Last night I had the opportunity to go and see the legend of Minnesota music legends, the spiritual successor to Woody Guthrie (Arlo not withstanding), Bob Dylan. Bob Zimmerman. Robert Milkwood. Whatever you wanna call him. He lived up to that status. His presence was definitely felt from front to back, and he seemed glad to be in his (original) home.
My cousin who I was with hit it right on the head when he said, “he’s no nostalgia act, is he?”. Suffice it to say after having trouble getting to our seats on the floor due to sheer volume of people, I think the entire row ahead of us emptied after about 3 songs. It went from claustrophobic feeling to just plain bare. I should make it clear that I was told (“warned” seems like too strong of language) what a modern Bob Dylan show was going to be like from several people before going. I knew what I was in for; that being said, I honestly think I still would have the same reaction had I not been aware of the style in which Dylan and his always marvelous backing band present some of the best songs of the 20th Century. I would. Cause I was fairly baffled when I heard people complaining about it for the first time, it seemed a little unjustified. Here’s the deal: none of the songs are very recognizable, especially to an untrained ear (musically, that is). Sure… if you know the lyrics to Bob Dylan songs you’ll figure it out, or if you can recognize a key instantly you definitely will. But if you have neither of things you damn well better be going into the venue with an open mind or you will be disappointed. From the look if it, this happens at his shows with some regularity. Which is such a shame. If you do go in with an open mind, you concede to him that he’s the artist and you’re the patron, you will be in for a very memorable experience.
This was the first time I had seen him, so this could be all in my head… but he felt particularly loose last night. Spry I would even say. There were numerous times where he was playing the piano, getting more fidgety and fidgety until he finally had to pop up off his bench, grab a harmonica and walk to the front of the stage to jam. Indeed some of the best moments of the night were songs that Bob was not playing an instrument during, waltzing around the stage and pointing at his metaphors and imagery before delving into another harmonica solo. Now I know where Craig Finn gets his swagger from. His voice was surprisingly good. Again though, I’m well aware of how his voice has changed with 50 some odd years of cigarettes and red wine under the weight of being “a generation’s spokesperson”. That kind of thing has got to wear on you. Like the song rearrangements though, if you think his voice is gonna sound the way it does in the 60s or 70s, you will be dissatisfied. But I thought he sounded great, and dare I say a little bit cooler with the now trademark rasp. On “Tangled Up In Blue” for example, the long drawn-out words before the chorus hits he didn’t attempt, but he hit the chorus notes pretty well. But he’s a story teller; he’s at his best when he’s rambling on about Highway 61 or not fitting into anywhere you go. “Ballad of A Thin Man” was one of my highlights of the night: the band played a pretty heavy version of the song and Bob seemed to really be feeling the lyrics (this was one of the songs he walked around to). That song — an indictment of the establishment from a confused anti-hero who, no matter what he does (including read all of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books) cannot seem to become accepted by society — ironically probably feels as personal to him in 2012 as it did in 1965. Add to that the irony of some people wanting to hear that song the way it sounded in 1965, and thinking this old version of Dylan is just too weird to enjoy, and you’ve got accidental (or perhaps intentional) brilliance.
Before the single-song encore of “Blowin’ In The Wind” (a version I didn’t even recognize initially), Dylan and co. played two of his most famous songs back to back: “Like A Rolling Stone” and “All Along The Watchtower”. It was a great one-two punch. I had heard previously a version of “Like A Rolling Stone” from earlier this year (I think from Europe gig?), so that song wasn’t too much of a surprise. And actually they don’t change it all that much, not comparatively to some of the other material. But the rendition “All Along The Watchtower” was amazing. Carefree, bluesy, even with a little snarl and attitude for good measure.
This may have been my last chance to see Dylan, and boy am I glad I did. He’s easily one of the greatest song writers — or maybe poets — of all time.