Positively Piedmont St.
Everything is very still at Berkeley’s Greek Theatre. 8,500 people awash in yellow and black, intently focused on a man of 61 singing about natural disaster. This is one of those nights when concertgoers remember that not all the stars are on the stage, and the old man boasting “I can write you poems/make a strong man lose his mind” is helping us build a ladder to the stars above our heads.
When Bob Dylan played Berkeley in 1964, Mademoiselle writer Richard Farina called the concert an event “with a sense of collective expectancy, [the audience] attracted by implausible legend.” And that was almost forty years ago. Now, five years after his last set of Berkeley performances, seeing their poet laureate at one of the best outdoor venues in the world, Dylan’s audience reveals that the “implausible legend” has grown exponentially and on a good night, at a great venue, “collective expectancy” can sometimes morph into collective consciousness.
When the applause died down after “Mutineer,” a Warren Zevon cover that happened to be the 17th song of the night, Dylan and his band took a 30 second breather before diving into a rollicking, free-form version of “Summer Days.” In that 30 seconds, one could hear a pin drop at the Greek Theater “total attention,” I scrawled in my journal. Not an empty inch of space for much dancing, but a sea of thick silence. There cant possibly be a rock n’ roll audience in the world with the same amount of focus on an artist; with the lush scenery of giant trees, star-filled sky, and monstrous pillars, its amazing to see almost ten thousand people stand completely still and silent, only moving to rub tired eyes or laugh at Dylan’s remark “its cold, its freezing!” Sorry Bob, we truly didn’t notice, or mind. For us, the amount of history and scenery at the Greek is worth the price of admission on a Saturday night the great music happens to be a bonus. It’s like the Wrigley Field of rock.
But thankfully nostalgia had little or nothing to do with three generations of Bob Dylan lovers lining the area around the Greek at 5:30pm for his second sold out show in as many nights. More than two hours before show-time the air was starting to breathe a chill down thousands of disparate necks happy grandmothers with tie-dyed turtle-necks and coffee, dot-com yuppies in CSNY fleeces and blue-collar ex-hipsters drinking Sierra Nevada, and anxious neo-flower children wearing dreadlocks, patched pants, and t-shirts with Grateful Dead lyrics like “Fare you well” printed on the back. Forty year olds blushed as their parents told them of the first time they saw Dylan, 30 or 40 years ago in New York or Boston when his poetry set to music helped inspire a millions of artists, activists, regular Joes, and even politicians. Twelve year olds stared wide-eyed as their parents explained Dylan’s mid-70’s resurgence, his descent into addiction, his foray into passionate if dumbfounding Christian pop, his overlooked greatness on albums like Oh Mercy and Empire Burlesque, and his inconsistent performances and recordings for most of the 90’s before his explosion in the past five years. Others simply made humorous comments like “I wonder if Dylan is originally from Berkeley” or “the day Dylan comes out on stage saying yippee! Lets party!’ is the day I can die happy.” Each generation (an assembly of “Bob Dylan-stoner-rock-Phish fans,” a young boy tells me), standing there as if entwined together by awe, slowly inching down the street and into the historic theatre, had a favorite period in Dylan’s long, celebrated career, but all agreed that what would be special about this night was that, unlike many Dylan shows in the last decade, it would not simply be a nostalgic celebration of one man’s legacy. The coolest dork in the world is on a roll right now his friend Warren Zevon is dying of cancer, and on this leg of the Never Ending Tour (“[that] annoys me,” he once said, “everything must finish”) Dylan chose to play a handful of Zevon songs in tribute, along with gems like the Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar” and Neil Young’s “Old Man.” More importantly, Dylan and his band are reveling in the joy of having powerful, fresh material from Love and Theft to twist and bend, and are once again reinventing the old stuff, whether it’s a fat, slithering, dark funk version of “All Along the Watchtower” or a rollicking “Tangled Up in Blue” that sounds more like the bouncing rock version of that song the Grateful Dead did when Dylan fronted them in 1987.
Either way, each night the audience is ready to see who Dylan will be this time. Fifteen minutes before show time, the entire capacity crowd is on its feet. Someone special, someone wiser than us, has made sure that the “house-lights,” or more specifically the crystal clear Northern California sky, was out and gorgeous as ever while we waited. Suddenly Dylan is on stage in a white coat with black pants, dancing merrily to a revamped “Maggie’s Farm” and playing the electric piano like it was his one true calling. He is flanked by two very good, very different guitarists the immensely talented Charlie Sexton, in a sparkling silver suit and otherwise looking like the title character from Eddie and the Cruisers, and Larry Campbell, a relatively older, long-haired Statler Brother-sounding guy who never fails to surprise an audience with an authentic hard-rock solo directly after a breathtaking venture into pedal-steel and a killer rhythm section consisting of similarly sparkle-suited (almost David Byrne-esque) bassist Tony Garnier and George Receli, the first drummer Dylan’s had in a while who truly changes things up, acting and reacting to everything on stage, and simply making everything better.
A few songs in and you can tell they really love it here the view from stage, the great sound. This is not one of those nights where both audience and backing band realize what song Dylan is playing halfway through it those days seem far removed. After a brutal version of “Brown Sugar” that annihilates any unbelievers, they ease first into “Every Grain of Sand” from Shot of Love and then a slow, barroom version of “Its Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding” that neatly thumps and crawls while Garnier stares a hole through a cloud of marijuana smoke until a traditional blues ending. During an acoustic rendition of Neil Young’s “Old Man” that is faithful, dirty and real, you get the feeling Dylan has never had this much fun on stage, and while his own guitar solos are boring, he loses himself in them and is obviously loving it, looking and sounding like the white John Lee Hooker as he goes.
It’s after unforgettable moments like these that I wonder why people, specifically two men in their late-twenties in front of me, choose to talk throughout entire concerts. I wonder if they came to listen to music or to listen to each other talk, which they could have done at home. Whatever, Larry Campbell frequently keeps Dylan’s solos interesting by playing his own over them, but its Bob’s harmonica that gets everyone going, especially the crowd. Before a soft-spoken “Blowin’ in the Wind,” he is menacing for an extended “Lonesome Day Blues” that brings the house down, setting the stage for the two most triumphant performances of the evening. “High Water” and “Summer Days” both shine, the former sounding like an improvement on the Doors’ “Five to One” and the latter setting the stage for the best improvisational section of the night. If you want to see a great “jamband,” look no further than Bob Dylan and his band riffing off of “Summer Days,” all telecasters, Glen Miller and Rev. Horton Heat morphing together until the jam’s peak when the band members hunch low together on stage and erupt along with the crowd that smiles with them. Afterwards, Dylan quickly nods to drummer Receli “wow.”
Over two hours into the concert, the band took its first and only substantial break three minutes after a “Moonlight” lullaby, helping us appreciate the fact that time had vanished and we had felt truly alive for those two hours, and came back to get the twirling girls going again. After a bland, unrewarding stop/start “Like a Rolling Stone” and a sweet semi-acoustic “Knocking On Heaven’s Door” in which the backing vocals were overdone and Sexton slammed home a nice Stratocaster solo, it was total silence once again. It was a night where every dancing girl was a vision of an old love that slipped away, reminding us why we ever chose to “compromise with the mystery tramp” in the first place. Bob Dylan stands in the middle of the stage, voiceless, begging the question “Could you at least say thank you?” before asking “Want us to play another song? George’s hands are cold and so are mine.” A roar rises up from the crowd and the band goes into an eye-popping electric “All Along the Watchtower” to close the show, Campbell’s fiery lead prompting someone to comment “if that wasn’t heavy metal, I don’t know what heavy metal is.”
The lights go on and we awake from a sleep of affection and admiration, finally realizing how cold it is when we get out on the street. I ponder how a month from now we’ll be seeing some other artist at some other venue, while Bob Dylan is doing two shows at Madison Square Garden in New York. I think of how awful and sinful I’d have felt had I missed both of the Berkeley shows, because every concert is a chance to see who Bob Dylan is, every recording is a chance to see who he was, and each step away from the venue is a chance to wonder who he will be next.