This was the concert where I sat front row centre (see other Dylan post). I found this picture on the internet so there's a good chance that the back of my head is among those at the front. This is my review from Melody Maker, dated February 9, one of the longest concert reviews I ever wrote. It was the first (and best) time I ever saw Bob Dylan
THEY CHEERED and clapped and waved for 15 minutes even though the house lights were up and 'Greensleeves' was playing through the PA system and Bob Dylan had already played a couple of numbers for encores.
Bill Graham, at the rear of the stage, looked perplexed and wondered when in hell the 20,000 Madison Square Garden crowd was ever going to leave.
Then Dylan returned, on his own and looking slightly sheepish. He'd discarded his black suit and was wearing a blue sweater with a white Maple Leaf on the front which indicated that the wearer was a supporter of a Canadian football team.
The cheering reached greater heights as Dylan walked to the microphone and looked as if he wanted to say something. Then he changed his mind and walked across the stage, smiling and holding his arms aloft like a prizefighter who's just knocked out Cassius Clay.
Then he went back up to the mike and said somewhat briskly, “Thank You. See you next year.”
Then everyone knew it was over.
Bob Dylan's return to New York last week will doubtless be the highlight of his current 21 city tour of America. He played four concerts at the Garden, selling out each one. There were two concerts last Wednesday and two concerts on Thursday.
It would have been fitting, I think, if the tour had closed in New York but instead it closes at the Los Angeles Forum on February 14.
I attended the Thursday afternoon concert and was lucky enough to witness the first time that Dylan had actually walked back on to the stage after the encore to thank the audience. My luck, however, extended even further than that; I was sitting in the front row of the 20,000 seat stadium within ten feet of Bob Dylan.
A friend – an Irishman had obtained four tickets on the front row by mail order. The luck of the Irish is not just a proverb.
It was section A, row 1, seat 8 which is slightly to right of the centre of the stage which also happens to be where Bob Dylan stands during the performance and at the close of the show I was pressed hard up against the stage in the throng who joined Dylan in the chorus to ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’. I was also asked by a member of the road crew to stop taking photographs: the practice was annoying the performer.
Dylan ignored the huge ovation that greeted his arrival on the stage. Dressed in a black jacket and waistcoat, black suede trousers, check shirt with brown boots, he strapped on a sunburst Fender Stratocaster and went straight into his opening song ‘You Go Your Way And I’ll Go Mine’ which has been the regular opener on the tour.
The audience were still cheering his actual presence as the first chords were heard.
To his right was Robbie Robertson, looking younger without his beard and glasses, dressed also in a black suit and picking on a red Strat. To his right was Rick Danko in check jacket and white trousers plucking on a fretless bass. Richard Manuel's grand piano was even further right, next to a battered old couch and at the rear of it all was Garth Hudson's swirling organ and Levon Helm at a drum kit small by today’s rock excess standards.
Other furniture littered the stage: there was a hat stand to Dylan's left and a fake unlit lamp hanging to his rear. All the action took place on a red carpet over which a couple of roadies made hesitant sorties to straighten mikes, adjust controls and provide different instruments when required.
Dylan's next song was ‘Lay Lady Lay’, a different version from that on Nashville Skyline. Gone was the country flavour and in its place a jerky, almost rhythm and blues tempo over which the singer stretched out the syllables in all their sensuality. Dylan was stabbing at chords, playing an unheard rhythm guitar which appeared slightly hesitant, but his voice was perfect.
‘Rainy Day Woman 12 And 35’ was greeted with a standing ovation and Dylan allowed himself his first smile of the evening as the crowd responded to the chorus each time it came around. Then it was ‘It Ain’t Me Babe’, the second different arrangement he played.
Before the song Dylan, Robertson and Danko huddled together around Helm’s kit for a quick conference. The variation of the opening chords was such that the audience didn’t recognise the song until the opening line; this time it was a simple rock beat instead of the folksy version on record.
‘Ballad Of A Thin Man’, with Dylan at the piano, followed, before he left the stage for the Band to play four numbers without him. Up to this point no-one from the stage had spoken to the audience. They played ‘Stagefright’ which seemed particularly apt in the circumstances, and Danko's vocals were clear enough for all to understand the implications of the song. Next it was ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’ with a tremendous flow on the chorus line, ‘King Harvest’ and the jaunty ‘Up On Cripple Creek’ which seemed to satisfy a voice to my rear that had been requesting this song for 20 minutes.
The Band was on top form, and while it was obvious that it was Dylan's show, Robbie Robertson came close to stealing the limelight. His guitar runs were a joy, effortlessly played and perfectly executed time and time again.
Dylan returned for ‘All Along The Watchtower’, playing electric guitar again, then ‘The Ballad Of Hollis Brown’ taken at an easy volume so the lyrics (he remembered them all) were heard before the first half closed with ‘Knocking On Heaven's Door’.
“Back in ten minutes,” said Dylan as he and the band unstrapped their guitars and prepared to move off. It was the first time he'd spoken to the crowd.
The opening of the second half was probably the crux of the whole show; Dylan alone with acoustic Martin and harmonica strapped around his neck. He re-appeared to another standing ovation, had a quick word with one of the road crew, sipped from a paper cup and went straight into ‘The Times They Are A Changin’’. It was after this song that the roadie came down to ask me to stop taking pictures.
Without hesitation Dylan went quickly through his acoustic set, playing next ‘It Ain’t Me Babe’, then ‘Don’t Think Twice’, ‘Gates Of Eden’, ‘Just Like A Woman’ and ending on ‘It’s All Right Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)’ which – in the light of Richard Nixon’s fall – contains the unusually appropriate words “even the President of the United States must have to stand naked”. At every concert on the tour this line brought a standing ovation. The Garden was no exception and Dylan, predicting the reaction, grinned ruefully.
This last song, in fact, was undoubtedly the highlight of this segment of the show, taken at a frantic pace and demonstrating what a powerful performer Dylan can be and it struck me then and there that in an era where singer songwriters seems to emerge almost daily, Dylan was the first, setting the pattern for them all and that on this tour he demonstrates an incredible superiority over the rank and file in both material and delivery. Any sceptics who predicted Dylan's era was over were mistaken; here in the seventies, eight years after many of these songs were written, Dylan is still as important as ever in setting standards which others must look towards.
The acoustic set completed to another standing ovation, Dylan raised his arms in the now typical gesture of the winning sportsman, one arm holding the Martin and the other with a clenched fist that reflected strength now blended with maturity.
The Band re-appeared for four more songs – ‘Rag Mama Rag’ (superb), ‘Wheels On Fire’, ‘The Shape I’m In’ and ‘The Weight’ all of which were played with clinical perfection.
Dylan re-appeared with electric guitar to play the only new song of the evening, ‘Forever Young’, with its opening line that sounds rather like the blessing at the end of a church service. Then it was all down to rock and roll and ‘Highway 61’, another taken at a furious pace.
‘Like A Rolling Stone’ closed the act proper and by now Dylan was beaming with delight. The house lights were raised, an invitation for all to rush to the front and I was caught up in the melee of delighted faces who swayed with the music and joined the singer on his choruses. A girl behind me was screaming for her idol, a youth to my right lit a roll-your-own and tried to offer it to Dylan and a man to my left produced a box of photographs of Dylan and tried to show him them.
But Dylan remained calm and sang on, glancing up occasionally at the swaying arms, then down again to concentrate on the chords he was playing. Occasionally he allowed himself a grin, and even visibly laughed at us all during one break. By the end of the song his face was beaming and as he left the stage, his arms were again raised like a footballer who's scored in the last minute of an important match.
Five minutes later he re-appeared and sang ‘Maggie's Farm’ closely followed by ‘Blowing In The Wind’, another song which invited full audience participation. He re-appeared with mirror sunglasses and from where I was standing the reflection of the audience could clearly be seen in his eyes. It was the reflection of gratitude for the music Bob Dylan has shared with the world, of gratitude for his decision to re-appear from seclusion and of gratitude to an artist who had just put on the best concert New York is likely to get this year or next.
“Thanks. Me and The Band enjoyed it,” he said before leaving. Fifteen minutes later we were still there and he came back to thank us again. See him next year? I damn well hope so.