Casual Splendor: The Met Philly makes its debut with Bob Dylan in the driver’s seat

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A sold-out crowd awaits Bob Dylan at opening night of The Met Philly | photo by John Vettese for WXPN

A chilly breeze cut up Poplar Street yesterday morning, blowing broken caution tape and discarded Wawa bags above the heads of dignitaries gathered for the ribbon cutting of The Met Philly. Out on the building’s North Broad Street face, a team of carpenters scrambled to reinforce windows and hammer out other down-to-the-wire touch ups.

“Did you bring your checkbook?” developer Eric Blumenfeld asked his colleagues from the podium. “We still have some work to do.”

The crowd chuckled at his quip, but it seems that The Met will be well into its inaugural season before work on the building is completely finished; and not for nothing, either, since renovating a century-old music venue is a delicate task. Not that the casual concertgoer will really notice the ongoing work. The parts of the venue that matter the most — the concert hall, the bars and other hospitality centers — were mostly in full swing last night for the opening concert with Bob Dylan and his band. And from there, the calendar only gets more exciting: John Legend tonight, Lindsey Stirling in a couple weeks, Kurt Vile near year’s end. As Live Nation’s regional president Geoff Gordon said upon taking the mic, “We don’t want to be pigeonholed into one genre, whether it be Tyler Perry or Charlie Wilson, whether it be PnB Rock, Mariah Carey, or Bob Dylan. We’re going to do it all.”

Returning to the venue just ahead of showtime, the disarray of the morning — confetti strewn around the streets, construction gear lining the sidewalks — had all been swept away for the glitz and glamour of a searchlight casting a radiant golden glow on the building’s white brick facade and arched windows. Once inside, though, the mood of the night became remarkably more casual. This didn’t feel weighed down by the formality of, say, seeing a show at the Kimmel Center or Academy of Music, where you’re likely to be surrounded by concertgoers wearing button-up shirt / tie combos or and cocktail dresses, sipping wine out of plastic cups. Some of that was going on at The Met, sure, but for the most part the vibe was a rock show audience in a venue filled with grandeur. 

The Met is a vertical expanse, with a seemingly infinite number of tiers between the lower orchestra and upper mezzanine. Actually, strike that: it’s only four tiers otal — the semicircular Grand Salle, the more robust Loge, and various box seats peppering both levels — but as you’re on the floor, it feels like wow, this place just keeps going UP, all the way to the coffer ceilings at the front of the house. Facing forward to await Mr. Zimmerman’s grand entrance, we see pillars on either side of the stage, etched with ornamental gold filigree. Stepping into this building does feel like stepping backwards through time, but not in a stuffy or kitschy way; moreover, it feels like yes, we can still have nice things.

The gig started somewhat promptly, with the man of the hour following his band out on the stage at five past 8. Opening with “Things Have Changed” from the soundtrack to the film Wonder Boys, we were quickly treated to what we’ve come to expect from a Bob Dylan concert in 2018: a crew of top-notch musicians grooving, with the man at the mic croaking asthmatically along, his vocals either rushing or dragging the rhythm. Which sounds like a knock, I’m sure, but believe me when I say this was a very good set. Dylan seemed in extremely cheery spirits, and dove headfirst into the music. He straddled his grand piano in leather pant power stance before launching into a solo on “Highway 61 Revisited”; he stepped to center stage to cup a ribbon mic, crooner style, for “Scarlet Town” from 2012’s Tempest.

Dylan looked like he was having fun, and instrumentally, he gelled remarkably well with his bandmates Charlie Sexton on guitar, Tony Gamier on bass, George Receli on drums, and multi-instrumentalist Donnie Herron. His harmonica came out for the first time on “A Simple Twist of Fate,” and his playing sounded better than ever, notes folding emotively into one another, achieving a lot without trying to do too much. By comparison, his piano skills are a bit more touch and go, sometimes both in the same song (his lead part in “When I Paint My Masterpiece” started off with a rudimentary, childlike scale that flowed into more complex variations on the song’s melody), but he pulls it off. And while the overall ambience of the evening was a driving honky-tonk blues brawl, the moments where Dylan’s voice was its best — and there were plenty of them — are the moments where he wasn’t pushing so hard. The best song of the night, a mostly solo piano rendition of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Allright” built out by bowed bass and ambient guitar, sounded sublime.

But how did the venue sound? That’s a bit harder to say. Certainly a lot of what we were hearing last night was at the discretion of Dylan’s touring sound engineers, hence Dylan’s voice being propped a little awkwardly upfront in the mix rather than everybody stepping back and taking advantage of the room’s natural acoustics. But perhaps — and herein lies another challenge to fancy venue conventions — that’s not entirely necessary? Not every “theatre” concert needs to be of the Tower sort, where artists try to play off the room’s cavernous space and end up swallowed in tinny, muddled reverberation. Maybe it’s fine to have the artist onstage push back against the room with robust amplification, giving the crowd a good auditory experience as well as a good visual one. That seemed to be the mission last night, and while it was patchy, it mostly succeeded. Upon exiting, I noticed the seats in the further reaches of the orchestra had a second line of ceiling speakers reenforcing the stage PA, meaning the sound probably carried the same from front to back.

Exiting back out to Poplar Street, some concertgoers grabbed a late-night brisket sandwich from the Baby Blue BBQ food truck parked out front, while others strolled down to the Girard Avenue subway stop, or caught a Lyft — which was, remarkably, not operating under surge prices just yet. The Met Philly’s first sold-out show was a wrap, seemingly without too much burden being placed on its Francisville neighbors. While it remains to be seen how well that will continue as its life span plays out, at the ribbon cutting ceremony, City Council president Darrell Clarke was optimistic.    

“I really want to thank the residents of north Philadelphia,” Clarke said. “We’ve seen it: for years, uptown was flourishing, North Broad was the place to be. Unfortunately things changed, and there was some thought that maybe we were continuing on the decline. But the residents of North Philadelphia hung in there and said ‘no, it’s gonna come back.’ And daggonit, it’s coming back.”

Photo by Anne Gemmel

Setlist
Things Have Changed
It Ain’t Me, Babe
Highway 61 Revisited
Simple Twist of Fate
Cry a While
When I Paint My Masterpiece
Honest With Me
Tryin’ to Get to Heaven
Scarlet Town
Make You Feel My Love
Pay in Blood
Like a Rolling Stone
Early Roman Kings
Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right
Love Sick
Thunder on the Mountain
Soon After Midnight
Gotta Serve Somebody

It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry
Blowin’ in the Wind

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