The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Monday, November 03, 2008

In defence of a Dylan concert

By Tamara Lee

I’ve been feeling a wee bit hopeless lately, what with all the doom and gloom swirling around in the news, various personal crises (relatively minor, mind, but certainly weighty), and seemingly every friend going through some sort of emotional or personal crisis. It’s everywhere; it’s inescapable. And the noise—the buzzing saw noise—just keeps getting louder.

But last week, for 2-1/2 hours, sitting in the middle of a darkened football stadium nursing a nasty head cold, I got some peace.

It started when Bob Dylan took to the stage, playing ’Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat’, one of only three songs he’d play on guitar all night. The band, dressed in old-timey white suits, contrasted Dylan’s black suit and white hat. This inversion would be a visual clue of what to expect for the show; his second song, ’The Times They Are A-Changin',’ would be the second clue.

Because the times are changing.

While he played this 44-year-old classic pretty much in the tempo we know, albeit with a full band, it was especially significant—as much a warning call then, in 1964, as now. It’s a rare musician who’s able to take a nearly half-century old song and twist multitudinous meanings out of it, revealing its relevance and continued currency. Yes, the world is uncomfortable; change is scary; plenty of things are difficult to comprehend; nothing is predictable. But if you stick with it, if you give ‘the song’ you knew so well a chance to be different, you can come out the other side of and realize you’ve just been through something remarkable.

And from that point forward, much to the disappointment of a few jaded music critics and likely audience members who expected to hear studio-recording versions, Dylan played each classic in some different-than-expected manner.

Surprisingly loose and playful on this second date into his tour, Dylan did look a bit lost at one point. He seemed suddenly unable to play so, mid-song, ran back-forth from front stage to keyboards. Finally settling into the song, in recognition of his screw-up, he did a little Elvis-style leg thrust. At 67, his motor skills are now suspect, his voice a bit more off than usual. But this save seemed to prove the concert’s overall theme: we may no longer be able to do things exactly as we used to, but in the end we can still make the damned thing work.

Judging by the number of people who kept wandering up and down the aisles, missing some of what I would easily call the best moments (How often do you see Dylan do a jig; or do a crooner impersonation? Or do a beautiful rendition of Modern Times’ ‘Nettie Moore,’) not everyone was willing to receive the bard’s message.

Sure, he's always been obscure. But for those of us who were patient and attentive, for those of us who remained in our seats until the last song, we could recognize the semblance of a lesson. Completing his overall theme with a jazzy-blues, slightly Hendrix-y version of 'All Along the Watchtower', with frenetic bits thrown in to emphasize ‘too much confusion’, it seemed the message, folks, was to remind us of the benefit of remaining alert. And, more importantly, open to change.

(Image still from Subterranean Homesick Blues. And as further evidence of the changing times, check out the link to the Dylan site, where you can write your own messages on the cards and send the final video to your friends.)


Blogger Tricia Dower said...

Attending a concert can be a bit of a let-down if, as you say, people are expecting to hear musicians recreate their recordings exactly. I can empathize with the musicians who want to perform their songs according to how they feel that night. Imagine if Awood had to write a fan's favourite story over and over.

Glad you enjoyed the concert, Tamara. I admire Dylan's songwriting talent but find it difficult to listen to him.

Mon Nov 03, 02:06:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger Andrew Tibbetts said...

Love Dylan more each year! Thanks for sharing this. May you land on lots more islands of peace in the next little while!

Wed Nov 05, 09:54:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger T. Lee said...

Ha. Tricia, good point.

Me, too, Andrew.

Thank you both for dropping a note!

Fri Nov 07, 06:41:00 pm GMT-5  

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