Dylan Delights the Garden State

On the heels of yet another erratic new album, Dylan puts on a brilliant and revelatory show

Bob Dylan
Rob Verhorst/Redferns
Bob Dylan
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Bob Dylan
The Garden State Arts Center
Holmdel, New Jersey
June 24th, 1988

Let this much be said for Bob Dylan: Despite all the opportunities that he's given the world over the years, the old guy can never be counted out. Here he is, a middle-aged living legend out on the road with a group of relatively unknown musicians for a surprisingly underhyped tour in support of yet another frustratingly erratic new album, and what does the guy do? He goes and puts on a show that's every bit as brilliant and revelatory as one could hope for and, in his case, expect.

Perhaps because Dylan doesn't have a name band — like Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers or the Grateful Dead — to fall back on this time around, he seems more engaged and engaging than he has in ages. While recent tours have seen Dylan often lazily talk-singing in an annoyingly mannered mumble, he's now gone back to the expert phrasing and idiosyncratic vocal wit that marked his glory days. And in guitarist G.E. Smith, bassist Kenny Aaronson and drummer Christopher Parker, Dylan has found a versatile, sympathetic band that's equally capable of playing it either thrashy or subtle.

By keeping the show visually and musically stripped down, Dylan has smartly put the emphasis where it clearly belongs — on his incomparable songs. And though the show was an unconscionably abbreviated seventy-three minutes, the song selection was nearly flawless.

After opening with a riveting version of "Subterranean Homesick Blues," which saw Dylan and Smith trading off inspired Clash-like riffs, the band gracefully switched gears into a ballsy and Byrdsy rendition of "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue." From there, it was a venomous "Masters of War," a delicate "Simple Twist of Fate," a tight "Driftin' Too Far from Shore" (from Knocked Out Loaded) and an impassioned "You're a Big Girl Now."

As fine as this current band is, the highlight of the show came when Parker and Aaronson left the stage and Dylan and Smith offered exquisite acoustic renditions of "Banks of the Pontchartrain," "Boots of Spanish Leather" and "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall."

The all-too-brief acoustic segment further proved that Smith (best known for his work in the Saturday Night Live band, with Hall and Oates and, most recently, with Mick Jagger) is more than just a skilled hired gun. Smith was ably supported by some inspired rhythm-guitar work and even the occasional lead from Dylan himself.

Aaronson and Parker then returned, and the mood and sound turned electric. "Silvio" (which was one of the evening's two post-Blood on the Tracks offerings, the other being "Driftin' Too Far from Shore") was played more up-tempo than the version on the new Down in the Groove album. Aaronson — who recently toured with Billy Idol — was particularly inspired on this number, teaming with Parker to give the song a particularly punchy rhythm base. After closing the set with "I Shall Be Released" and a stately rendition of "Like a Rolling Stone," Dylan and Smith returned with an acoustic encore of "The Times They Are A-Changin'," successfully breathing new life into that warhorse. Finally, the rest of the band rejoined to end the evening with a wonderfully pissed-off take on "Maggie's Farm."

This was an extraordinary no-frills rock & roll show. The only thing one could ask for would be literally more of it — after all, it's not like Dylan could ever run out of great songs to play. In "Silvio" he sings, "One of these days/And it won't be long/Going down to the valley/And sing my song/Gonna sing it loud/Sing it strong/Let the echo decide/If I was right or wrong." On a night like this, there was no question what the echo would say.

This is a story from the August 11, 1988 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 532: August 11, 1988