How did it feel to be at the Met Philadelphia on Monday night, when Bob Dylan was the first act on stage at the spectacularly renovated North Philadelphia opera house as it reopened as a pop music venue, 110 years after its initial debut?
For Dylan himself, it’s hard to say. The Nobel Prize-winning songwriter has made a career out of hiding in plain sight, and as he sat at a baby grand piano beneath the Met’s proscenium arch, decorated with gold painted rosettes, he wasn’t giving anything away.
Over a two-hour set, backed by his superb five-piece band, the 77-year-old songwriter reached back as far as “Blowin’ in the Wind,” the 1963 folk anthem from the year he first played Philadelphia, at the Ethical Society on Rittenhouse Square. But the Bard didn’t utter a single word about the majestic building whose second life he was ushering in.
Still, for the Dylan fans who packed the sold-out, 3,400-seat venue — and for Philadelphia-area concertgoers in general — it was a special occasion of the first order, an opportunity to experience the most significant new music venue to open here since the Kimmel Center in 2001.
Long out of commission as a concert venue, the Met was saved from the wrecking ball by the Rev. Mark Hatcher of the Holy Ghost Headquarters Church (which will continue to hold services there) and its co-owner, developer Eric Blumenfeld.
In partnership with concert promoter Live Nation, the 110,000-square-foot building underwent a $56 million overhaul that transformed it from a little-seen, glorious ruin on North Broad Street to a dramatically refurbished showplace that looks to spur further development along the city’s central corridor.
The Met is a legitimate opera house, with its original “POH” crest — for Philadelphia Opera House, as it was known when built by impresario Oscar Hammerstein I in 1908 — initialed into the tile work on the floor of the building’s Broad Street lobby.
The intelligence of the acoustic design of the double-balconied theater, which was used by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy to record several albums in the 1970s, could be heard on Monday night during Dylan’s performance.
In the comfortable, removable seats on the orchestra floor — which has been flattened to make for a less back-breaking experience during standing general admission shows, such as rock band Weezer next Wednesday, Dec. 12, and Philly rapper and singer PnB Rock on Dec. 28 — the sound was crisp, bright, and uncluttered.
That went for guitarist Charlie Sexton’s blues leads on the grinding “Cry a While,” from 2001’s Love & Theft, and his spicy fills on the rollicking “Thunder on the Mountain,” from 2006’s Modern Times, a hard-driving highlight from a show that gathered strength as it moved on.
And it also was true for the piano-key tinkling and the croaky but impressively articulated (by his standards) vocals from Dylan throughout the night, whether he was declaring his romantic bitterness in “Love Sick” or performing one of his meaner love songs, “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” with real tenderness, nearly unaccompanied.
But what was most impressive about the sound — engineered by industry-leading Lititz, Pa., firm Clair Bros. — was how it traveled throughout the building. Midway through the show, I rode an elevator up to the fourth floor to check out the perspective from the point farthest from the stage.
Up there, standing by one of the 25 bars where lines were short, and local craft beer went for $10 and cocktails for $14 to $18, the sound was pristine. “Early Roman Kings” came across with proper swagger, and Dylan brought the verses of “Like a Rolling Stone” down to a near hush, communicating intimacy even at a great distance, his voice stunningly present even up in the nosebleeds.
But while its sound on opening night attained concert hall standards, the Met didn’t feel overly precious on Monday. In its renovated form, it’s not as ornate as the Academy of Music, the South Broad opera house it was built to compete with.
Instead, it felt more like classy rock venue, a grand ballroom suitable for a big night out to take in popular entertainment, of which there are plenty of types in coming weeks: Philly rocker Kurt Vile is playing Dec. 29, HBO comedian John Oliver performing on Dec. 30 and 31, and North Philly rap star Meek Mill playing two shows in support of his new Championships album on March 15 and 16.
For Dylan, there were some issues with the sight lines. Since the floor isn’t sloped, concertgoers close to the front are looking up at the five-foot-high stage, rather than gazing at it at eye level.
From my perspective, that meant that when Dylan was seated behind his piano, all i could see was the bushy hair atop his head; Donnie Herron, his multi-instrumental string player, was rarely visible.
Thankfully, Dylan himself alternately sat and stood from song to song, and did wander out to stage center to sing the spooky “Scarlet Town,” at his old-fashioned microphone stand like a ghostly lounge lizard, to give everybody one good look at him.
Those sightline problems likely won’t matter for most acts, who aren’t spending their time hidden behind a piano. Still, I suspect that the best seats in the house are not those on the floor, but in the three levels of boxes to the left and right of the stage, affording a bird’s-eye view of the performers.
The Met is a part of a heartening trend of music venues opening in Philadelphia, from the similar-in-size Fillmore to Manayunk’s much-smaller acoustic room, the Locks at Sona, to Market East’s mid-size City Winery, scheduled to open next year.
As the number of venues grows along with the millennial population in Center City, there are always attendant worries about whether the scene can support all the rooms. The spiffy new Met seems particularly well-positioned to thrive, particularly since it can be adapted to smaller capacities by curtaining off seats.
And when a new venue pops up in a part of the city where out-of-town music fans aren’t accustomed to going, there’s the attendant anxiety: “Where am I going to park?” On Monday, that kind of angst seemed unwarranted. The Fairmount and Girard stations on the Broad Street Line are close by, for those using public transportation. Nearby lots were charging as much as $40, but parking on the street was easy to find and free.
As the curtain-raiser for the over-a-century-old building, Dylan was an appropriate choice, a venerable institution in his own right, a living legend only 33 years younger than the building itself, but still out there raising a ruckus and making mischief on his Never Ending Tour. For decades, he’s been a divisive performer. He rearranges his most familiar songs — my seatmate did not recognize the somewhat countrified, fiddle-featured “Blowin‘ in the Wind” — and his voice is often froggy and never pretty. (He also is still engaged with the endless process of rewriting his own lyrics. A tough, punchy “Gotta Serve Somebody” included this freshly snarky couplet: “You may be on painkillers, you may be medicated / You may be simple-minded, it might be unrelated.” )
Monday night’s show — in which no photos by audience members or professional photos were allowed, by edict of the headliner — was excellent, among the strongest I’ve seen in 30 years of Dylan-going. But along with the enthusiastic aficionados, there were undoubtedly casual fans who left the Met disgruntled, most likely by the performance rather than the venue.
That’s what Dylan does. He’s unafraid to alienate people and drive them away, because his priority is to follow his own artistic imperatives. Sometimes it can seem like that’s due to indifference, and that idea is encouraged by a line in the first song of the night: “I used to care, but things have changed.”
That, however, is an intentionally deceptive misdirection, if not an outright lie. That once again became clear at the Met, through the level of commitment to his material and engagement with his songs throughout the night. There’s no question that Dylan still cares, it’s just that he cares to do things his way, not yours.