Bob Dylan – The Atlantico Roma Box (Crystal Cat – CC 1035-38)
ATLANTICO FIRST 2013 (CC 1035-36) (Disc 1): Leopard Skin Pill-box Hat / Don´t Think Twice It´s All Right / Watching The River Flow/ Blind Willie MacTell/ Honest With Me/ Make You Feel My Love/ Tweedle Dee And Tweedle Dum/ Queen Jane approximately/ Highway 61 Revisited. (Disc 2): Just Like Tom Thumb´s Blues/ Ain´t Talkin´/Most Likely You Go Your Way/ Boots Of Spanish Leather/ The Levee´s Gonnea Break/ Every Grain Of Sand/ Like A Rolling Stone/All Along the Watchtower/(Bonus, from 2/11/ 2013: Desolation Row)
ATLANTICO SECOND 2013 (CC 1037-38) (Disc 1): Rainy Day women 12 and 35/ It Ain´t Me Babe/ Man in the Long Black Coat/ Positively 4th Street/ Summer Days/ Make You Feel My Love/ Rollin´And Tumblin´/ When The Deal Goes Down/ Highway 61 Revisited. (Disc 2): Just Like Tom Thumb´s Blues/ Girl From the North Country/ Under the Red Sky/ Ain´t Talkin´/Thunder On The Mountain/ I Don´t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met)/ Ballad of A Thin Man/ Blowin´In The Wind/ (Bonus, from 3/11/2013: Visions of Johanna)/ (Bonus, from 4/11/2013: A Hard Rain´s Gonna Fall)
The two shows that Bob Dylan played at the Atlantico venue in Rome, on the 6th and 7th of November 2013, have already come close to achieving some sort of near-mythical status. Something very special had occurred during these evenings in the ancient imperial city: in the middle of a tour which was strongly based on a repertoire extracted from his latest CD “The Tempest”, the Bard suddenly decided to do the unexpected: to leave these recent pieces out of his shows completely and to produce an exhumation of classics and obscure nuggets from his fifty year-long career, making them interact with tunes from his 1996-to-2005 period.
In this review I am going to concentrate on the Crystal Cat edition of these concerts, which has appeared in 2014; in a few days (God and CMR allowing) I will also comment on the Godfather version. Leaving comparisons aside, one has to admit that this Crystal Cat set constitutes, in and by itself, one of the major Dylan releases of this year. The two concerts (two CDs each) come in two elegant slimline jewel boxes, one for each evening, both of which are housed in an attractive green box, which makes for a truly delightful presentation. Inside the box is a tasteful 20-page booklet with photos of the tour, which includes the long and extremely interesting interview that Dylan offered to Mikal Gilmore in the September 2012 issue of Rolling Stone. With the inclusion of this interview the pirating by our dear Cat comes close to reaching a bit too far, since in fact it seems that they have not been the only ones (nor the first) to offer these same tapes to the public. But there is no need for nitpicking too much before a box like this: this particular edition of the concerts is, in terms of presentation, the very best.
The recordings are audience tapes offering a crisp sound, perhaps a bit too muffled in what concerns the bass and the rhythm guitars, but quite clear throughout in the solos (lead guitar and fiddle especially), and allowing us to hear Dylan´s voice perfectly; no nuance of his intonation is lost. Let us go through each night in detail.
Wednesday 6 November 2013: CDS 1 and 2.
The tape for the first evening (and the first two CDs) captures the enthusiastic reaction of the audience as Dylan and his band take the stage; there ´s a brief 20-second fragment of acoustic guitars being tuned, which gives way to a powerful drum roll from George Receli; and the steady rock rhythms of “Leopard Skin Pill-box Hat” fill the venue, to the joy of the audience. Dylan is in fine form from the very beginning, saying the lyrics with full purpose and sarcasm (“I see you´ve got your/ Brand New Leopard-Skin Pill Box hat”!), playing around with the lines, breaking them into bits or extending the stresses depending on the occasion. His voice is very raspy and throaty, and yet he manages to communicate expressively through it, surprising the audience in his twists and turns, and playing with the knowledge they already have of every word as it was sung in the originally recorded versions. This becomes especially noticeable in the first of many highlights, the performance of the folk-rock gem “Don´t Think Twice, It´s All Right”. The band creates a soft but dynamic cushion of sound over which Dylan can recite the text of this beautiful melody; the basic pattern is the same of the song as it was back in 1963, and yet the singer creates it anew, injecting every word with meaning; the rhythm section of Tony Garnier and George Receli shines brightly here, Receli showing an extraordinary dexterity on cymbals and adding just the extra bit of drum power after the last verse, leading on to a joyful, beautifully climaxed ending.
“Watching the River Flow” is the first of several electric numbers in which we are treated to the double guitar combination of Stu Kimball and Charlie Sexton, which suits particularly well the more bluesy parts of the repertoire. Next comes one of the evening´s great surprises: a dramatic reading of “Blind Willie Mac Tell”, a relatively obscure piece coming out of the “Infidels” sessions (1983). Tonight´s version has absolutely nothing to do with the original; it is played in a slow-moving, New Orleans-jazz style, firmly marked by Donnie Herron´s banjo as Dylan roars out the words with righteous fury; this suits the piece remarkably well and fits eerily with the southern connotations of the lyrics. We are coming very close to Tom Waits territory here.
“Honest with Me” is the first of two numbers extracted from “Love and Theft” (2001), one of the major records from Dylan´s later years. The performance of the hit from 1997, “To Make You Feel My Love” is emotional, gently slow-moving, wonderfully orchestrated. The dark, Lewis-Carrolesque narrative of “Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee” follows, with the central lines in each stanza being punctuated by the spiraling guitar work of Stu Kimball, and with Dylan clearly enjoying every line, even though he stumbles at the very last second, just as the piece reaches its climax. “Queen Jane Approximately” is offered in a mid-tempo version reminiscent of the original; but the subtle irony of the song is almost lost in the overblown performance by Dylan, who is obviously having a great time…while getting just a bit too carried away. The old warhorse “Highway 61 Revisited”, on the other hand, is perfectly suited for the exuberance that both singer and band show tonight; Stu Kimball´s soloing reaches a fiery intensity in the final bars. This strongly rocking piece has been played so very often that it risks losing intensity with the years, but it still works when Dylan is inspired.
As the musicians take the stage again, an audience member screams “Suzie-Q!”, and one can only wonder why; it is certainly not like Dylan had performed this song before in this specific tour. Instead (and more logically) it is “Just Like Tom Thumb´s Blues” that is offered; it´s a stomping and energetic version of this tune, performed in a version reminiscent of the renditions that The Band did of it in the 1966-74 tours. “Ain´t Talkin” is doubtlessly one of the most nuanced and finely rendered songs tonight: Donnie Herron´s fiddle sets the atmosphere at the beginning and interacts with the singer throughout, as Receli´s gentle and elegant percussions punctuate the piece. Dylan is once more restrained and self-contained, as befits this meditation on a violent and menacing world that the narrator explores without any hope, but with defiant self-confidence.
An intimate and romantic version of “Boots of Spanish Leather” showcases again the precision of this band, oriented once again to the more folk-rock sensibilities of the audience and allowing us to hear Dylan in a confident, relaxed mood. Once more it is the elegant, soft percussive work of Receli that propels the song gently forward, while Donnie Herron´s fiddle decorates and colors the piece from beginning to end. “The Levee´s Gonna Break” brings us back to the early rock´n´roll style that Dylan has given such a prominent place to in his present-day repertoire. The whole band is well-oiled and fast-moving here, and the audience responds to it loudly throughout, especially towards the end. Stu Kimball and Charlie Sexton perform a couple of inspired guitar duels as the climax approaches, which makes the song reach seven and a half minutes of excitement.
A slow waltz rhythm led by Dylan´s keyboard introduces the hymnal “Every Grain of Sand”, one of the most profound and heartfelt pieces of Dylan´s Christian period. An almost comical moment occurs then: halfway throughout the third stanza, Dylan forgets the lyrics completely and mumbles them through for a couple of lines; as soon as he recalls them (“…mmm mmm…..other times there´s only me!”), he goes on with full assurance as if nothing had happened, and the whole venue applauds in complicity. The result is a moment of funny interaction between singer and audience, which is a testimony to the comfortable and happy atmosphere that dominated the two Atlantico nights. “Like A Rolling Stone” is the most effervescent moment in a remarkably eventful evening: it is amazing to see how, after all of these years, Dylan can still reach new heights of sneer and defiance in this piece. Tonight he sings it like he means it, and in the choruses he leads the whole audience through a warm singalong. “All Along the Watchtower” is the encore, played in the customary Hendrixian version, which is greeted from the very beginning with roars of pleasure. Clearly the Roman audience was both surprised and amazed by Dylan´s enthusiastic mood and by his willingness to throw the tour´s basic setlist out of the widow, so as to re-explore unexpected corners of his back catalogue. On the following night he would confirm both tendencies, making for another spontaneous and memorable concert.
Thursday 7 November 2013: CDS 3 and 4.
The second night opens with strong, electric blues notes coming from the guitar of Stuart Kimball, which give way to a drum roll from George Receli: the audience is on fire from that very moment, and the concert starts with the very recognizable cadence of “Rainy Day Women 12 and 35”. Everything sounds dynamic, bright and brilliant; it´s one of these tunes that this band has performed innumerable times through the last years, and which allows them to improvise to perfection in the instrumental parts.
The folk-rock, semi-acoustic numbers do not seem to work as well this night as they did on the previous evening. This seems to occur because of two reasons: one, because of Dylan´s insistence to lead the instrumental breaks on piano, which sometimes seems to leave the others unsure of how to follow or combine their own leads with his; the other reason is simply because these moments seem (dare we say it?) slightly under-rehearsed. This occurs both in “It Ain´t Me Babe” (the second song in the evening) and in “Girl of the North Country”, and it is a pity, since both are gems from Dylan´s early days. But one only has to compare them with the perfectly coordinated version of “Don’t Think Twice” from the previous evening to notice the difference. However, put in the context of the whole concert, these mistakes do not detract from the brilliance of the whole, and even add some chaotic spontaneity into the mix. Things are firmly back in track with the haunting, darkly evocative “Man in the Long Black Coat”; this song is very difficult to execute live: it depends a lot on suggestion and on the creation of a brooding atmosphere. But this band is perfectly suited for it: here, the jazz-blues leanings of the musicians allow them to create the perfect atmosphere for Dylan to deliver his narrative. Another rare gem flows: a rendition of “Positively Fourth Street” (one of the all-time great songs of personal hate, by the way), which is offered in a version very reminiscent of the energetic, rocking arrangement that Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers did of this tune in the late eighties, when they were touring with Dylan.
A funny moment is to be found in tonight´s version of “To Make you Feel my Love”: the fact that Dylan momentarily forgets the lyrics at the beginning of the second stanza is greeted affectionately with encouraging clapping by the audience, which only adds to the spontaneity and sincerity of the situation; in this case, moreover, the instrumental break is perfectly sequenced in a fluent interaction between Dylan´s keyboard and Stu Kimball´s guitar figures. “When the Deal Goes Down” brings us to the pre-rock and roll days of Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Wiliams: it is a pastoral, peaceful, dreamy melody that Dylan sings with relaxed conviction. The concert reaches the end of its first part with an epic “Highway 61 Revisited”, just as in the previous evening.
After the customary short pause, a strum of acoustic guitars introduces the second part of the concert. A boisterous version of “Just Like tom Thumb´s Blues” follows, with generous sprinklings of lead guitar throughout by Stu Kimball; Dylan sounds bright and expressive, clearly enjoying himself to the full. “Girl of the North Country”, though beautifully arranged in a folk-rock style very similar to that of “It Ain´t Me Babe” earlier on, suffers a bit form Dylan´s wanting to dominate the instrumental sections on the keyboard. “Ain´t Talkin´” is just as suggestive as in the previous night, but today it is propelled by a more powerful pounding from George Receli´s drums which perfectly fits the stern narration of the song and its sinister perspective on a menacing world.
The final rush begins with “Thunder on the Mountain”, performed with passion and enthusiasm, and continues with a spectacular, note-perfect “I Don´t Believe You (She Acts Like We never Have Met)”. The evening reaches one of its major climaxes here: it is an electric rendition of this originally acoustic number that duplicates the version that The Band executed in their tours with Dylan between 1966 and 1974; here it reaches nearly six minutes, advancing stately and with full power into an unhurried, fully satisfactory ending. The same vibe, very reminiscent of late-60s and early -70s Dylan, is maintained in “Ballad of A Thin Man”, in which the singer´s vocals come to their highest pitch of intensity: the sarcastic bite of the lyrics fits very well his present tendency to bark out the interrogations at the chorus: ”…You don´t know what it is…Do Ya?? …Mister??…Jones??”. A hushed silence precedes what everyone knows is going to be the last number; a figure form Donnie Herron´s fiddle moves fitfully across the stage and the band steps into a mid-tempo, slow-moving, entirely emotional rendition of “Blowin in the Wind”. Dylan has performed this tune in so many versions in the past (acoustic, electric, country-style, in hard-rock form) that it is easy to take it for granted. And yet this version is perfect for the band that backs Dylan at present, with him delivering the vocals serenely and Herron´s fiddle leading the instrumental, waltz-like passages, until we reach a gentle and elegant finale. It is a very emotional conclusion to a diverse, powerful concert.
This Crystal Cat box offers us a lot of material this time; luckily, one can never have enough of a good thing. It would be very difficult (or impossible) to say which of the two concerts, so very different in terms of setlist and of pace, is to be preferred. But to complain in any way would be foolish in what concerns this box, which wonderfully documents these two major evenings. When all is said and done, and even with the reservations I have expressed at the start, this is easily one of the best musical releases of the present year.