Bob Dylan has sagely admonished fans and critics (is there a difference between the two, really?) not to compare him to what he was 20 or 30 or 40 or more years ago. He would prefer that we put him alongside the 2012 versions of his peers as opposed to the remarkable Dylan in Manchester, England, in 1966 or the exuberant Dylan on Tour ’74 or the resourceful Dylan of Rolling Thunder Revue renown.
It’s a fair point. Does Dylan stand the test of time in his concerts? His recent album “Tempest” certainly passes the audition. It’s a spooky, evocative album featuring fine singing and playing — with the customary terrific Dylan lyrics sprinkled throughout. It’s a very strong piece of work.
Then there is Dylan today on stage. I don’t know what to make of him. I’m glad that he is still out there, night after night, from Saskatoon to Grand Rapids to Boston. He seems to enjoy playing for 90 minutes a night to an audience of wide-eyed veterans and newcomers alike. Dylan symbolizes much that is good and decent about the American Dream. That’s why I wanted to write my book, “Forget About Today.” As usual, Dylan raises as many doubts as reassurances.
During the show that I saw at the Hollywood Bowl a few weeks ago, on a pleasant Friday night in southern California (Oct. 26), I was occasionally bewildered as I tried to figure out what song he was playing — to the point of guessing excitedly (and, alas, incorrectly) to my friend Julie that this was a version of a song from “Tempest!”
Over all, it was an enjoyable, if uninspiring, show. For any other performer, it probably would have been OK. But not for this man., For Dylan, you see, I have big expectations (which he would say, no doubt, is my own damned fault). Still, I hope and expect to be moved because Dylan is so talented, innovative and singular.
But at the Hollywood Bowl, if one Dylan couplet summed up what took place on stage, it would have been: “I used to care/But things have changed.”
Despite Dylan’s warning not to dip into the past, I’m still going to invoke a comparison of Dylan from not so long ago: a decade back, to be precise, on Nov. 13, 2002. I saw Dylan and his terrific back-up band perform at Madison Square Garden. Dylan had won the Best Song Oscar the year before for “Things Have Changed” and the praiseworthy reviews for “Love and Theft” echoed. He was on a creative and commercial high. Everyone loved Bob Dylan, and it showed that night at the Garden. It was a triumphant homecoming for New York’s own Bobby Dylan.
The show exploded during the third song, “Tombstone Blues,” which was a nice throwback to the wild Sixties. From there, Dylan morphed into a rollicking (the only word that applies) rendition of “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” and Madison Square Garden was transformed into the Grand Ole Opry in a flash. I could be wrong but I think Dylan debuted the lovable tune at that show or, at the very least, on this tour.
Next up was a rocking version of “Things Have Changed,” as Dylan leaned forward and put a lot of theatrics and feeling into the vocal. It was terrific. He gave us the impression that he meant every word. It was nice to see because Dylan can be a notoriously up and down performer. On this night, he looked completely locked in.
In the sixth slot was the real treat of the evening, a startling and fantastic performance of the Stones’ hit single “Brown Sugar.” The guitarists would have put Keith Richards and Ron Wood to shame that night. The band, in fact, played so hard and fast that Dylan had to scramble just to keep up with his fellow musicians on stage. They forced with power, precision and style. I could tell they were having a ball, too. I don’t think Dylan has dared to play this tune again after the conclusion of this tour. It’s understandable. He probably couldn’t expect to top the 2002 version.
Dylan closed the show with the extraordinary (for him) gesture of actually speaking to the audience and relating his affection for George Harrison, who had died the year before. Dylan closed the show by playing a heartfelt, lovely version of “Something,” with an innovative arrangement employing strings. He was spot-on, underscoring what an excellent vocalist he is.
And fast-forward my back pages to Oct. 26, 2012 when I saw Dylan and his mates play at the Hollywood Bowl. Sorry, but the current show didn’t match up in any way to what I witnessed a decade ago. It was unfortunate. Yes, some folks did walkout, as reviewers have written along the tour since Dylan began this leg early in October. Mostly, I saw, youngish people showed disrespect for the artist by talking (loudly) through the songs and then rushing for the exits. I don’t condemn anyone for walking out. If they pay the money, they have the right.
Dylan has the obligation to keep them in their seats, too. I worry about the quality of his singing voice. I wish he had played songs that night from “Tempest.” I know about Dylan’s mystique but it still wouldn’t kill the man to address the audience once in a while and acknowledge that we matter to him (even if we really d 12on’t).
I believe that Dylan appreciates the devotion of his audience.He must feel a surge of pride at the applause, to think that he can still make people happy after all these years. It’s one thing to make people smile — but it’s another to move them. I want Dylan to move me.
JONFRIEDMAN.NET QUESTION OF THE DAY: This is for the folks who have seen Dylan in concert in the last year: Did you feel moved by his performance?
Please feel free to comment, criticize and complain. But as always becivil or be gone.