There’s a certain quality to seeing Bob Dylan perform in person that cannot fully be expressed in writing: It’s communicated with the simple tip of his characteristic pork pie hat, the hard-worn thousand yard stare and the familiar voice that originates not from the larynx or diaphragm, but from some raspy, mystical place in between.
It was with this presence that Dylan took the stage last Thursday night at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in San Francisco.
But before scoring a ticket for Dylan’s current “Tempest” tour, there is one question that might need to be posed: What is Dylan? Even the most album-savvy Dylan-loyalist might have a difficult time defining the enigmatic bard who carved a career out of constantly reinventing himself.
As a consequence, this performance by Dylan was a bit of a curveball for those hoping to catch a glimpse into the 1960s folk-rock phenomenon. The current Dylan is a Dylan three times removed, much more rhythm and blues with country overtones than rock star.
Song selection was varied amongst his decades of discography, with a handful of classics such as “Ballad of a Thin Man” and “All Along the Watchtower.” They were wholly unfamiliar, though, as Dylan’s new style overtook each song’s structure. The tempo, instruments and, in some cases, the melodies were changed so much that even diehard Dylan fans may have a hard time recognizing the live versions of their favorite tracks. The only characteristic that he has appeared to take with him through his ever-evolving musical style is the lyrics — which were kept judiciously intact.
Songs that transitioned well into his new interpretations included “Love Minus Zero, No Limit,” which was presented with a bluegrass twist, and a thumping “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” that was accented with an R&B groove, banjo and walking bass. An encore performance of “Blowin’ in the Wind” was completely transformed into a quicker-paced country-crooner that didn’t quite stack up to the original.
Dylan offered no explanations for his changes to the songs. Without much introduction, and after a lengthy opening set from British jammer Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits, Dylan casually strolled onto the stage and began playing his first song, a rollicking rendition of his early 1970s bluesy ballad, “Watching the River Flow.” This established the tone for his interaction with the audience from that point forward: minimal acknowledgement, no pauses to announce the next song and zero humoring of requests. It was clear that this was Dylan’s show, and the audience just happened to be there.
Overall, the concert was still lively and enjoyable. The musicians with Dylan were obviously masters of their instruments, and the band played with incredible precision. Dylan himself took every opportunity to pull out his harmonica and riff off what the others were doing on stage. Each song rolled cleanly into the next, giving the impression that the performers were not only well-rehearsed but also intuitively connected.
The rhythm and blues take on Dylan was not bad by any standards but a change of pace. No song was performed like its original, but for some, that only testifies to his unchallenged versatility as an artist.
So before attending a performance by the rock and roll icon, it’s important to keep your expectations in check. How you feel about the concert might depend entirely on what Dylan you’ve come to see. It would appear that forever gone is the voice behind the nasally, rapid-fire poeticism of “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” replaced by a more accessible, easy-listening successor. Either way, any Dylan is better than no Dylan.
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