Monday, October 18, 2010

Breaking Down Bob (Birmingham, 10/13/2010)

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.


jed said...

great post, Bob. was in in the Alabama Theatre? is that your photo?

troutking said...

Excellent post, Bob. I would add four other attractions to a Bob show in 2010: 1) he's 69 years old. How does he remember all those lyrics---staccato or not---and play guitar, organ and harp leads for 2 hours? That's pretty impressive. 2) he does remake songs regularly and it's fun to be there as music is being made anew. It's amazing that songs are being retooled 20, 30, 40, 50 years later and he's still coming up with interesting new versions. 3) Though you say the audience is looking in, there is a certain attraction to the idea that Bob clearly needs to perform (otherwise he wouldn't play 100 shows a year), but he won't acknowledge that he's pleasing anyone but himself. 4) he will say "thank you, friends" and I like being Bob's friend.

Neil said...

Bob doesn't make me feel like his friend. If he is a friend, he's the sullen one that never speaks, and who you stop inviting on nights out because it's too much like hard work.

I saw him (for the 2nd time) at the Hop Farm Festival this year, and it was very interesting to see the audience reactions. It seemed like some of the people hadn't heard him since the 60s or 70s, and were expecting him to actually sing, or to play some acoustic songs.

It didn't really seem like anyone was enjoying it, but there were still people who wouldn't hear criticism, as if it's wrong to not enjoy a Bob Dylan show.

You have to be honest with yourself. No matter how many amazing songs he's written, you have to accept that he hasn't got a voice anymore. And if you don't like his "rock-swing" treatment of every song, then you're probably not going to enjoy the show.

On top of that, you can't even see him anyway.

I was quite happy to wander off and find something else to watch. And that's my choice.

Bob said...

I suppose the beauty of Dylan is that I agree with every single statement above from both of you.

Except one. I don't find the quality of his voice to be an impediment to enjoying his songs. Certainly, it fits beautifully with songs like "Spirit On The Water" or "Workingman's Blues." It's the cadence of the way he sings many of the lyrics (live) that can irritate me, though sometimes not.

There are many rooms in the house of Bob, eh?

Thom Anon said...

NPR is streaming Bob's Witmark Demos over here:


troutking said...

Frankly, I AM being honest with myself. Bob has never had a great voice, but he's never been a better SINGER than he is now. Except, I agree with you Bob, when he does the staccato thing in concert at times. His singing on Modern Times and "Love and Theft" is the best of his career. As to him being unknowable, I have two explanations. One, maybe, Neil, you were too far away, but there are subtle clues in the facial expressions and body language of what Bob is feeling during the show. Two, maybe YOU should be honest with yourself. Maybe Bob is just too complicated for you and you just want "friends" who are professionally happy and suck up to their fans all the time. If that's the case, then, yes, you should wander off to the stage where Justin Bieber or Kelly Clarkson is playing. Yep, that is your choice.

Billy said...

1. Clearly Trout sees Dylan as a friend, because people don't get this worked up otherwise. (Sadly, I don't even get this worked up when people insult my actual friends.)

2. I have never, that I'm aware of, had to pay upwards of $50-100 to see a friend, much less one who doesn't have much to say to me beyond what he's saying to everyone else at the same time. I guess it's reasonable to consider paying that for a legendary performer, but friends shouldn't be that expensive.

3. @Trout - Dude, I'd like to think that the world of music fandom has enough room in it that someone can find Dylan less than appealing without having to own all of Justin Bieber's masterworks. That, frankly, is the music equivalent of Tea Party extremism talk.

troutking said...

Come on, Billy. Don't take me so literally. You, of all people, should recognize rhetorical exaggeration. Bob is my friend in the same way that Bruce, Barack, Frank Lloyd Wright, Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David and Pete Seeger are my "friends." They are people I like and admire, whose work brings me joy, not people I'm hanging out with when I don't come to your poker game. So please don't set up a straw man that you can easily knock down. THAT's Tea Party talk. What I was really responding to was Neil's implication that I was not being honest with myself because my opinion of Bob was different than his, as if he had a monopoly on "honest" truth and I was suffering from some kind of Marxist false consciousness. Oops, now there's your Tea Party talk.

Bob said...

All I know is this: DYLAN NIGHT is coming! Be there, or else it is pretty likely that you will miss it.