Last Night in DC (by Adam Selzer)
2021-12-02, The Anthem, Washington DC
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Sadly I was unable to attend the grand finale of Rough and Rowdy Ways Tour leg one myself, but Adam Selzer, who’s written a few things here before, was on the scene! He was kind enough to report in, giving us one final dispatch from the final show of this tour.
After catching the first two shows in Milwaukee and Chicago, I decided that the best way to see this tour was to catch the beginning and the end. It would be hard to top the excitement of opening night - a very rare chance to see a Dylan show with no clear idea of what will happen. Will that ever happen again?
And those shows were great. Eight live premieres in Milwaukee! Then a “Multitudes” to die for, plus two more small surprises, in Chicago. But the show wasn’t quite done evolving yet. They were still working out the arrangements a bit, the set list was still shaking off some 2019 holdovers, Bob hadn’t figured out how to do the band intro and what sort of things he wanted to say during those intros, and was prone to forgetting the lyrics a lot. Nothing unexpected for a new show with so many new songs, but still. It was a work in progress. Also, I hadn’t see the light-up floor, which seemed like an integral part of how Bob was imagining this presentation.
So, Mike Smith, my longtime partner in Dylan-related crime, and I bought some tickets to DC. Flew in early in the morning, took a cab to Arlington National Cemetery to pay a visit to our last mustached-president (after Taft there could be no more), then walked over the bridge and past the Lincoln Memorial (which has a carved out marker where MLK stood in 1963 - which of course is also where Bob stood that day) and to The Wharf, a new neighborhood that reminded me a bit of Hudson Yards, the new neighborhood in New York, and probably functions as a preview of Lincoln Yards, the new one going up in Chicago. It was a pleasant place - a nice area to stroll by the water with a lot of good dining options and a hotel a block from the venue. We marveled the we could pull up an app on the hotel TV and listen to a recording of a show from two nights ago. And, as we sat on the rooftop bar under the red sky at sunset, I couldn’t help but flash back to the days when I’d travel to shows and have to stay at places with names like Fat Johnnie’s Last Resort. There’s a charm in that kind of adventuring, too, but it’s nice to be able to get a comfy bed and a drink. The pleasures of having clawed my way into adulthood! I’ve now been going to these shows for well over half my life, and it always puts me in a reflective mood.
After a pre-show dinner that couldn’t be beat (Mike found that the woman next to him at the fan gathering had the same elementary school gym teacher he did), we got to a spot on the second level of Anthem, a newish theater. It’s definitely a different visual experience to see this show from higher up and further back - with Bob and the band all in black, lit from below, they looked like silhouettes with faces, like the cover of With the Beatles. It was a spooky effect that worked with this dark show.
And this is a dark show, whose many moments of humor and the occasional prayer song only throw the Halloween vibe of so many numbers into starker contrast. This feels like a show he was building to in 2018 and especially 2019, when more songs like “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” with its misquote from Julius Caesar (“mean and hungry look”) and the reference to Lenny Bruce as an assassinated martyr (which one could view him as, if one looks at things in a sort of cosmic sense) started to appear. It’s a highly theatrical presentation, and the light up floor makes it look even more like he’s singing in the Black Lodge from Twin Peaks than ever. Seeing the show more than once reminded me of Paul Williams comparing going to several shows as seeing a year’s worth of performances of King Lear. Besides the subtle arrangement and delivery changes, I’m still noticing new threads and recurring themes. The show contains multitudes indeed.
And the show has definitely gotten tighter. The arrangements are more concrete, the set list has solidified, and Dylan’s piano playing has gotten a lot better (I’d say 20% of the notes in Milwaukee were clunkers, but I didn’t hear any tonight). The band is stretching out just a bit, with some more instrumental breaks and fills. Bob is perhaps less adventurous, spending less time center stage, but when he misses a line, he can recover quickly. In Chicago, some lyric mistakes derailed songs, but this time he was able to correct. “I’m the enemy of treason, I’m the enemy of doubt—strife!”
Bob seemed excited - the show started early, at 7:58, which set the pattern for the night. Bob was consistently a bit ahead of the beat and the band. I’ve seen plenty of times when he missed cues over the years, but being ahead of them so frequently, pulling the band forward, was very different.
There’ve been enough song-by-song descriptions by now, but some highlights:
“False Prophet” was made to be played live. I’m of the opinion that the song isn’t really “about” anything so much as it’s a collection of cool lines that are fun to sing. And it works like mad in that way. I did miss seeing Bob’s facial expressions on this one - up close you could see that he couldn’t wait to sing each line.
“My Own Version of You” is a real MVP this tour; he performs it like a great Shakespearean actor doing a monologue. Also, I’m a sucker for songs about grave robbing. (And I’m not one to complain about a lack of guitar solos, but I’d really love to hear what Freddy Koella would have done on this one).
After that one, there was a bit of rare mid-show Bob talk. We couldn’t make out what it was after a quick “thank you, everybody,” but comparing notes later indicates that it was “Is this Foggy Bottom? I think that’s around here someplace.” There had just been some fog onstage during “My Own Version.”
Even if the whole rest of the show had been middling, it would have been worth it for this rendition of “Key West,” a song whose evolution has been fascinating to watch. At the first two shows I saw, Donnie was still on pedal steel, not accordion, and the band hadn’t quite figured out how to swell to the chorus section. Milwaukee’s rendition (besides the excitement that he was actually playing it) seemed like it could have fallen apart at any moment. Listening to recordings throughout the tour, it’s evolved a lot, sometimes in very delicate arrangements that are little more than accordion and Bob Britt’s ascending and descending guitar licks. Tonight the band nailed the swells to the chorus; those sections simply exploded and Bob sang it more forcefully than before. Faster, too; the tempo seemed a lot faster tonight than in some performances. Ahead of the beat, per the pattern of the show, the lines that are two lines on the album (“twelve years old / they put me in a suit”) dropped the pause to become one line. Britt mixed up his riffs and lines a bit more throughout the song than usual. This one just soared.
Among the rockers, “Serve Somebody” and “Goodbye Jimmie Reed” absolutely cooked - “Jimmie Reed” in particular has come a long way, and there moments in “Serve Somebody” that we were all gleefully impersonating at the bar later.
“Mother of Muses” and “I’ve Made Up My Mind…” continue to be highlights, though Bob’s voice is a hair rougher now than it was at the beginning of the tour (as should be expected after a month on the road). It’s still among the clearest it’s been in at least 20 years.
The now-standard local shoutouts mentioned that J. Edgar Hoover used to have breakfast and lunch at the Mayflower hotel, and then shouted out the Country Gentlemen (it sounded like “Country Joe” from the balcony).
The biggest set list variation from the early shows was dropping the 2019 two song encore in favor of “Every Grain of Sand,” a perfect prayer to this dark show. And the performance here! I’ve heard it only a couple of times in 50+ shows, and no version I’d heard before comes close to this one. The recordings from the tour sounded a bit rushed too me, but tonight it almost sounded like the album version. Gorgeous and a cathartic end.
Just how much of what I got out of this was really Dylan’s intention? Who knows. Maybe he was ahead of the band so much because he was eager to finish up the tour (though he seemed like he was having too much fun for that - it’s not like anyone is twisting his arm and making him do this tour. He’s on the road because he wants to be). But if you start thinking if you’ve figured out exactly what’s going on in Dylan’s head, you’re usually going about things the wrong way. “I Contain Multitudes” at the top of the song list for Rough and Rowdy Ways might as well be a label, like “Drink Me” or “Warning: Flammable.”
Taking further advantage of The Wharf, right next door to the venue was a bar with a perfect patio for a post-show gathering (Laura from the Definitely Dylan podcast had flown in from London just for this show!) that lasted until long past midnight, comparing highlights, cracking jokes, sipping drinks and just enjoying that wonderful vibe of like-minded people reveling in having just seen a fantastic show to close out a landmark tour. Though inevitably we veered into talk about the recent release of Get Back, there were enough great moments in the show that we all wanted to relive to keep us busy all night. Laura kept saying “Can you believe it? We just saw Bob Dylan!” May we never take that for granted. Just a few months ago people were speculating that we’d never get another tour, and now another wonderful one was in the books. Cheers.
After all, who else does this? There are other acts I travel to see sometimes, but I can’t imagine going nuts over individual bits of phrasing, or think of another artist where I’d expect to see the same set list multiple times in a month and still get so much out of it each time. I remember back in ‘99, someone on a Paul Simon newsgroup said “One thoroughly enjoys a Paul Simon concert, and one experiences a Dylan concert.”
So now Mike and I have seen the beginning and end of the tour - we saw every song performed this year, and we saw the show from up close and up high. We’ve seen the great world and we’ve seen the small. There were shows with funnier Bob talk this tour, and surely some songs were at their peak on nights we didn’t see, but seeing the beginning and the end was, indeed, the way to go. And by doing it this way we got an awesome walk through D.C. thrown into the bargain (not to mention the falafel place on the Wharf where we had lunch - superb), and another couple of lovely hang-outs with new friends and old. Is this a great hobby or what?
If I were a betting man, I’d say there won’t be any surprises on the next leg, and that this is the exact show he’ll be taking to the West Coast next year. But then again, I’m not a betting man. I’d like to thank you on behalf of the Bobcats and myself, and I hope we see you all in 2022.
Thanks Adam! An author and historian, Adam Selzer has been hosting virtual tours of Chicago for the last year; his next book is about Chicago’s Graceland Cemetery. Find out more about his work, and the free daily “mini tours," at mysteriouschicago.com.
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