Bob Dylan: The Way Live Music is Meant to Be?

Set List: http://www.boblinks.com/050209s.html

So, last night I was in Glasgow at the SECC watching Bob Dylan and his band live in concert for the first time.

I’ve wanted to see Dylan live for a good few years since I was first introduced to his music and I think it’s fair to say I wasn’t disappointed.

Going into the gig, which I was attending with Steve, Craig, and Steve’s flatmate Gordon, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. Steve had seen him before on a couple of occasions, and his advice, in agreement with what I’d heard / read elsewhere seemed to suggest this was a good thing. Expect nothing. Don’t expect to recognise the songs until you hear the lyrics, and the like. They were right. It was like no other gig I’d been to before.

First up, no support acts. Hardly surprising I guess, given the man’s fame and reputation, it would be bloody difficult to have the task of warm up act. Secondly, he simply doesn’t need it. It detracts nothing from the occasion in there being no support act present. The feeling of anticipation in the arena before the show commenced at around 19:45 was electric as it was. If anything, a support act runs the risk of diminishing that feeling.

Secondly, a notable lack of spoken interraction with the audience, right up until he announced the names of his band members as the show closed up. Again, not a bad thing, but just not something I’ve experienced from a ‘standard’ gig, where the centre piece of the group is more than happy to harp out the same old cliche’d arguments to an already excited crowd. If anything, I appreciate the lack of it, but it was also a notable change to the other gigs I’ve been to in the past.

Thirdly, and as forewarned, the incredible differences in the songs being played to the point that they are unrecognisable from any recorded versions I’d heard, until he started singing. Steve mentioned whilst we were beering before the show that the reason he heard for this from Dylan’s point of view is that he’s never been completely, 100% happy with any song he’s recorded, so why shouldn’t he mash them up and try to perfect them live? Even if that means taking the songs off on a tangent that hadn’t been thought of when they were first written. It actually makes a whole lot of sense, and to me, emphasises the ‘artist’ quality that Dylan seems to ooze – never quite content, never afraid to try something different, regardless as to how it may be received. An admirable quality, regardless of what you think of the songs themselves.

Fourthly, and perhaps most importantly, the music itself. It doesn’t matter whether you think it ‘works’ or not – for me personally, some of it on the evening worked better than others, but that’s the nature of experimentation – the thing about it was that it seemed to be note perfect. Both Dylan and all the band members were on exactly the same page at every step through every song, and you’re left with the impression that one would have to try bloody hard to pull up just one note that was out of place. Maybe I’m overly keen to praise given how much I enjoy his music, but to me this screams emphasis on the artist permanently seeking perfection. These twists to old tracks haven’t just been toyed with one night and rolled straight out, they’ve been born out, practised, tweaked, practised some more until they’re ready to be performed.
The one exception to this during the set was Thunder on the Mountain which, whilst having twists from the recorded version – and sounding much more powerful – was easily recognisable from the first few notes.
Another interesting point relating to the music itself? Not one track from the new album that came out a few days before. Very refreshing.

Favourite Tracks / Moments:

  • Maggie’s Farm is a personal favourite track of mine. Heightened by the fact that this was the first performance of the evening, I thoroughly bloody enjoyed it. [ ~ YouTube ~ ]
  • Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright – or, more specifically, Dylan’s Harmonica solo towards the end of it – was sublime. The whole track was superbly put together, but the harmonica elevated it to an entirely different level. Simply stunning. [ ~ YouTube ~ ]
  • Highway 61 Revisited. Another track that I’m sure I’m not alone in saying I adore, largely for it’s entertainment factor, and simple ‘jumpability’, before even looking at the lyrics. This version left me, quite surprisingly, stunned. It genuinely did take me right up until he started singing before I could work out what was being played, but knew I was going to enjoy it. Whilst perhaps not being musically similar, it reminded me of the excitement I get listening to the recording of Isis from The Bootleg Series Volume 5: The Rolling Thunder Revue from the point of view that it was so loud, boisterous, pwoerful and yet clearly so carefully executed that it just left me awe-struck. Special. [ ~ YouTube ~ ]

Of course, I could highlight many, many more, but that would sort of defeat the point of trying to pick out highlights. It was all excellent. The encore surprised me, as I wasn’t expecting to hear All Along the Watchtower [ ~ YouTube ~ ], and thoroughly enjoyed the version I got to hear, as I was with The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll [ ~ YouTube ~ ], in a rendition that brought quite a surreal twist to something I was used to hearing at a much slower, mournful pace.

General Conclusions:

You may have already guessed – I had a superb time, and thoroughly enjoyed every moment of the concert. As Craig commented beforehand, “It’s not every day you see an artist perform that influenced artists like the Beatles”.
And I know what he means.
There’s something slightly surreal (and more than a little exciting) about seeing an artist perform that has had such a lengthy career, playing songs he first recorded decades before you were born, but that you’ve listened to maybe one hundred times or more, and playing them in such a completely different manner that only the lyrics reveal their true identity.
It’s also exciting to see such an artist perform in such a way – rather than churning out the old favourites note-perfect as if they were playing the CD through the loudspeakers – I know why they do it, but that doesn’t make it as exciting as seeing someone constantly striving to shake it up and try something different.
And I think it’s that that I find so fascinating about Dylan. Of course, I love the music anyway, from a lyrical level as much as from an instrumental level, but it’s that extra twist – the defiance – the ability and the strength of mind to constantly try and break his own cycles, and to deal with the consequences later. To reinvent himself, I suppose. But none of those terms really do justice, as they’re banded about the place all too often and with such liberty that they become watered down, weak and, ultimately pointless. And, to me, Dylan is anything but that.

Isn’t he just reactionary? Isn’t it all a ploy to keep people guessing and writing about him? Does he really care? Isn’t he passed his best? Hasn’t he sold out? Yadda-yadda.

Maybe he is. Maybe he isn’t. The question I have to ask is does it really matter? Whether any of the above questions are valid or not is largely irrelevant. If they are true, then he’s executed them in a considerably more ‘ballsy’ manner than any other leading performance artist in the field. And he’s pulled it off exquisitely. If they’re not true then, well, they’re not true. 🙂

Are there songs I would have liked to have heard? Of course – but with such an extensive back catalogue that’s always going to be the case. One of the things that ‘does it’ for me about Dylan is the simple fact of the variation, the ever-present chance of surprise / disappointment / excitement / awesome. It makes it fresh. It makes it exciting. It makes it interesting. It makes it live.

Would see again without hesitation.


You need something to open up a new door
To show you something you seen before
But overlooked a hundred times or more
You need something to open your eyes
You need something to make it known
That it’s you and no one else that owns
That spot that yer standing, that space that you’re sitting
That the world ain’t got you beat
That it ain’t got you licked
It can’t get you crazy no matter how many
Times you might get kicked
You need something special all right
You need something special to give you hope
But hope’s just a word
That maybe you said or maybe you heard
On some windy corner ’round a wide-angled curve

Bob Dylan – Last Thoughts on Woodie Guthrie

3 Replies to “Bob Dylan: The Way Live Music is Meant to Be?”

  1. An excellent review – Liverpool was the same. I’ve been counting, and in the first 15 concerts of this tour he played 76 different songs. Name another performer who does that! It’s the people who expect a greatest hits tour, with performances exactly as on the albums that do all the criticising, and everybody seems to forget the guy is 68 this month. How many other 68 year olds could do what Dylan does? Who else would bring out an album and not play any tracks from it? The only other one is Van the Man and he’s the only one like Dylan, who changes his set list and doesn’t talk to the audience. They are totally into their music so why should they talk about it. An artist doesn’t stand in his/her exhibition and explain what they’ve done – these people are artists. If you don’t like what they’re doing, don’t go!

  2. Stole in there with a subtle ninja-edit to add in YouTube links to mobile phone recordings. Worth it for the audio as much as anything.
    Nice.

    Oh, and thanks for the comments!

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