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the pioneer of Dylan Studies; writer, public speaker, critic; became a Doctor of Letters in 2015 (awarded by the University of York, UK)

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Saturday, July 11, 2009


Sarah and I went to see Leonard Cohen in concert in Toulouse on Thursday night. Sarah is a great deal keener on him than I am, but I've never seen him live before and had wished to do so for a long time. He was tremendous - almost three hours on stage, a graceful acceptance of centre stage in front of an impeccable ensemble - while giving every musician/singer his and her time and space for solos - every word clear, not a single fluff anywhere all through those lengthy songs, a clear pleasure in communing with his audience, a generosity of spirit, and a lithe and cool presence (at the age of 73).

All this lies in strong contrast to what you get at a certain other person's concerts these days. And yet.... and yet.... I wouldn't want to go again: I'm certain if we went another night, everything about the show would be exactly the same, and I missed the riding-blind-in-the-moment element Bob Dylan always brings.

What I really missed, in other words, was Bob Dylan's 1978 tour - when he too had an impeccable, alert ensemble, allowed the musicians to play solos, had perfect sound, played for almost three hours, took centre stage to give out with unstinting generosity and heart, and yet it all shook and shone with the excitement of spontaneity too, and was not the same every night.

And, of course, offered superior songs, sung with an incomparably more expressive, beloved voice.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I see, so:

Dylan in 1978 at 37 (and 38) was better than Leonard is now (at 73).

Leonard at 73 is now better than Dylan at 68.

So...erm, so what exactly is the point we are supposed to take from this, Michael?

That age "withers" some but not all, or that age "withers" at differing rates or just that Bob's shows are awful and have been for years and you can't get to grips with the reality of this or the reasons behind it?

Perhaps because Bob is Bob and his shows used to be so thrilling he cannot just put on a pleasant evening like the one you describe by Leonard or perhaps it's something else but there's no point in me proposing vague theories as I am still trying to discern what your point was.

Yours, hopefully not sounding like a nag,Homer.

1:57 pm  
Anonymous Kieran said...

I agree wholeheartedly! It's become a Sacred Cow of the last two years, that we should praise Leonard Cohen's show unreservedly, but I saw him in Dublin last year - in exchange for "only" 113 euros each - and although his show was exactly as you described, it was almost TOO sedate, too similar to the discs, too generous and bland that I wished I kept the money and stayed home and listened to a CD.

And I love those 1978 shows and the Rundown sessions by Bob. And the wild, uncertain ride a Dylan show gives us.

Who else is unafraid to re-write or butcher whole swathes of their back catalogue, their own "Sacred Cows", every time they step on stage?

Give me Bob any time over Leonard Cohen. Though, having said that, tomorrow night we're going to see Bruce. Now THERE'S 3 hours well spent!

6:12 pm  
Blogger Michael Gray said...

Dear Homer
Actually you do sound a bit hectoring. And I thought my point was clear - that I could wish Bob Dylan still brought as much care and effort, and was still as much on top of his material, as Leonard Cohen is, but that for all that, I found myself wishing for what Dylan has in spades when he bothers: a capacity for spontaneous risk. And that seeing Cohen in action made me remember how well, in 1978, Dylan combined his own best qualities with the considerable virtues of professionalism, used a far better band than he has had for some years now (and let them play), and gave out wholeheartedly.

It was nothing to do with age, except that Cohen, at 73, effectively shoots down the argument so many people have made about Bob lately - ie that since he's now "old" you can't expect much from him.

And it wasn't just "a pleasant evening": it was an authentic musical experience, and often affecting. We were in the presence of an artist who was neither pissing away nor withholding his (admittedly lesser) gifts.

If I still haven't made myself clear, I'm sorry to hear it. Meanwhile no, there's no point in you proposing "vague theories" - but there would be a point in you coming out and saying what you really think. Why be coy?

(Kieran, by the way, is not saying "I wholeheartedly agree" to Homer's comment, which he hadn't been able to read until now, but with my own suggestion that despite their many virtues, Cohen's concerts are not the absolute bee's knees.)

7:06 pm  
Blogger psteve said...

I've been listening to Leonard's live album in heavy rotation, and it doesn't get tiring to me. The DVD is also great. But I did download another concert, and it was pretty much just the same as that one, even down to the patter. So while I'm sorry I didn't see him in Oakland, I'm not too sorry.

I'm with you; I'd like to see Bob find a way to share the stage more. And even with Cohen's sameness from show to show, you always feel a deep commitment to the music and audience, something that you certainly don't always feel with Bob these days.

7:45 pm  
Anonymous Yvonne said...

Having seen and enjoyed both Dylan and Cohen live within the 12 months, I have to agree with you. I don't think anyone turn a hockey arena of 3,000 people into an intimate space the way Cohen can. But it was sedate and all too controlled - and even when the crowd should have been on their feet, they stayed in their seats (Closing Time) - maybe that's because it was in London, Ontario. The Dylan concert was a wilder ride and more fun because it was unpredictable, though parts of it were a shambles. One wishes he weren't quite so careless. Would that I had seen Dylan in 1978: such is my loss for coming late to his work.

8:33 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Michael,

Yes, sorry for the hectoring tone, it wasn't intentional, hence the advance apology. All I meant was that your post just seemed like wishful thinking. "Bob isn't good anymore and I wish he still was was" what I understood you to mean. My reply was meant to convey: "Don't we all, but wishing it makes no difference". And of course I agree that Dylan at anywhere near his top form, even half way there is an experience no-one else can provide but then we've agreed on that since we met.

So, I agree with all you posted, I just thought it was what we all knew you (and we) thought. Oh good Lord, I sound hectoring again. Maybe I shouldn't post in the summer, I am always too rushed to make myself clear.

However, I have to add our misunderstandings seem to multiply. You accuse me of being coy. What on Earth is coy about: "Bob's shows are awful and have been for years"?!!!

Yours, just finishing off an article for "Montague Street". it is my first real Dylan article in aeons, which you could have influenced a lengthy footnote to, with had that damn phone not been continually sabotaged.


7:36 pm  
Blogger Michael Gray said...

Dear Homer
No offence taken. But re being "coy", in fact you didn't say "Bob'shows are awful and have been for years." You said: "what exactly is the point we are supposed to take from this, Michael?...just that Bob's shows are awful and have been for years...?" So you left it sounding as if you were asking if I thought that - not saying that you did. Now you have. And with great regret, I agree with you.

God knows how many people will now write in to foam and fulminate against us.

9:55 pm  
Blogger Michael Gray said...

I also agree with "psteve" when he says that "...even with Cohen's sameness from show to show, you always feel a deep commitment to the music and audience, something that you certainly don't always feel with Bob these days."

Meanwhile how was Bruce, Kieran? And welcome back, Yvonne.

9:58 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very languid but lovely:
Is that a lyric change? "Shadows that seem to know it all" replacing "Shadows that seem to linger on."
Great photograph of Dylan over the last 45 seconds of the song.
Pat Ford

11:26 pm  
Anonymous Kieran said...

"Meanwhile how was Bruce, Kieran"

Dearie me, it's indecent how much energy that man has. He's near 60 and he pumps the songs out full pelt, races along the stage, jumps down from the amps, pulls guitar poses, mugs with his crew, roars up at the sky to disperse the rain clouds.

He played three hours, plus. Some of it made up of audience requests, Proud Mary being one such song. We couldn't help but contrast his show with Bob's recent one in Dublin. We'd ENJOYED that, and thought that his lack of familiar chatter - or, in fact, ANY chatter - was appropriate, that Bob retained a certain aura etc, but really, to not say hello, or thanks, is one thing.

To neglect to introduce your co-workers on the stage is incredible.

And in contrasting this with Bruce's well-oiled schtick, Bob could only come off unfavourably, whether this is fair or not. These are the two shows we've seen so far this year. Bruce energises the crowd. He feeds off them, but they feed right back. He's like Barnum & Bailey, but with better music.

He scrunched his eyes and performed an ethereal "41 Shots". He swung from the mic stand and sang "Glory Days". "Trapped" was blared out as if it was 1985 again. The mood could change with a signal from Bruce, but it always kept us involved.

Bruce doesn't really tamper with the arrangements. He performs "Born to Run" the same as ever, really. And though the lyrics are unwieldy and overly muscular, it doesn't really matter because they lift the roof with energy and the audience soars with them. He encourages sing-a-longs! And we did.

It was unpretentious. It was silly at times. It was all well rehearsed - even the spontaneity. But there's always something about a Bruce show which means that the performance will be absolute, the last drop of sweat will be left on stange, the fans go home exhilarated - even the cynics who get dragged along for the ride.

Now, call me what you will, but there's not much wrong with that, eh?

9:11 am  
Anonymous McHenry Boatride said...

Michael, I think that you are being a little unfair in harking as far back as 1978. I saw Bob in Portsmouth in 2000; he was every bit as good, if not better, than when I last saw him in 1966. I do think the smaller venues siut him better than stadiums. And the band at that time were superb. I've since seen Larry Campbell at one of Levon Helm's Midnight Rambles; to my mind he's one of the best guitar players that Bob has ever used.

Bob may be going through a lean patch right now, or at least one that you don't appreciate, but I don't doubt that he still has many good performances to give us.

9:49 am  
Blogger Michael Gray said...

McHenry - I didn't say Dylan hasn't given great concerts since 1978! I never said anything of the sort! I said that seeing Leonard Cohen's excellent concert the other day, with its large ensemble, its encouragement of high-quality musicians' solos, its professionalism and generosity, made me miss the Dylan concerts of 1978. A specific comparison was being made.

I have attended many, many tremendous Dylan performances since then, including, as you say, Portsmouth 2000.

But to say it was superior to Sheffield 1966 is surely just Being Controversial. I was listening to an acoustic first half of one of the 1966 concerts recently (and in the car again, as it happens), and it was so utterly perfect that it was hard to keep it in mind that at the time this immaculate unfaltering concerted glory was coming out of one human being's mouth, live, moment by moment by brilliant moment.

11:10 am  
Blogger Pope Leo said...

Talking of elderly performers, I saw Judy Collins recently. An evening not to be repeated...

I respect Cohen for the way he performs in concert at his ripe old age, and I get mildy excited by Springstein (I saw him at the Emirates last year).

However, I would exchange any of the above for a live Dylan performance: the one, two or (if you are lucky) three sublime moments in a Dylan concert surpass what any of the above-mentioned performers can offer, even in a 'perfect' three hour concert.

That Dylan is inconsistent, uncommunicative and often perverse becomes irrelevant in those sublime moments. I saw him at the Roundhouse this year (43 years after first seeing him live in Dublin "on the fifth day of May"). I had decided that this would be my valedictory Dylan concert, having been to many in the intervening years, including the mightily disappointing Isle of Wight festival and a magical Earls Court 1978 concert: I really had begun to feel that there was a law of diminishing returns in what Dylan could still offer.

I was wrong! Although the concert was in many ways ordinary, it had those magical moments ('Po' Boy', the new arrangement of 'Tryin' to Get to Heaven', for example) that completely restored my faith in Dylan as a live performer.

I shall certainly see him again. To be honest, I would try to catch Cohen were he to return, but I've seen Springstein once and I don't think there is anything new he can offer me. Dylan will always have that capacity to surprise and delight.

4:49 pm  
Anonymous Kieran said...

There's a lot of truth in that, Frank.

I saw Dylan in 2003 in Dublin, fine show - but he performed Man in a Long Black Coat in a way that suggested he was singing from somewhere deeper than the bowels of hell. Definitive, I thought, until I heard another later version. Then there's the album version.

He can do that, and nobody else really comes close. But I've seen him three times since and the wince factor was in evidence too. Last show wasn't too bad, but the couple before that were pretentious, strained and dull in huge swathes.

You don't GET dull at a Springsteen show - and yet although Bruce's show is well-drilled, even down to the improvised segments - it never fails to energise the crowd. I doubt there's a more generous performer on the planet. Both Bruce and Bob plough the same field, but their personalities inform things differently.

Bob can go deeper than anyone and as a songwriter - and occasional performer - he can't be touched. But if you wanna search through so much fibre-glass to find the ever-decreasing number of gems, that fine. I think I'd take three nights in a row of Bruce - at nearly twice the price of a ticket - than one show of Bob now.

I come out of a Bob show wondering about it, trying to defend it, trying to remember any good bits. I come outta the Bruce show hoarse...

8:19 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I haven't seen Dylan live since 1999. My wife and I became parents for the first time that year, Dylan rarely plays in Florida, and I strongly prefer Dylan on guitar.
In listening to video on you-tube it has been apparent over the past few years that Dylan went through an extended patch where he was basically talking his way through songs, singing with a clipped voice that might be described as an actor delivering dialogue.
Recent videos I've seen seem to indicate he's "found" his voice again. The Forgetful Heart performance is clearly exceptional isn't it? Aside from that there are other including a near 10 min. Desolation Row which I'd recommend, except that it cuts off before the song is over just as Dylan picks up his mouth organ. The performance is a remarkable contrast to many other versions I've watched portions of searching for a "keeper" over the past five years. Is it possible Dylan did in fact lose his voice in the same way he describes happening in Chronicles, and has again found it?
Is he making more of an effort because he reads Michael's blog, and has been spurred on? Has he found a muse at age 70 like Rodin's Camille Claudel? Or do I need to have my ears checked.
Pat Ford

3:26 pm  
Anonymous Roy Kelly said...


Some thoughts arising This is on my mind a lot, not just with Leonard of course. It’s at the heart of what we want from performance I suppose, or rather what we think performance is. I think a lot of what one might call the issues come from an idea of what’s genuine emotion and what’s not, and we seem to have absorbed from jazz the idea that fiery inspiration striking out afresh each night, each tune, each note, is the desired state. Even in jazz though this can’t be true a high proportion of the time. What it makes me think about is plays, and also the way we tell stories ourselves. You would know more about this from personal experience because you have to stand up and do it too. If you see someone playing Hamlet, (or more appropriately perhaps, a musical) if they’re good enough actors you believe in the emotions while accepting that they’ve learned the words and are in essence pretending to have access to all of that verisimilitude each night. And you would feel short-changed if they didn’t do it the same every night you decided to attend. But we don’t necessarily think they’re faking or being untrue or feeling a lack of surprise. And if we tell a funny story that’s become a set piece it’s one we know the words of, but in the act of telling it for someone who hasn’t heard it, it’s as if you flicker in and out of it being new and known. Or at least that’s how it feels to me. You adjust and change it just because of the person you’re addressing. Is singing different? When I saw the Everly Brothers most recently, 2 or 3 years ago now, there were all kinds of emotions attached to the act of attending and watching them sing songs we knew, songs most of the audience had known since they were children. In cold analysis watching a couple of 70-ish guys singing 1950s teenage romance songs is almost black comedy, bur what I felt most keenly was the sense that they were honouring us and the songs by not changing them, by singing them as if this were the last concert they might ever do and their reputation depended on it. I know they are a special case because their voices can make you believe in a realm other than Earth. Still, what remains is we don’t think they’re being false by trying to do things just the same but to the best of their ability. It was something to do with dignity and the place of work, and wasn’t lessened for me by people doing the hand jive (though I steadfastly abstained.) It’s not about remembering being kids or having a crush on someone, it’s more to do with being reminded how brief being human is.

And yet I know exactly what you mean about seeing Leonard and not thinking you would need to see him again. A few years ago I saw Donovan, and while still a good guitarist and singer there was something lowering about the fact that you knew that all he had was this bag of familiarity and had done nothing new for quite a while. Personal taste must come into of course because that’s exactly the charge that can be levelled at Don and Phil. I just think I’d regret it if I didn’t get to hear their voices before they go. And Donovan has that Pete Seeger thing of making the audience sing rounds, which I’m allergic to. The problem for anyone who was a Bob fan is that the only way he’s going to surprise you is if he did anything that was even halfway decent, or had the grace to abjure the Miles cold line with an audience and acknowledge it and that he’s in the entertainment business. People mock the Stones because they are dinosaurs that huge crowds turn out for because it’s some link with their own past, or younger people are trying to connect with something that has meaning and value because it’s come down through time. Bob is no different really, and every time I flick an expecting rain review and read that he was in as crisp and clear a voice as we’ve heard for some time I sigh and think, Next.

your chum in Bob

Roy Kelly

9:24 pm  
Blogger Michael Gray said...

Thank you. Yours is a poetic voice, and has cranked up the quality of what was already a pretty decent protracted discussion and dialogue on these matters. I could wish Together Through Life were half as well expressed, and Dylan's current live approach half as considered, as your terrific paragraphs.

12:12 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have never cared much for Springsteen. He's ok, but if I never saw him live, I wouldn't lose any sleep. His music is a grade above pedestrian, which doesn't make me want to listen to it repeatedly. I cannot muster much enthusiasm for seeing him live especially if he performs the songs essentially unchanged or like he did at the Super Bowl. His "energetic" live concerts do not make up for good to sometimes dull music in my opinion, and frankly if Dylan acted like he did on stage I'd be a little ashamed of him. I still feel a Dylan show is exciting and mysterious. I've listened to some recent Dylan bootlegs and I've noticed he is sometimes unable to articulate the notes like in the past, which saddens me. However, I've never felt that Bob is "mailing it in." I thought his voice sounded pretty rundown last summer in Ryman. His North American tour last fall had some fine performances, especially a fine slow acoustic version of Tangled Up in Blue. I haven't heard his concerts from this year, but I will try to get some after I see him live later this Summer.

12:29 am  
Blogger Judas Priest said...

I've seen Leonard 3 times to date, twice last June in Dublin (where I ran into Daniel Lanois as it happens and had a quick Bob related chat)and once in London's O2 back in November. I loved every minute of each performance. I'm attending 2 more of his shows next week in Dublin again and my only apprehension is that the law of diminishing returns will set in this time. Virtually the same set in the same order with even much of the monolgue in between being rehashed...that's the core reason why I wouldn't follow a Leonard tour with the same verve as a Bob one. Leonard also gets away a little with the fact that up to last year, he hadn't toured since 93. And before that, 88. And if you go back and listen to some of his concerts from those eras (the radio broadcast from Iceland in 88 ranks as one of the finest performances I have ever heard from any artist period-if you don't have it,hunt it down at once,I prefer it to anything available from him officially), it is striking how the sets have changed very little. His song book is vastly smaller than Bob's and even though Bob himself seems to play from the same 60/70 song pool these days, Leoanrd's is still way more constricted. As for performance level, you know what you will get from Leonard whereas Bob...I saw him 6 times this year and to give a quick example, he was truly dreadful in Florence and then one week later was quite sparkling in Sheffield. I couldn't believe the extent of the recovery. The Dublin shows were very good to my ears by the way and the second in particular has unexpectedly pulled me back again and again courtesy of the Soomlos recording out there.

As for Bruce, I was at the Dublin gig on Saturday and listened to most of the Sunday show from a hotel beside the stadium. I always like Bruce and enjoy his gigs in the main but...there is always something missing and I think that something is a little sprinkling of genius. Despite all his energy, drive and commitment, I do actually find segments of his gigs dull but that said, The Boss is always worth going to for the odd moment of near magic-Outlaw Pete (purely in a live context), The River, The Ghost of Tom Joad and American Skin (41 Shots) all delivered last weekend. But I'm very hopeful that I'll come out of the forthcoming Leonard gigs (even allowing for diminishing returns) thinking that they are the classier and more memorable affairs.

The bottom line is this: would I trade a great Leonard or good/lively Bruce show for a string of Bob 09 shows where the quality fluctuates wildly and you can't be sure what's coming next? No chance...

7:00 pm  
Anonymous Kieran said...

This is an interesting exchange. I like the analysis of "performance" by Roy Kelly. A singer is under no obligation to improvise or tamper with their canon - although all three of the artists under discussion have been adept at this in the past.

Another question to be asked is this: when we attend a show, what do we expect to happen?

We don't go to a Dylan show simply to "see" a legend. We want to hear the songs, we want to be witness to things which really only Dylan can do, live, which is reach into his depths and re-work or perform a song as if it's just been written. We want that sudden fire which Dylan can bring to a performance.

This, however, is largely myth - or should I say, been "hit and myth" in recent years. I agree that he's not really "dialling it in" but neither is he extending himself. He's playing the same gentrified arrangements of old songs, straining coarsely for the melody - if any - and generally taking a slapdash approach to songs, some of which we barely recognise until we hear a scattered mumble of some isolated, familiar phrase.

This is a very awkward, unsatisfactory experience. It sets him at a remove from the audience. It can leave me cold, willing him to make it work, but generally having to write that song off and hope the next song is worth it.

Recently in Dublin he was in rare form - bar the odious ommission of recognition for the band's work.

As for Bruce, Bruce is "performance" personified. I'd have certain caveats about the quality of some of his work - though he's become a more subtle and much stronger songwriter in the last ten years - but as a live performer he's a master. He's charismatic, generous, witty, can perform songs like 41 Shots with a depth and clarity which Bob can rarely achieve now. If he were to perform it ten nights in a row, he might achieve the exact same effect.

This is the thing about performance: a Shakespearean actor or comedian might perform the exact same routine nightly, but be so connected with the script and the necessity and methods of communicating it to greatest effect that we still think of it as "fesh".

Plus, his band are extraordinarily adept and powerful.

I saw him in Dublin last week in the rain and there's a symbiosis between Bruce and his audience which lit up the skies. Leonard can engage the crowd too, but Leonard is more sedate. His is a gentlemans show, old and charming, where Bruce is a rocker, flat out.

I've heard Bruce rocks, even when he takes out the bins. I never seen that, but I'd well believe it...

9:58 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bob Dylan has never performed the songs the same as he recorded them and he probably will never do so. This is not a recent thing:listen to any of the live bootleg series-64,66,75.....or Earls Court 78. He has always lived on the edge when performing live and he will probably do so until the day he dies. The fact that he now only sings from a pool of "60/70" songs suggests that he may forget a word or two. His voice has been ravaged by age,etc and yet he can still reach a level of emotion which few other performers in any genre can reach.

Bob Dylan in this century cannot possibly perform to the same level as a 38 year old Dylan.

I do not think that people such as myself who connect deeply with Dylan in concert these days are deluded or have lower standards than people who for whatever reason do not make any emotional connection to his live performances. I know that he cannot achieve what he did in 64,66,75,78,81, etc, and I know that he cannot achieve what he achieved in 95 ,02 or 03.

However,Bob Dylan still retains the power to deeply move some people despite his ravaged voice and his lesser talented backing musicians. I have not the slightest doubt that the majority of people who make this connection feel something within them and feel compelled to applaud him for this reason and not because he is BOB DYLAN THE ICON.

The fact that some people walk out of his concerts does not matter....they walked out in 65,66,76,78,79,etc and they will continue to walk out for as long as he continues to perform.

I appreciate that he has developed a new audience which has no time for this debate: most were not born when he blazed the trail described above. Again, these people are not enthralled because he is a " legend " but because whatever he has sang has reached something somewhere inside there minds and hearts.

It is a measure of his greatness that he continues to perform all around the world and despite the cultural differences, language barriers and penchant for this years fashion he continues to truly touch people.


5:22 pm  

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