“Have a great time folks” said the policeman as he guided us in to the field that would serve as a parking lot for the night. We were in Kingston to see Bob Dylan at the Hutton Brickyards, the first concert event ever held at this beautiful modernized long-abandoned industrial space. A parking pass I hadn’t ordered or paid for had mysteriously arrived in the mail, so the night already felt magic. Back up the hill on the gritty main street of the town, we’d seen a very long line of concertgoers waiting at a shuttle stop. Parking is always an issue in Kingston. Part of it is topography (the town is hilly and you’re always butting up against ravines, train tracks and trestles, then water) and part is small city politics – it’s a convenient way to say “nah that’ll never work – the parking will be a nightmare”. But not this time. They were doing something new.
“This is sooo much easier than going to see Dylan at like Forest Hills Stadium or something,” I said to Eric as we strolled a few yards down a gentle slope along the Hudson River with a trickle of other concert goers. An early evening blue sky poked through old metal rafters of the brickyards framing a few shiny red semi tractor trailers and three sleek tour buses: Which one do you think he’s on?
“Step up for the Metallica concert!” One of the grinning security men cheerfully looked in people’s bags and patted down a guy or two. All the staff greeted everybody with a smile and then they filtered us in through different gates: $150, $75 and $55 general admission. That’s us. The hoi polloi; rabble. I’d bought the tickets on a whim when they’d added this second show after the first sold out in an hour: $55 a piece had seemed indulgent at the time. Now I was kind of wishing we’d gone big, because, well Bob was on one of those buses and pretty soon he was going to be standing (he’d stand some, wouldn’t he?) right there in front of us and – how often is that going to happen for the rest of our lives?
Eric and I staked out spots on the barricade separating seated $75 tickets from standing $55. The place isn’t huge, holds 3000. The stage was close enough to make out a grand piano to the right center, Tony Garnier’s upright bass, drums back in the corner of stage left. An elegant set-up.
I went back to try and get some food – there were vendors from local restaurants set up under another rustic metal awning. An air of almost-affluent country fair with some hick elements – we were in Kingston after all. I remember coming up here for a wedding many years ago, when I still lived in the city. It was a big Italian affair down by the river and I felt like I was back in the fifties. Things have progressed a lot, with an influx of restaurants and artists, but it’s still a fairly provincial place. Changing. Standing in line to get a wristband to buy alcohol, I looked around for somebody I knew, as in some ways Kingston is our “big city”: we get our hair cut at the fabulous Le Shag salon there; go see shows at BSP sometimes; have guitar repairs occasionally; drink coffee, stop by Doug Wygal’s record store or Stockade Tavern or Adams for groceries. The ads for the show trumpeted that Dylan had never played Kingston before and there was a feeling of local boy coming home as it’s just down the road from Woodstock and probably where he used to go do his more comprehensive grocery shopping.
In front of me, a bald satyr in expensive jeans and hand-tooled leather belt flirted with his boyfriend and I felt sure it was the doctor we’d first gone to when we moved to the area. It had to be him. He declined to get a wristband, either because he doesn’t drink or more likely couldn’t bear to show anyone an ID revealing his real age. I almost wanted to say “Hey, remember me? Poison ivy and and a bad case of conjunctivitis five years ago?” but the moment passed. We really hadn’t clicked with the guy but there’d been something fascinating about him and now for the rest of the night I would see him darting everywhere waving a chocolate ice cream cone.
Does that happen to you at shows? I’ll zero in on a few characters and then they’ll come in and out of view constantly, like an extra in a movie crowd scene you can’t take your eyes off of and construct a whole backstory for; or that loud laugher on old Honeymooners and I Love Lucy episodes who distinguishes herself with that extra edge of shrill hysteria. For me at the concert it was The Doctor and a tall young guy with long dark blonde locks under a flat cap, looking like he’d studied old concert photos from the seventies, R. Crumb drawings or pictures of Lynyrd Skynyrd – he was here there and everywhere the whole night causing me to wonder where he kept going, who was he there with, what did this concert mean to him? Was it his first time seeing Dylan and that’s why he was bouncing around with excitement, or was it just the drugs?
I gave up on food — the lines were so long and chances were I’d have to make my way back to Eric with my hands full of pulled pork tacos at the exact minute the lights went down and I couldn’t let that happen. Back behind the barricade we wondered how the band would come out, in what order. What would it be like? Eric had never seen Dylan before and for me it had been at least a decade. For a brief moment I had a vision of somebody helping him onto the stage but I shook that thought out of my head. No. He’s 76, not 95.
And then: the rhythm guitar player, stage left in a sharp silvery suit and low fedora and then – the rest of the band and among them: Bob. Looking the same. Impossible. Rangy, roguish, the stage light illuminating that head of hair that probably has doctoral theses and books written about it – at very least its own Pinterest. Bob. Standing behind the piano. Launching into – oh one of my favorites – Things Have Changed. I am in my own Bob Dylan dream and he is singing this one for me.
The band is so good. The audience is so shiftless and aimless back here though, fetching drinks, chatting, milling around. He’s playing Don’t Think Twice and Highway 61, his singing as great as ever and a group of yoga ladies are negotiating who should go get some snacks and white wine a few rows forward – I want to hit them with something, instead I hold my bag up as a shield to block them from my view because now Bob is ambling over to the straight mic stand to croon one for us. I’ve avoided listening to him doing standards, but here in person it all makes sense. The golden backlights and footlights, the lyrics and melody : Why Try To Change Me Now? He poses with the straight silver mic stand so naturally and when he sings “I always was your clown”, the song touches me in a way it never did by Sinatra because I hear Frank through a glaze of sepia as forever my parents’ era and music, but Bob’s been where I want to go and done what I want to do so he’s singing in my ear.
Lovesick is next. The sound is good and clear but just wish it was a littler more powerful in this new venue when the chorus comes in. I love Dylan’s piano playing: Summer Days which I used to skip over and then became one of my faves on Love & Theft is next. His playing and singing is pure enjoyment, and the whole band has a roadhouse looseness that just makes me feel good. But it’s the standards that stun me and move me and make time stand still. These songs have never spoken to me except as pieces of impeccable craft because you always hear them sung by great singers and that kind of singing has never done anything for me, it’s the cracks and bumps and unruly personality I crave, but his breathing and control are astounding still. Does Bob swim?
I make a note to seek out the song about two trains running side by side (Long and Wasted Years it turns out to be – Tempest, an album I missed entirely – 2012.) Stormy Weather and Once Upon A Time weave spells with their melodies and artful truths I can usually distance myself from. I just wish the people speaking Russian behind me would shut up! I turn and glare at them through my school marm glasses, fierce enough to make them move away or maybe they just need a lobster roll at the exact moment that Bob is singing Tangled Up In Blue? A barroom version of many people’s favorite somehow feels more poignant than a reverent reading — I don’t think I’ve ever heard him sing this one live, or maybe I have but there’s no doubt I was almost an entirely different person back then so…see that’s one of the beauties of Bob – he shares his mantle of mystery so I board that fishing boat from whatever my daily reality is at that particular moment so it’s always the first time.
There’s been a strict no cellphone rule mentioned since before we even entered the brickyard and it’s really refreshing to enjoy the screenless atmosphere; only the occasional picture-taker. If I could have captured one moment with a photo, it was Autumn Leaves – the beautiful amber lights simultaneously sihouetting and illuminating the band and the graceful drape of Bob’s suit, bent knee and bowed head “…and soon I’ll hear old winter’s song”…so glad that autumn, Keats’ season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, has become a longer season than all the others and you can just keep putting winter off cause who wants to think of Dylan in a chair by the fire with a blanket tucked around him? Only when he’s ready.
The stage goes dark. They come back for an encore of Blowing in the Wind followed by Ballad Of A Thin Man – planned but not obligatory. Devastating. The lights come up.
This has been a big deal for Kingston, the inauguration of a venue this size in a small city that has struggled for years. I thought the running of the place was pretty close to impeccable, but I missed the intense, experienced focus of a big city crowd. Though maybe that’s a fantasy I keep, that there are pockets of sophistication and civility where our heroes are given the respect and attention they deserve. It was a lovely setting with boats pulling up alongside and a soft breeze off the river and a skeleton of the brickyard that built Yankee Stadium (now demolished). I was going to say I could’ve done without the constant flow of shuttle buses cresting the hill just visible behind the stage throughout the show, but there was something utilitarian and beautiful about them and I imagined Bob enjoying the rhythm and fairground-on-the-edge-of-town aspect of it all, and even though I now envy the Forest Hills crowd with that iconic venue’s legacy of historic shows, we got to stumble out past the semis and tour buses and shout goodbye and thank you with a couple of hippie kids as the fleet pulled up the gravel hill in line with the audience’s cars and the same cop that had waved us in shined a flashlight to let Bob’s bus driver know “yep, you can go now buddy.”