Next week, Bob Dylan gets back to work. Sure, he's been plenty busy during the pandemic - an album, a virtual concert, a Little Steven book blurb. But for many years his main job, it seems, has been life on the road, and it'll be good to see him back at it. I started this newsletter in January 2020 and, while my plan was never to focus too much on new performances, I certainly couldn't have imagined it would be almost two years before we even had one.
The tour’s opening night is in Milwaukee (I'll be there!), so, to prep, I figured I'd take another look at his last tour, in fall 2019. And it seemed fitting to check in where we're going to restart next week, in Milwaukee, at the Eagles Ballroom there two years ago today.
To set the scene, Fall 2019 featured the biggest band shakeup in years: Two new members at once. (Two new members being big news speaks to the relative stability of the band in the 2010s.) After over fifteen years behind the drums, George Receli was replaced by Matt Chamberlain, and, after a short stint with only one guitarist, Bob Britt joined Charlie Sexton on the six-strings.
Fall 2019 also featured some pretty big setlist shakeups. First "Not Dark Yet" since 2012. First "Lenny Bruce" since 2008. And first Bob playing the guitar in two years, albeit for only one song most nights (the opener, "Things Have Changed"). The big setlist surprises from the end of 2018 - "Gotta Serve Somebody," "When I Paint My Masterpiece," "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry" - remained as well. But, night to night once the tour began, the setlists remained essentially the same, with just a couple songs coming in and out (most notably "Beyond Here Lies Nothing" opening some early shows in tribute to its recently-deceased co-writer Robert Hunter).
Now, to today’s Milwaukee show. Listening to it, the first thing I notice is none of the stuff I just mentioned. It's Tony Garnier! While I think it's indisputable that he's the most important band member by virtue of his tenure and extensive behind-the-scenes roles (every Never Ending Tour person I interview makes one thing clear: Tony is the guy), as a bassist he is sometimes hard to make out in the audience and on the bootlegs. Not here! You can follow his bass line all the way through "Things Have Changed," which offers a fun new way to listen to a song we've heard so often. It doesn't stay quite so prominent throughout, unfortunately, but on certain songs here it remains more noticeable than usual ("Masterpiece" is another good one for bass-spotters).
The second thing I noticed has more to do with this tour generally, and perhaps might be more predictive for what’s to come than “they accidentally turned up the bass too loud.”
After years where, basically, the full band played through every song, in 2018 and 2019, Dylan introduced new stop-start arrangements. At certain points, on certain songs, most or all of the band would drop out. When he approaches the title line in "Not Dark Yet," everything but a slow bass drone vanishes. "Can't Wait" regularly lurches into a dreamy half- time, before revving up again thirty seconds later. "Masterpiece" and "Girl from the North Country" are perhaps the most dramatic, with the early verses accompanied only by piano and violin.
You know what these quiet, ambient bits sound like in retrospect? Shadow Kingdom!
Hearing this feels like the transition from the all-the-band-plays-all-the-time Never Ending Tour to the hushed, meditative, no-drums-allowed arrangements of the virtual event. It seemed to come out of left field at the time. But listening to a 2019 show for the first time since, I'm struck by how much precedent there actually was. He was actually heading in that direction even before the pandemic taught us all the word "livestream." Next week we'll see if he continues flowing that way.
PS. See some of you in Milwaukee or Chicago next week? I’ll try to send short writeups of those shows to paid subscribers the days after.