Monday, August 20, 2007

Dylan in Melbourne

I enjoyed my seventh Dylan concert on Sunday night. Tragic, I know. Dylan is known to play the occasional bad show but I can honestly say I've never been disappointed and Sunday was no exception. The Frames were a good support act, and obviously chuffed to be invited to tour with his Bobness. I can only describe them as a kind of Irish Wilco (who by the way I saw with the Boy Wonder at the Palais earlier this year but never got around to reviewing. Suffice to say it was a brilliant show). I thought it was very cool they way the Frames wove a Van Morrison lyric into one of their original songs. They played only four or five songs. We were here, after all, to hear Bob and no support act is ever asked to give an encore.

Bob took the stage in his usual black with a broad brimmed cowboy hat which he never took off looking for all the world like a gunfighter from a B grade western totin' a guitar instead of a gun. The band kicked into a ragged version of "Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat," a little out of tune and pretty loosey goosey. They seemed to take a few numbers to really tighten up, and were at their best on the new songs from Modern Times. When they were good they were very, very good, with moments of real rock 'n roll brilliance. Dylan played three numbers on guitar and then stood at the keyboard / Hammond organ thingy for "Just Like A Woman" and stayed there for the duration. This annoyed me at the Melbourne International Music Festival a few years back but this time it seemed right. After all, Bob started on piano in his high school band playing Bobby Vee and Buddy Holly covers, and plays piano on piano based songs sprinkled here and there over the whole body of his work. Anyway, even behind the keyboard he still has the rock 'n roll gunslinger moves.

I can undertand why some people, just don't "get" Dylan and leave one of his concerts scratching their heads or even feeling ripped off. If they don't know his body of work well, they are certainly not going to understand the words he growls, spits out, grunts, and distorts with his strange vocal gymnastics, even when his voice is WAY up at the top of the sound mix as it was last night. And then he has that strange way of leaving it to the very last part of the measure before throwing in all the lyrics all at once without a moment to spare. A teenager behind me during the demand for an encore called, out "Play a Bob Dylan song!" Apparently he hadn't recognised any of the songs in the set, even though it contained such Dylan standards as "Just Like a Woman," "Don't Think Twice It's Alright," and "Highway 61 Revisited." (For those who want the complete set list click here.) In a way this is a real tragedy because it means that people miss out on moments of genuine lyrical brilliance. In "Spirit on the Water," the frailty and elusiveness of love is expressed so well in the lines, "I'm pale as a ghost holding a blossom on a stem. You ever seen a ghost? No. But you have heard of them." Whether he's frowning on those who are "sucking the blood out of the genius of generosity" or bragging about himself having "sucked the milk out of a thousand cows," this is poetry not be missed.

I guess it is this familiarity with Dylan's work that gives fans at his concerts (no doubt the vast majority in attendance alongside of those in the minority who may simply be there to "check out the legend") a certain satisfaction in their esoteric knowledge. In "Spirit on the Water" when Bob sang, "Ya think I'm over the hill," the crowd yelled back, "Nooooo!". Then, "think I'm past my prime," and again, "Nooooo!" Finally, "Let me see what you got / we can have a whoppin' good time." Crowd: "Yeeaaahhh!!" Priceless. They knew those words were coming and they were ready for them.

The highlight for me was "I Believe in You" from his Gospel album Slow Train Coming, the last song at the end of the set before the encore, and sung with so much passion. It's the song of a loner who stands apart, or is ejected, from the crowd because of his personal faith in Jesus. He ended the song in an interesting way, repeating the opening lines of the verse, "they ask me how I feel and if my love is real"...and then it just ended abruptly, the final word being spat out with what sounded like venom and disgust. "How dare they ask if my love for God is 'real'!" I'm probably reading too much into it but I couldn't help but think of the Christians who need Dylan's faith to fit into a conventional mould they can approve.

Then there was a long, long wait before the two-song encore. At the end, a touching moment when the lights came back up and the band were all huddled in the centre free of their instruments, Bob at the front, as they received a standing ovation from the capacity crowd. Bob reciprocated with a single hand uprised in salute, then both arms upraised as he basked in the glow of adoration for a second or two then they turned and walked off, Bob 66 yrs. old, frail, skinny, and somehow vulnerable but a giant and a legend still.

Dylan fashion watch: Bob wore this hat at the Melbourne concert but with a black coat.

Here's a live TV performance of "Cry Awhile" from about 5 years back. This song wasn't performed at the concert but it still gives a bit of a taste of what Bob is like live.


Ross McPhee said...

Sounds like a great concert. So, he didn't do The Hurricane?

If you have a long memory, Aussie sketch comedy series Fast Forward did a Bob Dylan sketch years ago. Young Robert Zimmerman got the lyrics to his early songs such as The Times They Are a Changin' and Blowing in the Wind from homilies from his local rabbi, who would often exclaim, "Your sons and daughters are beyong your command," and so on.

Glen O'Brien said...

No, no "Hurricane." I haven't seen that Fast Forward sketch but it sounds like it would have been funny.

K E Alexander said...

Great review of what sounds like a a great concert. I do love Dylan, though I've never seen him in concert. My favorite of his lyrics is "All Along the Watchtower" (I love Bono's version in "Rattle and Hum"). The lyrics of that song are a sort of narrative theology of my worldview. I also love the lesser known "Emotionally Yours".

When I was in college, I listened to Slow Train Coming every morning.


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