An Old Boll Weevil Looking for a Home
1998-02-02, Symphony Hall, Springfield MA
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#1 movie on this date: Titanic
#1 album on this date: Titanic: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
Times headline on this date: "Lewinsky Would Take Lie Test in Exchange for Immunity Deal"
In November 2018, I saw Dylan play Springfield Symphony Hall. A historic theater that dates from the 1900s, this spot is exactly where you want to see a Dylan show, majestic yet intimate and with great sound and sight lines. It was one of the best shows I'd seen in years, in a tiny theater that did not regularly host artists of quite this calibre (the next night they were presenting something called "Yee Haw's and Ha Ha's".)
Almost a year to the date later, I ventured again to see Dylan in a Boston commuter town. The venue this time: the Tsongas Arena at UMass Lowell, a dilapidated hockey shed that smelled of nacho cheese. I heard every sound twice - once from the stage, again a couple seconds later bouncing off the other side of the arena. This did not make the show twice as good.
I figured that after his team heard how bad that dump sounded, he'd never play there again. Turns out, this was his fourth time at the Tsongas. I should have known. Bob plays in beautiful old venues and he plays at dumps. He, or his booking agent, does not appear to care one bit. He could have given an all-time-great performance last fall in Lowell and it would have been lost on the audience.
Luckily, he's played Springfield Symphony Hall four times too, the first way back in 1965 (it was Municipal Auditorium then). Today's 1998 show marks his third swing, the last before he returned at my show 20 years later. The two shows share few similarities.
While these days he plays a consistently tight set (or make it capital-s "The Set," as his unchanging nightly setlists have become known), 1998 delivers a more sprawling performance, full of long instrumental solos. Even the acoustic songs get extended with some aimless Bob noodling. The jam-it-out highpoint is the oft-maligned "Silvio," which tops seven electrifying minutes. I admittedly missed all the '90s years where this unloved Down in the Groove number became people's nightly bathroom break and would be happy if he gave "Highway 61" a rest and brought this back. But honestly, I'd be happy with whatever he played if he played it in a room like this.
Lord knows why Bob plays the places he does. It's hard to hold onto some romantic notion that he chooses venues for their atmosphere, or any reason other than the paycheck, when you go to a dank nacho-cheese-smelling pit like the Tsongas Arena and discover he's a regular there. But the constant touring means he occasionally lands on an out-of-the-way gem like the Springfield Symphony Hall. It unquestionably makes for a better concert experience. It might just make for a better recording too.