As reported earlier, we went to see Bob Dylan play at the Fox Theatre in Oakland the other night. The No. 1 reason I wanted to go: our son Thom invited us. The theater, a landmark movie palace that has been refurbished after sitting empty for decades, was also a draw. And also: Bob Dylan–why not?
I had seen him just once, back in January 1974 at the start of his tour with The Band. Others with a better grasp of Dylan’s history might correct me, but I think that tour was his first since the late ’60s. Anyway, the big draw to me then was The Band, which I had seen several times and whose music I really loved. And to get to see them play with Bob Dylan, just coming back onto the road and whom they’d performed with when he went electric, seemed historic. What I remember about that show is going with a big group, including my brothers and several friends. I remember people lighting matches during the performance (at the old Chicago Stadium), the first time I saw that at a concert. And among the songs played that stuck in my memory were “Ballad of a Thin Man” and “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding).” How would I have rated that show? Ten out of a possible ten, like every other time I saw The Band.
Before Dylan played the other night–our group consisted of Kate, Thom, Thom’s squeeze Eleanor, her dad, Jef, their family friend Ellen, and me–we talked about some of our favorite songs and speculated whether we’d hear them. I’m not what I’d call a really avid Dylan listener, but my experience is that I tend to forget how much I like most of his music until I hear it again. I was thinking I’d like to hear “Memphis Blues Again” and was wondering whether “Just Like a Woman” was something Dylan still plays in concert. He did both songs, even letting the audience sing the chorus of the latter number (not sing along with, because Dylan remained silent as the audience did its thing). Also: “Visions of Johanna,” “A Simple Twist of Fate,” “Cold Irons Bound” (which Thom remarked sounded very similar to covers of Tom Waits’s “Way Down in the Hole,” and I would easily have mistaken the song for that once he pointed that out).
A friend had warned me that Dylan’s voice wasn’t what it once was. I wasn’t worried about that; for one thing, I’d heard his band was great, and that turned out to be true; and for another, well, we’ve all heard the voice over the years and know how it’s changed. The only song on which I’d say his vocal performance was disappointing was “This Wheel’s on Fire.” Part of that is having Rick Danko’s vocal in mind when I hear the song, but partly is was because of the laughable understatement with which Dylan almost inaudibly intoned the climactic line of the chorus, “This wheel shall explode.” He infused it with all the drama of a Walgreen’s clerk saying, “This shampoo prevents dandruff.” Enough said. Any disappointment was more than outweighed by the fact the song was in the concert, and the band played it well.
Beyond any particular reaction to the songs Dylan chose or how they were sung was the constant strange time-shifting I experienced while listening to music that I first heard more than 40 years ago coming out of the mouth of the guy who performed it back then. Like I said, we’ve all heard that voice and how it has changed. Whenever I hear numbers from “Nashville Skyline,” I still ask myself how the guy you hear on “Lay Lady Lay” can be the same one you hear on “Highway 61 Revisited,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” or “Positively 4th Street.” Before that, a big part of Dylan’s folk audience was wondering how the guy doing those songs could have been the same one they loved as the heir to the Woody Guthrie tradition. So listening the other night, I was constantly going back and hearing a little echo of Dylan’s used-to-be voices as he sang with today’s voice.