It seemed to me last night, as I stared at the old man in his funny hat and funny suit, singing such deadly serious songs, that I have lived my entire life at a Bob Dylan concert. There is a perpetual moment, a moment which sums me up, in which I am sitting in row 2, as last evening, or standing in a crush eight feet back, looking at this man singing. It seems, in those seconds or minutes, that everything else — my job, my children, my wife — has been merely a time before or a time after. The real me is forever listening and looking at this strange man tell his musical stories.
This is ridiculous, of course. I know that. I know that, here on the couch, working on my laptop, as the dog crunches her chow, as my brilliant daughter does her homework, as my wife and lover finishes the dishes. I am no spectator. I have my work and my garden and my life. Bob Dylan concerts are the moments out of time.
I saw both shows that opened this current tour, at the winery I mentioned above, in a nearby suburb to my home in Seattle. I have recently lost count, but it may have been numbers 50 and 51 for me. For Dylan, it was the first two shows he’s played since he turned the majestic age of 75 last month. When I saw him in 1978, he was 37. So, like Mavis Staples said last night, we go way back, Bobby and I. Way back. If you are reading this I bet you do too.
Although you wouldn’t know it from the way he treats us. Those heavy-lidded unseeing eyes, that frown.
Last night, after I entered the sunny wooded outdoor venue, I walked up a path on the right border, through the GA section. I stood among the wine-bibbers. They reclined in camp chairs, dipping chicken drumsticks into ranch sauce while they waited for tonight’s musical act — who is it again? — to provide a soundtrack for their picnic.
What a long ways we’ve come from Blackbushe, I thought.
At the edge of the field, I looked out over a fence to some concrete ponds terraced down the hillside, and there is Donnie Herron, multi-instrumentalist and main musical foil to Bob Dylan, feeding the ducks. He really seemed to have a thing for those ducks. He would hold out the bread, and sometimes one would waddle up and grab it quick, but just as often they were disinterested and he had to throw the crumbs toward them. Sometimes they would spectacularly splash into the pool for the tidbit, but mostly they were aloof. Still, Mr. Herron was persistent, as if nothing really mattered more in the world at that moment but getting those ducks to eat some catered bread.
Probably nothing did. The man, unlike me, truly lives his life at a Bob Dylan concert. In between the electric mandolin and the pedal steel guitar, in between the banjo and the violin, what is there? After the jams on “Beyond Here Lies Nothing,” and on “Duquesne Whistle,” in which he plays Robbie to Bob, Bloomfield to Bob, Charlie McCoy to Bob, George to Bob, after the smile flashes between them when it rollicked and rolled just so, well, what else really is there? What else could there be? Feeding the ducks I suppose. On to the next show. I can relate brother, except I, of course, have no musical skills for one, and I never get the smile.
Instead, I get the frown, from the stage manager guy, who knows very well I am looking at band members, and who regards me as a potential threat in this age of potential threats. I want to say, hey, it’s just me, Seattle Bob Dylan fan trying to get a little insight into this crazy phenomena called “Bob Dylan,” but I know he’s got a mental muscle memory of me from other times, other places — Waikiki?, he ponders — and I am at least a nuisance, hopefully no more.
So I wander off to my seat. Enjoy those ducks, Donnie. Sorry for the attempted eye contact.
What of the shows, you ask? How does Bob vibe at 75?
It’s a melancholy mood for the most part.
You can’t really point to but one song in the whole set that conjures anything else, anything but a sorrow inside the soul and a dismay outside the soul at this sorry world. No wonder I feel hung over. That one song is “Spirit on the Water,” and that must be why he keeps it in the set. Frankly, it’s a crazy art piece from any perspective. People stand and applaud when he’s done rolling around those piano keys, singing what passes for a love song in 21st Century Dylan-land. People stand and applaud because for a moment, even though the energy of the set has diminished at this point, just when it might have risen, people stand and applaud, not only for the crafty jazz of the song, which has sounded much jazzier in the past than it does tonight, sorry to say, when it sounds disheveled and too well lived in, but people applaud wildly, because for a moment, despite the death of momentum, they feel less suicidal.
Maybe we can have a whoppin’ good time!
And then he plays “Scarlet Town.” The people in the back who got excited at the end of the first set when he blew a bouncy harp and sang with energy about the death of love in “Tangled Up in Blue” — one of exactly three songs in the set from before 1990 — have now started muttering to themselves. This is not the death of love we love! We were not young during this death! This is not the death of love we desire! We don’t know the words!
Dylan, one hand over his chest and the other to his brow, like a witness to a particularly gruesome crime, sings: “Set it up Joe, play “Walkin’ the Floor,” play it for my flat-chested junkie whore.” I can’t help wondering what the 15 year old boy sitting to my left must be thinking. He and his slightly older sister, elegantly dressed, look to be the very offspring of Seattle’s own Early Roman Kings. Still, they seem spellbound by the “living legend” twenty paces in front of them, attentive and appreciative, despite a commensurate interest in the candy corn. They don’t seem put out —as I am, who should know better — by the lack of facial expressions on the face of the master.
Indeed, at the end of the song, as Tony Garnier’s bow on the stand-up bass bids goodnight and good luck to George Recile’s feathery touches on the snare and the ominous droning of the guitarists, and to a final, updated, age-old warning from Mr. “It’s doom alone that counts” himself, something about the death of beauty, these fresh young ones leap to their feet in ovation. Go figure. Are they listening to this stuff in their Lake Washington manor hall?
Which brings me to “the standards.” Much to my chagrin, especially in the unlikely event you read my last post, and equally as much to my pleasure, if you know how much I love Bob Dylan, “the standards” are pretty much the reason this Bob Dylan live show in the year 2016 exists. Not a big surprise really, if we have been paying attention. There is not much you can generalize about the Mystery that is Bob Dylan, but I dare say this: Bob Dylan is always about what Bob Dylan is about right now. The reason to see these shows, if you should choose to accept this mission, is to see Bob Dylan sing “I’m a Fool to Want You,” and “Autumn Leaves.”
I feckin’ hate to admit it, cuz I don’t much like it, but they are feckin’ sublime. Here’s the deal: I think Dylan decided he doesn’t NEED to write any more tender and moving songs that he loves to sing, like “Forgetful Heart,” because there exist already all these other wistful sad songs in the world. He’ll make do with them. He don’t care if the boys would rather play Highway 61 because it’s more fun. To hell with fun.
Straight ahead: the Tempest material is mostly good, still fresh and powerful. “Duquesne Whistle,” “Pay in Blood,” and “Early Roman Kings” are just tremendous controlled jams. “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’,” from an earlier record, has the same feel, and is refreshing for its semblance of optimism amid the chaos and destruction. “Long and Wasted Years” seems a bit rote with the descending chord pattern, but I suppose it’s the point he wants to make. I guess I just have a problem with the songs with very predictable structures. This band is too good for such repetition. I personally do not need to march along to “She Belongs to Me” again. If he is going to put a sixties song in the set … fill in the blank.
Straight ahead: The standards are wonderful, because of the feeling Dylan conveys. His voice has no range, but it sure has reach, just like it always had. Right into your heart and a big squeeze. I’m not sure I will ever love those tunes on the record, but performed live they are worth your money. “Autumn Leaves,” the closer, will make you shiver on the warmest day.
The encore duo of “Blowing in the Wind” and “Love Sick” is perfect. For the first, he is your kindly grandpa singing a lullaby. The light touch of his piano and the merry cadences of the band swing you back and forth gently, and you nearly forget that the essential message of this song is that the answer is not to be found. Voice of the sixties indeed. Then he stands before you again (for the last time, you always fear, these days) and tells you, that despite the end of love that pervades each and every song, love is still what he wants, what every human wants, and his last words tell it all: “I’d give anything to be with you.”
Pass that bottle over here. No, not the burgundy. The harder stuff.