Let’s begin in reverse order with…
The Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome in Minneapolis was a cacophonous, overblown sports arena, home to Minnesota Twins baseball and Minnesota Vikings football teams. It’s most notable architectural feature was the pneumatically suspended fabric dome, held aloft by constant air pressure pumped into the structure. Sylvia and I attended a baseball game there once, fans of the visiting Milwaukee Brewers. We figured it was designed to be noisy intentionally, so that visiting teams and their fans would feel intimidated by home team rowdies. Leaving the the facility postgame, the hurricane-force air pressure was so intense it literally propelled us out the exit doors.
Bob Dylan, the Grateful Dead, and Tom Perty & the Heartbreakers scheduled four arena dates together during the summer of 1986. One of those shows was at the Metrodome. A specially priced concert/round-trip bus ticket combo sponsored by a La Crosse, Wisconsin radio station was offered, so we signed up. The promise of complimentary Old Style beer along the way played no significant role in that decision.
The Dead would open the show with one long set, though truncated by Dead standards. From the opening notes of a barely recognizable “Gimme Some Lovin’,” we realized something was wrong. The Metrodome wasn’t designed as a concert venue. Sound waves reverberated around us. The Dead’s music was barely recognizable, guitar solos and vocals echoing aimlessly in the air, bass and drums out of sync and muddled. This was not the Grateful Dead I’d heard twice before.
During intermission, the buzz among fellow concertgoers was palpable. What’s going on? Why did the music sound so awful? When Dylan and Petty played their set, it was the same acoustic mess that plagued the Dead. No one could distinguish what lyrics Dylan was singing or exactly what song the Heartbreakers were playing in that environment of nonstop reverberation. Looking back at the published concert reviews and comments from that night, virtually all were extremely critical of the acoustics for that show. To this day, I scratch my head in disbelief at what could have been a comet ride of a concert. Instead, it was a subsonic disappointment.
One day after Barack Obama was elected president, twenty-two years and one hundred sixty miles down the Mississippi River from the Metrodome, Bob Dylan brought his never ending tour to the La Crosse Center. It was three days before my birthday, on November 5, 2008. Sylvia and I were anxious to hear Dylan in a venue where we’d previously heard Bruce Hornsby & the Range and Johnny Rivers. The acoustics were tried and true. We were feeling celebratory for many reasons.
I can’t put my finger on it. Maybe our seats, which were just to the left and behind the soundboard, were too far back. Maybe it was the uninspired backing band, or that Dylan stood practically motionless behind a portable keyboard, singing at a volume level just below that of the band. He wore a wide-brimmed cowboy hat that hid his face in a shadow, perhaps masking what could have been boredom. Maybe it was the constant, low-level buzz of concertgoers who found it a convenient time to carry on personal conversations. But most annoying, each song sounded the same as the previous one, displaying little or no imagination in the arrangements. It was difficult to make out what Dylan was singing because his voice sounded garbled much of the time and few melodies were distinguishable. Some reviewers thought it was a good show. The opening two songs, “Wicked Messenger” and “Watching the River Flow,” were unrecognizable to me until each was nearly finished. Nearly every song, new or old, suffered from a paint-by-number quality. It was exhausting to listen.
Ten years after La Crosse, almost to the day, Bob Dylan performed in Asheville on November 2, 2018. Sitting in row four, we and some friends were facing Dylan’s baby grand piano with its lid up and with a perfect view of the maestro himself sitting at its keyboard. To his left on a small table were two items he brings with him on tour. One was an Oscar statuette, his academy award for the song “Things Have Changed,” featured in the film Wonder Boys, and the song with which he opened the show. The other was a bust of Greek goddess Athena sporting a green laurel on its head, perhaps a reminder that Dylan is a Nobel laureate after all, and only the second person since George Bernard Shaw to have earned both and Oscar and a Nobel Prize.
Dylan’s backing band included Charlie Sexton on lead guitar and also featured Tony Garnier on bass; Donnie Herron on pedal steel, electric mandolin, and violin; and George Receli on drums. They were brilliant. Song arrangements were fresh and diverse. The setlist was a welcome mix of contemporary and classic works. Dylan interpreted each number deftly, accompanied by engaging vocal and facial inflections. For a couple of songs he left the piano to take center stage, displaying hints of swagger as he dipped the mic stand and struck a pose. It was especially effective on “Love Sick.” His arrangement of “It Ain’t Me Babe” left me speechless. We were transfixed.
Before I knew Sylvia, I’d heard Bob Dylan for the first time on November 1, 1978 in Madison, Wisconsin. Oddly enough, forty years ago almost to the day of the Asheville show. Thirty years prior to La Crosse. Was it good? Oh, yeah. It was good. It was the “Budokan” tour. Dylan used essentially the same musicians who backed him on his Street-Legal album, but with additional horns and backup singers. While some reviewers were critical of the new musical arrangements, I thought many were unique and more interesting than the originals.
As I recall, the last song for Dylan’s 1978 show was “Changing of the Guard.” His opening song forty years later was “Things Have Changed.” Indeed they have. It was wonderful to hear Dylan in good voice, backed by a spot-on band, delivering new, inspired arrangements for his classic works, and covering his more recent songs with passion. The 2018 Bob Dylan is how we’ll remember him, and that’s a good thing.