Elli, Bernett and I were safely on the E train, under Manhattan, under the river, under Brooklyn and Queens, while it poured. When we got out at Forest Hills, though, the whole world was wet, and colorful clouds boded no good for an outdoor concert. All along Burns Street, past the Tudor (or perhaps mock-Tudor) style apartments and the venerable West Side Tennis Club, we picked our way through sandal-unfriendly puddles. However, before the entrance to Forest Hills Stadium, employees in yellow shirts were enforcing a “No Umbrellas” rule. It made for a pleasant arcade to walk through, all the umbrellas hung from the fence, on trees, on any stationary object that permitted. No one should have worried. The skies themselves will always calm at the voice of Miss Mavis Staples.
Staples, on the eve of her birthday, and her powerhouse band opened the show at the early hour of just-past-seven. The seats were soaking, as were the ushers’ wipe-cloths; I used my sleeves, instead of the seat of my flimsy white cotton skirt, to squeegee before sitting. But you wanted to dance, and sway, to Staples anyway. In rich, fine voice, with cheerful chatter for the crowd and praise for her bandmates, Mavis was a joy. Vicki Randle’s singing, and energy, palpably added to Staples’ own, and Rick Holmstrom, Staples’ bandleader, is one of the best guitarists you can hear these days. When Staples instructed us to sing “just four little words” we knew what was coming. An epic group performance of “I’ll Take You There” closed her set while it was still daylight, or at least barely twilight.
Mavis Staples, taking us there at the White House
The break was long, as Dylan’s stealth-simple stage was set up. It might look spare, but the lights are sophisticated and the piano and accompanying instruments and iconography longtime fans look for — bust of Poesy, Oscar, beads, perfectly arranged harmonicas — take time and care. Elli hurried out for a crêpe (outstanding food, Forest Hills — thank you), while Bernett and I crowdwatched le tout New York of a certain-sure age. As has been the case since I went to my first Dylan show, back in the summer of 1988, I was happy to see how many teenagers and twenty-somethings were there. Folks who remember Bob from the last time he had played Forest Hills, a quite celebrated moment, were out in force, but the generation of which Dylan has often been said to be “the voice” doesn’t even begin to own him. Live in concert, you can see the truth of that both in the audience and in Dylan’s set list.
He released a new record, Fallen Angels, in May of this year — and in some ways this current tour has been in support of that record. Pretty traditional, right, for a performer to do this when they have a new album? Right. Happily, no one — even the diehard ’60s-Dylan T-shirt wearers — griped audibly when Dylan and his band accordingly played many songs from Fallen Angels. You could hear him well on these songs, particularly on “All Or Nothing At All” and “Autumn Leaves.” When he held those long last notes and then let them go, there was a rippling, increasing cheer from the crowd: Dylan was singing! Really singing! And it was good. May this, ahem, epiphany continue for his fans; it oughtn’t be news that Dylan has been singing for a long, long time. And those old standards are not “Sinatra songs,” now, from the stage; they’re Dylan songs.
As a songwriter, Dylan is, quite simply, the best on the planet. At Forest Hills, he covered the sweep of his own writing over the half century since he last played the venue, and more: a wheeling, lovely “She Belongs To Me”; an A+ nasty-good “Pay In Blood.” Long intros to some of the songs, from Stu Kimball’s solo on “The Foggy Dew” at the start of the show to the wistful lead-in for “Melancholy Mood,” set a pleasant pace. From the first, Dylan was energetic and seemed glad to be there. He danced through “Things Have Changed,” threw a sassy left hand on his hip for much of a sharp, excellent “Tangled Up In Blue,” and at the end of several songs spread his hands wide in a ta-da showman’s move: How do ya like that one? Yeah, you liked it. When he said “Well, thank ya, friends,” at the break after “Autumn Leaves,” it sounded like he meant it.
Bob Dylan and his band, “Tangled Up In Blue,” Forest Hills, 2016, while it lasts
Standing out in my memory already are that winding, hurdy-gurdy, shifting-worded “Tangled Up In Blue” — one of the best I’ve heard — Charlie Sexton and Donnie Herron’s wonderful playing on “Scarlet Town”; a tumbling “Long And Wasted Years”; and “Why Try To Change Me Now?” This last could be a signature song for Dylan, except he’s too multitudinous for such a thing: Why try to change him, indeed? He changes as he sees fit, and woe betide you if you want to pigeonhole him, or change him yourself. The crowd sighed comfortably as the band began, in what many thought was the last song, “Blowin’ In The Wind” (1962), a song he has performed, according to BobDylan.com, 1383 times to date. Instead, Dylan chose to end with “Love Sick” (1997). “Blowin’ In The Wind” got the most passionate response of the night, though. As Dylan, his hands on the keyboard, sang “Yes, ‘n’ how many deaths will it take till he knows / That too many people have died?” a murmur of sorrow that became shouts of “no more” and a loud, rolling cheer and applause bled into his final “The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind / The answer is blowin’ in the wind.” You think he’s over the hill? Past his prime? Oh, think again.
Bob Dylan and Mavis Staples are in concert on the East Coast this week as follows: Tonight, in Canandaigua, New York; tomorrow, at the Mann Music Center in Philadelphia; July 14th in Boston; July 16th in Portland, Maine; and July 17th in Gilford, New Hampshire.