Nashville Skyline: Dylan at Brooklyn Bowl, March 26 & 27, 2024

have you seen Dylan's socks / they got wings, they can fly

Nashville Skyline: Dylan at Brooklyn Bowl, March 26 & 27, 2024

When these shows were announced I decided I would try to get tickets and if I got them I would go and if I didn’t get them, at least I’d tried. I got tickets for both nights, and by that I mean I bought whatever ticket Ticketmaster showed me. Someone in the queue was grilling me on the breakdown of the ticket price and I finally just said, I didn’t look, I wanted in, the total cost wasn’t unreasonable or out of line and I hit the button. I still don’t know the price breakdown and I still don’t care.  My tickets were upper left balcony night one and GA floor with early entry pass for night two. I queued for both nights; on Tuesday I arrived around 4:15 and was 8th in the general line. On Wednesday I got there at 3pm and was #2 in the early entry line. If I was doing this I was doing it. 1

I overheard someone in the crowd say that Nashville thinks that Brooklyn Bowl is the best-sounding room in town. After the first night of watching Bob Dylan there, I think that’s accurate. It was absolutely in the trifecta of bang! pow! boom! impacts you experienced once the lights went down at 8pm and the band walked onstage. It was warm, very clear, and not overpowering in either location I watched the show from: upstairs right next to the speaker column night one, front row dead center night two.. It was so clear and so multi-dimensional. You could hear everything. It was gorgeous. It felt like you were being treated to an elite experience.

I wasn’t a huge fan of the sightlines of the OG BB in NYC so it wouldn’t be my first choice to see a show even when it was a venue that was five minutes’ walking distance from my apartment. But one thing Brooklyn Bowl always did right was how they handed the line to get into the show. The Bob shows had three different flavors of GA (floor and left and right balcony) as well as an early entry option for the floor GA folks. The BB staff explained what they were going to do, they explained it repeatedly, they were kind and respectful, and they processed the line in a fashion that prevented a full fledged stampede.

Night one, I was the 8th or so person in the non-early-entry line with a ticket for the left balcony, and what I was worried was going to be a shitshow was a non-event, even with going through security (they have some kind of detectors you walk through and then a quick glance into my purse) and having to deal with putting my phone in a Yondr pouch. I had to make a detour to a second desk to get a wristband for the balcony and she could tell I was nervous because she said, “Don’t worry, I’ve only given out four wristbands so far.” There was always a staff member to direct me, but they weren’t heavy-handed and barking at people. When I asked for water at the bar they would have given me a free cup of water. Please, never change. (Also, big shoutout to Tailgate Brewery next door to the venue that also gave out free water and let the people queuing use their bathrooms! They were so nice to us!)

(Side trivia: not only was there no bowling during the shows but Bob asked them to shut the bars down at about 7:45; the band always goes onstage at 7:59. Always.)

The audience was genuinely excited to be at this show and Brooklyn Bowl was excited to be hosting the show. And because they treated the audience so well getting into the venue, the excited, happy buzz of the people was preserved once they got inside the venue instead of having all the joy wrung out of you by the usual aggro junkies who get hired as concert security. This matters because the vibe of the first night’s show was fucking immaculate. It’s not often these days that you get to feel an audience who is truly united in support for the person onstage. It’s the kind of thing you’ve probably read about in stories about the Fillmore or BGP Presents events or even shows in the 70s. (Club shows are a different animal, I’m talking theater-sized and up.)

This audience was fantastic. They applauded Bob genuinely, enthusiastically, but borne out of attention to the songs and to the show. It’s so sad, isn’t it, that this is something that I’m writing about as a rarity, but in this world of people buying concert tickets so the concert can be a backdrop to this evening’s conversation, it was really great to be part of this kind of energy. It makes the concert more enjoyable, and I’m going to argue that it elevated the performance. I swear that Bob almost smiled at least three times. Do not argue with me that Bob Dylan doesn’t notice/doesn’t care/doesn’t know the difference. Bob Dylan is the first person who is going to notice, care, and feel the difference. This is why he’s gone from just saying ‘no phones’ to implementing the phone pouches. 2

That said, I wasn’t entirely sure which way the night was going to go in the first song. Dylan fans talk about “the lean,” how no matter what the stage setup is (and Bob’s always center, with the musicians arranged around him) the band are oriented so that they can watch his hands on the keyboard. They are never not watching him, with varying degrees of laser-focus.  During “Watching the River Flow” on Tuesday you almost felt like they might fall over from the degree they were clearly trying to follow whatever it was he wanted to do, and yet it was not necessarily helping them. 3

It was a mess, and yet the thoughts that went through my head were: who else does this to their band? Who else can still keep their people on their toes like this? Also, this is not an unrehearsed ensemble! I expect this kind of uncertainty when a band doesn’t bother to rehearse sufficiently and figures they’ll work it out as the tour goes. Like, Bob’s not doing it to be a dick, he’s doing it because this is how he wants to operate. It feels like he’s not entirely sure what’s going to change in his presentation of the songs until he starts the song, and so it’s as brand new to the people onstage as much as it is to the people in the audience.

Highlights in “Most Likely You Go Your Way (and I’ll Go Mine)” were the deliberately arched eyebrows emphasizing the “you would be wrong” line. There was an unexpected and almost festive piano run down the keyboards in the second verse, and when he stood up to finish the song at the end, the crowd roared in unison. It was the first moment of real connection and it was genuinely moving. The audience embraced every opportunity to show Bob their appreciation. If he stood up, they applauded. If he picked up a harmonica, they applauded.

“False Prophet” had gorgeous piano lines, while “When I Paint My Masterpiece” was this bossanova remaking that honestly fits the story of the song but is the kind of thing that can only exist now because the original rendition already happened, and because the author is more concerned with his vision of what the presentation of the material should be than he is the audience’s approval of that presentation. That’s kind of aimed at the people who go to see Bob Dylan without bothering to check to see what seeing Bob Dylan means these days, but more just a reflection on how his approach manifests itself.

“Masterpiece” was one of the best moments the second nights; the setlist doesn’t change, or hasn’t changed in a while, and so everyone who was at the rail knew that. There was this beautiful energetic coincidence as the band began the song where it felt like everyone along the front immediately began to get their boogie on simultaneously, in sync with the band. It wasn’t planned or discussed or the kind of choreographed things people do, it was completely organic. It is such a transformative reinterpretation.

“My Own Version of You” was an absolute highlight both nights, but especially night one. Bob’s piano work was broad, and his vocal delivery was exacting. That might sound clinical but it was an almost conversational interpretation, with strategic pauses to direct inflection and precisely apply emotion. The end result was something so warm and enveloping you did not want it to end. It was mesmerizing and profound in a way that you don’t ever expect but is also the kind of moment that’s elusive, because it is, and because it’s by its nature ephemeral. You might walk into a show thinking that you’d like to hear a song or you’re looking forward to a particular guitar solo or love it when the house lights come up on the chorus of something. But you’re not walking into a concert ever explicitly saying, “I’m here for some magic.” But if there was ever a container in which the possibility of magic exists, it is live music, and in this moment, Bob Dylan made me hold my breath, made me want to feel every note, every emotion, every line. That is magic.

On Tuesday I was upstairs in the left balcony, about five feet or so from the speaker column. This gave me a clear view of everyone onstage and most importantly, of Bob at the piano. I couldn’t see his hands on the keys but I could see everything else: the neatly organized harmonicas, two rows of four. His lyrics/sheet music/fakebook/or whatever it is, illuminated by a construction of four tiny LED lamps that illuminate the top of the piano immediately in front of Bob. He varied between sitting and standing while playing or not playing/singing; sometimes he would choose to rest his hands on top of the piano while still seated -- he did that during “Crossing the Rubicon” while he kind of waited for the band to catch up with him.

Other times, like at the end of “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight,” as the band vamped out of the song, Bob basically sat down and kind of shuffled through his paperwork (they’re laminated sheets to be precise). It was slightly odd and detached from the rest of the show but also it wasn’t idle, clearly he was arranging something. I never would have noticed it in the same way if I’d been at floor level, and if he did the same thing on Wednesday I didn’t see it, either because of the angle or because I was watching something else.

“Key West” was another moment where the audience in its entirety was just with him, hanging on every word, following him wherever he was taking us. It’s an intricate, rambling song that could easily go off course and lose the crowd, but Bob has a way of controlling the delivery, of taking us with him. Tonight I was vibing with the in-jokes, the lines like “People tell me - I oughta try a little tenderness” and observing how carefully he was guiding us, naming the streets, “Amelia Street - Bay View Park.”

That is the moment Tuesday night when a dude decided that he was going to push in between myself and the woman to my left, where there was zero extra room, on the guise of putting his daughter there. When I said no, his response was to tell me “you take up a lot of room.” I’d like to pause briefly to consider that in the middle of a fucking Dylan concert was a time for a man to decide to tell a woman that she needs to be smaller for his convenience. It was not the first time a man has decided to tell me that he thinks I am fat, or that he imagined that this news would be so shocking to me that I would either dissolve into dust or immediately apologize for my trespass against his maleness. Instead, I told him to go fuck himself, and his response was to vacate the area. I forget that I am from New York City where “go fuck yourself” is basically a boy howdy and that there are parts of this country where it is taken more literally and people are deeply offended by it. Good. The part of the balcony I was standing in was absolutely empty until 7:45. You have now taught your daughter that she will always be taking up too much room and that men think the world should exist to their liking. Then again, we were also in Tennessee, so I guess that comes with the territory. It is a testament to personal growth and Bob Dylan that I did not try to reason with that fucker or let it throw the show for me. My focus was back on the stage instantly. Bob was taking me through Key West and I didn’t get mad about it until after the show.

A really beautiful moment happened in the middle of “I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You,” when there were two I LOVE YOU, BOBs from the crowd. Usually those are bullshit and attention-seeking and usually you roll your eyes and mock the person for their completely unoriginal and banal sentiment. But this wasn’t like that. It was organic, it was in response to the energy onstage. There was literally a small surge of applause in response to the I LOVE YOU. Chatting with folks outside after the show, someone pointed out how much younger the audience seemed, and from an unscientific more birds-eye view of the crowd, I’d need to concur with that assessment. These weren’t cheap tickets (but they also weren’t expensive) and Brooklyn Bowl holds 1200-1400 people (depending on who you ask) so even if all you bought was a GA ticket, your odds were greater at being closer to Bob Dylan than you ever would be in a theater or arena without paying big bucks for Platinum VIP Tickets. GA shows are less attractive to an older demographic because it’s just physically harder on an older body. It’s less attractive to the people who want to be able to have a meal before the show and arrive a few minutes before ticket time. It’s not as practical for people who want to drink during the show. And it also does a really great job of clearing out a wall of old dudes with their arms folded who stand still and do not move once during the concert.

Johnny Cash’s “Big River” has been in the set for a while, and both nights it was another heart-warming communal moment because in Nashville -- definitely in other places, but definitely in goddamn Music City -- people knew the song and people sang the song with him, uninvited, totally spontaneous. I talk a lot about lineage and history and connection and mourn not just their absence but that too many audiences just do not give a flying fuck about those things -- it’s not important to them and they are somewhat defiant about that. In Nashville, people knew it was Johnny Cash; people were happy it was Johnny Cash; it was important to them to have that song as part of the show, irregardless of whether or not it was a regular thing (it started in Athens, GA, a few weeks ago, from a quick review of BobLinks).

“Gotta Serve Somebody” is recast as a blues number, but pretty much every gospel song could be a blues song, and gospel into blues is basically the exact path of rock and roll, isn’t it. I don’t know that that is why Bob has rearranged “Gotta Serve Somebody” into this particular form but it’s also not accidental, come on.

I have a note from Tuesday after “Mother of Muses” where I wrote “It’s personal.” I wish I’d written down which line exactly but there’s a wide range to choose from. I always thought it was a curious song on a record that no one expected, that he is beseeching the muses for their favor, when the evidence was right in front of him that he already had it. It is probably my least favorite song in the set but it’s not that I dislike it, I am just less interested in it than everything else on either side of it. And some of of it is, it signifies the final stretch of the show and it’s going to end soon, even though it feels like it just started.

On Wednesday I was pretty much dead center. It’s a small stage, it’s not a full theater sized space – but it’s also not tiny, there was some geometry that had to be invoked in order to fit everyone on the stage so that they could do the thing they do where they manoever themselves back and forth in order to keep an eye on Bob’s hands, but I think it was a good tradeoff of space vs. intimacy. There was a decent gap between the stage and the rail, and Bob was as far back as they could put him – which wasn’t far. I could see his legs in his sparkly Nudie suit pants. He was wearing what looked like a Hawaiian shirt under his suit on Tuesday but on Wednesday had a black and white kind of diamond jacquard print. I think he might have been wearing a necklace of some sort. His shoes are white patent leather, they look like desert boot type things. His belt is white to match the shoes. Despite Bob basically being hidden behind the grand piano he is not hiding behind it; he stands, he sits, he sometimes moves out to his right where two different microphone setups await his requirements. And he is paying attention to everything. He looks in the direction of the audience more than I thought he would.

On the note of things awaiting his Bobness is the Les Paul that’s lying on top of an amp directly behind the piano. It is there and it is for Bob and they tune it every show and it sits there every show; apparently they recently switched the guitar for a different one, which caused an understandable heart fluttering among the faithful. This of course has not happened, Farm Aid aside (and that doesn’t count for multiple reasons). It is basically Elijah’s guitar4. I love that Bob insists on it, I love that he leaves the opportunity open, I also love that he has to know that he is fucking with people’s minds by doing that night after night. Because only 1% of any given audience for any artist at any show is the kind of frequent flier that knows the guitar is always there, which leaves 99% of the crowd to spy a guitar lying ready right behind Bob Dylan as though he could at any moment get up and decide to play it. He could! He definitely could.

Why does drummer Jerry Pentecost wear a whistle on a lanyard around his neck? Pentecost recently replaced former drummer Charley Drayton beginning with the Japan shows in April ‘23. He plays the most minimalist kit and makes the biggest noise from such a simple setup. My sightline Wednesday night was level with the space between him and the piano so I spent a lot of time watching how he worked and how he kept an eye on Bob, how he swung and was constantly opening up space within the songs. You could see Pentecost more visibly exhale when things went well as opposed to the other musicians who either look neutral or look concerned. The bridge on “Crossing the Rubicon” absolutely swings and he is a big part of why it does.

I don’t mean to particularly call out Pentecost as though anyone else on that stage backing Bob Dylan isn’t also incredibly talented. There is nothing to hide behind up there and when you make a mistake you are making it behind Bob Dylan and Bob Dylan is the person who’s going to be turning his head to look at you disapprovingly. But every single one of those guys is a MVP in their own way, in their own time, from moment to moment. There is a non-verbal communication thing going on between them and the physical way they move around the stage in order to be able to execute the show is completely fascinating to watch, which was amplified by the small size of the stage. From my view on Tuesday I thought that Tony Garnier wasn’t watching as closely because he didn’t have to, but on Wednesday I could see that he just positions himself very well so he has to do less work in order to have a clear view. Bob Britt and Doug Lancio are incredibly strong guitarists but they manage to be rock solid without overshadowing any particular moment. And it feels like Donnie Herron -- who moves between pedal steel, lap steel and violin -- is running a marathon and making it seem seamless except in a marathon you only have to worry about you, and you definitely don’t have to worry about Bob Dylan.

Bob definitely smiled during the last verse of “Rubicon” on Wednesday because it was a near-perfect execution energetically. It’s challenging to make declarations about whether or not a song was musically executed perfectly because Bob is constantly changing the arrangements. I stood next to some lovely people who had been following this run of shows since Florida and he’s changed the arrangements since then. He will probably change them again by the time he gets to New Orleans. (I am not going, but I texted a friend to make sure she was.)

This is why when I saw the show in December I walked out mad I hadn’t seen more of this tour, and honestly it probably worked out better for me to say goodbye to Rough & Rowdy Ways with these two shows than to have tried to drive around the midwest in the winter. People who know about these things are sure this is the end of Rough & Rowdy Ways; he’s going out with Willie and Mellencamp this summer on the Outlaw thing and everyone I talked to this week is in fervent agreement that he is not going to go out there with this show in the sheds on either side of similar but very different artists and audiences. I mean, he could, it’s still Bob, it’s not like he’s going to go out there and play a greatest hits set, but no one can see this particular set that centers the very long songs on the record presented in a variety of ever-changing arrangements doing what it needs to do at these shows at the various Corporate Name Amphitheaters around America

Both shows were very very good but Tuesday’s was definitely at a different level than Wednesday’s; there was a buzz and an electricity on Tuesday I can still conjure when I close my eyes; it’s still real, it’s still tangible.  I’m still glad to have put in the time and the effort to have seen them both and to have experienced this show from two different vantage points and also to have been so close to Bob Dylan I could tell you what color socks he was wearing5. I am also glad to have been in an audience of people who loved Bob Dylan and loved live music and complained about how much audiences usually talk (they did not at this show, they really did not). I have cut back on going to live shows these days because everything around the actual music is a total fucking drag. I’m grateful that I not only got to see Bob Dylan in this setting but that it was overall such an affirming and positive experience of live music. It is sad that live music has deteriorated into such a mess, sad for the audience, sad for the musicians, sad for all of the people who still try to make a living from some part of this. 

I’m going to keep trying, though. It’s still there underneath all of the bullshit.

I got to hang out briefly with the brilliant Ray Padgett in Nashville and now that I’m done writing I can go read his piece about the shows, so you should too.

  1. I flew a budget airline out of Flint for $113 round-trip and only brought a personal item. I told my friends that if they wanted to see me they had to come to the hotel because I was not expending my energy on anything that wasn’t the shows.

  2. I stood next to some serious diehards who told me a story about a tour where Bob had an upright piano and it was turned sideways, and despite saying “no photos” everyone took them anyway. So eventually Bob put a biscotti tin on the piano so you couldn’t see his face and that meant no one could take bad pictures. (People were even yelling at him to move the cookie tin.)

  3. Or as a noted Dylan expert said to me after the show when I noted the extreme lean of the first song, “The first song was a mess.”

  4. Elijah the prophet. During the Passover seder we leave a cup of wine out for him and open the door and invite him in at some point.

  5. They were black but I could also only see his ankles.