Bob Dylan’s Never Ending Tour has evolved so gradually over the past 33 years that it’s hard to know where to place the dividing lines between distinct eras. But there’s no doubt that Tuesday show at Milwaukee’s Riverside Theater was the start of something very new, very different, and very bold.
It wasn’t just Dylan’s first gig in nearly two years, ending his longest absence from the road in four decades, but his first show since the release of 2020’s Rough and Rowdy Ways, his first gig since hiring two new band members, his first concert without guitarist Charlie Sexton since 2013, and his first live appearance since turning 80 earlier this year.
Anticipation for this night has been high for a long time, especially since Dylan never announces lineup chances in advance and nobody knew who would be in the band until the lights dim. Longtime bassist Tony Garnier, veteran pedal steel player Donnie Herron and guitarist Bob Britt, who joined the tour in 2019, walked onstage alongside new drummer Charley Drayton and new guitarist Doug Lancio.
“Things Have Changed” has been the standard show opener for the greater part of the past decade, but he ditched it in favor of a rollicking “Watching The River Flow.” Discounting the Shadow Kingdom virtual concert from July, this was the first time he’d played it since 2014. And it was an excellent showcase for Lancio, who has played with everyone from John Hiatt and Billy Joe Shaver to Nanci Griffith and Patty Griffin. This is the biggest gig of his life and filling Charlie Sexton’s shoes is a difficult task, but he’d obviously done considerable homework and nailed all the lead guitar parts with incredible precision.
Unlike Lancio, Drayton isn’t 100% new to the Dylan world since he played bass with him at a 1991 Legends of the Guitar show in Seville, Spain. An incredibly versatile drummer, he folded himself into the group flawlessly. Previous drummers George Receli and Matt Chamberlain are missed, but this was a very wise hire.
— MostlyDylan (@dylan_mostly) November 3, 2021
Dylan followed “Watching The River Flow” with the first “Most Likely You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine” since 2014, and it briefly seemed like this would be a Shadow Kingdom-esque journey through lesser-known corners of his Sixties and early Seventies catalog. But then he stepped to the center of the stage, grabbed a mic, and launched into “I Contain Multitudes.” His vocals were slightly garbled up to this point, but every word was crystal clear and largely remained that way the rest of the night.
“I Contain Multitudes” was one of eight Rough and Rowdy Ways songs in the show, meaning he played everything besides “Crossing the Rubicon” and the 17-minute historic epic “Murder Most Foul.” A move like that would be unthinkable for just about any other classic rock icon, but Dylan has always resisted the easy lure of nostalgia, and fans come to his show knowing they won’t be singing along to the hits.
“Black Rider,” “Mother of Muses,” “I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You” “False Prophet,” and “My Own Version of You” transferred seamlessly from the album to the stage, but the high point was “Key West (Philosopher Pirate),” which also happens to be the best song he’s written in at least the past decade. You could almost feel the ocean breeze and smell the Hibiscus flowers as he spun out the tale of an old timer that fled to the Florida island to escape his past and start a new life. Every second was magical, and it brought the audience to a stunned silence.
The centerpiece of the show was Rough and Rowdy Ways, but Dylan did occasionally dip into his back catalog. “Simple Twist of Fate” was similar to the versions from 2018 and 2019, complete with the tragic “You should have met me back in ’58/We could have avoided this little simple twist of fate” re-write, while “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” lost all hint of its country origins and swung with an almost bossa nova groove.
“Gotta Serve Somebody” was given a blues rock reworking, and a few new lyrics as well. “You might be on the highway or the coast,” he sang. “Maybe you’re hallucinating/You might think you’ve seen a ghost.” (I have no idea the last time he sang the “You may call me Terry, you may call me Timmy/You may call me/Bobby, you may call me Zimmy” verse, but it’s deeply missed.)
Dylan spent most of the night behind the piano, but he sometimes popped out to the center stage mic for the opening verse of a song before scurrying back to the safety of the instrument. White papers sat on the top of the piano and he leafed through them during many of the songs, presumably because he doesn’t have all the new lyrics memorized yet. (A tiny teleprompter would solve this problem, but Dylan is delightfully old school.)
The main set ended with a gleeful “Goodbye Jimmy Reed.” Dylan and the band then took a bow, walked offstage, and walked back on so Dylan could introduce the musicians and make a rare address to the crowd. “We wanna play this whole show tonight for Les Paul,” Dylan said. “Les Paul, we know he was from here and we wanna honor him tonight with this show.”
The group eventually came back and kicked into a haunting “Love Sick,” the only acknowledgement of the night that the incredibly fruitful recording period of 1979 to 2012 did indeed take place.
The obvious move after an evening focused entirely on new songs and obscure past works would be to play one giant hit like “Blowin’ In The Wind” or “Like a Rolling Stone” to send the casual fans home happy. And Dylan did go back to his folk rock days for the finale, but he opted for “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry.” From the very beginning to the very end, this was a show for the Dylan faithful.
The posters for sale in the lobby called this the Rough and Rowdy Ways Tour and they say it will last through 2024. It’s a recognition that we are indeed entering a whole new era of the tour, and an acknowledgment that retirement or any sort of cheesy farewell tour is the last thing on his mind. Judging by opening night in Milwaukee, he feels like he’s just getting started.
Bob Dylan – Milwaukee’s Riverside Theatre
1. Watching The River Flow
2. Most Likely You Go Your Way (and I’ll Go Mine)
3. I Contain Multitudes
4. False Prophet
5. Simple Twist Of Fate
6. My Own Version Of You
7. I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight
8. Black Rider
9. Melancholy Mood
10. Mother Of Muses
11. Gotta Serve Somebody
12. Key West (Philosopher Pirate)
13. Early Roman Kings
14. Soon After Midnight
15. I’ve Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You
16. Goodbye Jimmy Reed
17. Love Sick
18. It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry