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Last Night in Kansas City (by Steve Paul)
2023-10-01, Midland Theater, Kansas City, MO
Flagging Down the Double E’s is an email newsletter exploring Bob Dylan concerts throughout history. This is the first of what will be a number of dispatches from Dylan’s fall U.S. tour — some by me, some (like today’s) by guest contributors. They will go out via email to paid subscribers only.
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Last night, Bob Dylan opened the fall leg of his ongoing Rough and Rowdy Ways Worldwide Tour in Kansas City. For a mostly unchanging setlist that hasn’t featured that many surprises, this show featured a big one right at the top.
Here to tell us about it is Steve Paul. Steve is a veteran Kansas City journalist turned literary biographer. He's a regular columnist for KC Studio, a regional arts magazine; serves as president of the Biographers International Org; and is currently at work on a biography of the American poet William Stafford. And, a must-read for Dylan fans, his recent paper at this summer’s World of Bob Dylan conference was "Put My Guns in the Ground": Bob Dylan, Billy the Kid, and Hollywood’s Western Delirium.
Here’s Steve Paul on last night’s tour kickoff in Kansas City:
So many questions, so much anticipation, hovered around the launch of another round of Bob Dylan’s Rough and Rowdy Ways shows. His surprise turn at Farm Aid last weekend, when he slung a Telecaster from his shoulder and did old Dylan—“Maggie’s Farm,” “4th Street,” “Thin Man”—with Tom Petty’s band gave many Bob watchers pause. Would he pick up a guitar again on the new tour? Would he mine his deep catalogue to freshen the set list? What new Bob baubles await?
I doubt that I was the only person wondering if Dylan would pay tribute to the late Robbie Robertson. What song from the Band or JRR would we hear? (None, as it turned out.)
It never occurred to me, however, that the only new spin we’d hear at Kansas City’s Midland Theater, in the first of two concerts leading off this leg of RARW, would be—who saw this coming?—“Kansas City.” Yes, Dylan rode the local war horse, with its “crazy little women,” and he and the band served it up with gusto.
Almost every traveling band blurts out the obligatory number, few with the sincerity and verve Dylan brought to it Sunday night. Even Dylan’s previous and apparently only other version of it, with Petty and the Heartbreakers as long ago as 1986 at an outdoor amphitheater in the Kansas City exurbs, had a kind of slap-dash informality to it. (As we now can hear in the recently uncovered soundboard recording from that show.)
Here, 37 years later, Dylan opened this gig with the Lieber-Stoller classic, giving it a force that seemed to ignite the capacity crowd of nearly 3,000. The audience stayed on his side the rest of the way. I was struck by the enthusiasm of younger listeners, some hearing Dylan for the first time, as I learned on the way out.
Dylan spent the entire concert standing or sitting at a baby grand piano in the center of the stage, the band arrayed around him against a backdrop of red curtains and the hall’s ornate elegance. He seemed engaged and in great spirits, offering numerous “why thank yous” to the repeated ovations. There were no changes in the recent sideman lineup: the guitarists Doug Lancio and Bob Britt; Donnie Herron on fiddle and pedal steel, which never seemed to rise enough in the mix; the bassist Tony Garnier; and the solid, unflashy drummer Jerry Pentecost.
After “Kansas City,” the setlist reverted to the basic tour template more or less. Gone was “Most Likely You Go Your Way (and I’ll Go Mine),” which has usually followed the usual opener, “Watching the River Flow.”
The songs from Rough and Rowdy Ways took their places in the familiar tour sequence, intermingling with Dylan classics—the shifting dynamics of “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” which Dylan accented with a few mouth-harp verses; a typically sinister “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight”; and a sweet “To Be Alone with You.”
This was a strong concert, at least equal to and at times better than what I’d heard in Tulsa in 2022 and comparable to some of the high points I’ve caught on numerous tour bootlegs.
The guttural guitar lines and spoken, splattered vocals of “False Prophet” put Dylan’s demonic, noirish themes in memorably high relief. A sparely arranged “Black Rider,” with Garnier becoming more aggressively present on upright bass, and an energetic “My Own Version of You,” with its late-night stroll on “Armageddon Street,” re-emphasized the infernal landscapes of Dylan’s darker visions. “Crossing the Rubicon” elevated Dylan’s long devotion to the blues.
The “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” I’d heard in Tulsa serves as the ideal baseline for this surreal outlaw epic and Sunday’s version nearly matched it. The loping pace, the shaded humor, the masterful phrasing add up to a complete package and perhaps the most powerful performance of both the record and this particular show.
After “Key West” and some band noodling, Dylan tossed another local bone to the audience: “I’m trying to get it together,” he said. “I just had too much Kansas City barbecue.” I can’t imagine the Erie, PA, crowd, to pick on one forthcoming tour stop, getting such friendly attention.
From there Dylan launched into a rocking, cheer-inducing “Gotta Serve Somebody.”
It’s hard to resist the abiding tenderness of “I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You.” Or the Nobel laureate’s slant tributes to poetry—“I Contain Multitudes” and “Mother of Muses.” (After two years on this tour, it seemed odd to me that Bob Britt needed to dial up the iPad for the latter.)
Another tribute: Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away,” which so far seems to be Dylan’s most-often-played cover in the tour setlist. [outside the standards “Melancholy Mood”/“That Old Black Magic” -ed]
Along with its bright look at love, that song suggests a subtext of the inexorable passage of time. From “Watching the River Flow” to the concert closer, “Every Grain of Sand” (an awkwardly rendered version here), one could marvel at Dylan’s time-resistant vigor. For many of us, it seemed almost urgent to catch this concert. Would it be our last chance? At the end, Dylan stepped out from behind the piano to the front of the stage, took a bow, and shambled away.
Thanks Steve! No recording yet, but I will share a link in the paid-subscribers Discord when one appears. [Update: It’s there now]
In meantime, catch up on three other recent posts that might be of interest: