Say it ain’t so, Bob

November 11, 2009
By

Guelph Mercury, 11/11/09BobDylan

Sing it Bob.

Or croak it, or whatever that sound coming from your throat is.

Don’t mind us. We’ll just be sitting here, squinting from the very back row of this old hockey rink, knees banging on the heads of the guys in front of us, trying to figure out what the heck the guy in the big white hat way at the other end was saying.

Whatever he’s saying, it must be important.

This was Bob Dylan, after all, and he was once a really big deal. Who else could cause us to slap down $60 each to crowd into Kitchener’s cavernous Aud, a Soviet-inspired place normally reserved for hockey playing teenagers? We were trying to buy a piece of a legend, and we were eager to be pleased.

The night started out promising enough. We pulled up in the jammed parking lot, watching all those 50-something groupies falling out of Dodge Caravans and lining up outside the arena like NHLers waiting for the H1N1 vaccine. This was going to be good.

Walking into the rink, we heard music start up, and I figured from the sound some country-rock band led by an Inuit throat singer with a bad cold was warming up the crowd.

But no. This wasn’t the opening act, but the act – Dylan – showing us in awful clarity that times do a-change yer vocal chords. You could practically hear the recession-weary crowd in this recession-weary town groan “we paid what for this?”

One local reviewer later wrote that his “voice fell somewhere between a throat-clearing croak and a raspy growl.” I’d say that’s being polite. I can’t confirm it, but it’s probable that every child within a quarter mile of the Aud went running for their lives that night.

Other than the parts where he sang, it was a good set. The harmonica doesn’t age, apparently. But Dylan’s lyrics were indecipherable and when the song was widely-known, he deliberately changed the delivery so much that the sings were unrecognizable.

If Dylan knew he was performing in front of an audience, he didn’t show it. At one point, his leg shook a bit, but it may have been a twitch. At another point, after a 10-minute jam, the band wrapped it up, exhausted. The boss in the big white hat just glared at them, and awkwardly they started up again, and kept it going for another three minutes until he was ready to finish.

He seemed to ad-lib his lyrics and pulled lines from dozens of songs to fill the space he needed. His only nod to the crowd was when he mumbled “thank you my friends,” while looking at his feet.

Dylan played for 95 minutes, and wrapped up with a whimper before 9:45 p.m. The whole thing was painful, especially for someone like this writer who holds the 68-year-old songwriter in such high esteem.

And then the swooning came. People were tripping over themselves to say nice things. If you didn’t swoon, you’re not a real fan. If you didn’t cry, you’re probably dead inside. That same reviewer who panned the voice also quoted a line up of people gushing over the performance.

Right. But we’ve got ears, and they were working just fine on Saturday night. And so was our sense of being ripped off.

We know Dylan was always a reluctant icon in the spotlight, but you couldn’t help the feeling that we were the ones getting exploited that night.

Greg Mercer is a Guelph-based freelance writer. His column appears Wednesdays. He can be reached at greg_mercer@hotmail.com, and past columns can be read at gregmercer.ca.

4 Responses to Say it ain’t so, Bob

  1. Greg Denton on November 11, 2009 at 11:06 pm

    Dylan Reviews: From one Greg to another.

    My review: http://www.boblinks.com/110709r.html

    I’ve got ears too. And they were working just fine on Saturday night. I thought the concert at the Aud, my 12th Dylan concert over a span of 20 years, was exquisite.

    I love Dylan’s voice, perhaps more now than ever. His voice has always been controversial, even his youthful voice. But I still think he’s one of the finest singers anywhere. Yes, his voice now is an elderly one, it sounds throaty, raspy, coarse, and is perhaps more limited in range than it once was. But he knows what the expressive content of that voice is. He’s in absolute control of it and I find he wrings an extraordinary amount of expressive precision out of it. His timing and articulation seem to me to be adept and as finely nuanced as any voice around. For all the coarseness, he can set a word down more delicately than any other singer I know. His voice is not for everyone, I know.

    Being pretty familiar with the songs, I seem to do a fine job understanding his lyrics. Most stadium rock shows I attend where I don’t know the material, I find lyrics difficult to decipher. That is a typical experience of most concert goers. Dylan seems to suffer this criticism where a lot of other acts, equally or more indecipherable, don’t. Admittedly, audiences often expect something more of Dylan’s lyrics than they do of other performers. Familiarity sure helps in any concert. I do wonder though, since you assert that he was so terribly indecipherable, how it is you also claim he was ad-libbing lyrics and pulling lyrics out of other songs – I would expect you would have had to hear things very clearly to recognize this. In any account, it sounds an awful lot like what a singer steeped in the traditions of American folk and blues might do.

    Complaints about Dylan changing his song arrangements to the point where they’re difficult to recognize have been around since, at least, Newport 1965. His 1966 concert appearances are a monumental part of rock’n’roll history on this account. He has always asserted that the album recordings of his songs are just one instance of the song and has always (can I put a heavier emphasis on this word: always) seen fit to rearrange, reinterpret, and reinvent them. One of the wonderful things about going to a Dylan concert is to see what he’s going to play from his vast catalog and what he’s doing with it, how he’s reshaping it. He’s definitely not a nostalgia act. He’s not reiterating whatever animated those songs 10, 20, 30 or 40 years ago. He’s making music. Present tense. What “legend” were you “trying to buy a piece of'”?

    I have to quote this passage you wrote, I find it in such startling contrast to my own experience: “At another point, after a 10-minute jam, the band wrapped it up, exhausted. The boss in the big white hat just glared at them, and awkwardly they started up again, and kept it going for another three minutes until he was ready to finish.” Sorry, I can’t say I remember that happening – the band exhausted? awkwardly restarting a song after they thought it was finished? I honestly don’t have a clue what moment in the concert you’re referring to here. I do know that these are all seasoned and extraordinary musicians who have been deeply engaged with Dylan’s music for some time. Tony Garnier, on bass, has been touring with Dylan for over 20 years. George Recile, on drums, has been on the road with him for about 10 years. Stu Kimball for about 6 years. Donnie Herron for 3 years. Charlie Sexton rejoined the band last month, but previously toured with Dylan from, I think, 2000 to 2003. That band is a very well oiled machine. That’s not to say Dylan’s extensive repertoire and the volatility of his constantly changing song choices from night to night don’t keep them on their toes. But really, I sure didn’t witness any such exhaustion or communication breakdown on that stage Saturday night. I think I was paying pretty close attention. But maybe I missed something. The band seemed stupendously tight to me – they rocked with thunderous force, and delivered the ballads with grace and elegance, they turned from fierce density to brilliantly textured spaciousness without dropping a beat.

    I didn’t think it was a mostly 50 something audience. What I witnessed was a pretty broad demographic (I would have guessed a dominance of late 30 somethings, if I had to, in the seats around me).

    The other reviewer you keep referring to in your own review is Robert Reid. You mention how he “panned” Dylan’s voice. He did describe it as “a throat-clearing croak and a raspy growl”, true enough, but he also went on to say, “His voice floated like a rowboat adrift on a sea of driving, bluesy, rock”. I’m not sure I’d agree with you that he was entirely “panning” Dylan’s voice. And after he quotes a number of people who had a great time at the concert and fully enjoyed the performance, you discount their pleasure as so much applauding of the emperor’s new clothes. “But we’ve got ears,” you say, “and they were working just fine on Saturday night. And so was our sense of being ripped off.” I’m not sure who “we” and “our” is referring to. I hope it’s not just a rhetorical pluralization of your own viewpoint. I do know that most of the people I’ve run into who attended that concert on Saturday seem like pretty satisfied customers, if not exuberant ones.

    There’s no question that you didn’t enjoy the show yourself. And I certainly don’t mean to contend your right to express your displeasure either. I just think it’s worth remarking how foreign your description of the concert seems to me. And perhaps, though you say you hold Dylan in high esteem, it’s difficult for me to recognize what Dylan that is. I do know there’s a lot of them out there, living healthy lives in a lot of people’s imaginations. I’ve certainly got mine. The Dylan I saw at the Aud on Saturday night did what Dylan does, as I understand him, and did it very well. I didn’t pay $60 for my seat; I payed $80. Worth every penny too.

    Greg Denton

  2. Neill Clemens on November 16, 2009 at 5:24 pm

    Greg:

    I thought perhaps it was just me, after reading some reviews of Bob’s show Saturday night. Or perhaps, I really need a hearing aid.
    We even had a couple of people phone the morning show, after hearing me comment on Bob’s voice, or lack-there-of. And the fact he was over-powered by his band.
    They thought it was a great show.
    I figure when you go to see Dylan, you go for the lyrics. And when you can’t understand them, even when you know the tune by heart, like Highway 61 or Lay Lady, Lay, there’s a problem.
    I was in row “Y” on the floor. Near the back.

  3. Joanne Szabo on November 16, 2009 at 5:25 pm

    Mr Mercer, I am responding to your write up in The Mercury regarding the Dylan concert.

    It sounds to me like you already had your negative opinion formed by thinking The Aud wasn’t the place to see the concert. I guess that you’ve never been there before to know how the seating is laid out and there wouldn’t be lots of leg room. If you had researched where your seats were & were aware they were in the back then rather than squinting from the back row then maybe for your next concert you could bring binoculars or maybe just don’t go! I’m curious how you noticed a “glare” from Dylan sitting that far back. Wherever you go for a concert the parking lot would be “jammed” and most places you would have to pay to park. I mention that because you seem quite concerned about spending $60, I wouldn’t want to hear what you would have to say if you spent an additional $10 for parking. It sounds to me like you like to complain & wouldn’t have been very good company at the concert at all. I hope that you weren’t on a date….the poor woman or man whichever the case may be.

    Personally, I didn’t care where I saw him as long as I got to see & hear him. I wouldn’t really expect someones singing voice to sound the same at age 68 as it did when they were 30. Yes, his voice was more raspy but I really enjoy that sound with blues & jazz which is what his concert mainly consisted of. If he did have a cold then I say thank you Mr Bob Dylan for performing when you felt under the weather & not cancelling & disappointing your many fans!
    You said in your “mercer retort” that his lyrics were indecipherable. His lyrics were for the most part always indecipherable so what is your point?

    In closing, I’d like to say that everyone is entitled to their opinion. I don’t agree with your opinion. I think it was very negative & unfair.

    Regards

    Joanne

  4. Greg Denton on November 17, 2009 at 10:43 pm

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