Kris Kristofferson’s song “Pilgrim” (this is a Dylan review, so we’re time traveling…) has a line that goes “He’s a walking contradiction, partly truth, partly fiction.” That lyric neatly summarizes the complication with any Bob Dylan concert of the last few years.
Although Dylan’s somewhat-under-the-radar appearance at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium on September 3 was hindered by a horrible sound mix and an older audience thrown off by “general admission” seating (more on that in a moment…), the real problem with Bob in a live show now (long time fans say “Bob”) is that regardless of what’s actually coming out of the speakers, you can never stop thinking, “Yeah, but… it’s Dylan!” Imagine the Dalai Lama showing up for one of those big auditorium love-in deals, and just to be funny he tries out his stand-up act and never once talks about peace or inner life. There would be confusion and talk of disappointment as people left, but everyone would still be thinking, “Yeah, but it was the Dalai Lama!”
Dylan doesn’t do jokes, although he does (more on that in a moment…), but he plays the prankster by constantly resetting his classic and beloved songs in new settings and rocked-up arrangements. The result is that the audience gets to hear their favorites, but they have to hear it Bob’s new way. It’s Dylan asserting his artistic license, and ironically those that came because they admire his truly great art are often put off.
The set at the Civic was basically the same show I saw at the Forum last October, and Dylan’s band and his arrangements of the last year or so often present his most powerful songs in a kind of clippity-clop rock rhythm that shouldn’t work as often as it does, and yet it can drain the life out of some of his strongest material. At the Civic, his reframe of “Things Have Changed” showed that Dylan can kill the simple power of even the most basic blues riff with his jihad to rearrange.
On the other hand, he seems to sense that he needs several strategically placed rockers to keep the crowd from turning on him. So quite naturally, “Like a Rolling Stone” is kept mostly in form and the crowd gets to shout along on the chorus. Similarly, “Highway 61” resists destruction from Dylan’s melody-melter ray gun, yet an encore rave-up of “All Along the Watchtower” was just plain frustrating when you consider all the great covers of it others have done.
If your take on singing is that really good singing sounds like Josh Groban, you can just skip this paragraph. Dylan’s singing is great, it’s always been great and that’s because it’s great caring smart deep into the lyric-singing like you get from Tom Waits. Thousands of bad TV impressionist jokes later, Dylan still triumphs as a singer because he insists we hear the singing as he presents it. Those who surrender are rewarded. Even inside the inexcusably lousy sound mix at the Civic, you could still get chills. When Dylan ended “Watchtower” by repeating the line “None of them along the line, know what any of it is worth,” it was like he had teed-up his one message for the night. Who doesn’t know, Bob? Which “plowmen,” Bob? The presidential candidates? The City Council?
But of course, Dylan doesn’t explain. In fact, he spoke once the entire evening, which is standard for him and that was to quickly introduce his band members. The band’s Chicago 1930’s gangster outfits point us to something we passed by earlier: The Humor of Bob Dylan. For example, Dylan currently wears a kind of gaucho-bolero outfit on stage, accented by a white stripe down the leg of his pants. The band members certainly don’t want to wear costumes for two hours under hot lights but they have to, otherwise the Boss is going to look like a clown … instead of a wily poet-songwriter who might be saying something. Or he just likes big black hats.
Another possible Dylan gag might have been the surprise of “general admission seating” at the Civic, in this case meaning “no seating.” All the chairs on the floor were cleared, which would have meant “Party!” to a younger audience demographic. To watch one 60-ish ticket holder after another enter and crumble when they realized they were going to be standing for two-plus hours was enervating. About midway through the concert, vendors ran out of bottled water. If AARP had a SWAT team, they would have been called in. Did Dylan himself know that most of his graying audience at the Civic would have to stand up for the entire show? If he did, he might have grinned and hummed “It’s a hard rain gonna fall …”
Crowd chatter on the way out centered on disappointment that Bob never once picked up a guitar and gave the crowd that retro replay moment many had been certain they’d get. I have friends who believe Dylan is having trouble with his hands, and that’s why he does all his shows from behind a keyboard now. That notion seemed verified when Dylan shook his hands in the air during the encore bow, as though trying to get some blood back in them.
No one can tell a hard-core Dylan fan how to feel about a show. I’ve seen him at least eight times since the 1970’s and one of those was in pouring rain on a muddy football field in Colorado. “General admission” indeed. Dylan, performing from a breathtakingly intelligent songbook built over decades, is just too powerful to be diminished by poor audio or lack of creature comforts. There’s some truth to the Civic show being a poor one. That’s the fact. The fiction is… “Yeah, but … it’s Dylan!”