Bob Dylan Live - Responding to the Complaints
I’m stepping away from my typical Noirvember postings today to talk about another passion of mine, prompted by an article in the Baltimore Sun a coworker shared with me recently. This article was published five days before the Bob Dylan concert at UMBC (University of Maryland, Baltimore County), which I attended Tuesday night, November 12, 2019, with two coworkers.
I probably shouldn’t use the word “passion” when it comes to Dylan, or maybe I should, otherwise why would I be writing this? I’m much more than a casual fan, but don’t consider myself a worshipper at the Dylan altar; somewhere in between. Although he doesn’t need it, I’ve been defending Bob and justifying my admiration for him for over 40 years. Dylan fans are constantly bombarded with accusations (“He can’t sing” and “He steals lyrics and poetry from others” are two of the biggest) and countless impersonations. After awhile Dylan fans realize you have to choose your battles. Difference in taste is one thing, and so is ribbing (usually good-natured), but ignorance is something else entirely. The ignorance displayed by some of the comments in the article (not the writer’s) should be challenged. Let’s tackle some of those comments:
“He doesn’t interact with his audience.”
Of course he does. Do you make that same claim about writers? Just because they’re not in the same room doesn’t mean they’re not interacting with you. When you read, you’re bringing all your experiences and emotions with you, interacting with the work. It’s the same with a concert performance. Dylan’s putting it out there and, depending on what you bring to the song/s, you react. (You can say the same for actors, dancers, painters, practically any branch of the arts.)
What people normally mean when they say this is that Dylan doesn’t engage in non-musical conversation with his audience. Listen to The Bootleg Series Vol. 6: Bob Dylan Live 1964, Concert at Philharmonic Hall and other live recordings from that era and you’ll find that Dylan was downright chatty. All of that changed radically at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival when, defying the tradition of all-acoustic music at the festival, Dylan and his band unleashed electric guitars. Accounts vary wildly, but most agree that fans were outraged at Dylan, booing and shouting at him and the band. (By the way, Dylan didn’t play at Newport again for 37 years.) Would you be willing to engage in conversation with your audiences after such an event? I doubt it. Anyway, you don’t pay money for Dylan to talk to you during a concert. You come to hear his music. If you want to talk to him, make an appointment, meet him for a drink or something. But if you do talk to him, you’d better have your game ready. (See the link below. Ignore the subtitles.)
“He’s constantly re-imagining his songs.”
Imagine that you’ve been singing the same songs for more than half a century. No, really imagine that. Even if you’re not a singer or songwriter, imagine that you’ve told the same joke or related the same anecdote for 60 years. There may be people who haven’t heard it before, but you have. You wrote it. You’d probably try to find some way of making it different and interesting. Dylan is not going to cater to your expectations of what a song/performer/poet/musician/cultural icon should be. I don’t care if he decides to perform “Like a Rolling Stone” as a hard-driving rock song, a reggae tune, a waltz, a dirge, in gospel style, as a nursery rhyme, or whatever. Part of the fun of being a Dylan fan is wondering how he’s going to change his songs, but you can bet they won’t be performed the same way they appeared on their original releases.
“His voice is gone” or “He can’t sing.”
Have you been listening for the past 60 years? He’s never been a soothing, melodious type of singer. From the very beginning, part of the appeal of Dylan was how ordinary his voice sounded. Sure, he consciously imitated Woody Guthrie and scores of others, but Dylan’s voice was never musically noteworthy. The ordinariness of how he sang - just as much as what he sang - connected with people. Dylan said the things we wanted to say in a voice that was no better than ours. Again, several people who attend his concerts complain that he doesn’t sing like he does on the recordings. See the above paragraph. Same answer.
That’s not to say that Bob in concert can’t sometimes be a frustrating experience. I’ve seen Dylan live since 1988 and I’ve noticed that he often tends to delay (in what we’ve come to expect from listening to the recordings) his entrances on songs, then rushing through the lyrics to catch up. If that doesn’t make sense, here’s a visual way of looking at a famous Dylan chorus:
The an-swer my friend - -
Is blowin’ - in the wind - -
The an-swer is blowin’ - in the wind
But Dylan might sing it live like this:
- - - - Theanswermyfriend -
- - - is blowininthewind -
- theanswer - - - isblowininthewind
Does this imply that he’s not concerned with delivering the lines? Or that he’s having difficulty remembering what words come next? I don’t think so. The fans know the words, but newcomers might not, so for them, yes, this is probably a frustrating experience. To be honest, I feared the concert at UMBC would be filled with Bob singing like this, but it didn’t last. To my surprise (and delight), Bob was as clear as a bell on most of the songs the rest of the evening, even singing long sustained notes, which I’d never heard live. “Lenny Bruce,” “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven,” “Girl from the North Country” and others were downright beautiful.
“He didn’t sing any of his old songs.”
Nobody (probably including Bob) knows just how many songs Dylan has written, but he’s recorded over 300 originals. Even if he only sang a tenth of those at any concert, we’d be there a long time, and the dude’s 78. But no old songs, you say? Let’s look at the setlist from the UMBC concert:
Things Have Changed (single, Wonder Boys sountrack, 2000)
It Ain’t Me Babe (Another Side of Bob Dylan, 1964)
Highway 61 Revisited (Highway 61 Revisited, 1965)
Simple Twist of Fate (Blood on the Tracks, 1975)
Can’t Wait (Time Out of Mind, 1997)
When I Paint My Masterpiece (Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits Vol. II, 1971)
Honest with Me (Love and Theft, 2001)
Tryin’ to Get to Heaven (Time Out of Mind, 1997)
Make You Feel My Love (Time Out of Mind, 1997)
Pay in Blood (Tempest, 2012)
Lenny Bruce (Shot of Love, 1981)
Early Roman Kings (Tempest, 2012)
Girl from the North Country (The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, 1963)
Not Dark Yet (Time Out of Mind, 1997)
Thunder on the Mountain (Modern Times, 2006)
Soon After Midnight (Tempest, 2012)
Gotta Serve Somebody (Slow Train Coming, 1979)
Ballad of a Thin Man (Highway 61 Revisited, 1965)
It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry (Highway 61 Revisited, 1965)
That’s 19 songs with the following breakdown by decade:
1960s = 5
1970s = 3
1980s = 1
1990s = 4
2000s = 3
2010s = 3
That’s six decades represented with the ‘60s covering a substantial portion of the show. I don’t know how you can complain about that.
The last time I saw Bob (probably 10 years ago at Merriweather Post Pavilion) he mostly sat at an electric keyboard, playing guitar once or twice. I remember that as a disappointing show and hoped he would stick mostly to his guitar this time. At UMBC he opened on guitar with “Things Have Changed” and performed one encore (“Ballad of a Thin Man”) on guitar, but mostly played an acoustic piano and even sang frequently with only a mic. Yet it seemed that Bob was having a great time, sometimes even moving to the music (albeit a bit awkwardly - Bob has never been graceful onstage). Clearly he was having a good time. If he wasn’t, why does he keep touring?
Many years ago, I saw Dylan at the Verizon Center (now called the Capital One Arena) in Washington, D.C. It wasn’t a sell-out, but it was a pretty big crowd. After the second encore, Dylan came out and stood at the edge of the stage and looked out over the audience. It was a look that conveyed a bit of confusion. The crowd was going wild, but Bob’s expression seemed to say, “Wha - - - Why are all these people here?” They’re enjoying it, dude, that’s why.
Last week at UMBC, Bob was enjoying the show just as much as we were. Maybe even more. He doesn’t care about the haters and detractors. He’s been doing this for 60 years. He’s enjoying himself. And regardless of what people think of him, he’s earned it. Keep on keepin’ on, Bob.