[Illustration by ALEX FINE]
BY MIKE WALSH Let me make this clear up front: I’m not a Dylan-head, Dylan-ite, Dylan-phile, Dylan-ologist, or any other kind of extreme Dylan fan. In fact, I never bought a Dylan record or CD until just a few years ago. I never saw the need. Growing up in the ’60s, Dylan was on the radio all the time —“Blowing in the Wind,“ “Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right,“ “The Times They Are a Changin’,“ “All I Really Want to Do,“ “It Ain’t Me Babe, “Mr. Tambourine Man,“ etc., etc. Plus, many other bands had hits with his songs, like Peter Paul and Mary, Hendrix, and The Byrds. There was no escaping Dylan back then. You listened to him whether you wanted to or not.
In college, it seemed like everybody in the dorm except me owned Dylan’s Greatest Hits, Volumes 1 and 2. So I had to listen to the same songs all over again at just about every dorm party. One kid down the hall even had a guitar, a neck stand with a harmonica, and a music book of Dylan’s greatest hits. So I got to hear the same songs played and sung live — quite amateurishly, to put it kindly. By the mid-70’s I’d had quite enough of Dylan — so much so that I did a nasally, slurred vocal rendition of “Like a Rolling Stone“ just to torture the Zimmermanites, even though they never seemed to mind. In fact, they joined in no matter how obnoxiously I wheezed, “How does it feeeeeeeel?”, so the joke was always on me.
What I wanted to hear was something different, something that wasn’t on the radio. Soon punk and new wave surfaced, and I’ve been a slave to indie rock and the underground sounds ever since, as my record collection can attest. My opinion of Dylan stayed the same during all that time, even though I didn’t sing “Like a Rolling Stone“ quite so often (although I did work up an even more annoying version of “The Needle and the Damage Done“ but that’s another story).
Then about five years ago I met this kid at work. About 25 years my junior and with 80 gigs of remastered ’60s classics by The Who, Beatles, Kinks, Stones, Hendrix, and Dylan on his iPod. We worked together and made quite a pair: a young kid who listened to nothing but ’60s rock heroes and a middle-aged guy still looking for the latest underground thing. It didn’t compute. We had arguments about Roger Daltrey, who I cannot abide, and The Replacements, who the kid just refused to enjoy. It was The Odd Couple Revisited.
I grudgingly agreed to listen to his ’60s music, and behold — I became enraptured with Dylan, especially early Dylan. I pored through documentaries and books. I studied the deep LP cuts. I endured I’m Not There, and I tried my best to understand The Basement Tapes. Eventually even Dylan’s harmonica playing no longer made me cover my ears and hide. Part of Dylan’s appeal for me is the history and the myth, of course: Al Kooper, The Hawks, ‘Judas!’, Baez, Newport, Suze, Ginsburg, the whole crazy scene. I mean, aside from Brian Wilson who else from the ’60s can claim to have influenced the Beatles? In fact, the Beatles were still singing about holding hands when Freewheelin’ came out.
So when I heard that Dylan was appearing at the Mann, I figured it was my last chance to see him. I mean, the dude is 70, and it’s a miracle he’s still alive and touring. Plus, I wanted that one memory of Dylan, something to remember whenever I listened to another Dylan song. Wednesday night did not start off well. A traffic jam and parking confusion meant that we got to our seats just as the Leon Russell’s set was ending. But it did give me an opportunity to gaze in wonder at Russell’s astonishing appearance — a glowing white pyramid of hair, like some cross between Gandalf and ZZ Top. However, the covers of rock standards with which he ended his set, like “Roll Over Beethoven,” were eminently forgettable.
Soon I was in a food line and got into a conversation with a veteran of many Dylan concerts. I mentioned this was my first Dylan show. “It won’t sound like the Bob Dylan of the ’60s or ’70s,” he warned. “The performance is totally unsentimental. They play sixteen songs. The last two will be hits, like ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ or something like that, just to make everybody happy. Then they walk off stage. That’s it. The arrangements for his classic songs are completely different than his records, so it may take a minute or two to recognize them. Don’t be disappointed. So just sit back and enjoy a great rock band.”
That turned out to be very good advice because I could not recognize Dylan’s the first song until someone told me what it was “Leopard-Skin Pillbox-Hat.” “Don’t Think Twice,” which he also played early in the set, had what you might call a looping R&B beat and also took me a minute to realize what it was. But the very first thing I noticed was Dylan’s voice. It was so deep and rough, he made Tom Waits sound angelic. Throughout the show, he barked or purged a couple unintelligible syllables for each line, and I took it on faith that he was approximating the actual lyrics. The only lines I could clearly make out were the choruses of songs like “Tangled Up In Blue,” “Desolation Row,” and “Highway 61 Revisited.” I suppose it shouldn’t be a surprise since Dylan has been shouting into microphones for 50 years and probably smoking for that long too.
Who cares about lyrics anyway? It was Dylan, man! Live! And it sounded like Dylan, and nobody sounds like that. So what if his voice has devolved into a gruff series of primal grunts and groans? Nothing wrong with primal. Plus, Dylan is a snappy dresser. He wore a chocolate brown suit with yellow piping, a wide brimmed white hat, and white boots — like some cross between a traveling minstrel and a hotel doorman. The rest of the band, in black except with white dinner jackets, set off Dylan’s flashy outfit even more.
Speaking of which, the band was terrific, providing rock solid rhythms to the mix of blues, country, soul, gospel, and jazz styles. The grooves featured a constant stream of spirited guitar leads and fills from the wonderful Charlie Sexton. But Dylan is no slouch as a player either, matching the band’s skill on organ most of the night. He took up the guitar on a couple songs, playing clean, solid guitar lines, especially on “Simple Twist of Fate.” His harmonica leads were impressive and confident as well. That skinny old cat can jam.
He played plenty of his classics, like “Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right, “Tangled Up in Blue,” and a long version of “Desolation Row,” along with more recent standouts, like “Mississippi” and “Blind Willie McTell.” The end of the main set was the highlight, with “Highway 61 Revisited,” “Simple Twist of Fate,” and a haunting, driving “Ballad of a Thin Man.” I felt shivers when Dylan growled the surprisingly clear lines, “And something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?” I don’t know exactly what that means, but me and the other 6,000 attendees knew it was some heavy shit.
The encore featured a straight version of “Like a Rolling Stone” and “All Along the Watchtower,” which I barely recognized. Then the band lined up in front of the drums, Dylan nodded, and they left. Just like the guy said — unsentimental. Dylan didn’t speak to the audience at all during the show, except to introduce the band members. But he wasn’t standoffish either. He gave an emphatic performance, moving his body, bobbing his head, leaning into the mic, bracing for a harmonica lead, and swinging enough to let us know that he was into it and was working for us. His performance communicated more than enough for me. I mean, this was Bob frickin’ Dylan. He gets to do as he pleases. Mere mortals like you and me, we don’t get to criticize Dylan. For one night, I was happy just to bask in his uncompromising and eccentric genius. I may have been about 40 years late to my first Dylan show, but I’m sure glad I finally got to the promised land.
For more articles by Mike Walsh, go to missioncreep.com, a site that supports the work of numerous Philadelphia-area artists and writers.