Bob Dylan's Never Ending Tour played the second date of its 2011 U.S. Summer Tour by opening the Orange County Fair on a cool summer night to the delight of a packed house, filled with a cross section of fans young and old. Some at their first, others who've lost track of the number of times they've seen him.
Dylan started at the organ for show-opener "Gonna Change My Way of Thinking" from Slow Train Coming. The lyric "Gonna put my good foot forward/ And stop being influenced by fools" perfectly encapsulates the approach he has taken for most of his career. The organ and strumming guitar stood out on "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright" and gave the song a country vibe. Dylan then went to the center stage where he played guitar on the swamp blues of "Things Have Changed."
The altering of the arrangements and performance of his songs by Dylan is well noted, and combined with the theater's sound system for those of us on the lawn, I didn't pick up that they were playing "Tangled Up In Blue," one of my favorites, until well into the first verse. He played his first harmonica solo to the delight of fans.
Dylan grabbed a guitar for the swamp blues of "Beyond Here Lies Nothin'" and the banjo and upright bass added to the mix for "High Water (For Charley Patton)" added an element of bluegrass. He returned to the organ for "Tryin' To Get To Heaven" and "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" which were performed as gospel numbers. Sandwiched in between those songs, which brought to mind Sunday morning, was the sound of Saturday night in a swinging rendition of "Summer Days."
Dylan played with his phrasing on a smoldering rendition of "Highway 61 Revisited." The lyrics rambled along at their own pace, reminiscent of Frank Sinatra, but then he would catch up when needed at the end of verses and choruses. "Ballad of a Thin Man" closed the set on a very theatrical note. A light shined up from below, which combined with Dylan's raspy, accusatory vocals, and haunting harmonica, created an ominous mood
Dylan and the band returned for a trio of hits. "Like a Rolling Stone" again found Dylan singing lyrics to a different arrangement then the one we heard. After a wonderful version of "All Along the Watchtower" where Dylan's weathered voice adds character to the narrator of the song, he introduced his talented band: Charlie Sexton (lead guitar, dobro); Stu Kimball (electric guitar, acoustic guitar); Donnie Herron (pedal steel, lap steel, electric mandolin, banjo, violin, viola); Tony Garnier (bass guitar, standup bass); and George Receli (drums). They played like a well-oiled machine no matter the song or style, and were all dressed in gray suits with black shirts. The night ended with "Blowin' In the Wind" played as a slow country shuffle, though I must admit I had no idea what it was and apparently not many around me did either because though everyone was on their feet, some of whom were headed for the exit, no one was singing along.
These days, Dylan's shows are not about cultural revelations or artistic transformations, but celebrations of music. Dylan honors his heroes and influences by deftly moving through different genres while his fans honor their hero whose songs have had a similar impact on them. The one thing Dylan has proved over the year is good music played well never goes out of style.
"Gonna Change My Way of Thinking"
"Don't Think Twice, It's Alright"
"Things Have Changed"
"Tangled Up In Blue"
"Beyond Here Lies Nothin'"
"High Water (For Charley Patton)"
"Tryin' To Get To Heaven"
"A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall"
"Highway 61 Revisited"
"Thunder On the Mountain"
"Ballad of a Thin Man"
"Like a Rolling Stone"
"All Along the Watchtower"
"Blowin' In the Wind"