playing-to-the galleries final line: “I’m going back to New York City, I do believe I’ve had enough.”

Usually the big drawback to this timing, though, is that New Yorkers, who include some of Dylan’s most devoted and knowledgeable fans, have had to sit through tired, indifferent performances at the tour’s end. At last year’s November shows, held in the late Reverend Ike’s converted movie palace church on Washington Heights, the opening act, Dion—no slouch, to be sure, but no Bob Dylan—turned in a relaxed, full-throated opening set than outshone the star attraction. But the first two of this year’s Dylan shows, with no opening act, proved very different. With seemingly effortless aplomb, Dylan played, smiled, sang (yes!), blasted, vamped, bopped, and improvised through excellent set-lists drawn from his enormous repertoire. They were, aurally and theatrically, the best Dylan concerts I’ve heard in several years, and maybe in a decade.

Advance reviews by fans from earlier stops on the road had heightened expectations, talking of “amazing” shows, “a blast from the past,” with Dylan “engaged, focused, having fun.” Dylan freaks, who are usually more reliable than the local press, pass the advance word along on the Web (chiefly on a fine fan site, BobLinks, run by Bill Pagel), knowing full well that all Dylan shows are not created equal. The New York concerts surpassed those descriptions. From the very first number on opening night, it was obvious that Dylan and his band (an ensemble he has worked with for a year, although he has worked with each individual member for a long time) had not only tightened up their sound, they had thoroughly rethought the arrangements of almost every number, introducing dynamics and revisions that made even familiar songs sparkle anew, with a light that was sometimes poignant and sometimes sinister.

The opener on both of the first two nights, “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking,” came from the first of Dylan’s so-called gospel period albums from the late 1970s and early 1980s, Slow Train Coming—a collection of religious songs for which some of his more secular-minded fans have still only barely forgiven him. With its crashing opening chords, though, the song is an imprecation to side with Jesus that is also rip-roaring rock 'n' roll; and as performed at Terminal 5—with Dylan playing the keyboards and spitting out lines like, “Sons becoming husbands to their mothers/And old men turning young daughters into whores”—the song became less a sermon than a descent into a world of desolation and folly that Dylan has chillingly described since the mid-1960s.

At age 69, Dylan, like Willie Nelson, has become, among other things, a great long-distance runner in contemporary popular music.

Dylan returned to some of those older unsettling songs as well, including “Tom Thumb’s Blues,” “Desolation Row,” and “Highway 61 Revisited,” and he brought down the house on both evenings with “Ballad of a Thin Man.” With Dylan standing center stage gripping his harmonica, front lit in macabre Halloween amber, the band’s black shadows cast starkly on a white backdrop, the performances of “Thin Man” revived the crisply frightening blam-de-lam of the original recording, but with the addition of some roaring harmonica solos. Instead of speaking the lyrics, as he has so often in recent years, Dylan sang them, the song’s limited melodic demands well suited to his straightened vocal range; and a song conceived as a truth-attack put down of a conformist Mr. Jones became an insinuation of the entire audience, by a figure who came across as carney barker for some hellish side-show in which the customers are also the freaks.

Dylan also appeared, at the first concert, as the harmonica soloist on “Forgetful Heart,” but in a wholly different register. A broken-hearted elegy to long-lost love from last year’s release Together Through Life, the song is also melodically simple but requires a delicate restraint from both the singer and the musicians, lest its bitterness overcome the rueful wisdom in lines like, “The door has closed forevermore/If indeed there ever was a door.” The necessary hushed timbre came out beautifully, punctuated by doleful harmonica runs by Dylan that sounded the sorrow at the song’s core.

Musicianship of the highest order dominated both shows. Dylan’s own prowess as an instrumentalist has rarely received its due, especially in recent years when, on stage, he has stuck chiefly to playing keyboards in a style more rhythmic than swirling, and is often muted in the sound mix. At Terminal 5, his keyboard work shone on numbers like “Highway 61” and “Just Like a Woman.” But he also moved easily to playing guitar on several numbers, including some effective lead guitar work on the second night’s “Simple Twist of Fate”; and his harmonica playing, which for years at a time has seemed like filler, blasted through songs like “Thin Man” and “Workingman’s Blues #2.” The band, meanwhile, blended beautifully, shifting the pace and the volume on songs such as “Cold Irons Bound,” which can easily become rumbles and blasts of sound, and checking the temptation to allow the talents of each band member—George Receli’s power drumming, Charlie Sexton’s guitar-God licks—from hijacking the proceedings.

This band’s chops—and Dylan’s own penchant for and skills at musical improvisation, also too often unnoticed by critics and fans—became fully evident on the second night, when a technical glitch threatened to undo, or at least injure, the playing of “Highway 61.” In the middle of the song, the multi-instrumentalist Donnie Herron’s pedal-steel guitar suddenly broke down; efforts to revive it failed; and so Herron, unfazed, picked up his fiddle and, on the spot, invented an entirely new, jagged harmony line. Dylan and the rest of the band followed suit with some improvisation of their own, and before our eyes and ears, a flawless, unrehearsed revision of one of Dylan’s classic songs came to life. And during the concluding instrumental section of the next number, Dylan, on keyboards, momentarily halted as he seemed to think over what might follow; Herron and Sexton scrutinized him expectantly; and out bursted riffs that affirmed the judgment of one of Dylan’s sidemen, the late Jim Dickinson, that at heart, Dylan is neither a folkie nor a rock 'n' roller, but a jazz stylist.

Sir Christopher Ricks, the leading literary critic of Dylan’s work, recently observed that some of Dylan’s songs are so powerful in their original recording that subsequent renderings are lame by comparison, and that perhaps these songs really should never be attempted again. (Ricks had in mind, in particular, “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.”) Without wanting in any way to enjoin Dylan’s creativity, I think Ricks has a point; and to my ears, “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” even when performed with the crowd-pleasing passion and power displayed at the second Terminal 5 gig, can never match the young singer’s horrid discoveries and brave avowals on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. Other songs have become so iconic that the audience response actually interrupts and mars the performance. “Just Like a Woman” is among them; and so, at Terminal 5, as ever, whenever Dylan reached the title line in the lyrics, the singer had to sidestep the audience’s shouts and quickly slip the line in as the crowd noise subsides—an inevitability that some might think a charming bit of mass participation, and that Dylan handles as deftly as he can, but that I find distracting.

These complaints, though, are trivial weighed against the musical treats of Dylan’s latest autumn homecoming. At age 69, Dylan, like Willie Nelson (who is eight years his senior, and even more constantly on the road) has become, among other things, a great long-distance runner in contemporary popular music. Even at their most perfunctory, Dylan’s shows usually have something fine to offer—a single standout performance; or the realization that, at least as a writer, he was able to compose songs when young that resound just as powerfully (though in very different ways) now that he is older; or the equally rewarding realization that his singular combination of defiance and vulnerability comes across in his new songs as they did in his older ones. But attending a Dylan concert is also a wager at hearing unsurpassed songwriting performed at a fresh peak of musical power. That wager has paid off repeatedly over the years, notably in the Rolling Thunder Revue musicales of 1975, in the “gospel tour” concerts of 1980, and in the shows in and around the release of Love and Theft in 2001. If not as spectacularly as on those earlier occasions, it paid off again this week.

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Sean Wilentz is a history professor at Princeton University whose books include The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln and The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974-2008. A contributing editor at The New Republic, his new book, Bob Dylan in America, was published in September by Doubleday.