Full moon or close enough. Saratoga Performing Art Center – known as SPAC. Late afternoon of the first day in over a week that was not too hot to breathe. Sitting under the roof in ticketed seats (as opposed to lawn seats, which is where I used to be when my kids were with me through the baby, toddler and rug-rat years). The sun slants in through roofline gaps and sears my eyes into blindness. Ryan Bingham, young folk singer in the Dylan lineage, croaks out a string of blues tunes, sexy voice wailing.
Then the trippy, soulful music of My Morning Jacket, swinging like a pendulum from hardcore to lyrical. Jim James, with hair like a tangled halo that drips down over his eyes, pierces the cooling air with his unsettling voice. The sun slides further down in the sky and the crowds gradually fill more of the space. Outside, the lawn-sitters line up their chairs in courteous rows. Around us, under the roof, a few people stand to dance. My son had played me some tracks of the band a few times, but I had no idea how the fullness of the sound and the slightly twisted murkiness of the lyrics would work by osmosis in my cells.
The sun lowers with day’s receding tide, and the air turns that familiar blue. The sourceless daylight of dusk. Wilco comes on stage. My legs grow restless. I am still processing Morning Jacket and feel dissatisfied with the transition. So I walk out from under the roof, away from Wilco revelers, to feel the breeze and look for the rising moon. Not visible yet. I listen long distance to the music as I wander. Wilco grows on me and in time I am ready to go back to them. I’m primed, now, for their twanging rock and roll, the thunderous undertones and the smiling high notes. The end of their set leaves me in good spirits. Outside, it is fully night.
The lights on stage come on. The bustle of the hive takes over. More amps, more keyboards, more machines, lights and those mysterious musical accoutrements that plebes like me don’t understand.
Now someone kills the lights and when they come back on, Bob Dylan and his band make beautiful noise.
Dylan, aged 71, who never speaks to us, never acknowledges the audience that stands as one, rising to his presence. He knows we are there. He sings towards us, his face a pale focal point in the gloomy stage lighting. His band faces him from one side of the stage, attentive to his gestures, small nods, forms of musical communication the rest of us are not privy to. Few of his songs are readily recognizable. He has (as he usually does) created new arrangements for each of them. “Tangled Up in Blue” and “Simple Twist of Fate” – off my favorite album – are recognizable only by a small musical phrase and the lyrics, half mumbled in that Dylan way, but so tattooed into my brain that I hear both versions, the original and this one, playing in symbiosis inside my head. “Hard Rain,” “Blowin’ in the Wind” and many more familiar, iconic songs treat themselves to rebirth through his ever-restless vision.
I know many of his fans are disappointed not to hear exact renditions. But I respect him more for not resting on his laurels. A hard working man of music and words, Dylan is not ready to lie down in a bed he made 50 years ago.
I am moved to see him there in his black clothes. Dark curling hair dusty gray now and body slower. The harmonica sings just as achingly as ever. My eyes tingle in sympathy for the young girl I was when I first saw him play in Washington DC and then again, in my later 20s, newly married, at Madison Square Garden in a double show with Tom Petty. But I feel none of the pity for aging musicians that I have felt before as I watch them try to recapture what once was. Tonight, Dylan plays songs from his newest album, Tempest, and from his first, and many between. His opus continues to grow and his interest in what he does never seems to wane.
We walk into the darkness after his last song; I wonder if this is the last time I will see him play. I can’t know. I look up to see the moon full and high in the sky. She understands all of it. The music, the night, the feel of the air, the sense of lost youth, and the promise of more to come.