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Bob Dylan at Xcel Energy Center, 11/7/12

Bob Dylan at Xcel Energy Center, 11/7/12
Photo by Adam Grahek

Bob Dylan
With Mark Knopfler
Xcel Center, St. Paul
November 7, 2012

Bob Dylan last performed in the Twin Cities on election night 2008. For most of us gathered that evening in the Northrop Auditorium, he actually broke the news that Barack Obama had won the election and would be the next president, telling the crowd, "I was born in 1941... That was the year they bombed Pearl Harbor. I've been living in darkness ever since. It looks like things are going to change now." He and his band then broke into a spirited version of "Blowin' in the Wind" before sending most of the left-leaning crowd to bask in Obama's glory at home, in the streets, at a pub, or wherever the night blew them.

So it seemed fitting to see Bobby and his band last night right as the next presidential cycle came to a close with Obama's reelection. But unfortunately, a ho-hum performance didn't send folks home wanting to celebrate Obama or much of anything else.

See Also:
Bob Dylan's most memorable Minnesota performances (1998-2008)
Five underrated Bob Dylan songs from oft-forgotten albums

Last night's set list mixed in a significant dose of material from the trio of albums Dylan has released in the last decade, including "Early Roman Kings" from his newest offering, Tempest. And while the albums themselves hold up well enough when listened to at home, the relatively new songs have a tendency to sound like meandering, melodically bereft blues jams live, as though Dylan's backing band just looked at the chord changes two minutes before taking the stage. (Admittedly, that rock n' roll laissez faire-ness is part of the current Dylan band's appeal.)

Things picked up during the latter half of the set with a heavy concentration of classics like "All Along the Watchtower," "Like a Rolling Stone," and "Ballad of a Thin Man." Those familiar tunes energized a three quarters-full Xcel crowd -- the upper level of the arena was closed off -- that seemed disengaged for long stretches. But after just a one-tune encore ("Blowin' in the Wind"), Dylan and company took a bow, the house lights came up, and that was that. Instead of inspiring celebration, folks mostly seemed to feel like yawning. Maybe Bob has just been disillusioned by Obama's first term or something.

Vocally, Dylan actually sounds better than he did while unintelligibly growling through most of his set four years ago at Northrup. His distinctive brand of sing-rapping sounded clearer and less guttural last night, and for a 71-year-old man, he still has plenty of energy. He's even added a new and welcome twist where he gets up from behind his piano (Dylan played no guitar last night), grabs a mic, and assumes the Jagger-esque frontman role, complete with gesticulations and sways. So the something-missing about the show didn't have anything to do with Dylan suddenly getting too old to hack it or just not being up to the task for some other reason. On the whole, the performance was just flat.

That flatness was exemplified by the conspicuous and total absence of any banter with the audience. In fact, the only time Dylan spoke to the crowd at all was to introduce his band. That'd be understandable anywhere else, but not so much in Bob's home state. Sure, Dylan has always had a love-hate relationship with Minnesota, but as someone who identifies with the Land of 10,000 Lakes symbolism permeating some of his best material, it was galling to see a homecoming gig treated as if it were just another night on the road in Scranton or something.

Another part of the problem had to do with the venue. The Xcel Center, even with a significant portion of it closed off, just feels like too big of a space for the subtle music Dylan is playing these days. Then again, considering the lackluster energy of most of the performance (to be clear, there were some high points, including a nice version of "Tangled Up In Blue" with Knopfler guesting on guitar) it wouldn't have been fun to be standing the whole time either.

Bob Dylan will go down as arguably the greatest American songwriter of the 20th Century. So if you're a fan and you have a chance to see him, you do it, and as long as he's physically capable of pulling off live rock n' roll (and continues to play with stellar backing musicians) it won't be a regrettable choice. But considering how strong his recent Twin Cities shows were coming into last night, here's to hoping the metro where he first cut his teeth as a prodigious musical talent will be fortunate enough to host another Dylan show that sends attendees home feeling thoughtfully high on life, as I felt while exiting the Northrup on election night '08. He's still clearly capable of delivering that, even if it didn't happen last night.
 
Mark Knopfler: Knopfler opened the night with a set of tunes derived largely from his solo stuff, with Dire Straits' "So Far Away" both closing his portion of the evening and serving as his only familiar offering to casual fans (he'd later play two songs with Dylan). He and his eight-man band have a largely acoustic sound heavily influenced by bluegrass and Celtic music, which is fine, but as with Dylan, he could've pleased the crowd by tossing in a couple more Dire Straits classics for old times' sake. In fairness, for both Knopfler and Dylan, finding a balance between old and new has to be an almost nightly challenge.

Knopfler also supplied the only on-stage anecdote of the night, sharing a story about the last time he was in town, which was to play Garrison Keillor's Prairie Home Companion. Knopfler, doing a remarkably strong Keillor impression, said Garrison told him 'Move here, we can find you a house,' and he suggested he considered his friend's proposal for at least a couple seconds. "There's a very special feeling in this place," Knopfler told the crowd.

Critic's notebook:

Personal bias: I first saw Dylan when I was a wee lad, no older than six or seven, at the Orpheum in downtown Minneapolis. It was a cold winter's evening, but nonetheless, my dad and I headed behind the venue after the show was through to try and catch a glimpse of Dylan as he walked back to his bus. My dad grew up in Chisholm, just a few miles down the road from Dylan's native Hibbing, and my dad's band played at Dylan's 10-year high school reunion in the late 60s -- and Bobby actually showed! Dylan, already an established rock star at that point, had a brief conversation with my dad and complimented his band. As you can imagine, my dad never forgot it, and Dylan, along with the Beatles and classical music, was the soundtrack of my childhood.

Anyway, we're standing with a crowd out behind the Orpheum, it's dark and late, and I remember looking around and realizing I was the only kid out there. Eventually, a guy emerged from one of the idling buses and approached us. He walked up to me and said, simply, "Bob wants you to have this," then handed me a laminated folder containing the night's handwritten setlist and a guitar pick. Those items, 20 years later, are still proudly on display in my parents' house, and it'll go down as one of the first unforgettable moments of my life.

The second time I saw Dylan was in the summer 2005 at Midway Stadium during his tour with Willie Nelson. It was a warm, beautiful summer evening, and there was something uniquely awesome about the crescendos of "Like a Rolling Stone" played as the sun went down to the backdrop of passing trains. I again went with my dad, and it was another unforgettable evening, albeit one that's a little hard to remember in detail in hindsight (Willie Nelson was playing, after all!). And the third time I saw Dylan was when he broke the news about the tight 2008 presidential election to my dad and I and most everybody else at the Northrup.

So yeah, my standards when it comes to Dylan shows are high. This was the fourth time I've seen him, and while all the shows have been special, the first three were on a different level.

The crowd: From where we were at in the (relatively) cheap seats, the crowd was subdued and almost entirely seated throughout the show, but we were surrounded by lots of older folks who looked like they'd have trouble standing if they tried. Meanwhile, during the classic tunes at least, most of the people on the floor stood. But on the whole, there seemed to be a reciprocity between band and concertgoers -- the band turned in a performance that felt mailed in, and in turn the audience was far and away the least enthusiastic I've experienced at any Dylan show I've attended.

Overheard: At one point early in Dylan's set, a guy sitting a couple rows in front of us turned and yelled at the lower-bowl crowd: "Stand up and dance you bunch of wallflowers!" Mind you, he was sitting when he said this and remained so throughout the rest of the set.

The middle-aged woman behind us wanted to dance. Like really, really wanted to dance. Even during ballads, she couldn't resist the urge to get up and shake it, but eventually one of the ushers saw her standing by her lonesome and asked her to either to sit or to move to the floor-level area behind the soundboard where folks were standing. "I'll shut up about it, but this is the last time I'm going to a show at the Xcel Center," she later told her husband, who repeatedly reiterated to her that he had no interest in standing through the show. Eventually she couldn't take it anymore and bolted for the floor, with her man following behind her not long after. We were thrilled about that development, as the annoying snapping and clapping we'd been begrudgingly tolerating came to an end. But apparently she forgot something when she headed for the floor -- as we started climbing up the stairs after the show ended, we caught one last glimpse of her frantically looking for the purse she'd left under her seat.

Setlist:

1. I'll Be Your Baby Tonight
2. Don't Think Twice, It's All Right
3. Things Have Changed
4. Tangled Up in Blue
5. Early Roman Kings
6. A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall
7. Summer Days
8. Blind Willie McTell
9. Highway 61 Revisited
10. Spirit on the Water
11. Thunder on the Mountain
12. Ballad of a Thin Man
13. Like a Rolling Stone
14. All Along the Watchtower
Encore:
15. Blowin' in the Wind


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