They are the two worst concerts I’ve ever been to. And that’s OK, I am still a Bob Dylan fan. I can also admit the 70th birthday of one of the top 10 greatest songwriters of all time is probably not the best occasion to bemoan a compulsion to live bastardising of back-catalogue. However….
It’s so hard not to mention because those concerts, both in the 2000s and spaced some years apart, are so intertwined with with my collective feelings about Bob Dylan. I’d heard the stories that his latter-day love of rockabilly had made all his songs sound the same live; that unless you were carefully listening to the lyrics you’d be none-the-wiser if you were being treated to a song from Highway 61 Revisited, Blood On The Tracks or Love And Theft. I knew all that and second time around, I knew it first hand. But when it is a legend like Bob Dylan, you want it to be different. You also forgive a lot.
Seeing Bob Dylan live is the only time I have heard audiences try and persuade themselves they’ve had a good time. Alongside the disappointed cries of lifelong fans, a guy next to me launched a pre-emptive strike to his friends saying: “You’d have to be pretty ignorant about music if you didn’t enjoy that.”
“You can’t expect him to play the songs just like they sound on the albums! That would be so boring for him.” That second quote I could attribute to dozens of people at both my Dylan concerts and many more who weren’t there and haven’t seen him live. That’s where it gets frustrating because they are both so right and so wrong.
Of course you don’t expect someone with a decades-long career to trot out the same arrangements, but changing melodies and changing arrangements are two completely different things. Bruce Springsteen sometimes does Born In The USA on just a 12-string guitar, almost forcing you to tackle the lyrics of a Vietnam vet who loses everything, including his faith in America. Without the bombast of the usual arrangement, it’s a nice variation for Springsteen, but the melody is inherently the same. You can rock out more, strip a song down to just piano or just guitar, take a piece in a more jazzy-direction for the intro and then revert to the studio sound for the body, make something more funky, change tempos, add a gospel choir, the lists of what you can do to a famous song without destroying it’s most valuable asset – it’s melody – are almost endless.
The case you could very successfully argue with Dylan is that the lyrics have always been more important than his melodies, though that does overlook the strength of his melodies and also assumes you can understand what he is singing live. All of this adds up to my frustration with Bob Dylan because I am such a fan. He not only changed, but chartered the course of popular music as much as Elvis and the Beatles. I’ve read his autobiography Chronicles and it is some of the most compelling writing I’ve read. His intelligence is mind-blowing just as his distaste for over-analytical fans and ill-informed journalists is intimidating. And if like me, you’ve read a bit about Dylan over the years, there is nothing I can say that hasn’t been said before.
So with that out of the way, it’s time to wish a very happy 70th birthday to the genius that is Bob Dylan. Just to prove that everything in this life is in shades of grey, here’s a Dylan song I fell in love with based on a live version. That’s right! Dylan live in 1976 was magnetic and full of urgency. More importantly, there was no loss of melody. And let’s not forget that arguably the definitive version of I Shall Be Released is Dylan live with The Band plus famous friends from The Last Waltz in 1976. But for now, here is another song from the same period that Dylan in a live setting managed to knock out of the park, Shelter From The Storm.