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.