After two straight nights in Idaho, Bob Dylan and his band rolled into Bend, Oregon on July 23 to find near-100-degree heat, a major fire raging to the southeast within sight of the stage, and an audience that had been waiting for hours in a crowded, shadeless open air venue, sitting on the ground under a naked sun that wouldn’t set until moments before Dylan finished his show.
You expect people to endure conditions like these at Texas racetracks, Megapalooza package tours and papal appearances, maybe, but not at a Dylan show.
Perhaps not since Bob Hope played Pendleton, and had every bug in Eastern Oregon fly into his mouth when they killed the arena lights and put the spot on him as he sang “Thanks for the Memories,” had an artist faced a steeper uphill battle.
The show had a 6:30 start. To get a decent spot for your sand chair or blanket you had to have been in line well before 5:00 p.m. By way of consolation you got to hear the band, sans Dylan, running through “Lonesome Day Blues” and “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” during the sound check.
As soon as the gate swung open the usual gaggle of camp followers sprinted for the choice spots near the stage, accompanied in my mind by the melting strains of Dylan’s song, “Have you seen Dignity?”
As though to suggest that the infernally hot event was being promoted by demons from the lower levels of Hell, anyone who brought so much as a half-empty bottle of water in purse or backpack had to surrender it to security at the turnstile (otherwise, the terrorists would win, I guess).
What was Dylan even doing in Bend? one might wonder. For one thing, the town has been growing rapidly and can now support acts that wouldn’t have stopped there for gas in years past. Also, it’s one of a group of dates he picked up to replace a European tour cancelled after the U.S. invaded Iraq. Other venues included the Park and Ride Lot in Ketchum, Idaho, I kid you not. That Zimmy would be carrying his music to some unlikely venues was obvious. That he would be singing to people in danger of spontaneous combustion was not perhaps as predictable.
As water-hauling firefighter planes disappeared into the pillar of smoke to the southeast, a flock of Canadian geese rose out of the Deschutes River and flew directly across the front rows, just as Dylan took his place at the far end of the stage behind a keyboard and launched into “Maggie’s Farm,” the same song he had opened his most recent Oregon concert with, last fall in Eugene. He spent most of the number trying to get the sound crew to give him what he wanted in his monitors.
Exhausted as they were by the heat and the waiting, the crowd had received an unadvertised opening act good-naturedly enough, then rose to its feet at the sight of Dylan and remained standing for the entire performance.
Dylan played piano and harmonica. He never picked up a guitar. His Oscar for “Things Have Changed” sat an on amplifier behind him. (Yes, he song that one.) From time to time he left the keyboard and wandered across the stage to “lead the band” during guitar solos. At times, being Dylan, he looked more like a man trying to remember where he had parked his car.
This was not to be one of Dylan’s greatest shows, but it was a great effort by a real trouper. He managed to put some energy back into a crowd that had had it broiled out of them long before his arrival. He appeared to call a lot of audibles; often his band changed instruments only to change them back again after a quick word from Bob to Tony Garnier, his bass player.
Highlights of the set list included “Drifter’s Escape,” “Desolation Row,” “Positively 4th Street” and “Watching the River Flow,” in rapid sequence. The show also featured the kind of grand, shambling catastrophe only Dylan can give you, with a version of “Bye and Bye” in which both Dylan and the band appeared to get lost, and on different highways. About five minutes into the thing Dylan started mumbling the opening lines again.
“Summer Days,” a sure-fire rockabilly hellraiser, closed the set, just as another enormous flock of geese, this time outlined against a stunning sunset, made a grand flyover. The energy, and crowd response, generated by the band during this song was almost incredible, given the situation. After a prolonged ovation came the usual encores (“Like a Rolling Stone” and “All Along the Watchtower”). It may have been the longest I have ever seen a performer make an audience wait before coming back out.
It was one of those nights when Dylan the poet had to give way to Dylan the arena performer, a night of broad gestures and flat-out wide open rolling and rocking. There were no ballads, no obscure covers, no bluegrass gospel songs. He barely got away with doing “Desolation Row.” That’s one of the two or three greatest songs of the twentieth century, and people around me talked and laughed all through it.
On the other hand, they went through hell to see Bob Dylan, he sang it anyway, whether they knew what it was or not, and they were still there at the end, hoping for yet another encore even after the star’s bus had rolled out from behind the stage and headed for another joint.
DAVID VEST writes the Rebel Angel column for CounterPunch. He and his band, The Willing Victims, just released a scorching new CD, Way Down Here.
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Visit his website at http://www.rebelangel.com