The enduring magic of Bob Dylan

Music in Muscatine

By Rod Peck

Hello to all Muscatinian music fans, this is what will hopefully be the first of my weekly music columns for the Voice of Muscatine. I’m a 54-year-old music-nerd who has lived in Muscatine for 10 years. When I was two, for Christmas my parents had two record albums under the tree for me, along with some toys. According to my mom, I went right for the albums, then to the record player, and it was two days later before they could get me to open the toys!

It’s only fitting that the first of these will be about my wife, Terri, and I going to Ames to see Bob Dylan, as he is a personal hero to both of us. Dylan, 78 years old now and the only American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in the last quarter-century, keeps an annual tour schedule that would exhaust many musicians 50 years younger than he, but Terri and I had not been to pay our respects since 2015.

Our excitement mounted as the day of the show drew near and we read reports that Dylan was rocking harder and singing better than he had in some time. A note on Dylan’s singing, which admittedly was never everyone’s cup of tea, although he ranks 7th on Rolling Stone’s list of 100 greatest singers. One consequence of all this touring is that his voice (which Don McLean called “the voice that came from you and me”) has deteriorated physically over the last 40 years and goes through some periods where it’s better than others.

Terri and I had plans to meet two of our ‘Dylanologist’ friends in Iowa City, then drive to Ames together and connect for the first time in person with another Dylan fan who we only knew from the internet. We had dinner reservations for 5 at Dublin Bay Irish Pub, only a few blocks from ISU’s Stephens Auditorium. These social occasions are nearly as much fun as the concert itself, providing the opportunity to share some camaraderie and good food with other people who share a common passion.

Stephens Auditorium itself is a nice-but-plain concert venue with excellent acoustics that I was seeing for the first time. Inside we met up with some other Dylan-fan friends, and made it to our seats with 10 minutes to spare. It’s hard to say if having information about the current Dylan show beforehand is a bonus or a drawback, but we already knew Dylan was playing some guitar on this tour (since 2002 he has mostly played keyboards, much to many fan’s chagrin). Still, it was exciting when Dylan came out center-stage, guitar in hand, for “Beyond Here Lies Nothing” from his 2009 album “Together Through Life” which was co-written with the recently-departed Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter. Naturally, Dylan didn’t say so, but this could easily be seen as a tribute for an old friend.

While Terri and I hadn’t attended a Dylan show in some time, thanks to the magic of the internet, we had certainly listened to audience recordings of his shows in the last few years which were under-whelming (Terri described one performance we listened to as “plodding”) and one of the reasons we had stayed away. At any time, it seems that you might hear people saying “Dylan’s better than he’s been in years” but this time that cliché did seem to ring true. The band was tight and crisp; Dylan’s voice, though still raspy, was strong and clear. Dylan had a piano set up just to his left, and moved easily between the keys and guitar throughout the evening, punctuating several songs with blasts of harmonica. One highlight was early in the set, after a rollicking “Highway 61” on which he played piano, Dylan went right into a delicate “Simple Twist of Fate” which concluded with him getting up from the bench and going center-stage for a harmonica solo.

Another key aspect of this concert which pleased hard-core Dylan fans was the set list featured songs from every era of his career as well as some deep cuts. Dylan will at times slip into “greatest hits” or “all-60’s” mode and so this variety was welcomed. He sang five of his ‘60’s classics, three from the ‘70’s, one from the ‘80’s, four from the ‘90’s, and three each from the ‘00’s and ‘10’s. Particularly pleasing for me were the four numbers from 1997’s Grammy-winning “Time Out Of Mind” which is my personal favorite. Another highlight was for the first encore Dylan came front and center, no guitar, harmonica in hand, for the song that exemplifies the 1960’s as much as any, “Ballad of a Thin Man.” Definitely among Dylan’s greatest songs, and one of the many that leaves you thinking “what was that all about?” Something’s happening, and we may not know exactly what it is, but we sure enjoyed it, Bob!

Next week: Rhiannon Giddens, who in my opinion is currently the top artist in the Americana field and the greatest singer of today’s generation, at Iowa City’s Englert Theatre on Wednesday, Oct. 30.