Wednesday Night in Knoxville (by Jon Wurster)
2021-11-10, Knoxville Civic Auditorium, Knoxville, TN
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Friend of the newsletter Jon Wurster (Superchunk, Mountain Goats, Bob Mould, Best Show, ‘Watered-Down Love’ Fan Club) sends us this dispatch about Wednesday night’s show in Knoxville:
I was on the road with the other Bob (Mould) when tickets for Dylan’s current tour went on sale the morning of October 1st. There was no way I’d be able to summon the discipline to play a round of browser refresher at 7:00 AM San Francisco time, so I left my fate in the hands of my good friend Adam back in our hometown of Chapel Hill, NC. Adam takes the procurement of Dylan tickets very seriously and his diligence paid off big-time: sixth row seats for Knoxville, TN with a great view of Bob at the upright.
Though I’d just played 42 shows in two-and-a-half months, this would be my first time attending a concert of any kind since the three Dylan shows I saw in November of 2019. I was both nervous and excited as I fired up Toyotasaurus Erectus and hit the road for the underwear capital of the world (look it up). As I made my way through the Smoky Mountains, not even the hot political takes of western North Carolina’s brightest minds scrawled into the dirt of passing big rigs could overshadow the gorgeous fall scenery. I even saw a family of black bears romping around on a hill near the highway. I of course took this as a sign that Bob would open that night’s concert with DITG’s much-maligned power shuffle “Had A Dream About You Baby.”
Knoxville was my first show of this tour and I didn’t want any spoilers, so I chose not to listen to any recordings of earlier concerts. I was aware that there had been a couple lineup changes since those November 2019 shows. Charlie Sexton, now out with Elvis Costello, had been replaced by Patty Griffin/John Hiatt guitarist Doug Lancio. Matt Chamberlain is one of the greatest drummers of the modern era, and I was sorry to hear that he would not be participating on this run. Any concerns I had about the change behind the drums disappeared when I learned Charley Drayton was the new kid in town.
My favorite drummer (Steve Jordan) is playing with the Stones, and my second favorite drummer is now with Dylan? If Topper Headon joins the Replacements I’ll know this has all just been a beautiful fever dream. Charley is one of those rare drummers (like Jordan, Alex Van Halen and Charlie Watts) whose feel and snare drum sound are instantly recognizable and one-of-a-kind. The Divinyls’ “I Touch Myself”? That’s Charley. The Replacements’ “Merry Go Round”? Charley. “Love Shack”? Charley, too. AND he’s the bassist for what might be the greatest televised rock ‘n’ roll performance in the history of Earth.
Now let’s get to the show. I don’t want to give too many spoilers for those who want a pure experience, so I’ll be relatively brief. The lone drawback of having such good seats was that we didn’t get to see the “floor of lights.” The stage design for this tour is pretty interesting (to say nothing of its cost-effectiveness): None of the hanging lights that are the norm for most concerts, and the band is essentially playing inside a black-curtained cube. You really feel like you’re watching six guys rocking out on their own planet.
As I said a few months ago right here, I watch Bob’s band as much as, if not more than, the man himself. They were an extremely well-oiled machine by the time I saw those three shows in late-2019, so there wasn’t the palpable feeling of excited uncertainty that was coming off the stage in Knoxville. Dylan seems to thrive on chaos, and Knoxville had several great chaotic moments, particularly during a somewhat extended “Most Likely You Go Your Way.”
I couldn’t take my eyes off Tony Garnier as he studied Bob’s hands to see where they might next land on the piano keyboard. Charley, who really impressed me later in the show with subtle brush work and understated-yet-driving, Kenny Buttrey-style drumming, broke into surprised smiles several times during “Most Likely” as he reacted to where Bob was taking the song. And that’s what’s so great about seeing a Dylan show: even though the setlist might be the same several nights in a row, every song is performed with subtle differences that keep it fresh for everyone involved.
For me, the night’s two big highlights were a chugging, almost “Neighborhood Bully”-esque “Gotta Serve Somebody” featuring great, gritty guitar interplay from Bob Britt and Doug Lancio, and a downright gorgeous “Key West.”
And Bob? I think this was the most I’ve seen him smile during a recent(ish) show. He was clearly having a good time, especially when he made his way out from behind the piano to sing at one of the centerstage mics. Sure, the piano playing was a little wonky at times, but in a way, Dylan is a jazzer. Maybe that Miles Davis (Monk?) quote about there not being any wrong notes is true! His voice was exceptional, especially on “My Own Version of You” and “I’ve Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You.” There were so many moments during the show where I found myself thinking, “How can this guy be this good at eighty?”
But he is eighty. Dylan was less mobile than I expected, and the encore section of the tour’s earlier shows seems to be a thing of the past, my guess is because he only wants to have to walk on and off that stage once a night. I only mention this in hopes that it might spur anyone on the fence to go see him while you can. There truly is no performer like him.
Thanks Jon! Read my conversation with Jon earlier this year, and follow him on Twitter and Instagram. The Best Show airs Tuesday nights and his last two shows of the year are with The Mountain Goats at Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro, NC, December 17 and 18.