Bob Dylan--"Ain't Talkin' (Bootleg Series version)" (mp3)
It's been common knowledge for decades that attending a Dylan concert is a crapshoot--potentially obscure songs, mumbled staccato lyrics, inconsistent musicianship, obtuse arrangements. I had the pleasure of seeing Mr. Dylan last Wednesday night, even though all of those things might have been, at least somewhat, true.
I've been thinking about the concert for several days now, expecting that mulling over the "what" will lead me to the "why." But I'm not sure that it has.
The current show is tight, with 15-16 songs, fourteen of them coming during the set and another couple as encores. All told, it clocks in at about 1 hour and 50 minutes.
HIGHLIGHTS: With 9 of the 16 songs coming from albums released before 1975, the song list has enough favorites to keep the mostly-older crowd engaged. Favorites include "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue," "Stuck Inside of Mobile," "Simple Twist Of Fate," "Just Like A Woman," "Tangled Up In Blue," "Highway 61 Revisited." On "Simple Twist Of Fate," Dylan finds a guitar signature that almost seems like it's always been hidden in the song and that now brought to the forefront makes the song shine. "Workingman's Blues" is another beautiful standout. Dylan himself takes organ solos, many of the guitar solos, to the delight of the crowd, and his harmonica solos are handled with great panache. The band is pretty tight. The setlist builds to a climax with "Ballad of a Thin Man," and the evening concludes with a sing-along second encore of "Like A Rolling Stone."
LOWLIGHTS: Everything Dylan does is in short bursts, whether he's dashing off lyrics, playing the guitar, or even blowing the beloved mouth harp. All of it is idiosyncratic rather than particularly good. He does not speak to the crowd (expected), and the band does not interact with each other, except for the occasional slightest of nods to or from Dylan to start a solo. No member of the band plays anything that is distinctive or exceptional or geared to the audience, though the drummer is highly-skilled. The stage set is equally impersonal, the band in various shades of gray, Dylan in a black suit with a wide brimmed hat. Occasional visuals from a camera over the stage or random graphics add neither coherence nor invitation. Always, the audience is on the outside, looking in. Even on a sing-along song, no one onstage is singing along, except for Dylan, who is doing his best to confound the expected rhythm of the singings. Finally, this is a rockin' show, but most of the rockin' numbers sound remarkably similar to one another, couched as they all are in a kind of rock-swing context.
People say it is hard to look away from a train wreck. Dylan is hard to look away from, but he is not a trainwreck. But what is he in 2010? Cultural icon? Masterful performer? Just a 69-year-old man? Was he so freaked out by the expectation that he be the spokesman for a generation that now he must invent little games to subvert the power of the music? Is he the ironic, over-the-hill showman playing off of his own irrelevance? Is he wrapped in so many layers of irony that whatever truth may still be at the center is either undiscernible or insignificant? Is he just a man working a carny?
There are many challenges to being Bob Dylan that I cannot understand, but there is one that intrigues me most: how do you represent 50 years of songwriting in a 2-hour, or even 3-hour, concert? Do you cherrypick to try to show all of your selves? Do you play just your new music? Do you leave entire decades untouched? Dylan opted for the latter option, working in the realms of the very old and the relatively new. That seemed to work, at least in theory, with the chance to bring new life to old chestnuts and continued energy and exploration to the newer songs.
But I play just enough music to know that if you're going to deconstruct a song, you do it for a reason, and always for the same reason--to reveal something new about it. In Dylanworld, I can't figure out what that reason is, perhaps with the exception of "Simple Twist Of Fate." The poet Anne Bradstreet once compared her poems to children. If the metaphor is accurate, Dylan's brood is being treated with ambivalence, shown off for company when he feels like it, but never allowed to have as much of the spotlight as their father.
Dylan's show, and I mean this as a comment, not a criticism, is all about seeing Dylan, knowing full well that his songs and his treatment of them will be secondary. You go to see his quirks and oddities, his jerks and gestures, his grand flourishes for a ho-hum harmonica solo. As my friend Troutking suggests, you go to bask in the "Bobness" of it all. I think he's right. Few would dare to try to get inside the mind of Dylan, but here's my shot at his 2010 self: if he can keep himself mysterious, he can keep it all interesting. That seems to be pretty "natural" for him.
Photo courtesy of Troutking.