Same man - different mask. Bob Dylan - then and now.

Same man – different mask. Bob Dylan – then and now.

Why does Bob Dylan still play live and why do people still pay good money to see him?

The second question is easier to answer than the first. It is something of a cliché to refer to an artist as a living legend but Dylan surely merits this label. It’s therefore only natural that many will flock to pay homage (and cash!) to a man whose vast body of work is second to none.

When he exploded onto the folk music scene in the 1960s, an adoring public would sit in rapt silence to hear the words of this poet come visionary. On his Song For Bob Dylan, David Bowie got it about right when he sang: “you sat behind a million pair of eyes and told them how they saw”.

Robert Zimmerman’s ‘protest’ songs articulated the mood of a nation and helped fuel movements opposed to the Vietnam War, institutionalised racism and the dearth of moral /political values that causes like these symbolized. Yet, Dylan has always diligently avoided aligning himself to political or religious movements, stubbornly following his own path. “Don’t follow leaders” he advised in Subterranean Homesick Blues and he has never set himself up as a spokesman for any generation. Think for yourself has always been his message.

Half a century has passed since he ‘went electric’ at Newport Folk Festival; an act that thrilled, shocked or outraged listeners in equal measure but is generally regarded as a benchmark in popular music. What that decision proved beyond doubt was that he was an artist determined to do as he pleased without pandering to audience expectations.

After a week in which the most critically acclaimed artists at Glastonbury Festival were those who came out to ‘play the hits’, there is something heartening in Dylan’s mulish resistance to populism. He knows as well as anyone that what the majority of the paying public would dearly love is for him just one time to run through his acknowledged classics (primarily his pre-1969 material).

Imagine the ecstasy if he suddenly announced that he would be playing an album like The Times They Are A Changing or Highway 61 Revisited in its entirety. Instead, and with increasing pig-headedness, what he does is to focus on newer songs or else reworks past ‘hits’ in a way that renders them all but unrecognizable.

Anyone going to see him in concert should know by now what to expect. There’s an early bootleg recording of Mr. Tambourine Man which he introduced with a warning that it wasn’t going to sound like the record but dryly offered the reassurance that “the words are the same”!  Cutting out the jingle-jangle from one of his most-loved tracks was an early indication that he regarded his tunes as templates, not as songs stuck in time.

The two oldest songs he played at Lucca Summer Festival in Italy as part of his Never-ending tour were She Belongs To Me and Blowin’ In The Wind. Neither bore any resemblance to the recorded versions. People only clapped for the latter when they recognised the line “the answer my friend is blowin’ in the wind”. Thus one of the defining protest songs of the sixties was turned into a bland swing number rendering its series of rhetorical questions all but obsolete. If any up-and-coming artist produced a cover like this they would be ridiculed or pilloried for lack of respect.

Six of the 20 tracks on the Lucca set list came from Tempest, his 35th studio album released in 2012. This album shows that his songwriting ability is still intact and while an air of cynicism prevails, he still sounds like someone who enjoys what he does. As he defiantly asserts on Early Roman Kings:“I ain’t dead yet – my bell still rings’.

On stage it’s another story. His body language is so wooden he makes Pinocchio look like Michael Jackson. He moves stiffly, not so surprising for a 74-year-old, with the air of someone who might consider dancing if he were 20 years younger. His voice was not as wrecked as I thought it might be but the manner in which he delivers the lines is still akin to an actor reading a script without understanding what part he is playing.

The musical arrangements also blur into one via a dull backing band who come across as jobbing session musicians. Dylan doesn’t bother to introduce the other players and aside from a mumbled “be back in a while” prior to a 15 minute break, he says nothing – not so much as thank you.

In this way the enigma of the man remains intact but this level of cold-heartedness is also infuriating. One imagines Dylan still gets pleasure from performing but he hides any joy he feels or warmth for his audience behind a stony mask.

This show ends and , soon, another will begin. In consequence, thousands more will be able to tell their grandchildren that, once upon a time, they saw Bob Dylan.

Related article:
Mike Hogan – Bob Dylan in Concert – Is it worth it? (Huff Post 25th July 2013)