As with many of Bob Dylan’s rare onstage utterances, no one was exactly sure what he said — but we all got the gist. Reviewing Dylan’s 2008 election night show for the Twin Cities Daily Planet, I only felt confident citing “a brief remark about the coming change.”
There was a special energy in the air that night at Northrop,as votes from the presidential election were counted while Dylan played a show in the state where he was born. Based on polling data, we walked into the auditorium pretty sure we’d hear Dylan — one of the most prominent musical voices of the Civil Rights movement, a man who played at the March on Washington — play through the announcement that the United States had elected its first African-American commander-in-chief.
This was the pre-renovation Northrop, with its massive balcony looming over a wide swath of the seating below. The venue had sold out its complete capacity of, then, nearly 5,000. Two years after the release of Modern Times, still four years before Tempest and his subsequent Great American Songbook phase, Dylan was digging deeper into his own songbook than he does in most shows today.
The show opened with “Cat’s in the Well” — a raised-finger gesture to Under the Red Sky haters — and also included favorites like “Tangled Up in Blue” and “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again.” The set’s highlight, I judged at the time, “may have been a passionate performance of ‘This Wheel’s on Fire,’ which Dylan performed standing at center stage and, uncharacteristically, gesticulating broadly with his arms.”
As the presidency of George W. Bush, marked by the controversial invasion of Iraq, neared its end, Dylan was in a particularly political mood. We got “Masters of War” and the long-unreleased protest song “John Brown,” which Dylan “performed in a low croak recalling John Lee Hooker,” I wrote. Also in the set: “The Times They Are A-Changing.” On “Shooting Star,” Dylan graced us with a bit of rare guitar work.
As the set neared its conclusion, even those of us who weren’t actively checking our phones could tell what was happening: people were whispering to each other and passing the news of the election results.
Despite a mood I described as “buoyant,” Dylan wasn’t going to end the show on an overly optimistic note: he closed the main set with Modern Times closer “Ain’t Talking” (“The suffering is unending/ Every nook and cranny has its tears”) and ended the encore with “Blowin’ in the Wind,” its famously poignant lyrics asking, “How many times must a man look up/ Before he can see the sky?”
The first thing we saw in the auditorium lobby after the show ended were giant projection screens showing that the networks had called it: Barack Obama had been elected president. My now-colleague Andrea Swensson, then at City Pages, reported that a woman next to her “broke down in sobbing tears.” Outside, the mall was full of students dancing and partying, chanting “O-ba-ma! O-ba-ma!”
Andrea remembers that she used her flip phone to record Dylan’s onstage comments, near the end of the concert. Thus, she was able to transcribe the exact remarks.
“I was born in 1941,” said Dylan. “That was the year they bombed Pearl Harbor. I’ve been living in darkness ever since. It looks like things are going to change now.”
Bob Dylan setlist — Northrop, Nov. 4, 2008
Cat’s in the Well
The Times They Are A-Changin’
This Wheel’s on Fire
Tangled Up in Blue
Masters of War
Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again
Beyond the Horizon
Highway 61 Revisited
It’s All Right Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)
Under the Red Sky
Thunder on the Mountain
Like a Rolling Stone
Blowin’ in the Wind