Last Night in Evansville (by Caryn Rose)
2023-12-03, Aiken Theater, Evansville, IN
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Last night, Bob Dylan concluded his latest leg of the Rough and Rowdy Ways tour. Barring any Farm Aid-level surprises, that makes this his final show of 2023, with no future dates announced as of now. The year-end finale took place in Evansville, Indiana, and we’ve got an on-the-ground report from writer Caryn Rose.
Rose is the author of the excellent book Why Patti Smith Matters (bonus plug for my series on the Bob/Patti tour in ‘95—scroll down here) and the Substack newsletter Jukebox Graduate, where she writes concert reviews, music-related travelogues, and a fun new series exploring the history of old soul songs Bruce Springsteen covers.
Over to Caryn…
The tour routing takes you where it takes you, and so Bob Dylan ended the 2023 portion of the Never Ending Tour in a soulless McMansion of a theater in Evansville, Indiana, just on the other side of the Ohio River from Kentucky. The best I can say about the venue is there was…more legroom than you’d get in a restored vaudeville theater? It felt like an undignified conclusion to this year of the NET to have to finish up here.
This is why Bob’s ability tonight to shapeshift this space into what literally felt like other dimensions is even more exemplary. You played a magical show at the Beacon? Gorgeous room, endless vibe. You should be penalized if you can’t make that room work for you. This was an extremely chatty audience and the fact that there were multiple times you could hear a pin drop was because Bob was so entrancing that people just couldn’t not shut up and pay attention. Other moments, like during “To Be Alone With You,” the band felt more like they were in soundcheck and everyone’s attention wandered. A gentleman in my row went out and came back with a tray of nachos.
I knew to expect “Watching the River Flow” to start and yet was bowled over. Bob crouched over the piano, sparkling suit, overturned hat to one side like he was some jazzbo who was running late for his set so he just walked onto the stage from the street, took his hat off, and started work. The sound was horrible for the first number—I blame the venue’s acoustics and not the crew—but it was still such a delight to listen to him tickling the ivories. I thought, not for the first time, of Benmont Tench talking about Bob’s piano playing in Ray’s book. (This is not a gratuitous plug). I think he even smiled at the end.
If Walt Whitman was alive today, he would write a line like, “I drive fast cars and eat fast foods.” This is my first Bob show post-Rough and Rowdy Ways and I’m mad I haven’t been able to see this before. I need to see it a few more times to be able to take it all in. I feel the same way about “False Prophet;” here I particularly enjoyed how the band would kind of downshift during the bridges after the comparative precision of the verses.
“When I Paint My Masterpiece” was the first moment where I felt like we were transported elsewhere. It was very Rolling Thunder-esque, but that could just be me projecting. This version would not be out of place on the Fais Do Do stage at Jazz Fest (but it would have made it even more crowded than it usually is). The lightness, the swing, it was gorgeous. No one who has seen this tour already will be surprised when I say that “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” was the next transformative moment. That near-bossanova break in the middle was so many things, it was spellbinding, it was joyful, it was fun, it was like we were at Cain’s Ballroom or the Surf Ballroom, we were not in some brutalist high school convention center, we were in a place where people who loved music went to listen to people who loved music play music.
After I saw Shadow Kingdom, I had written some unfinished notes about how to me it symbolized an alternate reality of what Bob’s career could have ended up being, he would have always played music but he wouldn’t have been Bob Dylan, he would just have been a guy leading a band of super tight and well-oiled musicians, nothing flashy, just solid and reliable, they could play anything. That was everything I thought of during “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight.”
I don’t know that we appreciate “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” sufficiently. I mean I know thousands of words have been written about it, but it took this live performance for it to finally sink all the way in for me. Everyone shut the fuck up. How does he manage to continue to be so absolutely riveting as an artist? But, like, this is a text and he has only begun to build on it and from it. “If you’re looking for immortality/Stay on the road/follow the highway sign” just landed hard, it felt heavy, it felt laden with meaning. He arches his eyebrows at the end.
I am now also mad that I didn’t have the luxury to go to enough shows that I could mimic the people who bought tickets so that they could watch Bob play piano. [Editor’s note: Who me?] I love so much that he flips actual pages, no iPad for Bob Dylan.
Was the audience applauding Jesus at the start of “Gotta Serve Somebody” or are they applauding the song? This close to the Bible Belt I am not entirely sure. And that was before it turned into a white hot showcase. It felt like the band slightly changed positions so they were in an attack formation, but I also know they didn’t move, they don’t move! I didn’t want it to end.
Function of not having a phone: I don’t know how much time has passed. It’s not like I clockwatch but when I’m opening the phone to take a photo or write a post I see the time and it registers. I had no idea where we were at any point tonight because Bob just took us all into the zone. But once we got to “That Old Black Magic” I realized we were, sadly, in the home stretch.
“Thank you very much,” Bob said before the band intros. “These aren’t easy songs to play, but that’s part of the job, don’t you think?” I think that is what he said. I also think I saw him smile during the piano break on “Goodbye Jimmy Reed” but I was in the 11th row and I could be wrong. But I want him to be smiling.
“That’s beautiful, Bob,” someone murmured politely a couple of bars into “Every Grain of Sand” just as I was trying to think about how to describe it. I saw a flash of silver and thought, is that a harmonica? no, stop projecting. And then it was a harmonica, then he grabs his hat and comes to the front of the stage—and then the stage went black, I watched the band’s shadows leave the stage, the house lights went up and I knew it was time to go and no one was coming back but the rest of my row did not and I understood why they were not hurrying to leave. The magic is dispersed but we were there, we saw it, it happened.
2023-12-03, Aiken Theater, Evansville, IN
Thanks to gonzo for the quick turnaround tape!