They were almost lost in the hype of a tour so hyped even the hype was having trouble finding its way. Long before a note was played, cynics had written off Paul/Bob '99 as too big, too old and too steeply priced to possibly warrant the attention someone else was likely to heap its way.
So the Bob end of Paul/Bob took matters into his own hands, sneaking into the new 3,600-capacity Fillmore in Denver on June 5 for a bargain-priced and sold-out warm-up gig before the official start of the tour at Colorado Springs' World Arena the next night.
When Dylan strode to the stage under the dimly lighted purple crystal chandeliers of the Fillmore, flanked by his four-piece touring band, it could have been 1966 again. In the dark, Dylan's silhouette was the familiar, wiry, youthful spirit that spoke for a generation coming of age counter to its own culture. And even when the lights came up, revealing the weathered face in no need of a weatherman, a more wired than tired Dylan managed to shock the hell out of the hall with an irrepressibly energetic and animated performance.
The show opened with "Friend of the Devil," a generous gesture to a thrilled crowd eager for a glimpse of insight into the most influential American songwriter of this or any millennium. In light of the way the Grateful Dead made a small cottage industry out of redefining Dylan's body of work, there was something special in seeing him return the compliment to Garcia and friends. Dylan was smiling from the start, feeding off a stoked audience, laughing at his own interpretation and giddy with the intimacy of an old-style seatless hall.
Dylan kept building intensity as he moved through "Mr. Tambourine Man," "Masters of War" and "Tangled Up in Blue," where his uncontainable twisting and dancing threatened to erupt into a duck walk as his entire body and being were invested in getting down to each note, every word. He plugged in and chimed out a ringing electric guitar tease into "Cold Irons Bound," pulled out a devilish harmonica solo on "Just Like a Woman," and broke into a sweat on blistering renditions of "Highway 61 Revisited" and a second encore of "Maggie's Farm."
Fillmore audiences found their wishes answered as the show closed with a paralyzing interpretation of "Blowin' in the Wind" followed by a surprise appearance by Paul Simon to duet on "Sounds of Silence." Dylan has probably never worked as hard as he did in trying to provide the tight harmonies Simon is accustomed to, but things loosened up with joyous renditions of "I Walk the Line" and "Blue Moon of Kentucky" before leaving an exhausted audience satiated with "Forever Young."
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The biggest surprise of all was to learn that the incendiary Fillmore show could, in fact, be topped, as Dylan turned his intensity beyond 10 and toward 11 at the opening in Colorado Springs the next night. Simon opened the show with a pleasing survey of his career that began with "Bridge Over Troubled Water" and sprinkled in the classics amid a set list heavily favoring his relatively recent Graceland and Rhythm of the Saints projects. His 12-piece band kept the energy level higher than Simon seemed disposed to, mixing horns and a four-part percussion section with funky bass and crisp guitar work.
Dylan's opening-night show included seven tunes not in the set at the warm-up, highlighted by an invigorating "All Along the Watchtower" that surprised and ignited his own band, a rollicking "(Stuck Inside of Mobile With the) Memphis Blues Again," and an explosively fired-up encore of "Like a Rolling Stone" that found Dylan accenting his guitar explorations with his penetrating glances.
In a show that never turned back or stopped for breath, Dylan went to acoustic mode for a transcendent rendition of "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right," featuring a riveting harmonica solo that found him dangerously contorting his way through the improvised riff, getting more out of the old in-and-out than the instrument alone could accommodate. By the time "Not Fade Away" sent its last syncopated waves through the crowd, Dylan had convincingly ensured us that he wouldn't, seizing his own legacy by the throat and taking on all comers with freight-train ferocity and an unconquerably rocking spirit.