He’s still got it. By it I don’t just mean talent, energy, brains, and that gravelly voice revealing not a single word with clarity, though there’s still all that. I mean that slippery quality so hard to describe: charisma. Only a few of the greats have it: of my generation’s idols, off the top of my head I’d name Bruce Springsteen and Patti Smith. But nobody’s as charismatic as Bob Dylan.
For awhile back there I thought he lost it: around the late 90’s, before the fabulous trilogy of Time Out of Mind, Love and Theft, and Modern Times, when I saw him perform in Berkeley. At that show he did only the older songs, but he’d altered the melody of the tunes and mangled the lyrics in a different way than what he does now, i.e., unintentionally. That performance seemed to be without focus, passion, or even simple motivation. In hindsight I see he was experimenting, working his way back home. He has arrived—before last night no doubt, but this is the first performance I’d seen since then. It was nearly mesmerizing, and if not for an unruly audience it would have been (more on that later). The band was tight, practiced, right in there with, for, and behind their lead man. All but five older songs, as far as I could tell, were from his most recent album, Tempest, which I don’t have—an oversight I will remedy today. A new-ish arrangement of She Belongs to Me was haunting, even better than the original. And he’s turned All Along the Watchtower into a danceable number with the addition of a few rockin’ musical interludes. But speaking of danceable…
…Here comes my tirade. The two earlier acts—Morning Jacket and Wilco, joined by Bob Weir on a few numbers—were pure rock n’ roll, loud enough that I needed earplugs, rockin’ enough that most of the audience was on its feet, including me. I like Wilco a lot, though they sound better, IMO, on their recordings. Clapping, dancing, shouting, and jumping around is entirely appropriate when these groups play. But when Bob Dylan sits down at the piano and snarls “You know something is happening/but you don’t know what it is/Do you, Mr. Jones?” it’s time to listen up. You’d be surprised what can happen to your mind during a 3- or 6-minute song played and sung by this man. It’s a different experience than hearing a rock band, and not exactly dance music.
Ya ya, Granny, I can see you kids rolling your eyes at the fuddy-duddy. Okay, so maybe you don’t want that kind of experience, maybe you don’t care one way or another. Fine. But do not prevent me from having it! Besides the dancing, the whole place was chaos during Dylan’s performance: going out to buy refreshments, socializing like they were at a party, and climbing over me to get out of the aisle. One girl had gone in and out at least 20 times during the last four hours, so when she interrupted my communion with Dylan to go visit with friends, I told her, “This is the last time!” She was stunned, but she never crossed my path again. A number of people even left the venue, as in went home, during Dylan’s performance! Who are these people?!
To backtrack for a moment: One of the show’s highlights prior to Dylan’s set was when Bob Weir, Wilco, and My Morning Jacket together sang a bunch of Grateful Dead songs. Weir’s face is showing the years, but his voice is as powerful as ever. Their set concluded with a flawless version of When I Paint My Masterpiece. As the friends I’d come with said, it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Fortunately, not everyone had Attention Deficit Disorder. As we made our way to the parking lot after the show, a young woman heard me talking to my friend about Dylan’s music, and she began asking me questions. It was her first Dylan concert, and she wondered if he might’ve been in a bad mood since he didn’t chat up the
audience, not even with a hello or a thank you. As I told her, he never does: I’ve been to five or six Dylan concerts and I’ve never heard him utter a single word other than his lyrics. She asked a few more questions, and I delighted in answering her; seldom am I asked to pass down my Dylan folklore and rock history, and I much enjoyed the role of wise elder. It almost made up for the earlier audience behavior. Almost. Young woman, if by chance you’re reading this, I thank you. May you continue to cross generational lines and to revel in our magnificent musical heritage.
- Bob Weir Guests With My Morning Jacket And Wilco At Shoreline (jambase.com)
- Bob Dylan’s ‘AmericanramA’ tour begins: How have things changed? (examiner.com)