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Last Night in Toronto (by Vish Khanna)
Plus a bonus "Every Grain" video from Erie
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Last night, Bob Dylan completed his two-show stand at Toronto’s famed Massey Hall. Vish Khanna, host of the excellent podcast Kreative Kontrol (he had me on a few months ago if you wanna hear two Dylan nerds really get into the weeds) was at both Massey Hall shows—as well as the previous one in Rochester, NY—and reports in:
My third show this week was always going to be a sentimental one for me, because it’s the last Rough and Rowdy Ways Tour stop I have tickets for (currently). I flew into Ontario from Edmonton, Alberta last Sunday with my Massey Hall tickets secure for both nights in Toronto, but then a friend and I got a pair of great seats for Rochester, NY on Tuesday, the day before that show.
So yes, I’ve had a remarkable week and the good fortune to process and compare three different shows with very similar sets, in close succession. I was assigned to review the first Massey Hall show for Exclaim! Magazine and, as you can see, part of my experience in Rochester informed what I saw go down in Toronto on night one.
I’ll talk about the weird sense of finality that came over me on night two at Massey Hall in a moment. It came further into focus after the show, as I spoke with my friends Mick and Steve about what we saw, and Mick observed something that I now can’t shake. First though, bullet points about Friday night at Massey Hall:
Hats. We’ve been having some fun making note of Bob’s small white and black hats, which he seems to be alternating between, one night to the next. Tonight, he had his black hat with him when he walked on stage, but he didn’t actually put it on until just before “Gotta Serve Somebody,” which was the twelfth song of the night (on Thursday, white hat, on by song #4, “False Prophet”). Here’s a weird thing about hats too: in Rochester, Bob Britt wore a kinda newsboy flat hat, while Doug Lancio was hatless. In Toronto? Doug wore that same kind of hat, Bob was hatless. I swear, it was the exact same hat. I think they’re having fun with us, using hats.
There was considerable speculation about what regional covers Bob might add to the set in Toronto. We all assumed a Gordon Lightfoot number or, to honour Robbie Robertson, something by The Band. But what’d we get in the traditional homage slots? “Stella Blue” on Thursday and “Brokedown Palace” on Friday, both by the Grateful Dead. Hmmm, a bit more on these later.
From what I can tell, everyone who attended the Massey Hall shows spoke with Elvis Costello and Diana Krall, who had the same floor seats on both nights. I keep seeing and hearing stories about people having nice, friendly talks with them. Still seems unlikely that Diana Krall will ever make a record with Steve Albini, though.
Bob is playing the hell out of the piano, man. He’s doing some wild shit and it’s big and loud and he’s all in. It’s rather awe-inspiring to hear and see him flying around a baby grand piano and he looks like he’s enjoying playing the thing. Tonight, he was so into it, he realized he forgot to grab his harmonica ahead of “Every Grain of Sand.” He knew the harmonica solo section was coming, so he grabbed one and put it in front of him, all while playing piano with the other hand. But then he just left it and played the song on the keys and it was cool (especially if you’d been lucky to already see him receive these huge roars for his harp solos in Rochester and during his first night in Toronto).
Ok, so what did Mick notice? We were talking about the set list generally and y’know, what eras and album songs we missed, or thought were curiously absent for these almost entirely static sets.
Pondering this further, Mick recognized some interconnections between these songs, where almost all of them seem to incorporate messages of love and appreciation but also reflect upon a life of work and effort and inspired creativity, whose window might finally be closing. A lot of it is also about being on the road, and how that road also must end at some point.
It’s a night full of celebration and looking back but also, saying farewell to a world that will keep spinning no matter what.
“Watching the River Flow” is a strong opener in this regard as, Bob sings about being tapped out (“I don’t have much to say”) and how some foolish communication breakdown fruitlessness doesn’t really matter so much, because life goes on for those who keep living (note: I’m actually not sure Bob sang the original first two lines of this song tonight; I couldn’t catch it, but it sounded different).
“Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine)” is about as obvious a goodbye song as there is, and Bob sang it beautifully tonight, with amazing phrasing that stretched the chorus out. “I Contain Multitudes” too, is a stock-taking of oneself, but it’s also a checklist and reminder for those who will remain and may wish to keep its spirit alive. “Tell me what’s next, what shall we do / Half my soul baby belongs to you.”
I think where this conversation between my friends and I got to was that Bob is doing a meta thing with this set, where the love songs and revealing admissions about who he is, are really directed at us—his loyal, live audience that have given him this remarkable life, while he humbly promises to one day live up to our faith, by painting his masterpiece.
What if “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” and “To be Alone with You” and “I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You” and “Black Rider” are inspired by a relentless road dog who will go to the ends of the Earth to perform for and please (and challenge or possibly even battle) his audience?
What if “Gotta Serve Somebody” and “Mother of Muses” and “That Old Black Magic” and “Every Grain of Sand” might now stand for the creative connection between an artist and their audience and the mystical forces that bind them for as long as possible?
And what if “Crossing the Rubicon” and “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” and “Stella Blue” and “Brokedown Palace” tell stories about how time passes until it doesn’t anymore, it slows down and slows down and slows down, until you enter some new plain, where your creative impulses might even just stop cold, like you “can’t play the record, because the needle got stuck” (from “Goodbye Jimmy Reed”) because you really “don’t have much to say.”
I think what hit me after and even during the second night at Massey Hall was that, after more than 20 years of doing so, I was sad that this might be the last time I see Bob Dylan play live in Toronto. And realizing afterwards that maybe he was really, really trying to tell us something with this set—namely, I’ve done a lot, I’m winding down, thank you and goodbye—made me even sadder. But also, grateful as hell.
The band he has right now is managing these complex arrangements while keeping a close eye on Bob, who is singing and playing wonderfully. It was all so inspiring. The night, but also everything Bob Dylan has done. So, I’m thinking about it all and savouring it. I think he is too.
No tape yet, but we’ve got a bonus video exclusive from reader Matty. It’s not from Toronto, it’s from Erie, PA a few nights ago, of Dylan doing the big finale “Every Grain of Sand.” It’s one of the best videos I’ve seen of the Rough and Rowdy Ways tour. Kudos to Matty for sending in it. He also sent in a story of some drama filming it, which I’ve pasted below.
Some minor drama, my goal was to video Every Grain of Sand, and I got it. However, as Bob and band were doing the line up, one of Bob's guys came in hard from my right and grabbed my phone. Needless to say, it took me some time to get it back. The Warner Theater cleared out and I'm talking to local security guys, they tell me sorry Dylan's guys have your phone. After 20 minutes, I realize I'm wearing my Apple Watch. So I tell the watch to find my phone. 3 mins later, a security guy comes up to me and says hey, is this your phone? I tell him yes and he says it was in a trash can backstage lol.
No hard feelings for me at all w Dylan’s crew, just playing the game. I’ve watched the video 10+ times already, note when Bob realizes I’m taping he sits down, but then turns back to tip off Tony. Tony’s out of frame except for his bass, and then I have him coming back in and he’s smiling, then looks right at me. And end of song, Bob gets up almost laughing, says something again to Tony, and I think he says “I know” lol. Maybe they both could see I was about to get it from his muscle. Good times!
I’ll be sending more Dylan concert dispatches myself this coming week, from Montreal tomorrow night and Springfield, MA on Wednesday (if you see me, say hello!). They’ll be going to paid subscribers only. So sign up if you want ‘em in your inbox: