Bob Dylan’s concert in Richmond took place at the Richmond Coliseum, an edifice best described by the famous line, “What. A. Dump!”

Nevertheless, the ageless Mavis Staples opened the three hour show with a feisty backup band as she reviewed some of her greatest hits and introduced a few of her new songs from her unreleased CD. After 45 minutes, the intermission changed the setting for the main event.

When last we saw Bob Dylan in concert the event was a motley conglomeration of musical pieces and clothing and random lights. The recent version is a slick show with draperies, sophisticated lighting, stage accessories, and a carefully selected wardrobe. Dylan’s five back up musicians wore identical grey suits and ties, and a few sported pork pie hats. Dylan himself swore a single side-striped pair of band trousers, white shoes, and a white dinner jacket. He played a stylish black baby grand piano stage left. Right center was a bare area on which stood a vintage silver microphone stand and silver mic. Dylan went there at key moments to croon select American pop standards.

A hard driving rock and roll “Things Have Changed” opened the show. Rolling Stone called the song “one of those grim, intense Book of Deuteronomy howls he comes up with whenever he’s in the mood to make all other rock and roll singers sound like scared kittens.” It sure did just that. With a lyric like,

I’ve been walking forty miles of bad road
If the Bible is right, the world will explode
I’ve been trying to get as far away from myself as I can
Some things are too hot to touch
The human mind can only stand so much
You can’t win with a losing hand.

Dylan introduced one of the major themes of the evening, the age-old question, “Who am I really?’

A thrilling new arrangement of “It Ain’t Me, Babe” followed and underscored the theme.

“Highway 61 Revisited” added mystical poetry. As Dylan explained in an online interview,

I’ve been all over the world, I’ve seen oracles and wishing wells. When I was young there were a lot of signs along the way that I couldn’t interpret, they were there and I saw them, but they were mystifying. Now when I look back I can see them for what they were, what they meant. I didn’t understand that then, but I do now. There is no way I could have known it at the time.

Dylan next moved to the microphone and the lighting changed for Sinatra’s “Why Try to Change Me Now” and an acknowledgement that there comes a time in life when one just can’t change who one is.

In an online interview Dylan explained his current fascination with old American standards:

These songs are some of the most heartbreaking stuff ever put on record and I wanted to do them justice. Now that I have lived them and lived through them I understand them better. They take you out of that mainstream grind where you’re trapped between differences which might seem different but are essentially the same. Modern music and songs are so institutionalized that you don’t realize it. These songs are cold and clear-sighted, there is a direct realism in them, faith in ordinary life just like in early rock and roll.

Then “Summer Days”, with

Standing by God’s river, my soul is beginnin’ to shake
Standing by God’s river, my soul is beginnin’ to shake
I’m countin’ on you love, to give me a break

Back to the silver mic for another Sinatra, a hushed “Melancholy Mood”

Melancholy mood forever haunts me
Steals upon me in the night, forever taunts me
Oh, what a lonely soul am I, stranded high and dry
By a melancholy mood

Gone is every joy and inspiration
Tears are all I have to show, no consolation
All I can see is grief and gloom, till the crack of doom
Oh, melancholy mood

Melancholy mood, why must you blind me
Pity me and break the chains, the chains that bind me
Won’t you release me, set me free, bring her back to me
Oh, melancholy mood

Back to the piano for “Honest With Me” and some non-nostalgic memories of Chicago.

Well, I’m stranded in the city that never sleeps
Some of these women they just give me the creeps
I’m avoidin’ the Southside the best I can
These memories I got, they can strangle a man

Well I came ashore in the dead of the night
Lot of things can get in the way when you’re tryin’ to do what’s right
You don’t understand it—my feelings for you
You’d be honest with me if only you knew

And similar feelings about Missouri and New Orleans with ‘Tryin’ to Get to Heaven”

Exactly half way through the concert, the giant Klieg lights which had been darkly surrounding the stage lit up and Dylan moved to center stage for what clearly was meant to be the emotional climax of the event, “Once Upon a Time”, from the musical All-American:

Once upon a time
A girl with moonlight in her eyes
Put her hand in mine
And said she loved me so
But that was once upon a time
Very long ago

Once upon a hill
We sat beneath a willow tree
Counting all the stars and waiting for the dawn
But that was once upon a time
Now the tree is gone

How the breeze ruffled through her hair
How we always laughed as though tomorrow wasn’t there
We were young and didn’t have a care
Where did it go

Once upon a time
The world was sweeter than we knew
Everything was ours
How happy we were then
But somehow once upon a time
Never comes again

Once upon a time
Never comes again.

Everyone was stunned into silence by the poignancy and beauty of the performance.

Then followed a quick change of pace to the gospel-influenced “Pay in Blood” a song which lets us quietly know his Christianity still reigns, “I pay in blood but not my own”.

Back to a classic with “Tangled Up in Blue,” perhaps a reference to the subject of “Once Upon a Time.” And then to the microphone stand and more crooning with Jimmy van Heusen’s “The September of My Years”

As a man who has always had the wand’ring ways
Now I’m reaching back for yesterdays
‘Til a long-forgotten love appears
And I find that I’m sighing softly as I near
September, the warm September of my years

David Weir believes “Early Roman Kings”, next on Dylan’s set list, “is a song is about the nature of God, the relationship between man and God, and whether salvation in the sense of moral regeneration can be achieved.” Then followed the ultimatum of “Soon After Midnight” with

It’s now or never, more than ever
When I met you I didn’t think you would do
It’s soon after midnight and I don’t want nobody but you

Dylan offered the song he dedicated once to Alan Ginsburg, “Desolation Row” and its catalogue of the dead and dying. 2006’s “Thunder on the Mountain” led to a return to the silver microphone for “Autumn Leaves.”

“Love Sick’ summarized the evenings contradictions and paradoxes,

I’m sick of love, I wish I’d never met you
I’m sick of love, I’m tryin’ to forget you.

Just don’t know what to do
I’d give anything to
Be with you.

The encore featured a retooled ‘Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Ballad of a Thin Man” leaving Dylan’s last enigmatic words ringing

Because something is happening here
But you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones?

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