Friday, October 14, 2011

I'll know my song well before I start singing

Bob Dylan
Cardiff Arena
Oct 13 2011

Everything you've heard is wrong. Literally, everything. Any rulebooks you have lying around. Tear them up.

A lot of people (including me) have, over the years, talked a lot of rot about The Almighty Bob's current performance style. (And by "current" we mean "what he's been doing for the last 20 years".) You know the jokes. Sits with back to audience. Growls though the songs. Can't hear the words. Third verse of Blowin' in the Wind before we worked out what he was singing

None of its true. None of it. Not. One. Word.

I can't think of the last time I saw a performer who was so obviously having fun on the stage. This is a man of 70 who has performed on five out of the last seven nights. He doesn't need the money: the only possible reason for being on stage is that he likes it. That's why you are never going to hear a greatest hits set: he keeps himself fresh by playing a different selection of songs each night and – as explained at some length in Chronicles – by deconstructing the songs, using a system of rhythmic improvisation which allows him to re-invent them in each performance.

Reviews of Dylan gigs tend to bifurcate; a smattering saying that this is the best they've ever heard Bob sing; a thundering consensus that he's an old has-been and should hang up his guitar; a hint of anger that he's 70 rather than 17.

Well there's an explanation for that, isn't there?

The Cardiff arena was a standing venue; we arrived at 5.30 and made straight for the front when the doors opened; a mere 2 hours investment of time resulted in a position not more than 20 feet from a the stage. We could see ever detail of Bob's performance.

And its an astonishingly nuanced, detailed, joyous performance. I hadn't realised what a small man he is. What incredibly spindly legs he has. The band are in sharp grey suits with hats. The guitarist almost seems to be emulating the clothes of his Bobness, like a hassidic Jew. Bob is in a crumpled suit; with a white mafiosi hat. Before long sweat is pouring off the rim. It's like he's saying that he's just some hobo who seems to have wandered up onto the stage and is going to sing us some songs. He does Leopardskin Pillbox Hat standing at the keyboard, but after only one number, he comes to the front and does the mighty Shooting Star in front of the mic and stays there for the next half-dozen songs. He even dances a little; a sort of delicate mincing wiggle. The audience applauds him when he stand up; when he starts playing the harmonica. They applaud him when he gets his cable tangled in the mic stand.

He still pulls the words of the songs apart and puts them back together again in an off putting way. (Remembers how, on Theme Time, he could sometimes lose himself in the pronunciation of very long words, particularly place names. His whole acts is like that.) He still does that thing where whole lines and stanzas vanish into staccato rhythm: "Some! Bod! Y! Said! From! The! By! Bul! He'd! Quote!.....there was dussssssssst on the maaaaaaann in the loonnnnnnng black cloak?" With a tentative, questioning rise on the last word, as he grins at the audience, big wide eyes flashing from underneath the hat brim, as if he'd just delivered the punch line of a good joke. It's in those elongated vowels that he sounds most like Dylan. The dark goth-noir atmosphere of Man in the Long Black Cloak gets lost in the performance, but the poetry (it really is poetry) still speaks.

And yeah, maybe it's jarring if you haven't heard it before. Hard Rain (official greatest song ever written by a human being, from a short list of half a dozen) is initially unrecognisable, not because you can't hear the words – I swear I heard every word, even of the songs I frankly didn't know like High Water – but because the Dalek-style delivery is so weird that I found myself thinking "hmm.....don't know this there a Dylan song which involves asking questions to a blue-eyed boy?" But it forces you to attend to every word, to follow him through the labyrinth of imagery as if you've never heard it before. There's a sense of release and climax when we finally get to "and-I'll-KNOW-my-song-WELL-before-I-start-singingggggg".

I'll know my song well.... There is applause. He does. We do.

It would have been too absurd for him to talk in between the songs. I really can't conceive of him saying "Hello Cardiff. Thank you for turning out tonight. Here's a song from my latest album." But it's just such a plain lie to say that he doesn't connect with the audience. Every smile, wink, grin, tip of the hat – every time he taps he left hand on his thigh in rhythm with his harp, every time he continues to beat out a rhythm on the keyboard with one hand while half dancing with his spare leg – makes a connection. There's an elation here that makes me feel he's happier than he's ever been; that the addled gravelly bluesman dancing his way through old numbers is the person he's always wanted to be. There's a deliberately rough edged tin pan alley feel to the band; as if he wants us to feel that we're sitting in on a jam session or knocking back the Jack Daniels at an informal hootenanny. He's more comfortable with the newer songs, certainly: there's detail and nuance in Trying To Get To Heaven Before They Close the Door and Things Have Changed which rather slips away when he gets back to the keyboard for the Highway 61 Revisited. 

Bristol's foremost citizen folk journalist wondered if there was an irony in that wink – a sense that he's been told we want to hear those old songs, so he's humouring us, putting them in quotation marks? I wondered if  the whole slightly mannered body language saying "You want me to be a performing monkey, and I tell you what – I'm happy being a performing monkey." Is this a legend who simply refuses to be an icon?

Did we catch him on an exceptionally good day? Bob did a full length set – he noticed that the young lady had a brand new leopard skin pill box hat at 9PM and didn't finish wondering how it felt to be on your own with no direction home until well after 10.30. Which makes me wonder where the idea of the Mark Knopfler support set came from? I wonder if His Bobness doubts his ability to do a full set every night, and is doing a double-handed tour so that the audience aren't short changed if he has an off day? Has he got some system of resting his voice between gigs so that he's been cured of the  "How mmmm mmm mmmm man mmmm down" syndrome? Or was the sound mix simply better in Cardiff than it was when I heard him in Sheffield a couple of years back? There were a couple of numbers (Summer Nights, in particular) where the band went into a completely over the top freak out mode but Bob's voice never seemed to disappear into that improvised back yard racket?

Or has it actually always been like this? Have those of us lucky enough to get somewhere near the front always felt that we've made a connection with a vibrant, fun and instantly likable rock and roll personality – but anyone further back felt they'd heard some quite interesting reworkings of mostly obscure Dylan songs? (Anyone who doesn't know his catalogue inside out is going to be lost, of course.) Which makes his insistence that there can't be any screens seems all the more perverse. Assuming that the never ending tour is never going to end, one almost wishes he could give up on stadia and limit himself to smaller venues, however much harder it might become to get tickets.

Is this tour, or some tour, being filmed as a documentary? I overwhelming feel that this Dylan, the live Dylan, the showman Dylan who uses his voice as a musical instrument, one component in what is a actually a consummate piece of musical theater is the real Dylan, the one Robert Zimmerman has always wanted to be, and it needs to be preserved for posterity.

Noble prize for literature, indeed.


Graham MF Greene said...

"Is there an irony in that wink – a sense that he's been told we want to hear those old songs, so he's humouring us"

That's very perceptive. Indeed, that sounds like the sort of thing an exceptionally observant, intelligent and glamorous person might have said to her companion on exiting the theatre, that does.

decombustion said...

Thank you, thank you (that's all)

Andrew Rilstone said...

And thank you....

Nick Mazonowicz said...

Does he still play guitar at all?
Bob Dylan is always someone I've hesitated to go and see live, but everyone I've ever spoken to him says he does a brilliant live show.

Andrew Rilstone said...

He does a little guitar -- I think only for two of the songs on the night we were there. Lots of harmonica, though...

Chestertonian Rambler said...

I saw him live a couple years ago. When he played songs I knew (which was actually quite often), I did feel that he was riffing off my memories of the songs, intentionally making something new out of the synthesis between the known version and his reinterpretation. I tell people this at parties. They conclude that I have drunk the Bob Dylan cool-aid and that my (thoroughly worthwhile, deeply satisfying) experience at a Bob Dylan concert was a hallucination.