When Bob Dylan Rambles Into Town

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A strange kind of anxiety can occur when attending a concert by an artist like Bob Dylan. I was struck by a sense of this anxiety as I stepped into Constitution Hall in Washington DC last night. I began to worry that it would impact my enjoyment of the show.

This can happen. A few years ago I attended an amazing Ralph Stanley show in a smoky nightclub in Virginia. All night long, I felt so overwhelmed by the fact that I was sitting there staring at one of the very inventors of modern bluegrass style, the small craggy old man calmly shredding his banjo strings in front of my eyes, that I forgot to tap my feet.

I think of this sensation as a form of anxiety because it's a self-disturbance, an unwanted reaction. When I have the privilege to hear a musical genius in person, I want to simply sit there and enjoy the music. I want my brain to be quiet while the sound waves soak in. Instead, I sit there pondering the significance to musical history. This happened to me in an especially bad way in 2006 where I luckily found myself at the famous Jay-Z concert in New Jersey where Nas came out to end his beef with Jay, and to share the mic with him on "Dead Presidents".

I was already very pumped at this point in the show, especially since Jadakiss, Sheek Louch, P Diddy, T.I., Freeway, Young Jeezy and Kanye had already been on stage -- so when Nas showed up, what did I do? I pulled out my phone and texted Caryn, and since this was 2006 and I wasn’t very handy with texting yet, this ended up taking a while, which distracted me from living in the moment itself. (Caryn later told me that she never saw the text anyway, as she had already gone to sleep).

But here's the strange thing about last night's Dylan concert in Washington DC: I wasn't feeling this anxiety myself at all. I had already seen Bob Dylan fourteen times. But last night's concert came 24 hours after a shocking judgement from Ferguson, Missouri which had caused an impassioned protest around the world. Emotions were high on November 25 all over the United States of America. I wondered if this would affect the mood of the crowd.

I knew it was unlikely that Bob Dylan would say anything spontaneous this evening, as his onstage demeanor tends to be opaque. He does not engage with audiences, and he does not strive to put on a crowd-pleasing show. As we all entered the hall -- people of all ages, and many parents with children -- I had a strong sense that this crowd would be expecting a sermon, or maybe a rendition of "The Death of Emmett Till".

Well, that's not how Bob Dylan runs his show, and I have seen him enough times now now that I always set my expectations at "whatever" before I walk in the door. Happily, he put on a wonderful show in Washington DC last night, exceeding expectations for both Caryn and myself.

He had selected a bunch of songs with a narrative thread vaguely about sweet love, tragic heartbreak and eventual peaceful reconciliation: "Things Have Changed", "She Belongs To Me", "Waiting For You", "Pay In Blood", "Love Sick", "High Water", "Spirit In The Water", "Scarlet Town". He changed the words to "Tangled Up In Blue" and "Simple Twist of Fate". He closed the show with a beautiful and melodic performance of a Frank Sinatra song, "Stay With Me", that seemed to hush the crowd with the same power as "Forever Young" or "To Make You Feel My Love".

Dylan plays with a crackerjack blues/country band including a standup bass, a pedal steel guitar, and a lot of hollow-body six-strings. His voice is in fine sandpaper-y form, and he even seemed to be attempting to dance at some points during the evening's second set.

The show was more rehearsed than the looser sets of recent years, which can be both good and bad. He's moved away from the jamband concept of rotating setlists, but in exchange is providing a coherent and meaningful arrangement of songs that actually tells a story.

"Workingman's Blues" and "Early Roman Kings" provided some of the heavy messages for the night, and a pre-closer encore of "Blowin' In The Wind" was the closest thing we had at Constitution Hall for the Ferguson, Missouri moment of recognition many of us in the audience frankly felt we needed. I'm glad Bob Dylan played that song.

This was my fifteenth Bob Dylan concert, and easily one of the very best. I do recommend his shows to others, even though I am cautious about this after having heard from many people (including several close friends and family members) who saw Bob Dylan in concert and absolutely hated it. You have to show up for a Bob Dylan concert with an open mind, and it helps if you can sit and simply enjoy some hard-hitting country jamming and blues shoutin', because that's the main thing a Bob Dylan concert delivers.

Bob Dylan has matured very well, and in his later years he seems to be affecting a gentle, Hank Williams-like affability on stage, even as his bitter lyrics to songs like "High Water" and "Scarlet Town" undercut the sincere smile. The more he manages to escape the anxiety of influence, the prison of expectation, the better a performer Bob Dylan seems to become.

Why do we come to Bob Dylan concerts so overladen with expectation, only to allow it to interfere with our enjoyment? Well, I think it’s because Dylan’s historical significance really is that impressive that we can’t help but be disappointed when he shows up as a mere human. We don’t want to be this close to genius. If any of us were to visit the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, we’d be happy to look at an exhibit of Bob Dylan’s boots inside a glass case. But when you go to a Bob Dylan concert in 2014, you are standing there looking at Bob Dylan’s boots, and Bob Dylan is in them. Sometimes that’s too much Bob Dylan.

Last night's concert, I'm happy to say, was Bob in top form, a night to remember. Here's the setlist, and here are some more detailed reviews of the show I saw.

3 Responses to "When Bob Dylan Rambles Into Town"

by mtmynd on

Well done, Levi. Fifteen Bob Dylan Concerts under your belt is the mark of a serious fan, not unlike some of the old Dead Heads, but Bob keeps on going as if he still has 100's of songs left in him (which I wouldn't doubt).

I was 17 yo when a record salesman turned me on to the first album, "Bob Dylan" and how curious I was, and even anxious to get home and put on the turntable. My first listening was one of a comic relief, his voice unlike any other performer I had ever heard. Song after song was like a completely curiosity that brought me a sort of glee that I am unable to explain to this day.

Immediately after that first listening I flipped it over to side 1 for another listen. A bit less gleeful I began to actually "listen" to the words rather than "hearing" these songs sung with a peculiar passion that began absorbing me. One more time ...

I listened again. This third time was the old charm - no longer giddy, I was witness to somebody truly remarkable. Even at that tender age of 17, I knew this was not simply another good performer for music's sake but someone very, very special. My only comparisons would be someone from the jazz genre... maybe Miles Davis, who mesmerized me nearly immediately, without a 3rd listening.

I kept Bob's music spinning on the old heavy-armed turntable with each new release and like the first time, I played each one several times until I could sing each song... knew each word... every time being literally blown away by this amazing songwriter, this amazingly profound individual who I "just knew" would become much more than I made him out to be... and he signed his first music contract when he was only 20 yo...

It does my soul good to see and hear Bob Dylan is still going, still recording, still songwriting, still doing concerts at the tender age of what... 73?

I've lost track of his albums, having had so many released, (Wikipedia "... lists 36 studio albums, 58 singles, 11 live albums, 11 albums comprising The Bootleg Series, and 30 compilation albums. The list also includes three home videos, a bibliography, and a filmography. The albums Planet Waves and Before the Flood were initially released on Asylum Records; reissues of those two and all others on Columbia Records).

What more can a man say..? Influenced... no more than that.

by Wo on

right on, Levi!

sounds like a good time....i picked up Chronicles Volume 1 in a thrift store in arizona a few weeks back and loved it. he's a Renaissance man of sorts, it seems.

by Greg S. on

You saw Ralph Stanley in a smoky Virginia nightclub!!! That beats my seeing Doc Watson in a college bar in Tallahassee FL over 30 years ago.

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