Rock Room on the Road – Bob Dylan and his Band – Rochester Auditorium Theatre October 24, 2023

by | Nov 6, 2023 | 0 comments

Bob Dylan, Rough and Rowdy Ways

On October 24, 2023 Bob Dylan brought his Rough and Rowdy Ways 2021-2024 tour to the Auditorium Theatre in Rochester, NY. Following the tour’s opening US dates in 2021, and a trip to Europe, the anticipated 2023 US fall swing has been winding its way through the mid-west, Canada, and the east coast. The performances have featured the entirety of Dylan’s acclaimed 2020 record Rough and Rowdy Ways (minus the epic “Murder Most Foul”) in addition to a collection of Dylan’s well-known compositions from his over six-decade career. Most of the non-Rough and Rowdy song choices were previously featured on 2021’s Shadow Kingdom, record a shady reexamination of previously recorded Dylan songs.

Rochester’s Auditorium Theatre is a fine sounding venue with extraordinary dynamics and Dylan and his touring band took advantage of the ornate room and enthusiastic crowd. Dylan last played the venue in the fall of 2018 and put on a spellbinding show that night, and this show was no different. But this time the focus had changed, with Dylan’s current material the centerpiece. Two years into the tour, Dylan has already remodeled the rooms of his Rough and Rowdy originals, shifting the furniture, painting the walls and adding new artwork. Some songs are completely different from their debut guises. Similarly, to previous Bob Dylan concert tours from 1966, and the gospel run in 1979, 80, and 81, Dylan has curated a specific focus and message for his live performances. He continues to express his message in different ways while making sure he gets his point across. Examined as one movement, the setlists are a specific narrative, commentary of old and new, borrowed and blues. The band plays as a plenary unit, weaving underneath Dylan’s vocals and piano. The group never overplays but adds to a propulsive collaborative sound that is a comfortable bed to tuck in Dylan’s improvised wants. Dylan’s licks are picked up by one player and bantered about, echoed, examined and sometimes discarded. The approach keeps the music fresh and constantly changing. Dylan’s piano playing has become the central instrument in his sound and an integral part of the group aesthetic. He pounds the keys percussively, repeats triads and exhumes riffs that can be explored by each member. His playing informs the drums as well as the guitars wading through rhythm and melody.

While the set has stayed static, in Europe, Dylan started to play with the song orders late in the show. In song slots 14, 15, and 16 Dylan inserted unique cover songs by the Grateful Dead and sometimes other tunes from friends and contemporaries like Merle Haggard and John Mellencamp. Early in the fall 2023 tour he played geographically specific cuts like, “Born In Chiago,” and “Killing Floor,” in Chicago, Chuck Berry’s “Nadine” in Michigan, Mellencamp’s “Longest Days,” in Indiana, Dwight Yoakam’s “South of Cincinnati,” in Ohio and most recently Leonard Cohen’s, “Dance Me to the End of Love,” in Montreal. One element that is stunning and sharp is Dylan’s voice. It has improved greatly over the last decade, and following his work on three standards records from the great American songbook Dylan’s approach is patient and sweet.

The Rochester concert opened with “Watching the River Flow,” as Dylan walked out during the already in-progress introduction. A 1971 song first released on Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits Volume II and played over 600 times by Dylan on concert, Dylan joined with his band on some honky-tonk music box piano playing. This was quickly followed by a sparce and thumping version of the Blonde On Blonde track, “Most Likely You’ll Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine,” where Dylan would drop the rhythm through the floor for new and balladesque recitations the verses.

After the opening two songs of the concert, two new Rough and Rowdy Ways tracks stretched their legs. “I Contain Multitudes,” originally a drumless drift on the studio record was played as a mid-tempo ballad that recalls previous Dylan rearrangements like “Trying to Get to Heaven.” Dylan left room for the verses to breathe with a focus on the story. “False Prophet,” followed and was sung by Dylan with a new sneer, while leaving the song’s Sun Records Bill “the Kid” Emerson influence back in the grooves the seven-inch record. Each verse concluded with hard riffing by Dylan on the keys and a warbly vocal peak. The song was the first highlight of the show ad it was obvious that Dylan was in fine voice and was reciprocating the vibe from the crowd.

Alternating the new with the recognizable, “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” followed next to great applause. The opening of the song sang almost acapella by Dylan, before the band dropped into a jaunty country style rhythm. “Black Rider,” began the same as the studio recording, spacious, a drifting black fog slithering across the landscape. The song has turned into a uniquely Dylan folk blues, an ominous warning or perhaps an admission of an alter ego. A light touch of echo was laid over the top of Dylan’s “Black Rider, Black Rider,” recitation at the introduction to each line, lending a spectral appearance to the verses.

“My Own Version of You,” was prolific. On the studio album, the song is played as a spooky waltz, on Dylan’s current concert stage it has become a charging bluesy incantation. Dylan chanted out the verses hard, he invented exclusive melodies out of the moment as well as rhythmic punctuations that increased the dramaticism. His vocals were urgent and brimming with attitude, undulating between sly inquiry and firm direction. A highlight of the night and the tour thus far.

A live Dylan standard, “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight,” was placed perfectly for those who came to hear classic Dylan. “Baby,” alternated between Dylan crooning the verses and a fuzzy surf rhythm. A far cry from the gentle country lilt of the song’s intent. Dylan’s piano playing was stellar during the instrumental break with plentiful boogie-woogie licks taking the jam to the next level.

“Crossing the Rubicon,” from Rough and Rowdy Ways was another stellar performance. Dylan sung it like a secret, its internal blues changes almost as weightless as the dust particles caught in the spotlight adrift across the mezzanine. Dylan’s approach ranging from soft, to matter of fact, and questioning with a tinge of doubt. The narrative of the Rubicon’s crimson current, a mystery shared with us by Dylan’s deep investment. Dylan stuttered his lines, stuffed elongated meters into shortened packages. His verses, multitudes of emotion, sly digs, and dry observations. The band gripping the blusey drift and igniting it into flames, incinerating Dylan’s original intent.

“To Be Alone with You,” a track retrieved from Dylan’s 1969 album Nashville Skyline was arranged in similar fashion to “Masterpiece,” with a dramatic patient opening followed by a jumpy danceable groove.

“Key West,” arguably one of Dylan’s most important modern era compositions was also rearranged on the stage in real time. The sturdy arrangement moved on tropical drumming. The melody was humid and percussive unlike the studio’s breezy and cool feel. Dylan’s exploration and invitation to the southern hemisphere for inspiration is a conglomerate of imagery both real and imagined.

“Gotta Serve Somebody,” was a jump back to Dylan’s classic catalog but was a train wreck that jumped the track. The song had a large dose of the ramshackle quality that the best Dylan’s shows contain. Dylan updated the lyrics and preached even as the song balanced precariously on a dropped beat and some missed changes. All was forgiven by the crowd though because of the discernable effort and willingness to experiment by the Bard.

“I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You,” is one of the finest songs from Rough and Rowdy Ways, a love letter composed by candlelight and hand delivered by Dylan’s faith to his fans. The song a close relative to gospel masterpieces like “I Believe In You,” and “Covenant Woman.” His singing was sensitive and true. Dylan stretched the end of each verse as far as his lungs would allow, climbing rung by rung to the stars, staying forever young.

“That Old Black Magic,” illustrates the diversity of Dylan’s influence, and while the song is polarizing for Dylan’s fans, especially those who travel to multiple shows, it’s jump jazz groove and Dylan’s youthful crooning make it a perfect choice for the cinematic spread of the set. I

In the potluck spot of song 15, Dylan and his Band dropped into the introduction of the Robert Hunter/Jerry Garcia song, “Stella Blue.” Dylan had played the song in Europe and Rochester received the Fall tour US debut. Despite some minor lyrical mix-ups, Dylan sang the song tenderly and his band stayed true to the song’s mournful melody. The song was a sentimental thank you to the Dead, a band that had played so many of Dylan’s songs over their own long career.

Following the band introduction where Dylan mentioned that his band was pretty good and that “it’s not easy to play these songs.” The band bid farewell with a sharpened blues of “Goodbye Jimmy Reed.” Bob dragged out some of the verses behind him and raced in front others, punctuating endings with edgy sibilance. It didn’t take a well-known Dylan classic to get the crowd on their feet and they responded by gifting Bob with a standing ovation.

The final song of the evening was the perfect nightcap to the show, “Every Grain of Sand,” from the 1981 album Shot of Love. For Dylan admirers following the narrative arc of the performance and applying their own meaning to Dylan’s song choices, there could be no other song played. Because of their attentiveness and response, the Rochester crowd was treated to a measured and rare harmonica solo by Dylan.

While the Rochester, NY performance was only one night of many Dylan shows to come before and after, like all Dylan performances it left behind a plethora of special moments in its wake. Bob Dylan’s “Never Ending Tour” has had numerous permutations, and its current form is sure to keep changing as well. It’s stunning that Dylan, in his 8th decade continues to up the artistic ante, while staying true to his own musical wants.

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