Friday, July 19, 2013

What Can I Say?

Last Friday I saw Bob Dylan perform in Bridgeview’s Toyota Park. He was the headliner of the Americanarama tour, which is playing this summer in medium size venues like the soccer stadium in Chicago’s near southwest suburbs. The night before they had played Peoria. Appearing with Dylan were two great bands My Morning Jacket and Wilco.

Unlike the weather we’re experiencing at this week’s end, last Friday was a beautiful night, clear blue sky and a breeze, just on the edge of needing a jacket. The concert opened at 5:30 with Richard Thompson and the Electric Trio. My wife Colleen and I were there with friends Ken and Sharon and my daughter Moe and her boyfriend Don. We did a little tailgating in the parking lot before we climbed up into the stadium. It turned out to be a great place to hear music. Our seats found us close to the stage in the bleachers with a clear view of the performers. Strangely there were empty seats.

I’d last seen Dylan live at the Illinois State Fair in August 2001, twelve years ago. I was there with my family. It was August and Moe was about to move away from home to attend U of I in Champaign. We were in the grandstand bleachers that night, across the racetrack from the stage. Dylan was center stage in cowboy boots, changing from electric to acoustic instruments, wearing a harmonica holder, moving quickly back and forth across the stage engaging the other musicians, leading the vocals of course and playing a ringing guitar. On that summer night when Dylan really got into his guitar riffs he dug the toe of his boot into the stage and swung his leg back and forth in time with the music. That night was beautiful too. Just about a month before September 11 came and changed everything. On that night Bob Dylan was sixty. I was fifty one.

Dylan was very smart in choosing My Morning Jacket and Wilco as his tour mates. My Morning Jacket is an eclectic band out of Louisville Kentucky led by lead vocalist Jim James that seems new but has been performing since 1998. Several of the band members have long hair and throw it forward and back in the tradition of the sixties. Something about that makes me feel good. I tend to like any band that keeps a pedal steel guitar on stage but I especially like My Morning Jacket. Carl Broemel plays that pedal steel by the way. I had never seen them perform but they’re good to watch. The members of My Morning Jacket are all out entertainers. If you want to get acquainted with their music try a studio album they recorded in 2004 simply called Z.

Wilco was perfect for the crowd in Bridgeview because they’re a Chicago band that has been together since 1994. I saw them perform last year at the Hideout. Wilco is like a stealth bomber, hardly noticed but packing a big punch. Are there really famous bands now? You could argue not. There’s so many bands that there may no longer be room for the giant famous bands we remember like the Stones and the Beatles. Wilco has a terrific front man in lead vocalist Jeff Tweedy. They work themselves up to a complicated and loud arrangement of wailing guitars and drums only to drop back into the a simple melody line with Jeff Tweedy’s voice coming through sweet and clear, all in the same song. Wilco brims with talent. They’re high energy. Their most widely heard album, many say their best, is Yankee Hotel Foxtrot recorded in 2002. For a special treat the two bands, My Morning Jacket and Wilco, joined together on stage to perform Neil Young’s “Cinnamon Girl” recorded in 1969 with the band Crazy Horse. The crowd roared their approval. It never ceases to amaze me how good old music continues to live. I guess that would come to no surprise to Beethoven fans.

And then there is Dylan. What can you say? I think we should all watch out when people use that line “What can you say?” It means nothing in itself. We assume, wrongly I think, that when someone says “what can you say?” the speaker is implying that words alone cannot express how good, how bad, how extreme the experience truly was. But I think the question is often used instead to say nothing, to not declare one’s opinion. It’s a safe cliché. Like this.

“What did you think of Dylan last Friday night?”

“Wow, Dylan. What can you say?”

Instead of falling back on that cliché, as I would really like, I have to say he wasn’t very good. On the other hand my friend Ken, who saw him last year in New York, said he was a lot better Friday than when he saw him a year ago.

He opened with the song “Things Have Changed” a title apropos to my experience. He was center stage behind the mike without an instrument. Evidently he no longer plays guitar in his public performances. Maybe it’s arthritis. Bob Dylan is now 72. His voice is gone. That’s a relative statement you know as we’ve been saying his voice is gone for twenty years. I have to say now it’s getting serious. Very serious.

He plays the piano on some numbers. His harmonica playing is good and you don’t hear good harmonica much these days. Ken’s opinion on his performance had a lot to do with his harmonica playing. In New York he reported that he did little if any harmonica, instead staying seated behind a piano and a microphone. Ken liked the fact that he was back in the middle of the band, a short man in a dark suit with stripes down the sides of his trousers. He was surrounded by wonderful musicians. He had all the elements of a great show, famous songs, an attentive crowd, a beautiful setting. I just couldn’t get around the painful growling voice.

Dylan was best on his newest songs. He sang “Duquesne Whistle” and “Early Roman Kings“ from his 2012 album Tempest. I think those were songs written and arranged for the limitations of his current vocal range. It would only be smart to do so. Why write a song that was impossible to sing? Even “Love Sick” from the 1997 album Time Out of Mind worked because it did not require the kind of high and low notes now outside his ability to hit. But it’s painful to hear the new arrangements of his wonderful older songs.

I don’t think musical artists should be trapped into singing the same arrangement of a song simply because it was made famous in a recording that is now stuck in their fan’s minds like a fly in an ice cube. That would require them to sing the very same song the very same way for, in Dylan’s case, fifty plus years. But as I listened to the nearly unrecognizable version of “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” written in 1962 and recorded on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, a song that has so much meaning for me and my relationship with my son, I realize he not only changed the music to fit the limitations of his voice he eliminated part of the rapid lyrics so that his tired 72 year old voice could deliver the lines.

Same with “Tangled Up in Blue” from Blood on the Tracks, my daughter Moe’s favorite song. She has a framed Blood on the Tracks album cover. I think the line “wonderin if she’s changed at all, if her hair is still red” reminds her of her mother. But I’m just guessing there. I know it does me. In the middle of that song, her favorite, she turned to me and said

“Is this ‘Tangled up in Blue’?”

“Yeah,” I said.

“You can hardly tell. And the words are different.”

“Yeah.” Moe had a puzzled look on her face. I knew what she was thinking.

Probably the most poignant was the song “She Belongs to Me.” I love that song. It was recorded in 1965 on Dylan’s sixth album Bringing it All Back Home. You don’t know it by its title, but rather its opening stanza.

She's got everything she needs
She's an artist, she don't look back
She's got everything she needs
She's an artist, she don't look back
She can take the dark out of the night time
And paint the daytime black

If you were me you could hear Dylan’s 1965 voice in your head straining and sustaining those notes, lengthening and shortening particular words, the phrasing giving them special meaning. I love Bob Dylan and his work because of the genius and poetry of his lyrics. When I hear that song I imagine the woman who is its subject and the relationship she must have had with the song writer. The lyrics themselves tell a story of a complicated and deep aspect of life among people. But the lyrics are made stronger, the song is made complete, by the beauty of the music. That song is no longer beautiful as performed by Dylan in Bridgeview. It’s a wonderful lyric and the complete package in 1965 was and is great art. But the song we heard last Friday night no longer measures up. I’d rather I had not heard that version. He’d do well to take it off the playlist.

Dylan can do whatever he wants. He’s earned that. He has great talent still and I expect he always will. Why not now use that talent to write wonderful songs to be performed by others with the ability to sing? If you can’t sing yourself you can still be a song writer. And you can record in a studio. The music industry can and does wonderful things with mediocre voices. But on stage, between the giant speakers, competing with the instruments around you? That’s a different thing. Dylan and his voice in concert jut do not measure up to Jim James and Jeff Tweedy. I will buy and listen to every song Dylan ever records. I may have listened to them all so far. But I’m not sure I’ll go see him perform again. Maybe I’m wrong. I’d love to be wrong. But I’d like to be known not by what I did in the past but what I did last. I can’t imagine Dylan feels differently. You’re as good as your last effort. Dylan last effort just wasn’t that good. I wish I didn’t have to say that. I almost feel disloyal. But it’s true.

Two things make me saddest. Dylan began to perform as night fell on Bridgeview. Towards the middle of his set those at the concert began heading for the exits. Maybe they were trying to beat the traffic back into the city. Maybe they had to relieve the baby sitter. I don’t know. But they were walking out as he was still playing. I can’t imagine.
Last, I had the opportunity to talk a lot to a bright young woman, a friend of my son’s, during the week about a lot of things. She talks a lot. As a result, I got to hear a lot of young thought and ideas from both her and my son. I think that’s good for me by the way. I mentioned the Dylan concert.

“Are you a fan?” she asked.

“Yes,” I replied.

“I’m not. I saw him just a few years ago. I know he’s revered. I know he’s contributed so much. But I don’t understand the appeal.”

“Have you heard his old stuff?”

“No.” She’s between 25 and 30. “I just know him for how he sounds now. And I have to say, I just don’t get it.”

Maybe I went to see Dylan out of a sense of respect. At some point his performances will end. I don’t know if I want to be there when they do. He’s given me so much. Is it greedy to want more? Will I go to see him again? I don’t know. What can you say?

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