Scene of the Crime
Which brings us back to Newport. "The Times They Are A-Changin'" followed "Roving Gambler" with Dylan's loose-limbed phrasing framed by mandolin licks, his sliding slurs on the title line ironically accenting world-weariness rather than battle cries. "Desolation Row" too became less acerbic, less surreal, as if reality had caught up to Dylan's Boschian vision; he punctuated verses with a one-note lick à la Neil Young. "Mama You Been on My Mind" had a bluegrass, Dead-inflected feel; the Dead echoed again through the first encore, Buddy Holly's "Not Fade Away." "Positively 4th Street" shifted to a Percy Sledge-style plea--a delicious twist to this slashing counterattack on the late folksinger Phil Ochs, who at first put down Dylan's apostasy, then ended his days dreaming of Elvis. "Highway 61 Revisited" swelled with punk-tipped rage. The crowd, on its feet since Copland wafted from the PA, was moving to the music, its energies harnessed, the musicians onstage knowing they were doing their jobs.
And so it went: The tight, incredibly versatile and rapid-fire quintet--guitarist Charlie Sexton, multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell, bassist Tony Garnier, drummer George Ricelli--worked with roadhouse precision and timing, switching between acoustic and electric instruments like race-car pit crews, dispensing (as usual with Dylan) with frills like talking to the audience, just finding the zone and feeding the beast. "Summer Days" revved up pedal-to-the-metal rockabilly. "North Country Fair" had a back-porch feel that sat the crowd down, then "Tangled Up in Blue" snarled and brought them back up. "Mr. Tambourine Man," dazzling with phrases that skimmed like stones across a rippling lake, offered more modest, but maybe more real, affirmation than it seemed to in 1965. Here I am, the revitalized chameleon seemed to say, and we are now history--and thus open endlessly to reinterpretation. And then came "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere," ironically soothing, its lyrics a curse riding shining pedal steel licks like those of The Byrds' country-rock version.
They cranked into "The Wicked Messenger," which waxed fierce, a jeremiad blues; "Leopard-Skin Pill Box Hat" flared with sarcasm. The encores included a powerful "Like a Rolling Stone." During "Blowin' in the Wind," a gull hung improbably motionless over the American flag atop the bastion while Dylan trilled, "How many seas must a white dove sail?" Then it dipped into the wind and wheeled off, and a few moments later the amazing band blasted out "All Along the Watchtower" in Jimi Hendrix mode, the jutting fortress walls their backdrop.
By the first encore the crowd had started to dribble out, but thousands remained: parents dancing with their smaller kids on their shoulders, next to their teens; Gen Xers wearing Born to Run and Woody Guthrie T-shirts, moving to the throbbing pulses and mouthing the words while Dylan's voice cut like a dolphin through the slippery beats and the sun sank through the glowering haze toward the lip of the mainland. And as I headed to the parking lot to inch oh-so-slowly out of Newport, I remembered how I used to carve Dylan lyrics onto desks in high school. Good thing I never got caught.