“Here’s the thing with me and the religious thing. This is the flat-out truth: I find the religiosity and the philosophy in the music. I don’t find it anywhere else . . . The songs are my lexicon. I believe the songs.” ~ Bob Dylan
South facade, United Palace Theatre, New York City
Sometimes grand adventures kind of sneak up on you.
One day, you’re minding your own business, struggling to write a story, any story. An email comes in, announcing a special, last minute Dylan concert in New York City. Don’t be silly, you live in Virginia. But it’s my birthday. It’s just what I secretly wanted. When was the last time you dropped everything and ran on impulse? It’s not like you. You’re always so sensible. But who am I to tempt fate?
When Bob calls, you go.
Plus, who doesn’t like New York? The city that never sleeps. The place I dreamed about as a teenager in Hawai’i, ever since “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” Yeah. Better pack my black turtleneck, in case I turn into a Beatnik or something.
We arrive at LaGuardia on a colder-than-a-witch’s-tits Friday afternoon. The cab who takes us into midtown Manhattan does a very convincing version of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. Weave, swerve, jerk, bounce, horn toots, jam the brakes! When I finally get out of the car, I feel like a mole seeing daylight for the first time. Blink blink. Big city. Big buildings. Big Apple!
We have to be at Will-Call by 7 p.m. to pick up our tickets. But before we hail yet another cab for the 30 minute ride up there, we grab a quick bite at an 8th Street deli, a couple blocks away from our hotel. The walls are full of Broadway posters and the servers have the “hungry aspiring actor” look. Just as I bite into my grilled chicken sandwich, I spot Harvey Fierstein being seated nearby.
I explain to Len that Harvey is the Tony Award-winning actor who played Edna Turnblad in Hairspray. Harvey has a great presence about him, and definitely knows how to charm a pastrami sandwich. I wanted to snap a photo in the worst way, but decided to respect his privacy. After all, one should never come between a man and his pastrami.
The next cab driver has no idea where the United Palace Theatre is. Oh, no. Visions of getting lost and missing the concert. 175th Street and Broadway!! 4140 Broadway!! How hard can it be?
I calm myself by reading all the glorious signs along the way. Any one of them would make a great book title: Papaya Dog. Pork Shop. The Art of Shaving. And my favorite: Nirvana — Indian Culinary Bliss.
Each minute, getting closer to Bob, I’m thinking, you’ve loved this man’s music for 30+ years. Tonight’s concert, a bonus show for true blue fans, will be his last for 2008, and you’ll be seeing him in the city where he was discovered. He’s often professed his love for New York, since most of his songs were either written or recorded there. Last time I saw Dylan perform (three years ago) was on a college campus ten minutes from home, and that was definitely surreal. But this show promised to be something else again.
Did I mention I totally lucked out, and scored Front Orchestra, third row seats?
We pull up to the United Palace, and it has to be seen to be believed. When first constructed as a Loew’s Wonder Theatre back in 1930, it was the third largest indoor venue in the U.S., featuring movies and vaudeville shows. After being purchased by Reverend Ike’s United Christ Church in 1969, it was exquisitely restored to its jaw-dropping grandeur. As soon as you step inside, you are confronted with floor to ceiling gilding:
Front lobby area
The architecture has been described as “Byzantine-Romanesque-Indo-Hindu-Sino-Moorish-Persian-Eclectic-Rococo-Deco.” It’s garish, kitschy, gawdy, overblown, exotic, campy, and amazing. Here, you might take in a rock concert or pipe organ recital, attend a church service or community meeting. And it is here, that the born again Christian, song and dance man of a thousand guises and musical forms, has summoned his flock.
Upper balcony area
So we find our seats and Oh. My. God. Dylan’s organ is set up on the right side of the stage, directly in front of me. I have never sat this close, within 30 feet of the man. Last time we saw him, the organ was on the left. He must have switched it because he knew I was coming. Of course.
I wonder if Dylan will sing my favorite song from Modern Times: “Spirit on the Water.” I wonder if it’ll really be him on stage, not an impersonator. I wonder how someone you don’t even know can mean so much to you for so long. I wonder just what he’s doing backstage at this exact moment I’m sitting here wondering about him. And I wonder if I’ll be able to understand a single word he sings. Do I care? Nah. Just being in the same room with him is enough, breathing the same air. It’s an honor. It’s other-worldly historic. If you’ve ever idolized someone, you know exactly what I’m talking about.
It’s 8 p.m., and the theatre fills up slowly. People are guzzling beer out in the lobby, and the unmistakable fragrance of weed has drifted down from the balcony. At 8:25, the chanting and clapping begins. Bob, Bob. The five minute warning lights flash and the crowd cheers. Stragglers hurry to their seats.
Finally finally finally, the lights dim to a deafening roar. Invisible announcer man with booming voice bellows, “Ladies and Gentlemen, please welcome, the Poet Laureate of Rock Music, Bob Dylan!!”
Crowd jumps to its feet. Screams, whistles, wild applause. The Archbishop of Anarchy, harp in hand, takes center stage, and opens with the perfect invocation: “Gotta Serve Somebody.” He’s wearing a white Panama hat, what looks like a bluish-black yachting blazer with gold buttons, a blue shirt and cravat/tie, black pants with white piping down the side, and black boots. I’d call it, “Sultry Plantation Owner Sails the High Seas and Joins Marching Band.”
As he growls through the song, we know the evening is going to be extraordinary. Normally, Dylan rarely faces the audience directly, rarely smiles, rarely interacts. But on this Friday, his 100th show of the year, in the city he loves best, he gives us a jazzy shuffle, a smoldering sidestep, and then he positively nails his harp solo.
Did I mention his eyes are blue?
Just call me glow-face. Remember when Charlton Heston sees the burning bush in “The Ten Commandments,” and his face is all lit up and his hair is all blown back after hearing the voice of God? That’s how it felt. Maybe it was the setting. More likely it was Dylan in a good mood, surprisingly energetic, inviting us to join him in the rafters for the musical journey of a lifetime.
Photo source: Village Voice, © 2008 Hernan Hernandez
He next hits us with, “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” last performed the night of the historic election. His set is a mixture of five killer songs from Modern Times, along with seminal tunes like “Desolation Row,” and ”It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding).” He was on organ most of the time, but did step out front again for three other tunes: ”Tomorrow is a Long Time,” ”Blowin’ in the Wind,” (both performed with a hollow body guitar), and “Till I Fell in Love With You.”
His harp solos were inspired and far-reaching, the best I’ve heard from him – drawn out notes, wailing the blues, down to the bone. Since he hasn’t played much guitar on stage in recent years, it was a real treat seeing him cradling the instrument he is most often associated with. In “Tomorrow is a Long Time,” which he hadn’t played in New York for 45 years, Dylan’s nostalgia for his old stomping grounds was acutely palpable.
I agree with the reviewer who remarked that Dylan “has to be the only performer his age that doesn’t play an oldies show. It’s the songs he cares about that day that count.” Aside from the spiritual and political overtones evident in his setlist, there was also a certain melancholy in the soft and subdued, “Make You Feel My Love,” and “Spirit on the Water,” (easily his best vocal of the night). Dylan can croon a love song with the best of them, hitting just the right notes of intimacy and pathos.
A quick shift in tone to whip-up-a-frenzy ”Highway 61 Revisited,” sent everyone rushing to the stage, where they remained for, “Ain’t Talkin’,” ”Thunder on the Mountain,” and a triple encore, a fitting holy trinity of quintessential Dylan genius: “Like a Rolling Stone,” ”All Along the Watchtower,” and “Blowin’ in the Wind.”
I gotta give big props to the Never-Ending Band. To say they were tight doesn’t even begin to do them justice. This is not your mother’s sixties rock band. With a heavy emphasis on down-and-dirty blues, their sound is hard-driving, distilled, lean, and steely sublime. I love bass player, Tony Garnier, who is also from Minnesota, and the one musician who has played with Dylan the longest, ever (since 1989). Tony’s stand-up bass, in particular, is in a class by itself.
You know, it’s always fun trying to guess what song Dylan’s singing during the first few measures of each tune. Something new? No, I don’t think I know that one. I’ve learned not to worry, because you can’t recognize the songs you think you know anyway. Dylan is the purest “performance artist” I know. He is constantly recreating, reworking, reinterpreting his material. I think that’s why audiences are so fascinated by him, witnessing the process, never knowing the outcome.
Did I mention he even smiled a couple of times? *Melt*
To listen to the setlist and read comments about the show, click here.
For some concert stills and audio of “Gotta Serve Somebody,”
**Guess what?! I just found out about an Exhibition of Dylan’s paintings in Surrey, England, running through January 11, 2009. Don’t be silly! You can’t go all the way to England! But I’ve never seen his art in person before.
Oh, no, here we go again . . .
Stayed tuned for: a grand adventure, part two: full of wonder.
*Photo of the United Palace exterior by Daniel Schwen, posted according to Creative Commons 2.5 Attribution/ShareAlike License.
*Photos of United Palace interior from TheUnitedPalace.com.