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Dylan in Cincinnati: February 1998
Crime & Punishment
A funny thing happened on the way to Bogart’s ’99. I revisited the Cincinnati Gardens concert in 1998, and wouldn’t you know, there are some standout performances in this show. I have video footage for much of this concert, too, courtesy of DVDylan webmaster George Spanos. There’s also an interesting theme that emerges from considering select songs in relation to each other. Therefore, even though I still don’t plan a full-length chapter on this show, I have decided there’s enough worth sharing to do a bonus episode for readers of Shadow Chasing.
I’ll dispense with my usual “Dylan Context” and “Cincinnati Context” sections for this one, but let me say a bit about the venue. Cincinnati Gardens opened in 1949 and regularly hosted sporting events and concerts until its demolition in 2018. As I discussed in the March 1965 installment, The Beatles played a locally famous concert at this venue, much to the delight of screaming fans and the dismay of civic leaders. Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, The Rolling Stones, and many other high-profile acts all played at the Gardens. When I moved to Cincinnati in 1998, the Gardens was the home basketball court for the Xavier Musketeers. I recently went back and found my initial job offer letter to become an assistant professor of English at Xavier University. Get this: the letter is dated February 26, 1998, exactly one week after Dylan’s concert at the Gardens, and the day after he won the Grammy for Album of the Year for Time Out of Mind. A match made in Cincinnati, if not in heaven.
In a 1990 interview for USA Today, Dylan told Edna Gundersen, “People can learn everything about me through my songs, if they know where to look. They can juxtapose them with certain other songs and draw a clear picture. But why would anyone want to know about me? It’s ridiculous.” I’m not interested in drawing a clear picture of Dylan the private man, but I am deeply invested in his public performance art. He offers sound advice about juxtaposing different songs against each other to draw a clearer picture. In fact, that is essentially what Dylan does himself every time he assembles a setlist. Dylanologists have long recognized his talent for curating a theatrical experience through his selection and sequencing of songs in concert. If you want to read a book on the subject, see The Politics and Power of Bob Dylan’s Live Performances: Play a Song, forthcoming soon from Routledge. If you want hear a case study in Dylan’s art of juxtaposing songs, consider certain interconnected songs at Cincinnati Gardens in 1998. Through deft selection, sequencing, and performance, Dylan develops a theme of crime & punishment in this concert.
I’m only going to comment on a handful of songs in depth, but here are the basic details for the full concert:
When: February 19, 1998
Where: Cincinnati Gardens
Opener: Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band
Band: Bob Dylan (vocals and guitar); Bucky Baxter (pedal steel guitar, electric slide guitar, and mandolin); Larry Campbell (guitar and backup vocals); Tony Garnier (bass); David Kemper (drums and percussion)
1. “Absolutely Sweet Marie”
2. “Tonight, I’ll Be Staying Here with You”
3. “Can’t Wait”
4. “Under the Red Sky”
6. “Cocaine Blues”
7. “Masters of War”
8. “Tangled Up in Blue”
9. “Million Miles”
10. “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again”
11. “’Til I Fell in Love with You”
12. “Highway 61 Revisited”
13. “It Ain’t Me, Babe”
14. “Love Sick”
15. “Rainy Day Women #12 &35”
The concert begins with a song I absolutely love: “Absolutely Sweet Marie.” As I hear it, the singer is a prisoner. This Clyde bides his time in prison, brooding over his Bonnie, “beating on his trumpet” (I’ll let you decode that euphemism for yourself), wondering why he got busted while she got away. “I waited for you” he repeats in three consecutive lines. Where were you when I needed you? What’s taking you so long to get me out of here? Where—and with whom—are you tonight? Lyrically, he definitely seems to have soured on his sweetheart Marie.
Musically, it’s another story. The song is a scorcher. Dylan and the band fire the ignition switch and are off to a blazing start with this opening number. I especially dig the sound of Bucky Baxter’s pedal steel. This hard-driving song was a showcase for Kenny Buttrey on Blonde on Blonde, and David Kemper fills those big shoes snugly in this performance.
Blonde on Blonde was Dylan’s first album recorded in Nashville, and we get a signature Nashville sound with the second song on the setlist, “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here with You,” originally released on Nashville Skyline (1968). According to Cincinnati Enquirer music critic Larry Nager, Dylan also dresses the part: “Dressed like Hank Williams Sr. in white cowboy suit, matching boots and black string tie, he moved like he was channeling Carl Perkins. Bobbing behind his sunburst Strat, he practically duck-walked as he led his quartet through a lifetime of great songs” (C-2). You don’t have to take Nager’s word for it. See for yourself.
The taper was still settling in and trying to find a functional angle during the first song, but by the second song we get a full performance. I say “taper,” but in fact this must have been a two-person operation, since the video begins with a long shot that takes in the full band but later cuts to a much closer shot from near the stage beginning at 3:32-3:51.
If you want proof of the duck-walk shenanigans Nager mentions, check out Dylan’s playful movements around 2:40-3:30. You can see the facial expressions to go with them in the closeup shot at 4:25 and following, as well as some cool shots of Larry Campbell on guitar. To my eye, Dylan seems in a frisky mood and is really interacting with the fans at the foot of the stage. Of course, it’s possible this is all for show. Andrew Muir, who has attended hundreds of Never Ending Tour concerts, found the pretense a bit much by 1998. He recalls in One More Night,
Many elements that I had found concerning as they began to surface in previous years seemed to come to a head in 1998. For me, these combined to render a Dylan gig less of an event in the sense of something magical and special and more of an ‘event’ in the sense of a deliberately calculated stage show. The staged duck-walks and rock guitar hero poses that had initially seemed endearing were growing stale. Once you realised that it was all pre-planned […] the appeal rapidly diminished. It was as if Dylan was constantly checking his watch to see if it was time for another imitation of Chuck Berry in need of the toilet. (223-24)
Lyrically speaking, “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here with You” is one of those Dylan songs that comes across as meta-commentary in live performance. Dylan declares, “Tonight [i.e., February 19, 1998] I’ll be staying here [i.e., Cincinnati Gardens] with you [i.e., the audience in front of him].”
I also pick up on a call-and-response effect between the first two songs. “Where are you tonight?” asks the first; “Tonight I’ll be staying here with you” answers the second. This is exactly the reply the prisoner in “Absolutely Sweet Marie” wishes he could get from his absent lover/accomplice. No such luck, as Marie keeps him waiting in frustration.
The third song of the concert is “Can’t Wait.” This is the first of four songs at the Gardens from Time Out of Mind, released the previous fall. “Can’t Wait” holds the distinction as the first TOOM song Dylan ever sang in Cincinnati. Often when he plays songs from his most recent album, the live version hews closely to the album arrangement. That is not the case here. Dylan significantly reimagines this song in performance—and it sounds great!
Dylan flips a switch sometimes and blasts off into the stratosphere. The band is locked into a cool groove from the start and can seemingly do no wrong. After the song is over, a fan near the taper audibly testifies: “You wanted the best and you got the best!” (Listen carefully and you’ll catch this comment at the beginning of the next video clip.)
I was recently blown away by Laura Tenschert’s powerful conversation with Harry Hew about a number of gripping topics, all stemming from their tribute to the late great Sinéad O’Connor. If you haven’t listened to it yet, then stop reading and go immediately to Definitely Dylan—this one is not to be missed. One of the many things that stood out from O’Connor’s moving, funny, sexy, anguished, adoring open letters to Dylan was her praise for his singing:
People rightly say you are a great soul, great writer, great prophet. But it rarely gets said that as a singer you are supreme. You are in fact the greatest ‘singer’s singer’ who ever lived, in my humble opinion. Not even Callas could sing with your passion and your unusual but perfect timing and tuning, not even Marley could touch your spiritual prowess nor the blood of the lamb in your voice. You are THE singer of singers. Were, are, always will be.
For a perfect example of Dylan’s “unusual but perfect timing and tuning,” feast your ears on “Can’t Wait” from the Gardens ’98. Listen to how he lays heavy stress on the final word in each line, almost using his voice as a percussion instrument. Witness how he stretches words and phrases out as he draws closer to the end of the verse: “And I don’t know / I don’t know how much looonger / I can waaaaiiiit!” The video captures that thrilling first refrain at 1:08-1:13. But dip into this performance at any point and you’ll see the same supreme talent on display.
It’s not just the emotion he invests in the performance; there are no shortage of highly emotive singers. It’s the way he combines that passion with precision, enacting the song’s sensibilities through his spot-on delivery. He makes us wait for it, just like the protagonist is forced to wait for his lover’s return. It’s a song about waiting and about what comes after the waiting, when the singer forces the moment to its crisis and demands a reckoning. The words on the page say as much, but it’s Dylan’s visceral communication of that gnawing impatience that makes the song so menacing. Hand these lyrics to any singer you like: none would think to sing it in the inimitable way Dylan does. What a killer vocal!
I’m not using “killer” loosely. I devote a whole chapter in my book on TOOM to reading the songs recorded for this album as a collection of murder ballads. The singer in “Can’t Wait” barely bothers to conceal his fangs as he stalks his prey:
If I ever saw you coming I don’t know what I would do
I’d like to think I could control myself, but it isn’t true
That’s how it is when things disintegrate
And I don’t know how much longer I can wait
I feel that there is a spillover effect in this concert where the darkness of the TOOM songs bleed into other songs on the setlist and stain them with crime & punishment. Keeping “Can’t Wait” in mind, go back now and reconsider those first three songs together as a triptych. Juxtaposed against each other and experienced in sequence, the cumulative effect is marvelously evocative in developing a theme of crime & punishment.
You can see this theme first taking shape through the prison bars of “Absolutely Sweet Marie.” The singer’s sexual desire (“Sometimes it gets so hard, you see”) could easily descend into bloodlust as he obsesses over his faithless partner in crime. Dylan moves the verse about the penitentiary from the middle to the conclusion, drawing special attention to the song’s most famous line and stretching it out: “But to live outside the law, you must be hooonnnest / I know you always say you agreeeeee / Where are you tonight, Sweet Marie?” It’s a journey through dark heat, one he makes alone in his solitary cell (inside the law), waiting for the day when he can be outside the law and with her again. Oh, he can’t wait!
“Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here with You” would seem to be a stark departure, tonally and psychologically, from the crime & punishment theme. Viewed in isolation, this song is a sweet and uncomplicated vow of love. However, beginning with TOOM and continuing consistently ever since, Dylan delights in taking these moonlight serenades and giving them a ghoulish twist. Time and again he invites listeners to wonder just how far these silver-tongued devils are willing to go to make their targets feel their love. From the late nineties onward, Dylan periodically writes and performs original songs cut from this macabre cloth [e.g., “Make You Feel My Love,” “Moonlight,” “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’,” “Soon after Midnight”]. He also reupholsters old love songs by wrapping them in this dark shroud [e.g., “To Be Alone with You”]. In The Philosophy of Modern Song, Dylan applies this same reinterpretive approach to other seemingly benign love songs [e.g., Eddy Arnold’s “You Don’t Know Me” (73), Rosemary Clooney’s “Come on-a My House” (283)].
Viewed through the TOOM-tinted lens of the Cincinnati Gardens setlist, I sense new and disturbing undertones in “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here with You.” If you want to hear them, too, try this thought experiment. Imagine for a moment that the same character is the protagonist of all three opening songs. That’s easily done with #1 and #3: the prisoner of “Absolutely Sweet Marie” could plausibly devolve into the stalker of “Can’t Wait.” Now imagine that same creeper getting out of jail and tracking down Marie in song #2:
I should have left this town this morning
But it was more than I could do
Because your love comes on so strong
And I’ve been waiting all day long
When I’ll be staying here with you
He has been waiting for her all day long, but come nightfall he can’t/won’t wait any longer. Eek!
Mind you, no one was making these connections while listening to the band jamming live that winter’s night in Cincinnati. For that matter, I doubt that Dylan ever sat down, devised this deliberate plan of linking the first three songs into a single narrative about an increasingly desperate protagonist, and set his devious scheme into motion by playing Bob the Ripper disguised as Hank Williams on the Gardens stage. He probably simply intuited that the songs fit together well, with interesting lyrical similarities yet pleasing musical contrasts, and that was good enough for him. I’m more than happy to follow behind him and fill in the intellectual underpinnings: he’s got his job to do and I’ve got mine. And neither of us are done yet, for next up is “Under the Red Sky,” the linchpin that binds the crime & punishment theme together.
Frankly, under the red sky is not an album I’ve spent a lot of time with. I was underwhelmed by it in 1990 and haven’t returned to it much in the years since. I’m slowly realizing that this is a blind-spot on my part, and I saw the light with the lovely performance of “Under the Red Sky” at the Gardens ’98. Bucky Baxter lays down steel guitar chords like a soft blanket. Dylan’s tender vocal makes the tune sound like a soothing lullaby. Pay attention to what he’s actually saying, however, and you’ll find thunder and lightning brewing in that red sky.
Paul Williams needed no persuasion: he unequivocally and enthusiastically embraced under the red sky from the start: “It’s a magnificent album, really, and I love every performance on it” (267). One aspect immediately apparent to both lovers and haters of the album is the central importance of nursery rhyme and fairy tale on this album. As Williams points out, Dylan had good cause to be interested in children’s songs in 1990: “this album has a dedication, ‘For Gabby Goo Goo.’ (The daughter who turned four while this album was being recorded is named Desiree Gabrielle Dennis-Dylan)” (271). And so, once upon a time, “There was a little boy and there was a little girl / And they lived in an alley under the red sky.” Apparently we’re dealing with children here, not lovers. Then we meet a third character: “There was an old man lived in the moon / One day he came passing by.” Things don’t end up going so well for the little boy and little girl, as is often the case in fairy tales and nursery rhymes: “One day the little boy the little girl were both baked in a pie.” So it goes. I’m not sure if the old man did the baking, or if he just stood idly by and allowed it to happen—but I suppose there are limits to how much rational scrutiny nursery rhymes can bear.
The lines that make me wonder if there’s more depth to this song appear in the bridge before the final verse: “This is the key to the kingdom and this is the town / This is the blind horse that leads you around.” That imagery seems steeped in religious reference, doesn’t it? I get visions of Adam and Eve expelled from the Garden of Eden for eating from the Tree of Knowledge; or visions of Cain cast east of Eden after he murdered his brother Abel, doomed to wander in exile and found cities but never be at home in any of them. The song invites provocative questions that resist definitive answers. Is the old man in the moon Jehovah? Is “Under the Red Sky” less a nursery rhyme than a religious allegory? A retelling of the Garden of Eden myth? Was that Satan tempting Eve earlier with the promise of treasures [“Some day for you little girl, everything for you is gonna be new / Someday little girl, you’ll have a diamond just as big as your shoe”]? A parable about God turning away from the fallen world [“One day the man in the moon went home and the river went dry”]? The more I listen, the more compelling I find this scripture-based interpretation.
Since I’m tardy arriving on this scene, I’m not surprised to discover that critics better than me got there long ago. For instance, in his 1990 article on under the red sky for Homer, the slut, Andrew Muir described the album’s terrain as “children’s nonsense verse and nursery rhymes with their disjointed cause and effects, weird lists and recurrence of numbers, underpinned by tales from the oral tradition including the Bible” (37). Later in his book Troubadour, Muir added in King Lear allusions and developed an additional theme: “Violence permeates the album. We have children being baked in a pie, the threat of someone having his head eaten off, people being likened to bait in a fish’s mouth, people fighting, people rioting, armies marching” (179). This combination of violence mixed up with children’s stories plus a strong shot of Biblical myth makes for a heady cocktail. It also makes “Under the Red Sky” the perfect chaser for the opening triptych at the Gardens ’98.
Dylan plays three consecutive songs about crime & punishment to varying degrees, then he follows them up with a song that returns to the primal scene of crimes & punishments in the Garden of Eden. The original dysfunctional couple Adam and Eve, and the original deadly rivals Cain and Abel, stage archetypal conflicts of good vs. evil, faith vs. doubt, loyalty vs. betrayal, home vs. exile—timeless themes that Dylan wrestles with throughout his work and foregrounds in this Cincinnati setlist.
The dark mood of “Can’t Wait” lingers to cast a shadow over “Under the Red Sky.” What I find most interesting about this juxtaposition is how readily the early-nineties song adapts to its darker cousin from the late-nineties. In fact, much of Time Out of Mind takes place under a red sky. In “Cold Irons Bound,” the chained singer looks up to report: “Up over my head nothing but clouds of blood.” In “’Til I Fell in Love with You,” the sky has a different source of redness: “Well, my house is on fire, burning to the sky.” Once again, Dylan’s intuition serves him well in selecting songs that effectively play with and against each other in this setlist, reinforcing the crime & punishment theme and propelling it toward divine wrath. [If you’re into this sort of reading, check out my TOOM chapter on religious allegory for an interpretation of “’Til I Fell in Love with You” in relation to the Book of Job.]
Here’s another nice link in the chain binding these first four songs together. In the published lyrics of “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here with You,” the singer declares, “If there’s a poor boy on the street / Then let him have my seat / ’Cause tonight I’ll be staying here with you.” But at Cincinnati Gardens he sings, “If there’s a little boy on the street / Let him have my seat.” I can’t read Dylan’s mind, and that’s not the job of a critic anyway; if criticism were nothing more than trying to guess the artist’s intentions then critics would be better off snapping our pencils and remaining silent. But I’ll tell you what’s on my mind: the little boy on the street of “Staying Here” reminds me of that other little boy in the alley of “Red Sky.”
To take it a step further, within the context of this setlist, it feels like the protagonist from the opening song has escaped prison, hopped the railroad gate, hitched a ride on the yellow railroad, and tracked down Marie; meanwhile, a little boy takes his seat on the railcar and makes his way to an alley in the next song down the line, where he finds a little girl under the red sky. There the ritual starts all over, as archetypes always do, repeating the cycle in the realm of myth.
Intended by Dylan? Doubt it. At least not in any conscious, intellectual way. But he provides all the necessary ingredients to bake this interpretation into a tasty pie. Want a bite? Like Adam and Eve, I’m gobbling it down.
If you are, too, then here’s one last delicious detail. As I’ve maintained several times in this series, it matters where a song is performed. Dylan only played “Under the Red Sky” twice during his winter tour of 1998, so this was not a regular feature in his setlists at the time. With all the Garden of Eden allusions I hear in the song, perhaps it’s no coincidence that he pulled this rabbit out of his hat at a venue named Cincinnati Gardens.
Let’s fit in one more song. Before playing three encores, Dylan closes the concert proper with another TOOM song, “’Til I Fell in Love with You.”
Dylan’s heart is really in these new songs, and he belts them out with gusto. The whole band digs this groove—look at Tony Garnier bopping around back there. Dylan sings the song at a faster tempo and in a higher register than on the album, tapping into a different energy at this frequency. It’s amped up and electrifying. Dylan sounds excited to be singing this song, which makes his lower-key delivery on TOOM sound subdued by comparison. This verve inspires Larry Nager to open his local review with a special nomination: “Bob Dylan’s up for three Grammy Awards at Wednesday’s ceremonies, but from his attitude Thursday night at Cincinnati Gardens, he deserves a fourth—best new artist” (C-2). Yes! Time Out of Mind seems dark as a TOOM, but Dylan rolls the stone away and seems resurrected by these songs in live performance. Nager continues: “In concert, he’s known for reinventing his songbook. Thursday, he played things fairly straight; but he was new. In almost a dozen Dylan concerts over the past couple of decades, I’ve never seen him so animated, focused and in command” (C-2).
To pluck out just one illustration of this animated focus and command, listen to how Dylan leans into the word “love” on the refrain: “I just don’t know what I’m gonna do / I was all right ’til I fell in loooooooove with you!” It’s like he’s trying to strangle the life out of “love.” Meanwhile, paradoxically, he draws renewed vitality from performing the TOOM murder ballads.
Part of that live energy comes from feeding off the audience. The groovy sound being produced on stage gets the people on their feet (as a set closer is designed to do), bopping in unison with the players, who then pick up on the energy projected at them and treat it as fuel to hit the gas even harder. Dylan also uses the audience to breathe life into his vocals. Way back at the Theatre de Lys in 1962, Dylan learned from Lotte Lenya’s gripping performance of “Pirate Jenny” how to integrate the audience into a song through direct address (Chronicles 275). He does this repeatedly in his “you” songs at the Gardens, pitched directly across the footlights to the groundlings at his feet.
“Is it really any wonder / The love that a stranger might receive / You cast your spell and I went under / I find it so difficult to leave,” the singer tells us in “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here with You.” “I’m doomed to love you,” he complains in “Can’t Wait.” Finally, in the last verse of the set closer he laments:
Well, I’m tired of talking, I’m tired of trying to explain
My attempts to please you were all in vain
Tomorrow night before the sun goes down
If I’m still among the living, I’ll be Dixie bound
I just don’t know what I’m gonna do
I was all right ’til I fell in love with you
Sure enough, Dylan left Cincinnati to play a show the following night in Bristol, Tennessee. But we both know that this on-again-off-again romance isn’t over. Let him go: he’ll eventually come back (to Bogart’s in 1999). Such is life on the road, heading for another joint, running away from the last audience and chasing after the next.
Dylan writes these songs in one frame of mind, but his genius as a live performer is to remake each song anew as a singular experience in this room for and to this crowd. He inhabits the role of the lovelorn crooner, and he casts us in the role of his wayward paramour. This approach galvanizes his performances of individual songs, but he also has a talent for inserting such songs throughout the setlist so that a larger narrative trajectory guides the evening’s theatrical experience. Granted, you’re not likely to pick up on much of this as it’s happening. That’s fine—enjoy the show! But it’s one of the great rewards for me as a listener and writer, and hopefully for you as a reader, to appreciate these extra layers of significance by returning to these bootlegs and hearing things we missed the first time through.
Okay, let’s bring this crime & punishment episode home on a lighter note. As I noted earlier, there are clearly two tapers tag-teaming the video from the Gardens ’98, one for the long shots and another for the closeups. It’s a good thing, too, because at some point late in the concert the dude closest to the stage got busted by a security guard. How do I know? Because he recorded a message about it and inserted it at the beginning of the tape:
He calls the show “killer”—thanks for supporting my thesis on crime & punishment, good sir! He says he got tossed out, and indeed we are stuck with the distant view from Camera #2 for a couple of songs in the encore. But during the evening’s final song, “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35,” our ejected auteur gets back in the game.
The erratic camerawork communicates what a cat & mouse game he’s playing with the security guard to elude detection. The upshot is that, when he wriggles free to aim his camera toward the stage, he’s even closer than he had been during the rest of the show. Well played!
Musically, there’s nothing especially interesting about this performance of “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35.” Who cares! The takeaway here is the visuals. You’ll fall in love with Dylan all over again as you gaze at the amazing shots of him jamming beside Larry Campbell from 0:37 onward. You can see the sweat slinging off his hair, you’re so close. The video brings us nearer to Dylan at Cincinnati Gardens than Soy Bomb would ever get six nights later at Radio City Music Hall.
The gonzo taper’s camerawork also turns this footage into a kind Wile E. Coyote vs. Road Runner cartoon. As you can see for yourself, the bootlegger wins this round against the security guy. How appropriate: crime prevails against punishment one last time!
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D-788. Bootleg Video Recording. Taper unknown. Cincinnati Gardens, Cincinnati (19 February 1998).
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Tenschert, Laura, and Harry Hew. “‘Dear Bob’: Sinéad O’Connor’s Letters to Bob Dylan.” Definitely Dylan (17 September 2023), https://www.definitelydylan.com/listen/2023/9/17/dear-bob-sinad-oconnors-letters-to-bob-dylan.
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