“Bobby” & Mavis Are Still At It
By the time I reached the Filene Center in Wolf Trap National Park to see Bob Dylan and Mavis Staples, I came upon a blackboard which posed the question: “What songs are you excited to hear?” I already had one. All day I had been reimagining the duo’s “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking,” a take-off of the radio skit originally done by Jimmie Rodgers and A.P. Carter when they bantered back and forth about catching a chicken to serve up for dinner for the Carter Family.
“I like to hear Bobby sing,” Mavis Staples said early in her set of the man who once proposed marriage. “But I also like to watch him walk. He’s got a great strut.”
Staples then reported on what “Bobby” said back to her: “Oh Mavis, cut it out!”
It would be the closest we’d get to banter between the two who went their own ways and largely stuck to their regular set lists.
For the second night, Staples expressed confusion where she was and campily cast herself victim of the “trapped wolf.” But just two songs in, she issued and repeated a communal plea. “Somebody help me,” she pleaded and repeated that was like a roar from deep within. The certitude of repeated affirmations are the singer’s bedrock. Having grown up in the church, she continues to impart familial lessons of being part of the great Staples Singers. In a sizzling version of the Talking Heads “Slippery People,” she led a kind of call and response with her three accompanying singers. In the night’s most personal song “Do What You Can,” Staples summarized a lifetime of wisdom on love and relationships in the conviction of singing just a few lines.
“Take Us Back,” (the night’s opener and first song on her album Livin’ On a High Note) and close with “I’ll Take You There,” were like bookends to a storied life and career. But most poignant was the song her father Pops Staples wrote for the march from Montgomery to Selma called “Freedom Highway.” Against the backdrop of the nation’s capital in a divisive election year, it had a resonance that transcended time.
“I was there and I’m still here,” she declared at the end as the self-described “soldier” but who is still preaching and singing the gospel of love. “I ain’t tired yet.”
If Staples anchored herself in a defining era, Dylan did almost everything he could to distance himself from it. In his two sets, he only played one song from the Sixties, “She Belongs To Me” and later in the encores, a professorial rendition of “Blowin’ In The Wind.”
In a largely incongruous two sets and 20 songs, the eternally enigmatic and mercurial singer gave not so much a retrospective as much as he time hopped back and forth between centuries. The bulk of the show drew from early 20th century standards on his two most recent two records Shadows In The Night and Fallen Angels and albums of the last twenty years.
Dylan began the night mangling his way through “Things Have Changed” with almost illegible diction. But his vocals were increasingly sharp and lucid through the night and I didn’t see signs of a teleprompter. He used his grizzled tonality to set the intrigue of “Scarlet Town.” “High Water (For Charley Patton),” which was anchored by Donnie Heron’s tantalizing banjo riff and the propulsive rhythm section of drummer George Recile and bassist Tony Garnier. In the blistering stomp of “Early Roman Kings,” it was like listening to a Muddy Waters cover band. It was impossible not to smile with Dylan’s exaggerated delivery and deliciously nonsensical wordsmithing in “Long and Wasted Years”: “Shake it up baby, twist and shout/You know what it’s all about/What are you doing out there in the sun anyway/Don’t you know, the sun can burn your brains right out.”
It may have felt a little unsettling with the large amount of standards that totaled seven songs. But if Dylan is seemingly infatuated in casting himself as a bearer of torch songs, he masterfully turned the amphitheater into the intimiate set of a small nightclub. It was a real thrill to hear his masterful phrasing as he coddled the mic and crooned at center stage through “The Night We Called It a Day” against Heron’s gorgeous steel melody. During “Melancholy Mood,” Dylan sang the words “all I see is grief and pain” in an almost spoken recitation against the backdrop of street lamps on the stage set.
His ever adaptive band, anchored by with Ganier and Recile, provided the subtle rhythmic nuances that transported us back in time and place. It was was imaginable to see Dylan like a song and dance man in an old vaudeville age. Dylan lightly rocked from side to side as the band played. Several times he ran his finger down his nose and then touched the right of his neck. The tell was in as he flattened his hands both hands left and right to signal the song’s end.
His indifference to pacing manifested itself during the last song of the first set “Tangled Up In Blue.” It seemed like the audience was missing in action picking out this muted and detached arrangement. Only by the time that he reached the first chorus did people recognize one of his most popular songs (and sole “hit” if you were counting.) Dylan skipped some verses and made up new lines for others as if he was singing about a character other than himself. Dylan underscored how much time had passed when he got to the line about all the people he used to know: “Some are mathematicians…..some just dead in the ground.”
Shifting on occasion to piano, Dylan’s plodded along But it couldn’t undercut the mystique of watching him move from side to side and his eyes peering out under the brim of his hat. Nor could his rudimentary playing undercut the tightness and mastery of guitarists Stu Kimball and Charlie Sexton. Heron may have been the most valuable player switching from lap and pedal steel to banjo and electric mandolin.
Before the show, a friend sarcastically texted me saying he could send me the set list, lamenting the loss of long standing tradition of switching songs from night to night. The noble crowdsourcing of the chalkboard notwithstanding, Dylan played the exact same set he’d been doing on successive nights of this tour (and would repeat later).
Looking up to the ascending and grassy hill, I had flashbacks imagining Newport some fifty plus years ago the night Dylan went electric. This summer is it too nostalgic to wish he’d strap on a Fender once more? The word in my row was there’s arthritis to deal with. As much as we try and disavow time’s passing, eventually it always finds a way to catch up with us all.