Monday night, my family gathered in the lower tier of TPAC for our annual Bob Dylan concert. Since age twelve, my father has dragged me to an innumerable amount of Dylan shows; whether we needed to drive up to Amherst, Massachusetts to see him or down to an obscure arena in Maryland, it has always been a priority of his to educate me on the ever-evolving artist. This past show was the strongest I’ve seen Dylan since my 2002 inception, and the most passion I’ve ever felt about defending the singer’s continuous influence on the integrity of being an artist.
A handful of first-time Dylan-goers shared their comments with me after the show- “He can’t sing,” “I couldn’t understand a word he was saying,” “He wasn’t even playing his own stuff,” and “I just don’t know his new music,” were among the comments repeated to me after the performance. Quips like these light an internal fire inside me, something I feel obliged to write about in order to set (my humble opinion) of the record straight.
Dylan appeared on stage Monday night in his usual concert get-up: an oversized blazer, flared black pants with a white stripe running through the outside seem, and a Fedora hanging just low enough to hug his brow bone. At 74, his dance moves are almost endearingly comical, and his piano playing is as strong as it has ever been. Paying attention to his interaction with the band, it is clear that Dylan has a large stake in the jazz-band arrangements of these songs; he is, despite what some may think, a profound and educated musician, with a keen ear for the organic changes in his compositions.
Monday night’s set list consisted of two songs from Shadows In The Night, his Frank Sinatra cover album- “Autumn Leaves” and “Stay With Me.” In the melodic first, Dylan’s voice was- if not pristine – clear, devoid of rasp- a throwback to the crystal quality of vocal timber he exhibited on ’72’s Self Portrait. For anyone who argues that Dylan can’t sing, I immediately point them to his version of “Blue Moon” on the aforementioned album- Bob’s voice, when not stitched with his signature rasp, is a clear, honey-coated alto capable of soothing an audience with strong melodic capabilities. After several years of indecipherable shows, Monday night’s performance rang with enunciation, enough for me to pick up on several lyrical changes in well-known songs like “Tangled Up In Blue.”
With a more or less consistent set list on this year’s leg of the Never Ending Tour, Dylan has taken the time to arrange his songs with a meticulousness that has been amiss in past shows- the jazzier renditions of a handful of classics, and the swinging blues of his latest works on Tempest, shone through with a musical integrity, a clear, acute tightness that remains unparalleled in many aspiring bands today. The venue’s warm, intimate space fit perfectly with the concert’s ambiance; in order to enjoy Dylan, you have to really listen.
For those who attend a Dylan concert expecting him to grace the stage with an acoustic guitar and a reverberating solo set of “The Times They Are A’ Changing?,” do you also expect him to morph into a twenty-five year old boy, with fluffy, untamed hair and a voice that clings to the wailing injustices that we first start to notice in the world when we’re young and uncertain? This is not Dylan now- as we are not who we were when we first learned to ride a bicycle, or graduated from high school. Imagine if for the rest of your life, no matter what successes you accomplished, your parents asked you to get up in front of their friends and mimic the first time you learned to recite the Alphabet. If Hemingway suddenly decided in his later years to give up sparse prose and embrace verbosity, would we shun him, reading exclusively The Sun Also Rises, or would would learn to appreciate that as an artist, our styles of expression change as we do? “People are crazy, times are strange” is more apt description of the perspectives that Dylan has molded after years of witnessing uncountable events- both atrocious and pristine.
I believe there is an importance in studying Dylan’s evolution of as a singer-songwriter for anyone who truly considers themselves plagued with the destiny of being an artist. To feel the incessant itch to create art means to express yourself as you are in any given moment, as any given character. With each passing day we die to the person we were the day before, and to freeze a living human being as he was fifty years ago is akin to revering the dead while he’s still alive. The integrity of an artist who continues to push past the persona that the mass population cloaks him in – “Wear this! Wear that!” – and reveals the many different avenues that expression that take through the evolving human mind and heart – is one that we should both admire and study, not just when he went electric, but when he started singing Sinatra covers, too.