Last Night in Philadelphia
2023-11-19, The Fillmore, Philadelphia, PA
Last night, in Philadelphia, I saw my eighth and final show of the fall tour.
For some people, including I’m sure a few reading this, eight shows in a single tour is not that many. But to everyone I know in my real life, it seems nuts. It seems a little nuts to me too. I’ve never seen this many shows in a tour. My previous record was five—and that was almost 20 years ago, in 2006, when I was just starting college.
It’s got me thinking about the question I get asked often by those real-life people: Why?
Back in 2006, I had a stock answer: “He plays different songs every night.” It seemed a fairly satisfactory answer to give. If your favorite song is, say, “Maggie's Farm” and he doesn’t play it every night, give yourself a few chances. (I’d have probably lost them again if I said I was chasing “Nettie Moore” way more than “Maggie’s Farm.”)
That answer no longer works. In five shows in 2006, I saw Bob Dylan play 40 different Bob Dylan songs. In eight shows in 2023, I saw him play just 16 Bob Dylan songs. The same 16, every night.
Part of me misses those eras when anything could happen. Any song could come outta nowhere any night. Even in a show with no huge surprises, he’d be choosing from dozens of songs in the rotation at any given time. 79 different songs played in 2006 alone. That’s a lot of possible setlists.
But there was a tradeoff. Some songs were not so good. Some entire shows were not so good. Even in the best Never Ending Tour year, which 2006 decidedly was not (upsinging! circus organ!), some shows didn’t hit. This was part of the fun, never knowing what you were gonna get. Some nights it was magic. Some nights it was ten minutes of “Cat’s in the Well.”
These days Bob Dylan is more predictable. But he is also something he often is not: Consistent. Every show is great. That would be an unimaginable sentence in many years past. Consistency has rarely been one of Dylan’s fortés; certainly not in the NET era. But for the entire Rough and Rowdy Ways tour, 169 shows and counting, I’ve never heard of a show where the general fan consensus was, “Well that one sucked.”
I don’t think it’s that the peaks are higher. In almost any era, no matter how dire, some shows were sublime. Now, the baseline is higher. The entire spectrum of plausible show grades today ranges from like an A– to an A+. I’ve seen Bob sing “Key West” 14 times now. Some were better than others, but not a single one was phoned in. That’s true of pretty much every song, every night.
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