Bob Dylan had just begun his set on the final night of the Austin City Limits Music Festival Sept. 16 when I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was Jim, my editor, saying hello. "I promise I won't write about Dylan again!" I told him. I lied.
Well, not exactly lied (honesty is paramount to me and even a political commitment of sorts). And since I am a Dylan fanatic since my youth and more so the longer I live, I love writing/reading about/pondering/discussing Bob. And reactions that in the wake of that Dylan show prompted me to write about him yet again.
My friend Nanette and I had a blast listening to Bob, guessing which song he was starting up with a new and different arrangement, digging on the interplay among Dylan and the band members. She's a good 14 years younger than me and first saw Dylan in her teens while living in London. She gets it when it comes to Bob, and those are the kind of people it is a joy to see a Dylan show with.
Then as we got back to the car to head home, a young lass among the people getting into the car next to us whined, "Bob Dylan was horrible." I bit my tongue. Then on the Rants & Raves section of Austin Craigslist over the following days, people posted bitching about how he's a terrible performer, can't sing, wouldn't allow the cameras for the big screen video system to shoot close-ups some even floated theory that it wasn't Dylan.
Sure, his voice was bit constricted for the first two or so songs -- he is 66; come on, Bob, do some vocal warm-ups before hitting the stage -- but once he kicked in, he sang with his usual amazing phrasing. Yeah, he didn't enunciate like a pop singer. Instead, he used his voice like he plays his harmonica, swooping and swirling around the melody. He was singing with his voice as an instrument among the many on stage with him.
It struck me as sad that in the self-proclaimed "Live Music Capital of the World," people didn't enjoy music that was as live as it gets. Back in 1981, about eight years before I moved here, I was visiting and got to see Chuck Berry play two back to back shows one night at a fine old theater downtown. He always has the promoter hire the band -- which has made for some dodgy Berry shows I'd otherwise seen -- and the bass, drums and keyboard players were all crackerjack players.
From the side of the stage during the first show, I watched Berry check out the players as he started up the songs and glanced their way to see if they knew the number. And as the show went on, he was obviously impressed that they not only knew his songs but could follow his lead and lock into his groove and where he was going. By the second show they were like his longtime band, and Berry was grinning from ear to ear as they all rocked and grooved together. It remains one of the most memorable nights of music I've seen among many, many, many thousands.
Dylan plays it similarly even though he brings the band along. People I know who have played with him talk about how he doesn't have a set list of songs to play, just starts up a song -- sometimes in a new key than he played it before -- and lets it roll. The players have to listen and lock in if they can.
Yeah, it sometimes means that Dylan takes a few numbers to hit a groove, as it did at the ACL Fest show I just saw. But once they did, the two guitarists and the guitar, steel and mandolin player began to soar. (Kudos to the amazing Tony Garnier on bass, the longest Dylan sideman ever since the late 1980s, who holds down the bottom and is a firm peg that everything works around). And it was obvious that Bob was having a fine time up there on stage,
The point is that what Dylan does isn't just live music but music that is alive, as music should be. Those who didn't like the show -- one Craigslist post said he is "one of the worst performers to ever 'grace' a stage" and anyone who liked it is "either tasteless, deaf, or and [sic] idiot" -- perhaps suffer from the sad syndrome of being pre-programmed to want a re-creation of what they hear on record. Rather than live the music, they want to relive it. Sad.
Dylan may not be writing the great political songs he once did (though he still is writing great songs), but his approach to shows in the never-ending tour he has been on for nearly two decades is certainly a political act of entertainment. He refuses to let the music and the songs get stale and rote. He isn't posing for the video screens framing the stage. He is a true believer in the power of musical spontaneity. His approach asks you to really listen. And I, for one, love it. But obviously many have no idea how to deal with it, and are so burdened by either expectations or the usual show business conventions or want to be entertained rather than engaged by the music or all of the above that they miss the genius and power of what is unfolding in front of them.
My educated guess is that Dylan plays music the way he does to keep himself interested and be what he always has said he is -- a working musician. It's yet another reason to admire him, in this case for going against the grain of performing pretty much the same show, night after night, playing to what the crowd wants. Dylan continues to defy expectations, and for those open enough to follow his lead, there are moments every night of stunning brilliance. Long may he run.
Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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