Bob Dylan and His Band Took Toronto to Unexpected and Rewarding Places

Massey Hall, October 26

BY Vish KhannaPublished Oct 27, 2023

On more than a few occasions at his first of two Massey Hall shows, Bob Dylan turned around to face his sturdy band, seemingly to say a few things about the song they all just finished. They in turn would light up and nod back at him or, in bassist Tony Garnier's case, flash him a thumbs up for his own efforts, because everything was working well. 

In the crowd, it was a multi-generational melange of die-hard vets and rich Toronto tourists. Elvis Costello and Diana Krall chatted amiably with anyone who wanted to bend their ears before the show began. It was Dylan's first time at Massey Hall in decades, the tickets were a little too hot, and anticipation was high in "the house that Gord built," though Dylan's old friend, Gordon Lightfoot — not to mention fellow Canadian colleague Robbie Robertson — have each passed away in recent years. Before the music even started, it felt like it would be a sentimental and memorable show.

It was, in fact, a glorious night for a band that doesn't have it easy, corralling already wild songs, almost all of which seem to be living in their most challenging arrangements yet. And at centre stage was Dylan — the songs' mastermind, either seated or standing behind his baby grand piano, singing with a strength and beauty completely his own. The songs bring different things out of him, but on this evening, he knew all their tricks and they couldn't fool him.

Though the set was primarily focused on songs from 2020's Rough and Rowdy Ways, these songs have developed entirely new identities since appearing on the record, and performances of classic tunes were similarly familiar but new. 

"Watching the River Flow" was a charting single when it was released in 1971, but it's still sort of obscure, and a fascinating choice to open as many shows as it has. As Garnier (Dylan's longest serving musical collaborator), drummer Jerry Pentecost, guitarists Bob Britt and Doug Lancio and violin, electric mandolin, pedal steel and lap steel man Donnie Herron got it revved up, Dylan, little white hat in hand, bounded to his piano, played a few bars and then sang, "What's the matter with me? / I don't have much to say." 

The Blonde on Blonde classic, "Most Likely You Go Your Way (and I'll Go Mine)," was now more sinister than ever, with Dylan's halting phrasing working off the choppy rhythmic feel the band put forth. But within two songs, it was clear that this was going to be a piano show; it was mixed high and Dylan was playing so busy and loose, his bandmates likely spent more time watching his hands than they did their own, making sure to prop his keys up. 

Whenever Dylan bit into the nominal chorus of "I Contain Multitudes," the crowd cheered as though he'd never said a truer thing. Just as Britt conjured the guitar figure for "False Prophet," Dylan donned his little white hat, as though getting into character for the defiant and stirring song, which has been more dramatically quiet/loud/quiet on this tour. 

Some interesting things have been happening with "When I Paint My Masterpiece" and "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight" lately. Dylan began these songs almost completely solo, singing and playing substantial chunks of the songs before the band joined him for radical revisions. On the latter (and its sort of counterpart, "To be Alone with You"), things got surf-y, a long instrumental section portending something, almost as though a fight sequence from the 1960s Batman TV series was about to break out. 

On "Black Rider," Dylan has altered his phrasing and created a suspenseful delay; he almost smirked after singing, "Black Rider, Black Rider, hold it right there / The size of your cock…" and then he hung on the word forever, before exhaling, "…will get you nowhere." And just in time for spooky season, we received a truly eerie iteration of the already macabre and hilarious "My Own Version of You," in which Dylan portrays a Dr. Frankenstein who raided pop culture. The band's pensive playing and pounding on "Crossing the Rubicon" made it almost as daunting and unsettling, with Dylan singing dynamically — rough and rowdy one moment, tender and tentative the next.

It's difficult to articulate what it feels like to be in the room when recent, ruminative ballads like "Key West (Philosopher Pirate)," "I've Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You," and "Mother of Muses" are performed. That Dylan can compose such narrative feats is no wonder at this point (he's the best songwriter ever), but they each felt like particularly personal stock-taking and admissions that even if he doesn't understand the mystical forces that propel him, he's wise and humble enough to let us watch him honour them. It's deeply affecting, seeing all of the history that this man has studied and lived come pouring out via such thinly-veiled autobiographies.  

The other night in Rochester, New York, "Gotta Serve Somebody" was really fucked up. Dylan got lost in it and seemed a bit rattled until a rendition of "That Old Black Magic" brought him back. That said, after introducing his musicians to us, he cracked, "It's a good band! These aren't easy songs to play. But this band can do it! …Sort of…" But at Massey Hall, like every other song, "Gotta Serve Somebody" couldn't have been performed more expertly. 

In certain cities, Dylan may pick a cover song with a regional bent or by an artist from the area. In Indiana it was John Mellencamp, in Cincinnati, he did a song that Dwight Yoakam wrote about the city. He and his band have also been working up Grateful Dead songs like "Brokedown Palace" and, as was the case for Rochester, "Stella Blue." 

And so, in Toronto, we expected something for Lightfoot or for Robertson and the Band. But we got neither on night one. Instead, Dylan once again played a gorgeous version of "Stella Blue" and closed the night with the spiritual twosome of "Goodbye Jimmy Reed" and "Every Grain of Sand." 

After the latter, he stood between two microphones and accepted our love stoically but with genuine gratitude. It was a special and triumphant night at Massey Hall for Bob Dylan, his excellent band, and those who love to see them push his songs into unexpected and rewarding places.  

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