Bob Dylan and His Band
Thursday, Oct. 18, 2012
Bill Graham Civic Auditorium
Better than: Cutting deep scratches in your CD copy of Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits, and then trying to enjoy it.
Maybe the best part of seeing Bob Dylan in 2012 is getting to say you've seen Bob Dylan.
At 71, the songwriting titan shows no sign of slowing his relentless touring schedule, which includes three concerts in the Bay Area this week. But based on his performance last night at Bill Graham Civic, maybe he should consider it.
Dylan obviously has a vast catalog of magical, important songs, and a more than capable band to churn them out. What he doesn't have is a voice to make them anywhere near recognizable -- or at least he didn't onstage last night. The deathly croak Dylan produces on his latest album, Tempest, is already challenging and desolate. There, though, Dylan sings (we use that word loosely) more or less in time with the music. If his tone is harsh and scratchy, it arguably complements the themes of the songs. And his timing is on.
It wasn't last night. Especially when seated behind his black baby grand, Dylan sang off-rhythm so much that it seemed to throw off his otherwise quartz-precise backing musicians. We'd chalk it up to him being clever -- playing around with his tunes, as he's known to do live. But the hatted figure onstage would wait so long to sing the refrain to, say, "Tangled up in Blue" that when the charred mess of words finally tumbled out of his mouth, the band was already on to another part.
Whole verses of "Like a Rolling Stone" and "All Along the Watchtower" (and, frankly, most of the songs he played) came out impossible to parse, because Dylan phrased them as a monochrome mumble. So the concert experience felt like amateur archaeology, where listeners were left to stitch together the few recognizable snippets we heard with the songs as they existed in our memory. Which in many cases meant the fortysome-year-old recorded versions.
That didn't destroy all the joy of Dylan's major tunes, the ones we know well enough to sing on our own. But if you didn't have a sonic memory saved up to reference, you were shit out of luck trying to parse, say, "Love Minus Zero/ No Limit," or "Love Sick," or "Chimes of Freedom." And even if you recognized enough to name the songs, what's the point of hearing them without Dylan's enunciations? The man's a lyricist, a poet -- and we didn't get any great guitar or other solos to make up for the fact that most of the time we couldn't understand what he was saying.
All of which isn't to say that the show was a total failure. People go to see Dylan because of his aura, and that halo of greatness shone on a few tunes last night: "Ballad of a Thin Man" hit particularly well, with an eerie echo effect underscoring Dylan's charcoal delivery. His full-band take on "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall" recast the song with the swooping groove at the forefront. The show-closing rendition of "Blowing in the Wind" was maybe the highlight of the night, with Dylan melding his old folk standard into the fiddle-and-bass folds of the band. And if you've never seen this man play before, there is an incomparable excitement that comes with it.
But still: Someone who tours as much (and charges as much) as Dylan owes more to his audiences than a slick backing band and a half-century's worth of premium cultural capital. We came to hear his songs -- whole songs, with words, not grainy shadows of them. Which it seemed was all Bob Dylan could muster last night.
Personal bias: This was my third time seeing Dylan, and his voice (or lack thereof) bothered me more than ever before.
Worth noting: Dylan's grayscale vocalizing seemed all the more impoverished after opener Mark Knopfler, whose deft seven-piece band mixed things up sonically much more than the headliner's did. Knopfler is kind of a one-trick vocalist, too, but he had the good sense to let his instrumentalists help out with the show. To be fair, Knopfler didn't have to shoulder the weight of issuing wordy tunes such as "Like a Rolling Stone." But even without the aura that surrounds Dylan, the support act gave the headliner a serious challenge.
1. Watching the River Flow
2. Love Minus Zero/No Limit
3. Things Have Changed
4. Tangled Up in Blue
5. Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum
6. A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall
7. High Water (For Charley Patton)
8. Chimes of Freedom
9. Highway 61 Revisited
10. Love Sick
11. Thunder on the Mountain
12. Ballad of a Thin Man
13. Like a Rolling Stone
14. All Along the Watchtower
15. Blowin' in the Wind