Live: Bob Dylan and his band
Zepp, Osaka, Japan
George Recile - drums
Stu Kimball - rhythm guitar
Charlie Sexton - lead guitar
Donnie Herron - banjo, electric mandolin, pedal steel, lap steel
As Dylan tells it, he was born a long ways from where he’s supposed to be and has spent a lifetime finding his way home. His “Never Ending Tour” is the latest episode in an extraordinary tale of becoming, which - as rock's poet laureate continually demonstrates - is the condition of the true artist.
At Zepp, Osaka, the lights go down and a MIGHTY roar goes up as a familiar figure in white bolero hat and natty western suit emerges from the wings.
It’s almost too much to comprehend that this is the hobo ragamuffin who transformed Beat illumination into protest music, blending folk, symbolism and surrealism to infuse a vital literacy into rock 'n' roll.
In his greatest works Dylan created poetry which to this day remains beautiful and startling. His name belongs - it’s no exaggeration to say - with Shakespeare, Mozart, Joyce and Picasso in the pantheon of western cultural touchstones.
I have to blink the tears away. For a fan who has long struggled to comprehend what Dylan means - which is to say, everything - it's a moment of profound reflection.
'Cause if you get Dylan, he goes waay deep. He's the hip priest in the Church of the Cool, and the songs are the scripture and the religiosity is in the music.
Even stranded out here at Zepp, a functional concrete box plonked on the edge of Osaka Bay, it's a rare privilege to bear witness to the most influential songwriter of our times.
The band opens with a loose, loping version of Watching the River Flow. It’s followed by a harmonica-dominated arrangement of Señor. Bob is unexpectedly upbeat, smiling and laughing with band members, emphasizing each lyric with outstretched arms.
But it takes the band four or five tunes to hit their stride. This is mainly due to Dylan’s insistence on contributing his esoteric instrumental flourishes to each number. I'll Be Your Baby Tonight features a truly atrocious Dylan guitar solo which effectively sabotages the best efforts of his excellent band.
But by the time we get to the jumpin' jive of The Levee's Gonna Break, the set starts to cruise along nicely. Dylan’s mood only gets better and by the end of the number he's cracking up as the band struggle to bring the song to a finish.
Stuck Inside Of Mobile is a highlight. Amusingly, Dylan can hardly get the harp away from his mouth in time to splutter the lyrics, so it sounds something like: “Oh Mama (thweek!) can this really be the end (wheep!) / To be stuck inside of Mobile (whaark!) with the Memphis blues again (phaarp!)” Tthe band fashion a rockin', rollin’ version which has the crowd hopping and this is really startin' ta feel like a show.
Guitar maestro Charlie Sexton - looking for all the world like a reincarnation of Robbie Robertson circa 1965 - is on fiery form all night, playing an enviable collection of guitars - vintage Danelectros among them, axe fans - falling to his knees in front of Bob to count the changes and make sure the master is locked in, since Dylan seems to get lost during the instrumental sections.
Man in the Long Black Coat is restrained and beautiful, Dylan singing in the deep growl which has become his latter day trademark. It’s followed by a barnstorming Highway 61 and the cracking roadhouse boogie of Thunder on the Mountain with Bob again making those expansive hand gestures and doing a weird little jig on the spot.
Just before Bob is about to introduce the band there’s a hubub down the front. A handsome Stratocaster is suddenly hoisted toward the stage. It turns out a Japanese luthier has built a guitar which he's valiantly been trying to present to Dylan. Charlie Sexton carries the axe over to his Bobness, who is visibly moved and says, “I like that guitar. Really. I'm gonna keep it right here by my side. I'm gonna take it with me, and all you people, too.”
For a Dylan show it’s quite a moment. I’m touched, and I can’t help feeling proud of my Japanese brethren because the hard core rock fans here are super-knowledgeable, incredibly loyal and affectionate toward their favorite artists.
Dylan’s comparative verbosity will have surprised the enthusiastic salaryman we ran into before the show. Having scored tickets to all four Osaka performances, he cheerily praises Bob’s indifference on the first two nights: “He not say ‘Arigato!’ Very good! He not speak to audience! Perfect!”
The encore is unchanged from those concerts. I’ll take whatever Bob dishes out, though I was secretly hoping for Like a Rolling Stone and I'm stoked when the band crank it up.
Dylan's most celebrated “finger pointing” song not only burst apart the parameters of the pop single. In Bruce Springsteen's words, “it blew open the doors to your mind.” Reflecting the twists and turns of an amazing career, the years have transformed it into something which now sounds elegiac, even compassionate, and it brings a lump to my throat.
To conclude, the band deliver a full-tilt version of All Along the Watchtower. Then, as suddenly as it began, the music stops and I’m walking in the rain with two thousand friends, musing over the meaning of Dylan.
It's been a long, strange trip and we all know it's the journey rather than the destination that counts. So if there’s no direction home, that's fine by me. As for describing Dylan, I'll go with John Ford: "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." However you look at it, it's a hell of a story, and like all the best ones, it only gets better in the telling.
Set list: Watching the River Flow/Señor (Tales Of Yankee Power)/I'll Be Your Baby Tonight/High Water (For Charley Patton)/The Levee's Gonna Break/Tryin' To Get To Heaven/Cold Irons Bound/Desolation Row/Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again/Man In The Long Black Coat/Highway 61 Revisited/Spirit On The Water/Thunder On The Mountain/Ballad Of A Thin ManEncore: Like A Rolling Stone/Jolene/All Along The Watchtower