I wrote this for the Limerick Independent free weekly newspaper of which I was editor for five years until its sad demise towards the end of 2010. At least it hung in long enough to enable me to preview Bob Dylan’s show at Thomond Park, Limerick, on Independence Day that year…
FOR Bob Dylan’s Limerick fans, July 4 is the red-letter day of 2010. The prospect of seeing the man perform in their own backyard, in a world-class stadium, is mouth-watering indeed.
Dylan is an iconic figure, but he is also a unique breed of rock star, and those who have never seen him in performance, and have been encouraged to go on the basis of one of the many ‘best of’ compilations of his work, are advised to approach with caution.
Bob Dylan stands apart from his contemporaries. Unlike the Paul McCartneys or the Elton Johns, he does not offer note-perfect reproductions of his recorded work, and will not present the big visual spectacle of which veteran rock stars seem to be so fond.
His voice, worn and frayed from being pushed through over 100 shows annually for the last 22 years (not to mention the near fatal cardiac condition that almost claimed his life in the late 1990s) is far from pretty: a phlegmy, guttural bark on the uptempo numbers; a rusty croon on the ballads.
If David Bowie described Dylan as having a “voice of sand and glue” in the early 70s, God only knows how he would characterise the Dylan vocal chords of 2010.
So there will be no frills; no slavish reproductions of the classic songs; no video screens; no fireworks; and definitely no gymnastics. There is not even a nod to the classic notion of ‘frontman’, or any extensive use of the instrument with which he’s most associated; the guitar. These days, he plays electric keyboard for all but two to three songs of his set, and even then, he’s situated at stage left or right, not centre. And if you’re going along in the expectation of hearing the man chat, forget it. There will hardly be a word.
In recent years, there have been a couple of knowing, ironic, eyebrow-cocked nods to showbiz, and flashes of his often overlooked sense of humour.
Perched atop the amplifiers close to his electric keyboard, you will spot the Oscar that he won for his song ‘Things Have Changed’ in the 1999 movie The Wonder Boys. It is said that he won’t play a show without this prized ‘mascot’.
And his stage announcement will probably also prompt a knowing smile among anyone even vaguely familiar with his career trajectory:
Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the poet laureate of rock ‘n’ roll. The voice of the promise of the 60s counterculture. The guy who forced folk into bed with rock. Who donned makeup in the 70s and disappeared into a haze of substance abuse. Who emerged to find Jesus. Who was written off as a has-been by the end of the ’80s, and who suddenly shifted gears releasing some of the strongest music of his career beginning in the late ’90s. Ladies and gentlemen: Columbia recording artist… Bob Dylan!!
It says a lot about Dylan’s sense of humour and willingness to undercut his own myth that he adapted this introduction from an article about him which appeared in The Buffalo News, in August 2002.
Apart from these concessions to the audience, though, you’re on your own. There is no handrail. So why would you even bother going?
Well, the opportunity of glimpsing magic is about as tantalising an invitation as can be extended. At his best, and even at his worst, he is the musical equivalent of an acrobat on a high-wire, with the only safety net provided by the always engaging arrangements of his backing band.
The current Dylan band can provide the springboard for some of his most inspirational and thrilling musical flights. Even on a night when he’s not firing on all cylinders, Dylan himself, and the audience, can take refuge in the band’s thrilling, versatile and ever evolving (re)arrangements of the man’s back catalogue.
Everything hanging on whether the boss is having a good or bad night has been the way of all things Dylan ever since June 7, 1988, when he set out on his so-called Never Ending Tour. This is a watershed date in Dylan’s career, a complete break with the past, especially with the then recent past, when touring with session musos and established bands had threatened to turn him into a parody of himself.
The then new-look Dylan did not provide easy ride for the audience. Instead of an elder statesman giving the folks what they wanted, fans were confronted with their hero and just three youthful cohorts, tearing through the hallowed back catalogue with the vigour of a teenage punk band, and with neither a keyboard, a backing singer, nor a video screen in sight, and scarcely a word of greeting or farewell from the man himself.
Since that time, there have been personnel changes and augmentations, and Dylan has steadily regained the respect of his devotees. But it has been a rollercoaster ride.
I’ve seen Dylan 10 times on the Neverending Tour. Most of it has been great. Some of it has been absolutely magical. Some of it has even been awful. But all of it has been invigorating. I’ve seen him veer between awfulness and transcendence in a single show, sometimes even in a single song.
His concert at Dundonald Ice Bowl, Belfast in 1991, was peculiar and unfocused, as if, just prior to curtain-up, someone had whispered in his ear that he had no right to be on stage. But even then, he performed the best version of ‘The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll’‚ that I’ve ever heard.
In 1993, in what was then the Point Depot in Dublin (now the O2), amid a generally high quality performance (including a spine-tingling ‘Tangled Up In Blue’ embellished with haunting howls of pedal-steel guitar) I recall a lumbering, sleep-walking ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ that suddenly roared into life when he got to the end of the second verse, and seemed to wake up, timing the lyric of “that way, down on Highway Sixty-One”‚ daringly; interminably stretching out the “sixxxxxxxxx” before snapping at the remaining syllables like the graceful crack of a ringmaster’s whip—the band responded by seemingly lifting the tune into the air in one of the most intense examples of a singer and band feeding off one another I’ve yet to witness.
My all time favourite Dylan concert moment occurred on July 30, 1988, in the intimate, open air setting of the Mesa Amphitheatre in Arizona. It was my first Dylan concert, and watching him do his thing with more focus and energy than I or anyone else had anticipated, was a true thrill. The real magic was dealt out during the acoustic set, and a beautiful ‘Mr Tambourine Man’. As he sang of dancing beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free‚ the desert horizon flickered and flashed with sheet lightning, and distant rumbles of thunder added a dramatic aural counterpoint to Dylan’s hymn to inspiration. God certainly was on his side that night.
This early three-piece Neverending Tour band made it to Irish shores the following year, with a two-nighter at the RDS Simmonscourt Arena. On the first night, Dylan, bizarrely, performed with his face almost entirely obscured (with the exception of that unmistakeable and magnificently iconic nose and mouth) by the sweatshirt hood and baseball cap he’d opted to wear for his first Irish show in almost five or six years. I missed that show, but saw the following night’s gig, another bracing, focused affair, graced with too many highlights to mention, but in particular the brooding, simmering, electric versions of ‘Masters Of War’ and ‘The Ballad Of Hollis Brown’, and a delicate rendition of ‘One Too Many Mornings’ that for me remains his definitive reading of this early, heartbreaking love song.
Leaping forward to 1995, back again in the Point Depot, there was another remarkable highpoint of the entire Neverending Tour. A hand injury had left Dylan unable to play the guitar, but this proved fortuitous. Unencumbered by instrumental duties, the man summoned up some of his most focused vocal performances ever. Out of the vast, almost incalculable number of unofficial Dylan recordings, the live bootlegs from this brief era are among the most sought after.
Ten years later at the same venue, and, this time playing keyboards, Dylan made time stand still during an indescribably lovely yet foreboding rendition of ‘Visions Of Johanna’. Visually enhanced by the Western suits and hats worn by the musicians, and a simple stage backdrop of pinpoints of white light, this ‘Visions…’ played like the lines and furrows in William Holden’s face during the campfire scene from Sam Peckinpah’s ‘The Wild Bunch’, set on the night before Holden and his cohorts mount their climatic, doomed rescue mission.
Back in 1998, there was a welcome bit of patter for the crowd to preface an entirely unexpected rendition of ‘The Newry Highwayman’: “I’m gonna play an old song, I learnt it a long time ago. But I believe the song came from around here, so I’m gonna do my best to sing it for ya…”
In 2009, he offered a ‘best of’ set-list that spanned just about every corner, certainly every decade, of his recording career, in a show that my long-suffering wife, having been unwillingly dragged to several shows prior to this, thought was one of the best concerts she had ever seen. By anyone, I hasten to add. But even on that occasion, much of the broadcast and print media reviews were more concerned with the fact that Dylan had not spoken to the audience, rather than the shows themselves.
As to what the uninitiated can expect from Bob Dylan at Thomond Park this Sunday evening, check out http://www.bobdylan.com for a glance at the set lists from his recent shows. There will be some playing around and substituting of numbers (as it’s a Sunday, there may even be one of his much reviled ‘religious’ songs), but basically, take a look at it and let your imagination take over, because the performances will almost certainly be nothing like the recorded versions of those songs. Dylan remains true to himself and true to the moment, and whatever comes out, that’s what you get. It’s as simple as that.
You’d wonder what Dylan, now pushing 70, makes of all this. I’d like to imagine that he is bemused. This man once had ‘JUDAS!!’ roared at him, for the crime of playing what were once acoustic guitar songs with a full blooded rock band. As for those who lament at the condition of his modern day voice… well, when did Dylan ever win awards for the technical proficiency of his singing?
Yes, you’d wonder, to quote one of his most popular choruses, “how does it feel?”
Well, for a clue you could look at Don’t Look Back‚ the legendary black-and-white documentary of his 1965 British tour, when he is filmed reading aloud a newspaper report that he smokes 80 cigarettes a day. “God,” Dylan wryly remarks, “I’m glad I’m not me.”
But perhaps there’s a more illuminating clue in the 2003 movie, Masked & Anonymous, in which he starred, and wrote a significant portion of the script.
As we consider the length of Dylan’s career, and the depth and width of his celebrity and notoriety, the parting shot of Dylan’s character, Jack Fate, related on voice-over over a shot of the star inscrutably gazing out of the window of a bus, speaks volumes.
“Truth and beauty are in the eye of the beholder,” he says, adding, “I stopped trying to figure everything out a long time ago.”