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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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Thursday, November 10, 2011

HOW DYLAN CONCERT EXPECTATIONS HAVE CHANGED

I was listening, the other day, to 'Sugar Baby' from Hanover  -  and it was terrible: just terrible. So bad I felt almost bereft. And then I said so, in private, to the estimable Rainer Vesely of Vienna, and he sent me this response, which seemed to me so admirably expressed that I asked (and obtained) his permission to reprint it here. He wrote this:

Back from Innsbruck and all the way on the road I was thinking about how to describe for you why I really liked the concert. Even more: why I was deeply impressed... I think what he is doing now, and maybe since 2010  -  since he crawled out from his hiding place behind the keyboard, where he ducked away from 2005-2009  -  is staging a 90-100 minute drama, in which he puts much, much more emphasis on his physical presence than ever before. He really acts(!) and recites, gestures, mimicks, uses – very consciously!! – his weird way of walking, knee-bending, staring, half-closing or wide-opening his eyes etc. and not only when being center stage but also behind the keyboards. And this presence is so overwhelming, especially since he looks so trim and fit again, that you (well, me and many others) just don’t mind the bellowing and raspy sounds coming out of his mouth.
             I understand very well that just listening to a CD or mp3 of the concert can make one shiver with embarrassment. The thing is: where in years long gone the singing, real singing, has been the main attraction, the recitation now is just part of the whole experience. There’s no use any more in recording it: you have to see it, have to be there. Also, the moments that stick in one's mind after the show, and that are exchanged with friends, have shifted from “Oh, when he stretched those vowels over five bars …” to “ Oh, when he pressed both fists to his chest when singing ‘Don’t get up gentlemen’ and then opened his arms and eyes wide for ‘I’m only passing through’”. I dare say, Michael, that even you would have loved it if you haad been with us in the front.
             So I guess we really (once again) have to change our expectations and our views of what a Bob Dylan concert is.


58 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

My feelings exactly. Also, his band is terrific. Not *The Band* but a great band nonetheless. It's still a wonderful show and tell me anybody of stature who doesn't just play the hits. I'm a Geordie, nigh on 46. Wish I'd seen him in 65/66, 69, 74, 78. Missed them, too young. But saw him in 81 and many times since. Just one show I hated, the rest a dream. Like going to a corrida, part of the thrill is you don't know if you're going to get a slaughter or a profound dance.

6:35 pm  
Blogger Singing Bear said...

Is there any other artist who would be forgiven for singing like a rabid dog and praised because he now makes funny gestures and wiggles a bit? This is simply ridiculous. Let me state clearly now that I am a Bob Dylan fanatic. No artist means as much to me or has given me so much pleasure and food for thought since I first encountered his work in the 70's. Also, I've seen him live many times and, on the whole, had a fun time. Having said that, let's call it as is: he now sounds pretty dreadful (and being a musical artist, how he SOUNDS is what really counts). His voice, as least in the live context, is shot to pieces and the constant touring doesn't seem to have done his muse too many favours judging by the quality of the songs on 'Together Through Life'. I find it ever so slightly disturbing that so many Dylan fans don't seem to accept what is happening (here) - the great man is grinding his art into dust. Also, take a look at the set lists for the recent tour - how many times do we want to hear these songs? How many times does he want to play them? It's the same old thing, night after night. This is a crying shame bordering on artistic tragedy and it's high time we admitted it. Still, I know I will be a lone voice: the Boblings will never admit he's now wearing the king's new clothes. Bob, do yourself a favour, get off the road, write some songs and enjoy life a little.

9:57 am  
Blogger Glenn said...

Well, I loved that Sugar Baby ... But yes, being there is so much better.

9:57 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have always thought his records were about the words and his concerts were about the music. Not too much anymore. Concerts are now about seeing Dylan live and acting out his songs. The band is good but seems to sleep walk thru many songs. His singing is barely tolerable. But the entire package of his performances are still remarkable.

11:18 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Does this: "I dare say, Michael, that even you would have loved it if you had been with us in the front."

suggest that if one is further back one does not or cannot enjoy it?

11:34 am  
Anonymous Rajan Mahadevan said...

Dylan still lives through the words he wrote at any time when he sings them anytime on stage. The emphasizing may differ, but the dramatic effect is there for him to feel, for others to see. Already knowing the words by heart, most in the audience hardly complain when Dylan is incomprehensible, they follow the words nonetheless. At this rate, songman Dylan stands to end up one day like dance-man Mr Bojangles, about whom no attention is paid these days.

11:59 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Its great that Dylan is still doing it. Dylan was never really great live. Even though his years with The BAND were his best live. Now its rather pathetic at times. His voice is just horrible his arrangements are rather poor. But his ego many times stands in the way too. I heard one song he wouldn t even let Mark Knoffer do a lead. If Dylan was really brilliant he change it though. Talk his song rather than try and sing them and play them less loud maybe more accoustically.

12:09 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

the trouble is all that gesticulating only plays to those very close. when he starts playing venues the size of my living room, i'll start going to watch.

1:35 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your friend makes good points. Bob is still capable of putting on a good "show", but this show encompasses more than just simply listening to his voice - which some folks (including me)still find fascinating, expressive, and unique. A Bob show is something most definitely best experienced up close, we have known that for years. But this seems more true now than ever. He is a song AND DANCE man and his performances still conjure magic and transcendence for me on a regular basis, despite those who proclaim the "fact" that he's a has-been. People seem to get offended because he's no longer performing like he used to perform - whatever that means. People get angry and refuse to believe that other fans can still be deeply moved by a Bob show. People claim he's doing it for money, and not simply because it is what he does. Perplexing? Yes.Unusual? Yes.Extraordinary? Yes, in every sense of the word. I feel no need to "accept" the opinion (stated as fact) that Bob can no longer perform a good show. There are many who still enjoy what he is doing, he obviously is enjoying what he is doing, what more to say? See Bob Play!

2:16 pm  
Anonymous Rainer said...

That's true - if you're too far in the back you really miss most of what makes it worth paying for. I think every one of us would prefer small(er) venues.

3:50 pm  
Anonymous whalespoon said...

My first Bob show was on the 1978 tour.Since then, I've caught Bob on most of the major US tours at least once. Part of the quality of a particular show depends on whether or not Bob seems to be inspired/interested that night or not. I can testify (along with most other fans, I suspect) that this is not a new phenomenon. But there still seem to be new revelations occasionally coming from old and familiar songs from time to time--for me anyway. Part of the way that Bob compensates for his loss of a significant amount of his vocal prowess is to rearrange the songs and the vocal lines--no surprises there.I personally do not care whether he stays behind the keyboard, goes to center stage to attempt to croon like some kind of surrealistic Tony Bennett, or does some embarrassing physical movements that can only loosely be considered "dancing". As "Singing Bear" stated, it's the music that matters, but unlike him, I do not believe he is "grinding his art into the dust." Far from it. I admire that the man can still be artistically vital long after his peers are all dead or spent--even with the limitations that his advancing age imposes on him (and us, I might add). The possibility of musical transcendence at any given show is lower than it was in, say 1966, but the potential is always still there. As I have stated in other posts on this blog in the past, I think that the sub-par quality of many of Bob's shows in the last decade or so has more to do with his band than him. Do not misunderstand me--they are all great players, but he has been playing with some variation of the group since the late '80's. That's an eternity, musically speaking. In my opinion, taking a sabbatical from them and playing with a whole new set of musicians could shake things up significantly and make his shows much more exciting/interesting than they are now. THAT would certainly raise MY expectations for the next time I catch him live!

4:21 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree that how he sounds is what it is all about. The thing is...sometimes even now he sounds brilliant, reinterpreting a song so its meaning is brought out anew e.g. Forgetful Heart, Workingman's Blues.

5:31 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

One has to wonder what need propels him? Why does he have to hear the live applause night after night? I can't help wishing that need wasn't so strong. Imagine if at least a portion of the energy invested in live performing had been channeled into creating new songs over the last 15 years. I think we'd love him all the more...even if he didn't hear the applause. Nevertheless, I guess he's earned the right to fill his own need.

5:47 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is ancient history in the history of Bob fandom and therefore is to be expected but I'll counter it here anyway, feeling compelled to slice through all the bullshit. The reality is that the same people who today say he can't play, the band's terrible, the arrangements are horrible and most of all, he can't sing, are exactly the same people who didn't get Bob's humor in the early years, the same who denounced his change to loud rocknroll, the same who don't comprehend his stellar albums of the last 15 years and yes, again, the same who say he can't sing. To say Bob's voice in the past 10/15 years or so (especially in the last 5-7) is incredibly full of character is yet still a vast understatement. It is simply an extension of the same voice people have been trashing for 5 decades. He has never been a "singer." I'll repeat that because it seems vaguely important: he has never been a "singer." "Singers" and "musicians" and the like are terms reserved for some jazz, classical and opera. Whether you like it or not, this music of his and theirs is rocknroll, with entrenched roots in the best of blues, folk, country and the like. It happens to be led by the deepest poet with the most character modern music has ever seen. It's not and has never been there to please.(That's called rock and roll by the way, of which there has been so precious little ever made) Oh and another thing.. those who don't like his voice and band, another analogy: those are most likely the same who adore Neil Young's Heart of Gold, Old Man etc but can't stand his most crushing work with Crazy Horse. Criticism in all walks of life is obligatory but if all this amounted to nothing more than a broken record (which it does) it would be annoying. The fact that these people have no clue who they actually think they are a 'fan' of is obscene.

6:09 pm  
Blogger CharlesDJCase said...

I saw Bob for the first time in 1992, a week before the 30th anniversary tribute. Since then, I've seen dozens of time. I don't get the recent criticism of his voice. It does not sound worse to me than it did in 1992. In fact, I often like his voice in concert better now than I did back then. He now puts more into his delivery; he often slows it down; it is more an experience of cadence than melody. I was never listening to Bob because he himself was a master at carrying a tune. When I need harmony and melody, I put on "Pet Sounds." When I need blues, history, poetry, culture, and literature all mashed together and gurgling and churning down a four-hundred mile road, I listen to Bob.

Chuck - Buffalo, NY

7:44 pm  
Anonymous Kieran said...

Okay, so we go to the show to ignore the brutal singing, tired setlists and predictable arrangements, and hope the old man treats us to his Mr Burns dance moves?

Has it come to this already..?!

8:17 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The pope does not give the best sermons, but millions of Catholics come see him anyway. So it is with Bobheads. His songs have had a holy influence and people come to see his holy presence. If you had a chance to see Shakespeare perform in one of his plays, would it really matter if he was any good as an actor? He was the man who had the holy thoughts and wrote the holy words and for that is worth our tribute. With Dylan, every brief spark of life in his generally sparkless performances is a reminder of the holy spirit.

8:45 pm  
Blogger Singing Bear said...

"those who don't like his voice and band, another analogy: those are most likely the same who adore Neil Young's Heart of Gold, Old Man etc but can't stand his most crushing work with Crazy Horse" - This is utter tosh. I, for one, adore the stuff Young has done over the years with Crazy Horse. An irrelevance in this discussion.

"The fact that these people have no clue who they actually think they are a 'fan' of is obscene." - Aah, you are one of the 'initiated' who truly understand the man. Do you think that Bob Dylan should somehow be judged differently from other performing artists? No one else that I can think of could get away with what he's doing now. I would counter your argument by simply saying that "You can fool SOME of the people ALL of the time".

9:20 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think, saying his voice IS "terrible", "barely tolerable" ... etc, is not correct.
Better statement: his voice is sadly too often like that.

In Berlin 2 weeks ago his singing was as good as ever. And to me he is the most interesting, most touching, simply the best vocal artist I've heard - if not a singer :) . I felt lucky to be in Berlin.
(I thought the band was a little lazy though - at least compared to Bob's energy. (except Stu))

And like said above, people have always been complaining he cant sing since 50's.

Jari

10:26 pm  
Anonymous Rainer said...

anonymous said "he has never been a 'singer'."
oh well, listen to any, say, concert from 1981 and say that again ... I mean, come on!!

10:30 pm  
Blogger jrc said...

If I had enough money and free time,I'd be at every show.
The guy is unpredictable and
his new songs are fantastic.
Nobody sings the blues like Mr Dylan. So his voice has grown old, does that mean he should give up his artform.
He still writes new songs, and he still is a performance artist.
His rendition of Blind Willie McTell on recent youtube clips from this tour is unbelievable.
His voice is smooth when he wants it to be. When he's sharing stage with the violin ,like on the new song Forgetful Heart. And the Harp is still profound.
People like to complain, but in my opinion, they haven't really been listening.

12:21 am  
Anonymous Steven said...

My show count is 36, from 1978, to this past summer in California. I hope this puts me in the category of "dedicated follower of Dylan live," while not verging into the "I've lost all objectivity" zone. In recent years I've been at the rail and I've been in the bleachers. Based on these experiences, I appreciate and agree with most of Mr. Vesely's comments.

Bob brings many elements to the shows. He is clearly touring because he still enjoys his craft and his audience. These days what we get is a fascinating balance of poetry, performance art, jazzy, bluesy band interplay, and, as Rainer notes, the ineffable, powerful PRESENCE of the artist.

Admittedly, for some this last item might smack of adoration more than music appreciation, but I see it differently. For those of us whose life stories have intersected meaningfully with the man's catalog and performances, we are able to gather our own personal mysteries, sorrows and joys to the moment, to the NOW that Dylan consistently represents.

True, if you come for the voice alone, for the expressive phrasing of the seventies, or even the nineties, you will be disappointed.
Even so, some nights the voice has more nuance than others, more tone and range. But you can't come for the voice alone.

Rather, if you carry some inner Dylan with you, whichever you choose — not one that you project on to him, not one you always want him to be — but one that lives within you, the one that arrived like a gift, the one that aligns with your own creativity, you will enjoy all the elements of the show. You will not be so focused only a voice that grows ever coarser. You will still think of age and mortality, yours and his, but you will not think so exclusively of these things.

With this type of relationship between artist and audience, yes, it is always better to be physically closer. You can't depend on the sound alone. The music, the song poems,the gestures, your own life, and the MAN (how much longer, after all, will you be able to stand near him) conspire as one.

My only wishes are: that he keep touring; that he opens the catalog more widely.

12:32 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

When you go to see your friend, just being in his company warms your heart. Dylan warms mine.

1:19 am  
Anonymous whalespoon said...

Over the last 35 years or so, I have spent a lot of time listening to Bob, learning how to sing and play his music, reading about him,thinking about and ruminating on the songs, and going to his shows--so much so that I almost feel like I know him, though I've never actually met him. (I imagine that many of the readers of this blog could say the same thing.)It occurs to me that the last few shows of Bob's that I have attended have not felt so much like going to a rock concert as it has been a visit with an long-time friend. It is a pleasurable, comfortable experience to catch up, as it were, on the latest during these "visits"--to "talk" over familiar topics as well as whatever surprises may be in store on a particular evening. I have changed over the years and so has Bob, but it doesn't really matter. I don't expect so much to be "entertained" as I go to make that connection.

5:03 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've attended Mr. Dylans concerts since 2008, so I only know the older conerts from recordings and videos, but I have to say I really enjoy his concerts everytime and for me they are something to look forward to every year. These lines by Mr. Vesely do explain a lot I think. It really is fascinating to stand first row and watch him doing all this magic. I cannot say anything about the quality of the concerts when sitting far away from stage, because I'm always in front of stage. But all in all I think its the situation of "Whatever Works for you is good". If you liked the concert its fantasic, and if you didnt like it you will have one more experience to look back at, but theres no reason to slag and criticize others who enjoyed it. Its just what it is and one can inform about these modern shows by watching youtube videos. Its not like somebody would say his voice is still great and ye shall all come listen to it. Its ones own decision to attend the show. I respect those who cannot stand the sound, but I know many people like it and they as well shall be respected. Thats the most wonderful thing on earth. Everybody's different. And Dylan changed so often, his voice changed so often, his acting changed and all that, so its always again exciting to see one of this concerts I think.

9:33 am  
Anonymous McHenry Boatride said...

The "Dylan can't sing" and/or "Dylan isn't what he used to be" arguments have been raging ever since The Times They are a Changin'. Heck, I can remember arguing the former with a young Mr Gray in the green fields of the University of York. Luckily a young lady convinced him where I failed, and the rest is history.

As for the latter; it's true. Bob Dylan isn't what he used to be. That's what keeps me listening to him.

12:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Bob,do yourself a favour,get off the road, write some songs and enjoy life a little."

Is it ignorance or arrogance that makes people state such condescending drivel ?

"Dylan was never really great live " and "he would'nt let Knopfler play a solo. " Is this
some kind of joke ? If it is, then it's not really very funny. Have you been to any of the recent shows ?

Many long-standing Dylan fans including myself feel that Dylan is the greatest live performer there has ever been and that he is a greater singer than he is a songwriter. Please do not confuse the 71 year old Dylan with the Dylan of,say, 1981.

His voice has virtually gone...to my mind there is a considerable decline from 2009 and yet he can still pull off a vocal performance such as 'Not Dark Yet ' in Antwerp a few days ago. Why ?

Paul

12:45 pm  
Anonymous likeatrain said...

Would you have gone to see Miles Davis if his trumpet was bent out of shape and he could only produce a couple of tones and a gasp-gurgly sound, regardless of the piece the band was playing? Would the argument still hold that it's worth the price of the ticket because he looks cool? And if so, doesn't this reduce things to the fanboyish level of 'it's just great to be in the same room as him'? Some of those who praise the current concerts come perilously close to admitting that this, in the end, is all the shows have left to offer.

3:46 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Singing Bear is right on the button.
We can't take any more of these repetitive arena shows.The Bobcats will always justify the performances,whatever is put in front of them.I'd rather support a new artist than go through this torture

5:11 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Re the current concerts. Your correspondent is suffering some form of cognitive disorder. The singing is unspeakable, although he appears able to raise his game a bit when he does it with Knopfler. To me the gestures are just embarrassing and in some cases a bit suggestive, not good in anyone and certainly not in one his age; I want to save him from himself. His lack of attention to his band, who appear cowed by him, seems almost insulting and makes for musical chaos. O God, that it should have come to this!

5:53 pm  
Anonymous McHenry Boatride said...

@likeatrain - What about Dizzie Gillespe? A misshapen trumpet can still be worth listening to - and so is Bob.

8:17 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear "Mista" Gray,

Please start attending the shows, like ya used to do. The sparkle is still there, you've got a Forgetful heart, he played that for us all and the roof lifted and the stars were seen.
Remember what happened to the critic, aka, journalist in Masked and Anonymous,, A body Blow, an empty broken bottle of Jack? a pistol and then El Kabonged By Blind Lemon's old acoustic with new strings.

Keep Rockin' and stay warm, etc, etc

Annonymous club.

8:23 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's funny how Dylan fans seem to be divided between those who think everything he does is "awesome" and those who seem to be a "fan" only so they can continually bemoan his decline. Having been at Manchester this year and heard lots of bits from other gigs I'd say: 1. his voice is in very bad shape, which is distressing at times. 2. he is trying, working, involved in what he's doing. 3. some songs are better than others. 4. he is still playing with emphasis and phrasing in very interesting ways. 5. there is real drama about his performances, which is more than pointless mugging and gurning. someone made an interesting comparison to shakespeare. what seeing dylan is like is seeing shakespeare perform speeches from his plays - in a very croaky voice. that would be a little irritating at times, but fascinating in terms of emphasis and interpretation. i would prefer that his voice was better, but what's the point of complaining that it isn't? i still find what he's doing interesting and worth analysing. that would be because i'm very interested in dylan's work and tend to find what he does of interest. i see no value in showing off my aesthetic sensitivity by pointing out what may be deficient in dylan's work. it doesn't make me a empty-headed "awesome" type that i can still find some of dylan's performances interesting. so i'm going again in london next week, and i expect to find the performance frustrating but interesting and moving at times. the thing about dylan has always been that he does not conform to expectations, of course. i'll keep paying attention to him as long as this remains the case.

10:37 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The thing is Michael, have you noticed that there are hardly any bad reviews of Dylan concerts any more?

Ever wondered why?

Right now he's engaged in some of the greatest performances of his entire careeer. The idea that his voice is 'shot to pieces' is complete nonsense.

If you can't 'hear' that, well, Michael. why don't you write about somebody else?

You don't like Bob Dylan any more!

That's been obvious since your ridiculous trashing of 'Time Out Of Mind' in SADM Part 3

And of course, 'Modern Times' is no good, 'Together Through Life' is no good, bla bla bla.

Actually, most of the 'Bob Dylan Encyclopaedia' and much of what you write on this blog is the work of a burned out, jaded hack who is obsessed by his own 'importance'.

Your writing is shot to pieces!

The force and power and sheer brilliance of Bob's current live shows makes everything else on the planet seem irrelevant.

I predict that his greatest work is STILL TO COME

Thing is, Michael, you won't like it when it comes because it won't fit with what 'Michael Gray' has decided is 'good' and 'bad'.

You need a weatherman
To know which way the wind blows!

Still, I don't expect you'll allow this, will you?

11:22 pm  
Anonymous Jack Fate Junior said...

All the songs are tolerable; even the ones that aren't tolerable... what did Jesus have to walk on water twice to make a point??? Bob Dylan is a living breathing Oracle... a modern times prophet... a live performance marathon traveling Rock N Roll Blues show... what stamina... what endurance... some folks left the Dance early and went home to talk about what used to be and what should have been... mostly they got too old to Dance and just didn't enjoy the Song as much as they used too. I'm gonna enjoy the Song and Dance until I drop and I'm sure glad Bob Dylan feels that way too..

11:29 pm  
Anonymous Glenda Brownback said...

Did you see the Charlie Rose show where he presented "highlights" from many shows over the years devoted to Shakespeare. Again and again he asked what made him so special? The answers sounded like these comments about Dylan. Finally someone drilled down to the real point of what an artist does: the depth and width and complexity of the HUMANITY of Shakespeare. I'm a poet, I love Dylan's skill with language. The direct VOICE. The off hand conversation he has with us. But he is on my CD player daily because of the music. How is it that one man can do Brownsville Girl Tex-Mex? And a childs tune like Naming the Animals? He makes you laugh, he makes you cry, he makes you angry at injustice, he makes you "feel his pain"...and there are tunes of his I HAVE to dance to! Why do YOU suppose he called his 50th year album: "Together Through Life"? I cried when I saw that title. On Charlie Rose they talked about Shakespeare and the fact he had to communicate to all levels of society--not just the educated. That is the magic of Dylan. He can name animals for pre-school children, and make us contemplate the life and death reality of this long and lonely trip through LIFE. Why not go "through it together"...with someone we trust, who seems to feel everything so deeply and is BRAVE enough to share it with us with so much care and love. The next time you go to a Dylan concert--be a little more humble. Open yourself and let it in. His kind will not this way come for maybe centuries. If what he does is so easy--where are the others? Shakespeare over-wrote Hamlet, so it could be done many DIFFERENT ways, by many different peoples, for many different centuries. Dylan is showing us the way, by changing his own tunes, his own words, constantly trying to see what MIGHT be done, twisting and turning it all about, like the unplanned dance only Dylan could do because he has lost track of the performance. BRAVE. BRAVE. BRAVE.

1:03 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Michael,
This discussionhas been interesting to follow, but it seems there is some craziness coming into it.
I am reminded of the weird sight at a recent concert, of so many people, head down, typing into their smart phones or taking photos; rather than actually being really present to Dylan's performance. Whether positive or negative, I do not think their opinion of the concert would be the result of a real interaction with the performance. Instead,II think it would only be an expression of an already formed concept i.e. 'legend/genius' or 'burnt out has been'.
I enjoyed the irony as Dylan performed 'Ballad of a Thin Man'.
Jack

2:10 am  
Blogger Pope Leo said...

Jeez, I'm staying out of this, even though someone says in one of the posts that millions of people listen to the Pope. Most of the posts are much too polarized, seeming to eschew any kind of subtlety of debate, and some are plain intemperate. So, as the joker said to the thief...

7:59 pm  
Anonymous Roy Kelly said...

I've been writing an article for the Bridge over the last month, thinking about Bob issues, and one was concerts now. From emails with enthusiasts it is clear that going to a Bob concert now and expecting anything like one used to know is futile and silly. It's like joining the army and attempting to be a free spirit. You have to inhabit a paradox of only going because it's Bob Dylan, but giving up on all thought of him being like the Bob Dylan you knew. With the singing you have to accept that he can't sing at all as he used to, but if you accept that, and that he will try to do some kind of expressive vocalising with silent movie acting, then you will find something to enjoy. I see some blogger used the words "transcendent beauty". It's like a spiritual conversion to which you have to give yourself over. Of course it's not one I can make, but I wanted to try to show what other people, not dopes, really believe. The most telling thing is that as is traditional it's only people in the front rows who will enjoy it most (though You Tube tends to put everyone close to the front these days.)

Naturally as someone who can watch No Direction Home and weep I can't be a cult convert, but those who are seem to be sincere. It's so far from what not only we knew but what seemed to be a precious part of us.

8:31 pm  
Blogger Pete said...

Dylan does close to 100 gigs a year, and no one seems to be asking what HE gets out of them. I think it's musical. I think he keeps nudging the songs, with the band, and seeking and finding further nuances in them. The band is not there to lay down a setting upon which the great man can present a vocal. The band is part of the journey, and the vocal is part of the presentation. That's Bob. Take a listen to "Tell Me Mama" from 1966 — it's all sound. I like the sound. If you don't, feel free not to attend.

10:10 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There are people who passionately defend Dylan's current performances and claim still to find beauty in the voice. Speaking personally, I can only take the recordings and the videos in small doses. Sometimes there's something that moves me, other times it's just too much. However, I would argue that when one actually attends a show it's a different matter. I don't know if it's the way the sound is mixed, or craft of quite another kind, but his voice always sounds better. Not as it was, but much more palatable than on field recordings. It's not just with Bob - I've had a similar experience at an Ian Anderson concert – another artist whose voice has noticeably deteriorated.

I’ve had the chance to see Bob only 5 times. Four times in the nineties, when he was generally good to excellent, and once two years ago. I have adored his work since my late teens, but my life has been such that I have had few opportunities to see him live. Two years ago, I finally managed to do what I had never done before – get to the front at a Dylan concert and see the man up close. I went with lowered expectations, but thoroughly enjoyed myself. Not just because of the theatrical gestures, but from the performance as a whole. I haven’t sought out the tape; I know the way it works. The magic happens when you’re there. I wrote a short report on this blog and got a snide remark from Roy Kelly for being up close and enjoying myself.

There seem to be two extremes here, as always. The advocates of Dylan’s ongoing artistry in performance who are quick to condemn anyone who dissents. And then the other extreme: older fans who seem to be nursing some kind of feeling of betrayal and who are equally quick to condemn anyone who continues to find beauty in Dylan’s performance. Both camps are always ready to throw stones. I think both could do with a bit of tolerance.

I also watch No Direction Home and weep. I wept too when I saw Bob in Greece the other year. I have a feeling I am not the only one to find beauty in both, despite the fact that certain others seem to believe there is only one side, that life is black and white – the Dylan who existed only in the living moment under the stars in Athens, and the Dylan who will forever be entrenched in the historical period when he changed the world. The more zealous advocates would be advised to remember Dylan’s words to the Time journalist – you’re going to die, you’re going to go off the earth, you’re going to be dead. In the face of that, why do you waste your time denying other people the right to see beauty where you yourself do not see it?

12:58 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jack

The part of the Dylan audience you refer to is not a result of the digital age in which live.

Dylan has had a constant battle with thin men...from Newport 65 and the 66 tour to Rolling Thunder 76 and "Vegas" tour 78 and on through the marvellous Temples in Flames tour ( and the so-called famous John Peel walkout )87,etc,etc.

One of the most memorable Dylan responses is in 1981 at Earls Court ( probably one of his great performances ) and his response to the enthusiasm for his one and only acoustic song.... "Oh,come on,you're making me nervous."

Glenda...I do not think you are "a dope " and I do not consider the other bloggers who defend the old man Dylan on this blog or in other forums as "dopes ". I believe that you understand that he remains a fearless performer.

Paul

1:39 am  
Anonymous Roy Kelly said...

People are misunderstanding my phrase "not dopes." It's a summary "they are not dopes." What I say is that there are people who find what he does in concert wonderful, and they aren't dopes even if differing views exist. I'm not saying anyone is a dope because they used the phase "transcendent beauty". I say, quite specifically, people who believe these things are sincere even if I don't get it. I'm not trying to insult anyone. The perils of web communication and interpretation.

4:15 pm  
Anonymous Homer said...

“The reality is that the same people who today say he can't play, the band's terrible, the arrangements are horrible and most of all, he can't sing, are exactly the same people who didn't get Bob's humor in the early years, the same who denounced his change to loud rocknroll, the same who don't comprehend his stellar albums of the last 15 years and yes, again, the same who say he can't sing.”

How can one person be so wrong and so inulting at the same time?

4:30 pm  
Anonymous likeatrain said...

Michael,Homer, and other contributors to this thread,

It would be interesting to find out when you last saw Bob in concert and what your experience of it was - particularly since there's a growing school of thought that says 'you had to be there' these days, and that the recordings are no longer representative enough of the concert experience. For my part, though I'm sceptical about this view - the voice is gone and there's only so many ways around that sad fact - I'd have to say that the being up-close the last time I saw Bob (summer 2010)certainly added a lot to the experience. But hasn't that always been the case? The difference being, in years past, that there was great singing to enjoy along with the view.

7:41 pm  
Blogger Pope Leo said...

In reponse to likeatrain's question, I saw Dylan in Bournemouth last month. I have to agree that "the voice is gone and there's only so many ways around that sad fact". Yes, he was great to watch - an extraordinary series of movements, gestures and facial expressions - and these offered some compensation for the vocal shortfall, but not complete compensation.

I don't think the band is great and (OK, I sound like a 1966 dissenter!) I think they play way too loud for his broken voice. BUT...I loved being there, and I was moved to be watching this remarkable man pouring huge amounts of energy into everything he was doing.

Nevertheless I see Dylan as an increasingly diminished figure in performance, and I would be in denial to say otherwise.

That he continues to tour fills me with a mixture of sadness, admiration and incomprehension...

10:49 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've been attending his shows since the 60's. I've witnessed all the incarnations and have hung in faithfully. His gestures and "acting" are a compensation for the alarming damage to his once incredible voice. His voice was the most expressive one in modern music. His voice was his instrument, which he has not taken care of and it's a pity. it doesn't mean he's not still great, he is. but not his voice!

10:55 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is rather confusing having this post and the next one covering the same discussion.

I was at the recent Manchester show.I attend because I want to hear an authentic voice. I tend to agree with most of what Pope said ...he was totally engaged and sung with great passion. However,in Manchester the sound was very poor for both Dylan and Knopfler sets...I was second row, stage left.

I feel that the so-called "predictable set lists, poor band, poor showmanship,etc would not be such areas of concern if he still had his great voice.

I believe that he remains a fearless performer because he will not sing "straight". There are many examples from the concerts this year where he will begin a song with a quite beautiful vocal (and Roy, Michael,etc before you sneer check out,say,the first verse of 'Forever Young' from Taiwan - if my memory serves me well)and then he will quite deliberately change the way he is singing. I believe this is because he still has to challenge himself to be inventive with his singing despite the sad fact that his voice is no longer able to respond ( I think this is partly what McHenry is meaning in the excellent discussion with Michael on the next post). I trust that this is what words such as "brutal singing" are referring to but somehow doubt it. Again, listen to 'Not Dark Yet' from Antwerp where he sustained a quite beautiful timeless vocal performance.I am not suggesting for one minute that he should sing straight, not that he would... he is, for God's sake, Bob Dylan.

Paul

2:21 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There's room for a bit of tolerance here. It's stupid to allege 'these are the same people...' Do you mean literally, in which case every one of them would have to be around 70 or older , or do you mean the same sort of people ? There are Dylan albums which even he derides, but when they came out 'the same people' defended them againmst criticism. They usually told critical reviewers 'something is happening here, but....etc.' which was a bit predictable. Dylan has changed a lot, it's not unreasonable for some people to find some parts of his career of much less merit. Others of us are so fascinated we find something remarkable in performances and recordings which to some are almost unlistenable. My own view is that he's got harder to listen to, and much less obviously special than decades ago. I would be surprised to find many newcomers to him being bowled over in the way they were in the mid 60s or mid 70s, but as an old listener I usually find something that makes it worth it - at Finsbury park there were at least half a dozen and I felt really good afterwards. Yet sometimes I buy a bootleg later and can't identify what I saw in the whole thing. I suppose we just carry too much baggage about the man to be really balanced in our judgements.

6:10 pm  
Anonymous Rambling Gambling Gordon said...

I’m going to leap in quickly then get out before another freight train of comments comes and runs me over.

For all the faults – and I come down on the side of those who feel exasperated by what he now does live, despite the odd fine, even wonderful moment – I still can’t stay away when he comes. No ‘artist’ – none in music, and none beyond that – has given me what he’s given me, and that’s why I go. When I watch him I can never dispel that from my mind, and nor would I want to. So it’s an experience akin to doublethink. Yes, he’s nothing like he was live anymore; yes, there’s a weary and baffling predictability to his song selection; yes, his voice is ravaged (hardly his fault, it has to be said); and so on and so on, but...he’s still Bob Dylan. It is, I think, a very common feeling, and (I like to think) a very human one.
One of the contributors to the discussion, Glenda Brownback, put it simply and tellingly when she said “His kind will not this way come for many centuries.” I’m not sure that Thomas Hardy has ever been quoted in these pages but here anyway are the final lines of his poem on Shakespeare. (More than a little stilted, to be sure, but you’ll get the point.)

“...like a strange bright bird we sometimes find

To mingle with the barn-door brood awhile,

Then vanish from their homely domicile -

Into man's poesy, we wot not whence,

Flew thy strange mind,

Lodged there a radiant guest, and sped for ever thence.”

Think I can hear that freight train at my back.

6:13 pm  
Blogger Pope Leo said...

Rambling Gambling Gordon, that's a great Hardy quote, and very apposite.. "Strange bright bird" is a wonderful way to describe Dylan, and even though he's more of the raggedy rooster these days, there is still something a little bird-like in his recent stage performances!

7:34 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Or, as Joan Baez put it, not quite with the eloquence of Shakespeare but on the mark nonetheless:

So thank you for writing the best songs
Thank you for righting a few wrongs
You're a savage gift on a wayward bus
But you stepped down and you sang to us.

7:54 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear likatrain

"Michael,Homer, and other contributors to this thread,

It would be interesting to find out when you last saw Bob in concert and what your experience of it was -"

I last saw him in Glasgow last month and I next see him next Monday at Hammersmith. I enjoyed the Glasgow show more than any other I have seen (or heard) since Glasgow Barrowlands 2004, as it happens. I believe I even sent Michael a quite excited post show e-mail which will form the basis of a review for ISIS.
These two shows (Braemar and Hammersmith) and the two months they come from will form the last chapter of the update to Razor's Edge which will be called "One More Night" and where this Blog will get a special thanks for the recurring debate that features here and has featured often in the past when I cover the later years.

I have written most of it already and endeavour to be as objective as one can be about this oh-so-subjective area. The book is both my story and an overview/detailed appreciation of Dylan's last quarter of a century of touring so it has to be both subjective and objective and it has to somehow reflect the passion of the debaters here without veering off into extreme statements and assumptions - especially unfounded ones about others.

I believe Michael thinks I sometimes bend over too far backwards in trying not to upset anyone; but I expect he'll wrap up this page with his own thoughts and correct that comment if I am wrong.

Best wishes as ever, old friend and campaigner (if I may be so bold),

Homer

9:36 pm  
Blogger Michael Gray said...

Thank you to everyone who has contributed politely, which is almost everyone, to this post and the Richard Manuel one. Both, of course, are on the same topic. I'm going away tomorrow morning for a few days, to give a talk on Dylan & the Blues at the Birt Acres Theatre, Cardiff University on Thursday night and to take part in two panel discussions on Dylan Thomas & Bob Dylan - in the same Cardiff venue on Friday afternoon and at the Taliesin Arts Centre in Swansea on Saturday evening. So I'm taking a taking a vow of silence on this blog for these few days.

11:22 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

does this mean that Elvis' Vegas concerts were actually brilliant performance art - the way he pointed during 'Dixie' for example rather than third-rate shlock.

11:26 pm  
Anonymous likeatrain said...

Homer,

You may indeed be so bold! If you get a chance, please post your thoughts on Monday Hammersmith. Always interesting to read your take on the shows.

All the best!

1:32 pm  
Anonymous Jane said...

I'm a bit of a late entrant to this discussion, as well as a new one. Love that "strange bright bird". As a reasonably recent enthusiast, who feels, probably, all the emotional connection, throughout the back catalogue, that so many of you have lived with and vibrated to, for years and years, I want to make an effort to step outside of my own experience and see it for what it is. Dylan has always engaged the effort of the audience. That is his art and his marvellousness. This attribute is the very foundation of attachment - the more effort you put in, the more attached you are, although we all fumble along thinking its the other way round. That's how parenting works too. So then it can bite you back, disappointment, feeling bereft, possessiveness, miscellaneous advice, all those complex things. And it's hard, and sometimes hurtful, to try to connect with people who resolve it differently or are at different points along the spectrum. You have to find a way of mastering the experience of Dylan in order to get yourself back. Heylin sounds like that's what he's doing. What do you think Michael? You seem to bear the stripes of the struggle, obvious, after all the effort you've put in! As for the objective thing - people go to see him, so perhaps it doesn't matter if it's "good" or not, no-one could ever say, but time will pass and the fog will clear.
Please try my "applied Bob Dylan" blog - the Gratitude one addresses these issues. It's Gardening with Bob Dylan gardenleafing blogspot. It's all part of my own attempt to manage my attachment! Hope you don't mind me mentioning it but keen to communicate, like all of us, I suppose. Mad to make what matters to me matter to others.

10:58 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Reactions to Hammersmith last night (Monday). I can see what has raised this issue - he is more cheerful than I've ever seen him, and the movement contributes to this. However this isn't really what the whole thing is about, and I thought the show began pretty badly. It got better, depite confusion about the verses of Desolation Row, and there were enough highlights for me to feel good by the end. I was near the front and there were a number of young groups around who seemed to be really getting off on the sound , which was nice. He remains extraordinary, but I don't think we do him or ourselves any favours by interpreting any vocal inadequacies as some sort of deep interpretative exercise where any criticism simply shows the shallowness of the critic. If we're honest there's usually something pretty awful, but if something's unlistenable, some fans seem to see that as further evidence of his genius.

2:34 pm  

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