I saw Bob Dylan in concert a couple of weekends ago. I took my mother-in-law along, who has trouble walking, so we got to use her disabled badge and park inside the stadium.
A couple of weeks prior, they sent us instructions to access the parking space. The email subject line was ‘Mobility Parking Bob Dylan’.
‘Mobility Parking Bob Dylan’ sounds like the long-awaited, much slower, follow-up to The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.
I went to the concert expecting age-appropriate Dylan classics such as:
– The Tyres (On My Wheelchair), They Need A-Changing
– Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right…I’m Senile
– Subterranean Hip-Replacement Blues
– Like The Rolling Stones
– A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall (And I’ve Forgotten My Umbrella)
– All Along The Wheelchair
– Lay Lady Lay (It’s Naptime)
– Stuck Inside My Mobility Scooter With The Memphis Blues Again
– Blowing In The Wind (Flatulence Remix)
And of course, I was expecting Mr Dylan to perform under his real name, Robert Zimmerframe.
The truth was far scarier.
Bob is Bob, and Bob gets to do what he wants to do. Or so the chorus of staunch Dylan fans seem to recite, every time a criticism of his live performances is uttered. It’s like a reflex mechanism. They can’t help it.
You see, Bob Dylan no longer performs Bob Dylan songs live in concert. He sings songs with the same titles as the ones on his records, and (I’m guessing) with the same lyrics, but the music is something else, something new, something strange. And saying that he sings these songs is very generous, for he doesn’t even sing anymore. He just expels an odd sound, indecipherable to most people. I’m sure he’s trying to get words out, but his enunciation is just lost to the ages.
Critical reviews of his Auckland show were almost universally positive, with the caveat that ‘it wasn’t for everybody’. Because it’s Bob Dylan, right? The man changed culture as much as any politician of the twentieth century. His influence on the music world is immeasurable. So does that give him the right to do what he wants on stage? Of course it does. But then again, any artist can do whatever they want. That’s the very nature of art. It’d be boring otherwise, and generally is.
I can understand the absence of big screens above the stage. If Bob doesn’t like being recorded, that’s fine. But the policing of mobile phones seemed a little heavy-handed. Multiple PA announcements before the show warned that phones were not to be taken out inside the arena ‘at the request of artist management’, which just sounded a little like the energy-allergic paranoia of Michael McKean’s character on TV’s Better Call Saul. I managed to get a few blurry photos, and took a couple of videos under my jacket. A couple in the rows below us were not so lucky and were caught by the phone police. They were asked to follow a staff member out onto the concourse, a journey from which they never came back. As a result, I feel like I’ve smuggled something out of East Germany.
The sound itself also left a lot to be desired. The first two or three songs were some of the worst sounding music I’ve ever experienced at a big concert. The sound mix was all over the place, and the band just didn’t seem to be gelling. Then something just clicked during a song featuring the accompaniment of a fiddle-player, and it got better and better as the night progressed.
I’m just sad when I imagine how good a Dylan concert could be. ‘Sometimes he can be transcendent,’ somebody told me on Facebook. ‘And other times he can be…less than transcendent.’ Somebody else warned me that he doesn’t do jukebox set-lists, and while I’m sure that a greatest hits set would have made a lot of people happy last week, I’d have been content with something else. If he’d have played anything – anything – and actually sounded like Dylan, I’d have been happy.
But there were a couple of moments in the concert where he did sound like the Dylan everybody remembers. Sat behind his baby-grand on stage, he blew into his harmonica, and that beautiful wailing sound breathed in and out, filling the arena. It’s the sound that makes my dog sing along to Bob’s records. Right then, he could have been the Bob Dylan of 1965, or the Bob Dylan of any decade since. That truly was transcendent.
Hit: All I Really Want To Do
Hidden Gem: I Shall Be Released