Roanoke is a beautiful small city cupped by the Blue Ridge Mountains, resting on the banks of the Roanoke River in the Roanoke Valley, which is at the southern tip of Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. These places take their name from the Native American tribe living in what is today the coastal Carolinas when English settlers arrived in 1584 — and from the "Lost Colony" of Roanoke, composed of the first English colonists in the New World. That colony, funded by Sir Walter Raleigh, had farms and families including a little girl, the first baby born there, named Virginia Dare when it was last known to exist, in late 1587. By the summer of 1590, when a ship managed to get through from England during that country's war with Spain (remember the Spanish Armada, 1588), over a hundred people and their homes were gone. One word had been carved on a tree: "Croatoan" — the name of a nearby island, and another local tribe. What happened to the Roanoke Colony remains a mystery. Reports drifted up in documents from the 1600s, of "four men clothed that came from roonock" living twenty years on in a nearby tribe's village, of blue-eyed, blond warriors fighting with the Tuscarora later in the century. Archaeolologists continue to search.
If you go to Roanoke, Virginia, you will find a gracious downtown full of, among more, old and beautifully preserved buildings; a flourishing City Market full of local produce and goods; fine food from oyster bars to French-Louisiana cooking; the grand Hotel Roanoke; and The Berglund Center. We road-tripped from Richmond along highway 460, passing history: Appomattox, where on April 9, 1865, Robert E. Lee surrendered, and, as the billboards put it, "our nation reunited"; Bedford, where the D-Day Memorial to the "Bedford Boys" who served together and died on Omaha and Utah Beaches in 1944 now stands. We got to the Hotel Roanoke in good time, and enjoyed supper at Alexander's before showtime.
This column has been a bit of a travelogue up until now, but that's appropriate, because it is about one of the longest-running road shows in the entertainment business, by a constant performer. Bob Dylan has been criticized for ages for being "inaccessible," for hiding from the press and fans. That's remarkable, and remarkably silly, when one considers that most nights of most years since the summer of 1988 he has been out in public somewhere in the world, standing on a stage in front of thousands. How many miles has Dylan traveled, over what sort of roads, from interstates to backroads? What has he seen, out the windows of his rolling tour bus? No wonder his new art show, now on view at London's Halcyon Gallery, is called The Beaten Path. Are there roads less traveled for him any more? We have to wait and see.
The Berglund Center is a large venue with a small, acoustically lovely Performing Arts Theatre. With less than 2500 seats, it was one of the nicest, most intimate places I've seen Bob Dylan perform lately. It was full, and the security team, whose primary job during the year is protecting the Roanoke Symphony Orchestra, was more vigilant than that in too many venues about not permitting the use of cameras or recording equipment — on which Dylan concerts are legendarily severe. Like the signs posted on all the doors said, "Please enjoy the show in real life! Not on your tiny little screen."
Set lists at The Bob Show don't vary, recent history teaches us, unless he feels like varying them, which infinitely rarely happens. A young man asking the roadies for a set list at the end of the show was met with general laughter from fans around him, and the roadies, who explained politely that there weren't any. The stage set is spare and devoid of distraction, with beautiful heavy lights above the band that make you feel at once like you're in an industrial space, and around a campfire. Stu Kimball strolls onstage and begins live walk-on music for his bandmates; in Roanoke, it was "The Foggy Dew," in the version written by Irish priest Charles O'Neill after the Easter Rising of 1916. Did Dylan ever hear Liam Clancy sing this one night long ago in New York City, I wondered, as Kimball played. And then there he was, black suit, big white hat, boots with spats —spats! — standing in the center of the stage behind a century's worth of variety of microphones. He chose one for "Things Have Changed," his Oscar-winning song from the soundtrack of Wonder Boys (2000).
Quickly he shifted back in time, light years ago and fresh as now: "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright," "Highway 61 Revisited," and a gorgeous "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue." When he sat down at the piano, Dylan shed the hat for "Don't Think Twice," and as he performed "Highway 61" and "Baby Blue" the presence, and present, of the past continued. The first time I ever went to a Dylan concert, at the Mann in Philadelphia on July 6, 1988, he played those last two songs. The arrangements have changed mightily, especially on "Baby Blue," which is now almost a waltz — a one-two-three-dance beat with lyrics you would never feel like dancing to. But listen; back in 1965, sped up and strummed, that one-two-three is nestled there.
The first of his so-called "Sinatra songs," which constitute Dylan's recent releases Fallen Angels (2015) and Shadows In The Night (2016) was "I Could Have Told You," written by Jimmy Oliver and, indeed, recorded by Sinatra in 1953. Check the tracklists for Dylan's two albums, though: he hasn't released it yet. Only a few people seem to be noticing that he's serving up a new number, for him, on the road right now. "Oh, Sinatra" just gets plugged in, and you think you've heard it before, and you have, but not from Bob. He lifted his mic stand right off the stage, danced with it, vamped with it. At the end the audience cheered and yelled their approval of the old sweet song, and everyone in the band, Dylan included, was grinning. He did three more covers, including a grand "Why Try To Change Me Now" in which the title line, when first sung, got an even bigger approval reaction from the audience: why indeed.
His own 1997 song "Make You Feel My Love" made the point of the influence the lyric classics recorded by Sinatra, among others, have had on Dylan. But his own songs were what fans had come for, and they came in waves spanning decades, something for everyone. "Love Sick." "Tangled Up In Blue," with new instrumental emphases, and words that might be new to you too. "Lonesome Day Blues." On this tour, Dylan is performing "Desolation Row," which, if you forced me to pick one, is my favorite Dylan song; the arrangement is to a gently rocking beat that keeps it quiet, so you can hear every one of the words.
The band's encore was a twofer; one of Dylan's songs, and a cover from his newest record. "Why Try To Change Me Now" was a lovely goodnight on a warm evening in the mountains of Virginia. But, on the brink of an election in the heart of a contested state, an election that had by the 5th of November already shown the rifts in America and riven it even more, "Blowing In The Wind" bore with it even more emotion and history than I'd felt before. People sobbed, some seemingly caught by surprise to do so, as Dylan sang. As I write, this version of the song from the film Masked and Anonymous (2003) just won't go away.