Friday, May 01, 2009

His Bobness

So I went to see Bob Dylan at the NIA in Brum on Wednesday night.

My excellent friend Martpol, who had seen him in Cardiff the night before, texted me before the gig with the news that His Bobness was on pretty good form but had played only keyboards and harmonica, refusing to pick up a guitar all night. I relayed this information to my fellow Bobwatchers and warned them not to expect any axe-wielding. And sure enough, straight away Bob comes to the front of the stage and straps on the guitar. Well that’s Bob Dylan for you. Attempting to second-guess the man is quite futile.

As it turned out, after finishing that one song – an almost wholly unrecognisable rendition of It Ain’t Me Babe – he put the guitar away and performed the rest of the evening’s setlist on keyboards, harmonica and impenetrable guttural croak.

It was largely a mixture of songs from Modern Times (played but not sung pretty straight) and, yes, almost wholly unrecognisable renditions of old classics, the most successful of which was, I thought, Ballad of a Thin Man and the least successful of which was a quite remarkably twee finale of Blowin in the Wind.

A strange experience, watching Dylan. Even though you know perfectly well when you buy the ticket that you’re not going to get an evening of 'Sing-Along-a-Bob’s Golden Oldies', the ear still strains for familiarity. When a lyric or chord sequence sounds ‘right’, the heart leaps. This happens rarely, of course, and there is zero communication with the audience. And yet, frustrating and confusing as it was, it was extremely enjoyable. He does have a rather good band with him. We left in high spirits. I’ve seen Dylan now, and he's not dead yet, and I probably don’t particularly need to see him in concert again, but I might.

I’ve been struggling to write a neat little insight about all this for you. The best I can come up with is that we need to think of Dylan’s recorded output in an unconventional way. I remember being startled by a passage in Chronicles Vol 1, where Dylan claims that, for a great many of the songs we regard as classics, he has only ever actually performed them, either at all or in that particular arrangement, once. On the day they were recorded. Never before and never since, and yet because they were captured on immortal albums, they’re as familiar to fans as Happy Birthday. But Dylan has no interest in being tied to those songs and arrangements just because they happen to be on CDs. He is a performer of live music on a Never-Ending Tour and Time is Meaningless.

To frame it another way: there is Bob Dylan and there are Bob Dylan’s songs, and as Humpty Dumpty put it, the question is: who is to be Master? For most artists, the songs are in charge because audiences demand it. But for Dylan the songs are tools to be used in the production of whatever kind of noise he feels like producing at this stage in his life. The rest of the world can take it or leave it, but it usually catches up, eventually.


jonathan law said...

I've seen Dylan twice, both times at the Hammersmith Apollo back in the early 90s. Nice medium-sized venue, small stripped down band, should have been great. On the first occasion, it was: not, perhaps, the most nuanced performance but – as Professor Ricks probably never put it – he rocked like a bastard. A year later at the same venue and he was beyond bad: dull, incoherent, apparently very drunk. It's not just the audience who didn’t know what song he was playing – he hardly seemed to know himself.

So with that in mind I was pretty amused by this comment in the Sheffield Herald, by someone called Trevor Neal – probably because it's at once so right and so utterly wrong:

”I have seen about 25 Dylan shows over the years and I guess that about seven or eight have been superb, not a good average. If Dylan worked for you and only delivered one good piece of work every three you would have at least given him a verbal and written warning.”

Well I'm sure Dylan’s status as legend and enigma and all the rest allows him to get away with murder sometimes, and I suppose we shouldn’t be so ready to let him off with an "Oh well, that’s Bob". But the idea of Human Resources sitting the man down and warning him that a customer-feedback analysis measuring his performance against specific operational and behavioural indicators in Key Performance Areas had shown a shortfall on several dimensions ...

Hey Skipper said...

The rest of the world can take it or leave it ...I'll leave it, thanks.

I think it safe to say he has written some intriguing lyrics.

But to my ears, he is neither a particularly gifted musician, and must have learned his singing skills from a dentist's drill.

His allure is decidedly non-obvious.

malty said...

Watching damages at the moment, all about a bunch of wonderfully likeable lawyers, Glen Close at her ball breaking best and Ted Danson, white haired, as a sort of American Fred the shred. For the life of me I wish that I had not started, he's forever compromised. I only want to remember him as the dirty hound dog Sam Malone in Cheers, not as a clapped out actor taking whatever he can get.
Same with Dylan, the Stones et al.
Nothing can bring back the original dynamic, ever.

Come to think of it that applies to me as well.

I had dynamic once you know.

Oh yes I did.

Saw the Stones live in their prime. I was so pissed I thought they sang "I see your hacksaw and I want to bring it back"

The burd I was with had to drive us back, she couldn't drive, I swear we drove over Vauxhall bridge four times, Car abandoned near Keston ponds.

Found it the following week though.

Now that you couldn't replicate today.

Brit said...

That comment, Malty, belongs I suppose in the post immediately below. How should rockers grow old? As David says, if Mick still can't get no satisfaction, surely it's time to give up...

His Bobness avoids the problem of the impossibility of recapturing the dynamic by not attempting to. Time is Meaningless, remember. The cunning old bugger is always one step ahead of the game, you've got to hand it to him. (And anyway, he was booed when he was best, in 1965.)

Daniella said...

Seeing Dylan live in Düsseldorf, Germany, a few years back where he finished the concert by walking off stage accompanied by a military march, left me a tad confused. Reading about his aversion against Germans due to his Jewish roots after this rather strange encounter has enlightened the farewell. I suppose it just helps me remember that possessing intelligence (in whichever form- in this case be it musical or textual) does not make someone a sincere person.

martpol said...

Thanks for the review, Brit, which neatly avoids me beating myself up about not writing one. You've summed things up very well.

He did the terribly twee Blowin' in the Wind at our gig in Cardiff, too - the melody, instrumentation and virtually everything else bore no relation to the original.

Best in our gig was an absolutely gripping Masters of War. Runners-up were the pleasure of his surprise opener (Rainy Day Women) and a hard-rocking All Along the Watchtower which owed more than a little to Hendrix's reworking.

Worst was the sound. Disappointingly, they'd seemingly turned the rhythm section up to 11 and everything else to a mere 9, making the distortion ridiculous. It was as loud as the Prodigy gig we'd seen a few weeks earlier. Probably Bob's doing again - bet he listened to the soundcheck, thought "I'm not having that, people will enjoy themselves", and sabotaged the set-up.