Fall 2009 - Snakes and Charmers, Bobs and Doll(y)s - Chicago, Aragon Ballroom, October 30 & 31, 2009 (by Caroline)

Girlofthenorcalcountry's picture

I was excited to head back to this joint where I had fond memories of Bob from 2004. Not that the day I saw Bob at the Aragon five years ago was without its trials. Some time that morning is when we learned that our friend Todd, who we’d expected to see camped out near the front of the line or at least lurking in the area, had died. I still miss his sense of humor and his All Asses passes. The March wind stung and left us all with bright red cheeks by the time we were let in. And once we were inside we waited…and waited…and waited, until an hour beyond “show time” before Bob and His Band would take the stage (which incidentally, is 6 and a half feet tall) – ah I remember the agony caused by that wait to this day!

But despite various adversities, that show in ‘04, which kicked off an amazing run of four consecutive Chicago nights all at different and progressively smaller venues, had been a fiery one. Bob had come to the edge of the tall stage that night and sang It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue, just standing there with a mic and harmonica – before he was doing that regularly. Chicago Bob had shown me a good time then; I was ready for another good time now! Neither a foot of snow in Denver nor rain of biblical proportions when we reached Chicago were going to interfere with that. If anything, the Denver storm actually got the party started earlier, since we were so paranoid about the weather conditions that we got to the airport with more than two hours to spare so had no choice but to get things going at the Rock Bottom Brewery, conveniently located adjacent to our gate. Pre-flight beer and shots!

I feel like I did pretty much nothing but smile and laugh from that point on, for the whole trip. Well, with the possible exception of driving our rental car from the airport to the motel in those sheets of rain (even then at least we had the Grateful Dead channel). But after that, from our rather odd check-in experience and then walking into the Irish bar across the street with everyone cheering for us, right up to the very end, I was just so happy to be there for two nights of Bob with my favorite people. I’ve rarely felt so relaxed at shows. We didn’t stress about line at all, but instead took our time to stay up late, sleep in and enjoy some great Chicago diner breakfasts, so it was all just very mellow and we had lots of time to relax and visit and catch up. I had the pleasure of meeting some great folks in the line, several of whom made comments about not only knowing but loving the Fan Club site, which is always very heartening to hear. I got acquainted with at least one person whose on-line presence I have known for quite some time but hadn’t heretofore met in person. And of course, Bob shows with my charming boyfriend are each one a momentously special occasion, and to have two in a row was just awesome. I was also way psyched that even though David and I were flying through the air while Bob was playing his Thursday night show, we checked as soon as the plane landed and the set list revealed none of the songs that I was really keepin’ my fingers crossed for. Whew!

Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat has a bluesy Chicago swing to open the show. Man in Me is a great one in the second slot. Bob’s center stage and Donnie’s on trumpet. Bob cracks me up the way he’s singing this. It take-a woman like-a YOU, and he goes way up high every time, like someone’s pinching him from behind. The trumpet adds a mellow swinging feel to the song, almost like a ‘70’s easy listening vibe but in a cool way, and it goes out on a nice harmonica/trumpet instrumental. Bob stays center stage for an early-in-the-set High Water. The harmonica is really featured in this arrangement, with Bob taking short solos that are along the lines of what I can imagine being filled in by guitar on other versions. All in all it’s mellower than many of the other versions, but the featured harp does a good job of building the tension of the song and focusing the intensity.

Sugar Baby is a nice rendition with Bob center stage and some tender harmonica.
There’s some wacky organ on Rollin’ and Tumblin’ with Bob cruising up and down the keyboard in a fluid sort of way but also sounding a little psycho. Yes, Bob is really jamming out. You get the impression he’s really enjoying this one. Charlie does some nice little twisted notes in there too and George just explodes it continually.

Every Grain of Sand is a welcome first for the tour. Bob’s on the keyboard for it; I’m only a bit sad that he doesn’t include a harmonica solo because with how he’s blowing harp on other songs tonight I think it’d be great here. In place of where there might be harmonica there’s an organ intro and middle part. Always a little different. Both this and Sugar Baby are songs that I am always happy to hear. The performances of both tonight, while by no means lacking in any serious way, don’t lift to extraordinary heights. But they are still very pleasurable to hear. Cold Irons is its usual heavy anchor in the show’s middle. Bob’s on killer harp, really belting it out.

Spirit on the Water enjoys a playful delivery by Bob, sounding like nothing to me more than a series of one-liners. And maybe this doesn’t escape him, because a couple times he starts laughing right when he’s singing. I like it when Bob cracks himself up! From this, Honest with Me charges out the gates, and Bob’s back center stage, liking it there tonight, I guess. He sings it with gusto, really hamming it up. My woman’s got a face – like what? – like a teddy bear! Powerful instrumental part with everyone playing their hardest, this one really rocks.

Po’ Boy was called up by Kait ordering the Po’ Boy Skillet at the diner for breakfast, haha, and I’m happy that’s the case. I’ve heard versions of this that seem a little disjointed or something, but this one is very melodic and pretty. Stu anchors it nicely on acoustic guitar; Charlie’s playing is sparse and tasteful. Everyone shares the musical space on this one extremely well. Bob speaks the words over the music like the story teller he is – the spoken word delivery has a nice effect over the musical background of the acoustic, electric, and pedal steel guitars all weaving in and out together. I think this is my favorite version of this song I’ve heard. It sounds more musically complex somehow than others.

For Highway 61 we get back to Bob in joker mode. Even in the first couple of lines he lets loose a big guffaw, looking over at Donnie as he often does when he laughs. From the second verse he gets into one of his syncopated singing patterns, where he’ll draw one word out, then rush the next few, in complex and highly amusing combinations: My complexion she saaaaaaaaaaaaaaid is much too white…yeah you’re riiiiiiiiiiiiiight, lemme tell the second mooooooooooooooooootther this is being doooooooooooooooonne. And so on. Put some bleeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeachers out in the sun! Have it on Hiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiighway 61! I’m not sure if he’s laughing entirely at himself or in part at our little core of jumping, fisting crazy people in the first couple of rows, but whatever it is he can barely get the words out a couple of times.

Bob takes his time with Nettie Moore, with careful singing throughout, a very pretty version. Stu does some very nice acoustic playing on it, providing rich background texture for the song. George is who I notice most on much of Thunder on the Mountain; I hear him figuring out new beats and syncopations in this song they play every night. Ballad of a Thin Man whips the crowd up. Charlie is doing all sorts of weird, sinister sounds behind Bob’s lyrical growling. Bob gets his whole body into several harmonica solo as the band churns and crescendos behind him.

When Bob and the band are taking their due applause at the show’s end, he’s looking right at our crew and I can’t help myself, I blow him a kiss out of sheer joy of being there. Then, I shit you not, we make eye contact at that second and he lifts his hand rather subtly to his own lips and waves it off in my direction! J It feels like a sweetly spontaneous gesture of mutual appreciation and it makes me crazy happy.

The Halloweenie fun starts early as we all decide to don our costumed glory early in the day, rather than wait to change shortly before the show. Why wait to be weird? In our crew we have a snake, a naughty snake charmer, Dolly Parton and Modern Bob. I think Romy’s dressed as a gypsy, although with her exotic beauty and style she kind of always looks that way, so I’m not sure. I think we all look great, and being in costume adds an extra element of giggly excitement to the day. It definitely passes the time in line – which is a tad chilly in my snaky, leg-bearing get-up – to have the built in amusement of Mr. Jinx charming his snake for us all. It takes courage (dare I say, it takes someone with balls?) to flaunt that costume and he definitely rises to the occasion, so to speak. As we wait in line, final touches are applied to costumes, like the red ribbons Dolly sews down the sides of Bob’s pant legs (just like, as the real Bob talks about in Chronicles, Vol. 1, his cousin used to do for him to make him look flashy), and the applications and touch ups of Bob’s pencil-thin mustache and Dolly’s famous mole.

It’s another extremely well executed line-up and entry by our friends at Jam, and we all get in and assemble in very similar fashion as the night before, even little bit better situated. I again opt for the second row, and with the additional 3 inch lift from my boot heels helping to counter that high stage, I can tell I’m gonna have a great view of Bob. I have an electric feeling about this show. The trip has been so fun so far, and I can only imagine this being the topper to it all. I think Bob’s gonna be feelin’ festive and come out with pistols a-poppin’!

The spooky sounding music that now gets played as the lights drop and Bob and Band take the stage sounds fitting for this Halloween night. I can tell from the first warm up notes that we are charging out of the gates on this one with the opener I came here craving. A crash of George’s drum beats and we’re off into a smoking Gonna Change My Way of Thinking. The band is authoritative and Bob sounds fierce. He’s doing a cool singing pattern on some lines were he drops down into his lowest register at the end of the line, like when he says, steppin’ on the monkey’s baaaaack (if I could write that with the letters sinking way down till they’re falling off the page, that would better show you what I mean). Charlie takes a couple short, gritty solos in between verses right off the bat. Bob sings, “Well I’m all dressed up” and it cracks me up because I look around and… well, we are all dressed up! Going to the country daaaance. All in all, seeing this song performed live is better than I’d even anticipated.

Lay Lady Lay gets Bob on guitar for the first of two times tonight. We’re eating our cake and having it too. Donny toots his horn before they launch into Beyond Here Lies Nothin’, announcing it like Reveille. It occurs to me as we enjoy this blazing version of the song that one thing very interesting about seeing Bob on this tour is that how he performs some songs differently from one night to the next, as far as his role in it is concerned. I’ve seen this number performed center stage with harp, behind the keys with or without harp, or half at the keys and then half roaming center stage. Tonight it’s Bob at the keyboard with Charlie adding all the flair, no harp. And Charlie is ON it, with his signature licks winding in and out of Donny’s trumpet lines. There are several really nice interplays between those two, and Bob seems to be grooving on it as much as the audience. One of my favorite live versions of this song to date.

Next we go on a carousel ride with To Ramona. It’s all swirling organ capped off with swirling harmonica and I feel like we’re being swept up in it and round and round. I feel like we should start Aragon Ballroom dancing. The next song they plunge headlong into and I’m kinda catching my breath as Bob declares, “Talk about me, babe, if you must!” and what do ya know, It’s All Good! And…it’s fucking over-the-top good! The crowd goes appropriately nuts. It’s a debut, so it doesn’t have to be perfect, but it’s better than perfect. Bob’s playful as he does a little call and response with himself: “You know what they say? What? They say it’s all good!” Then he’s all Muddy Waters with his “Weeeeeeeell” and a guttural “Aaaaaawww” straight outta something you would hear Muddy do on Maaaannish Boy. But it’s just 100% old black Bob. This is a song Bob’s voice could be cracking all over the place on, because he’s really belting it out, yet he’s totally controlled and ever so fierce. Charlie is playing crazy shit throughout, the band is all super tight, and there’s even a couple of pow-pow-pow fist-pumping punctuations a la today’s Highway 61. It is a boisterous and blissful performance.

Things continue on in top-notch fashion. Yes and yoo-hoo. Hattie Carroll is my favorite one ever. Every line is finessed magnificently. Bob sings it with this cadence that he nowadays usually throws into a verse here and there, his singing lopes up and down with the melody, but he keeps it up for the whole song and it never once sounds silly or contrived or like he’s goofing around. He dips way down in his vocal register and then climbs out, singing right alongside the music and pulsing along on the keys. It is very controlled. The strumming acoustic guitar, the vocal line, and Bob’s organ all lock together tightly yet at the same time are perfectly floaty and fluid. For those keen on lyrical details, Bob changes ‘politics’ to ‘government’ of Maryland. There’s a subtle, effective pause before the final verse, for proper dramatic attention, and Bob nails the key lines.

Is it possible that Cold Irons Bound is even better tonight than last night? I think so! It is a pinnacle of the night, a swirl of exquisite sound. Charlie’s accents are simultaneously heavenly and demonic, cutting to the bone and providing punctuation for each line Bob utters. Then there are full dropouts of everything, where the song just stops save for a faint drum tapping and the screaming of the crowd. It is altogether awesome. Bob is a master song and dance man, thrusting his hands out at his sides and pointing and smiling. Since this is a center stage sans guitar song, I’ve whispered to Dean, dressed as the Modern Bob, that now’s his chance to really get into character and gesticulate along with Bob. Since he’s pretty much right in front of Bob, in his flat-brimmed black hat and black with red piping western/military/elevator operator type suit, I’m pretty certain that Bob glimpses him and sees what’s going on. There’s more than one wide grin cast Dean’s way and, if I’m not mistaken, a slight nod of acknowledgement to his mirror image! It’s really a fucking riot. During the musical break Bob and Charlie go into this crazy winding, twisting harp/guitar thing where they are just circling round each other until I can’t even tell who’s doing what, it is just this vortex of echoing sound into, “The winds in CHICAGO” and the crowd erupts.

Bob’s grabbing a guitar for this next song and – This Dream of You! The second time tonight one of my heartfelt requests for this tour is granted. I’ve been saying since Albuquerque that I want a show with either this one of Forgetful Heart. Together Through Life has really grown on me and I’ve been impressed with what I’ve heard of live performance of these two songs in particular but hadn’t gotten to see them yet myself. I like these slower songs off that record. Such simple, sad, beautiful lines. Bob’s singing is understated and, again, so controlled. He takes a guitar solo that I quite like, matching well the border cantina feel of the song, and he looks as if he’s kind of trancing himself out, then snaps out of it into, “Everywhere I LOOK!” with eyes wide. It’s funny. There’s an overall yearning to the song that is captured in Bob’s spontaneous vocalization in the final, “All I have --- Aaaaaahh! – and all I know…”

Bob introduces the next song: “Uh, we got a special guest tonight…he’s gonna sing somethin’ for ya. Let’s have a big warm hand for…Tom Waits!” The crowd shrieks with excitement, then is confused but keeps cheering as Stu Kimball steps to the mic for a verse of Jesus Gonna Be Here, until Bob gently nudges him away saying, “That’s enough.” I guess it’s a Halloween joke, though a bit more like April Fools really… maybe Bob’s confused. Whatever the case, he’s still laughing as he starts singing on Tweedle, and once or twice really cracks up loudly, a big open-mouthed Bob laugh where he looks like he’s gonna bite the microphone. It’s interesting that this song has stuck around, in a number of incarnations which are similar but different. Some of those ones with Larry from 2001-2004 really cooked, this has more of a slow simmer but it’s pretty cool.

Then, I can hardly believe it… Forgetful Heart! It’s amazing how they bring it down from Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, an effortless change of pace that the crowd goes amazingly right along with. At least from where we are no one can be heard saying a single word, the crowd is just rapt. Charlie and Stu are lined up in the semi-darkness stage right, solemnly picking. Bob’s harmonica is like his breathing is like his singing. I think he plays softer than I’ve ever heard him play before. Tony’s on the standup bass, also barely playing and yet producing the fullest of sound, and Donny’s violin provides a soulful, steady background moan. It is exquisite on all counts. A sublime highlight in a night full of ‘em.

Highway 61 is what it is, with the bouncing and the fisting. As innovative as he is from night to night, Bob enjoys a certain amount of repetition. Again, some nice Bob and Charlie interplay. Charlie’s mimicking Bob’s organ lines with his guitar playing, then he steps back while Bob takes over for a bit, they go back and forth for a few bars and then George fires off some shots and brings everyone back into it together with all pistons firing for a few more goes round and a charge to the finish line.

Before the next song Bob starts talking to the audience again and laughing: “Why thank you, we got Willie Nelson up here tonight too…Willie, ya wanna take a bow? Thank you, Willie! Alright, we’ll see ya” and he’s looking and waving off stage. Bob’s a weirdo. Then it’s into another awesome Working Man’s. Bob starts out at the keyboard but finishes it off center stage and with a sweet harp solo.

Whatever you can say about what have become the standard last five songs of Bob’s show, they are all heavy hitters. They hang together and keep the energy level high to take you out of the show and get you home! Somehow, although he sings it every night, Bob fumbles the Thunder on the Mountain opening and sings something about eating brains. Well, it is Halloween. He’ll recruit his army (of zombies?) from Orphaniches… is that anywhere near Nacogdoches? Then they barely take a breath before diving headlong into Ballad of a Thin Man. There are nice touches by Charlie, like when Bob sings, “You slip in the side door” and Charlie plays a fast descending scale as if the side door is also down a flight of stairs. I am intrigued as to why Bob has become so reconnected with this song that he bludgeons us with it each night – and I mean that in the best of ways! It comes on in surround sound, just comes at you from all directions and is so powerful. Bob controls the home stretch of the song with his harmonica playing, pulsing in a very controlled way and getting louder and stronger so that it builds and builds to the musical peak of the song, then implodes and is over in a crashing of cymbals. What energy!

Rolling Stone after the break picks up right where that left off with an explosion of energy; Stu gets a good guitar solo in it too! Bob’s all into it as he sings, “You got noooo secrets toooooooooooooo conceal!” Jolene is the softest of these show-ending heavy hitters, but even on this Bob and Charlie get into a guitar and organ thing alongside each other, and when Charlie launches a bit Bob keeps up. I think this is good the way they play along together and I think Charlie spurs Bob on in productive ways.

An incredibly powerful Watchtower wraps it all up. It’s as if Bob doesn’t want the show to end as he hangs onto the last verse, declaring that “None of them along the line

Know what any of it is,
Any of it iiiiiiisss…
Annyyyy of it iiiis….

A fittingly unique and fun ending to a great show and a fabulous time in Chicago!

Bob Dylan, Aragon Ballroom, Chicago 2009
Bob Dylan, Aragon Ballroom, Chicago 2009