Review: Bob Dylan at the Aronoff, Cincinnati, OH 11/9/21

It’s complicated.

It’s hard to express my emotions in the aftermath of last night’s concert. In many respects it was wonderful. In many respects it was disturbing.

It was a dark show for sure. For starters, there was the minimalist stage. Over the past twenty years, Dylan’s stage set and lighting could sometimes be pretty elaborate. Audiences were used to seeing, for example, his Oscar prominently displayed, or manikins posed in the background or a statue or two of Greek goddesses or complex overhead lighting and projections. Nothing like that now. There was nothing on stage but the instruments and amplifiers (Vox AC30 and Fender Tweed for the guitarists, classic choices). The backdrop was simply a solid black curtain. There was no overhead lighting, no projection screen. All lighting came from the floor below the musicians, which was a bit like the effect of sitting around a campfire and shining a light upwards into your face as you tell a spooky story, and which must have been difficult for the musicians. Dylan himself seemed to be bothered by the lighting and squinted a lot.

The musicians were all dressed in solid black, although Dylan did have some light-colored figuring on his jacket, the only relief from the black on stage. It all had a very funereal aspect to it, and I don’t doubt that was the intended effect. The only hatted musician was Tony Garnier, who wore a solid black pork pie.

The backing band was solid and professional, if a bit dour. The two guitarists (Bob Britt and Doug Lancio) stood mostly together center-stage behind Dylan. Their playing was understated and competent, nothing as flashy as the flourishes and stage presence of Charley Sexton. They were mostly very straight-faced and concentrated on Dylan and their instruments. No one in the band (other than Dylan, which I’ll get to) engaged with the audience, but we’ve been used to that in Dylan shows for a long time now. Nothing of the muted flamboyance in Charley Sexton’s head bobbing presence and playing. Lancio and African American drummer Charley Drayton are brand new members of the band. Britt joined for the 2019 tour, which I saw at Dylan’s Northern Kentucky University show two years ago. I liked Drayton’s drumming. Only Tony Garnier and multi-instrumentalist Donnie Heron are long-time members of Dylan’s group. Their professionalism and dedication to the task of serving the master, with eyes glued on him at all times, are apparent.

All this is good and satisfying. The quality of the music was first rate, and the acoustics of Proctor and Gamble Hall were excellent. Sitting in the first row, I was a bit concerned that I would get audio mush at an excessive volume, but, no, the sound was perfectly mixed and balanced, with the volume level set just right. Dylan’s vocals were crystal clear, at least as long as he sang directly into the microphone, which he on rare occasions strayed from.

Dylan himself stuck to piano playing, behind a low profile upright piano, not quite a spinet, but also not a full upright. But it was the weak link in the music for the night. Nothing that you would cross the street to listen to and occasionally, with some clunker notes, something you might cross the street to get away from. After Shadow Kingdom, I was hoping we might be treated to a little acoustic guitar playing from Bob, but not to be. No guitar, no harmonica.

On the other hand, Dylan’s singing, particularly on the quiet RARW songs, was very moving, heartfelt and lovely. Some of the best singing he’s ever done, in my mind. It was frequently riveting. I would love to have a full recording of the show for that reason alone. There were some minor glitches. He clearly needed cheat sheets for the words to the RARW songs. Consequently, he rarely ventured very far from the piano and the lyric sheets. I’d not seen this at a Dylan show before, a sign that his mind and his memory are not what they used to be (that is to say, no longer something to marvel at).

Which leads me to the most disturbing element of the show: Dylan’s stunningly frail physical presence. In the past, Dylan always took the stage with a swaggering confidence and arrogance, the air of a general leading his troops into battle. That was still there when I last saw him two years ago. But over the COVID break, the ravages of age have undeniably begun setting in. He is quite evidently an old man now, who needs to hold onto things for support. That seemed to be another reason for him not to venture far from the piano. He seemed very unsure of his footing and balance. He walked without assistance, but his steps were shorter and more of a shuffle than in the past. I got the impression that Garnier and Herron, the two veterans in the band, were at least partially so attentive to him during the show because they had to be prepared to leap to his assistance if he should fall or get disoriented. In fact, at least a couple times, Dylan seemed to look to them for guidance as to what to do next, something I’ve never seen in the past. And once, Dylan seemed a bit confused and abruptly exclaimed to the audience, “Well, what’ll we do next?” A puzzling question, since the set list was exactly the same as it was for three previous shows.

Another new element in the show I hadn’t seen before: Garnier and Britt both had iPads on stands for reference. Dylan himself, unless it was hidden by the piano, only had sheets of paper to help him with lyrics. Those were visible from time to time as he flipped through them.

BTW, in case you’re wondering, Dylan was not wearing a wedding ring. The only band member with one on was Bob Britt.

My song-by-song commentaries, as much as I can remember
SET LIST

  1. Watching the River Flow
    A good opener. Back in 1971, the most important line was “What’s the matter with me? I don’t have much to say.” That could still be relevant today, but now the song seems more inclined to emphasize the sitting “so contentedly” by the river, watching it flow. Dylan no longer has to worry whether he has something to say or not, although RARW certainly declared that he still does (or did last year anyway). This is also a good warm up number for the band.
  2. Most Likely You Go Your Way (and I’ll Go Mine)
    It’s odd that this was actually the oldest Dylan song of the setlist, a Blonde on Blonde number, which was an angry roar to his audience opening and closing shows in his big comeback tour in 1974. To me, it seemed a bit out of place in this setlist, out of sync with the other songs. Not that it was played badly. Dylan sang it well. I can’t believe it was intended as a message to his audience the way it was in 1974, but I’m not really sure what his intent is in including it. It was part of the Shadow Kingdom show last summer, but I have no explanation for why he did it then either. I generally believe that Dylan carefully selects all his songs to perform, although it’s not always easy to discern the reasons for his selections.
  3. I Contain Multitudes
    Now we enter the heart of the show, with the opening song from Rough and Rowdy Ways. It was a bit of a rocky start, however. Dylan ventured out from behind the piano for the first time and stumbled with the words of the very first line, singing “Yesterday, today and tomorrow and yesterday too.” And then either he went blank on the second verse or the mic went dead on him, so he put the handheld mic back in the stand and went back to the piano to finish the verse with the lines about drinking to the truth and to the man “who shares your bed.” The rest of the song went off without a hitch, and he sang it with real emotion.
  4. False Prophet
    This was a highlight for me, without question the best uptempo blues rocker of the night. Dylan really snarled the lyrics. The album version of this is good, but I felt this rendition topped it. The band sounded strong, even without the snappy lead guitar playing of Charley Sexton.
  5. When I Paint My Masterpiece
    A more countrified version of an underrated song, a sister to “Watching the River Flow,” written about the same time. Donnie Herron played fiddle on it, and it all bounced along nicely. There are some new lines, but the only one that I could clearly make out was “Sailing around the world in crimson and clover./ Sometimes it feels like my cup is running over,” in place of those silly lines about a “dirty gondola” rhymed with “Coca-Cola.”
  6. Black Rider
    An excellent heartfelt rendition. At least equal to the album version. Minsun said afterwards the song reminds her of Schubert’s “Erlkonig,” a haunting piece of music set to Goethe’s original poem. I understand the connection. In both, a protagonist is pursued by death. If I had to pick one song from the show to sum up the night, it would be this one.
  7. I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight
    Okay, maybe this is in the setlist just to provide relief from all the gloom and sadness. But it didn’t really work for me. Again, not that this was a bad rendition. Just seemed out of sync with the rest of the songs.
  8. My Own Version of You
    A very nicely done carbon copy of the album version of the song, which I love.
  9. To Be Alone with You
    This was, for me, maybe the biggest surprise and delight of the Shadow Kingdom show last summer. A complete rewrite of what was a trite throw-away on Nashville Skyline. Whenever and for whatever reason, Dylan has transformed the lyrics into something far more profound and sincere as an expression of love. Another piece of evidence, for me, that Dylan has not lost his writing powers. Sadly I can’t really remember enough of the lines to transcribe them here, and the lyrics at Bobdylan.com are the old, trite NS version.
  10. Early Roman Kings
    I’m a fan of this song from Tempest, but I didn’t really care for this arrangement. The words are the same, but Dylan threw out the great old Muddy Waters riff that drove the original and replaced it with a blues riff that I found less interesting. The words are still great though, and Dylan sang them with conviction.
  11. Key West (Philosopher Pirate)
    Another excellent, essentially duplicate performance of the RARW arrangement. My appreciation of this song has grown over time. The chorus still seems a bit trite to me, but the rest is a fascinating look inward, as most of RARW is.
  12. Gotta Serve Somebody
    This is another good rave-up in a mostly downbeat show. The lyrics seemed pretty much entirely rewritten except for the chorus, which still offers the choice between the devil and the Lord. I don’t get the feeling it has that tone of fundamentalist cant that the original had, however. Seems more like a simple choice between right and wrong, good and evil.
  13. I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You
    Another highlight, and it was all about Dylan’s singing, which was breathtakingly tender and melodic. A real thing of beauty. I would die to have a recording of this performance. Very very poignant.
  14. Melancholy Mood
    A brief bit of Sinatra here near the end of the show. Seems like a very appropriate selection for the mood of the evening. Dylan let the band stretch out a bit as he sat on the piano bench, with his back to the audience and listened to them play. Then he sang a couple verses and the song ended after barely beginning, or so it seemed.
  15. Mother of Muses
    Again, a lovely rendition, very true to the RARW version.
  16. Goodbye Jimmy Reed
    I love this blues rocker, and this was well done, even if Charley Sexton’s guitar was missing. Another strong vocal performance by Bob. I still quarrel with the presentation of line four of the song at bobdylan.com, which ought to be the Bob-approved official version, but some songs are clearly incorrectly transcribed, as I think this line is. The transcription reads: “I can tell a Proddy from a mile away,” “Proddy” meaning protestant. But I’m certain Dylan sings “I can tell a PARTY from a mile away.” To me that fits the point he’s trying to make in beginning the song with living on a “street named after a saint,…where the Jews and the Catholics and the Muslims all pray.” He’s including all faiths in his point of view. I see no reason he’d want to take a shot at protestants.

Here Dylan addressed the crowd, with some words about Cincinnati, only a few of which I could make out: “The birthplace of Roy Rogers!” He thanked the crowd affably and then introduced his band. All of this had been absent in Dylan’s shows since, it seems, around 2001. It’s hard for me to remember the last time I heard him say anything to the audience. So this was a refreshing change. Minsun remarked on it, as well. His lack of engagement with the audience has always been one of her chief complaints about his shows. It was also a bit unnerving because as he was speaking, he seemed to need to keep his center of gravity low to keep from tottering over.

  1. Every Grain of Sand
    This is a great choice for a final song of the evening, though it’s quite a bit different from the way this tour began with the Milwaukee and Chicago shows. After ending the first two shows of the tour with “Love Sick” and “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry,” which would seem to indicate that a lost love is very much on Dylan’s mind, he switched gears and replaced the two songs with one, a spiritual piece of introspection from 1981. Maybe Dylan decided that he needs to focus more on the state of his soul than on regrets over lost love. I found this rendition of EGS to be a little flat compared to the original studio and the demo versions that have been officially released. Dylan seemed to have run out of energy by this point in the night. There was no real encore, btw. Dylan and the boys never left the stage until the conclusion of this song, with Bob stepping very carefully around the equipment, holding things for support, and descending some steps at the back of the stage.

Final thoughts: It was a sad and lovely night, bittersweet, as life is. As beautiful as much of the show was, I left the auditorium saddened by the thought that I probably will not see Dylan perform again. He has set 2024 as the end of this tour, without declaring that this is any kind of a farewell tour. But it is hard to witness his frailty without wondering how long he can sustain a grueling tour like this. His large and luxurious private bus was waiting outside and we walked past it on our way to our car, figuring Bob was probably already inside, but no amount of luxury can provide the kind of respite an 80-year-old man will certainly need from the rigors and physical demands of the touring life. Dylan surely knows that better than any of us, and I wonder if, like my father, who pushed and pushed and pushed himself to take care of my mother until he finally dropped dead in his kitchen, Dylan is also trying to do the same, to keep moving and making music on a public stage, until, finally, he drops dead in his tracks. I know we can’t have him forever, so I have to admit that maybe that would be the most appropriate way for him to leave. And I just have to be thankful I was lucky enough to see him and hear him one more time before that fall.

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