By Alan Mattli
These days it’s hard to write appreciatively about Bob Dylan’s live performances without making it sound like an apology. Many people, journalists included, seem to think it’s courteous – and courageous – to criticise just about everything about them, from the lack of video screens and spectacle to the sometimes unusual song renditions and the – always controversial – issue of the artist’s voice. Even in generally favourable concert reviews, these arguments are found. As a Dylanologist you’ve learned to address every one of those points; you talk about minimalism, about Dylan wanting people to focus on the music instead of him as a person, about how constant change has always been a key characteristic of his work, and about how he doesn’t adhere to the vocal tradition of fellow 1960s rock icons’ like Paul McCartney or Mick Jagger but rather to the one of 1930s’ blues legends like Robert Johnson, Charley Patton or Blind Willie Johnson. Nevertheless, the mantra “Bob Dylan is a bad live act” seems to prevail. There’s no accounting for tastes, I guess, but after seeing him four times this year I’m still not an inch closer to understanding that sentiment, especially considering this week’s shows in Geneva and Zurich.
“Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the poet laureate of rock ‘n’ roll. The voice of the promise of the 60s counterculture. The guy who forced folk into bed with rock. Who donned makeup in the 70s and disappeared into a haze of substance abuse. Who emerged to find Jesus. Who was written off as a has-been by the end of the 80s, and who suddenly shifted gears releasing some of the strongest music of his career beginning in the late 90s. Ladies and gentlemen – Columbia recording artist Bob Dylan.”
If asked what my personal idea of peaking excitement is, I’d probably name being at a concert venue, seeing the lights go out and hearing this introduction. For me, it’s synonymous with the start of 90 to 120 minutes of excellence, it heralds a show in which you feel anything can happen, song-wise at least. I’ve heard it eight times now, first in 2007, and it has never let me down since. This week it was preceded by a one-hour-long Mark Knopfler concert. I don’t know his music in detail, but I enjoyed his sets both times, particularly his and his band’s instrumental mastery.
Bob Dylan’s set at Geneva Arena – a venue renowned for its great acoustics and auditorium – started at about 9.45pm with a forceful rendition of Blonde on Blonde‘s “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat”. As always, it was clear from the start that Dylan and his band, all dressed in stylish black, are perfectly tuned to each other; instrumental mistakes or bad timing have been eradicated from this incarnation of the Never Ending Tour band. And what a sight they are to see: while Tony Garnier (bass), Donnie Herron (steel guitar, violin, electric mandolin, banjo) and Stu Kimball (rhythm guitar) play their instruments in an admirably stoical manner, with Donnie and Tony apparently sharing the occasional joke with Dylan, George Receli (drums) and especially Charlie Sexton (lead guitar) represent the outlaw aspect of rock music with their ferocious handling of their instruments.
“Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” has now been Dylan’s opening track for a good part of this year’s tour schedule and it still delivers; I’d even call Tuesday night’s version the best one I’ve heard in 2011. I felt that Mark Knopfler’s guest appearance as a guitarist really added something to the song. Still, my favourite 2011 opener remains the magnificent “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking” – a forgotten song from the largely forgotten 1979 album Slow Train Coming – at the London Feis Festival.
2011’s set lists did not include quite as large a variety of songs as the ones in recent years, which is most likely due to Dylan conferring his shows a strong structural stringency. Based on this new structure, I anticipated the second track to be one of the early 60s’ anti-love songs (“It Ain’t Me, Babe”, “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”, “Boots of Spanish Leather”, “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”). It ended up being “Don’t Think Twice”. Although I would have preferred “Boots” or “It Ain’t Me”, you can’t deny the coolness of a miniature guitar jam session featuring a constantly smiling Bob Dylan, Mark Knopfler and Charlie Sexton.
The Oscar-winning “Things Have Changed” was to follow, which, again, wasn’t a big surprise. But Dylan has been working on this song over the course of the year and turned it into a fast barroom blues number with him snarling the poignant lyrics into the microphone, gleefully stretching the line “I used to care / But things have changed”. This was the first song of Tuesday’s set where he stood centre stage with nothing but his harmonica, allowing him to add to the track’s atmosphere by doing vaudevillian gestures and gauche dances around the microphone.
A very good rendition of “Mississippi”, which didn’t differ too greatly from the song’s original version on 2001’s “Love and Theft”, was the last one featuring Mark Knopfler. Next in line was “Honest with Me”, also from “Love and Theft”, which turned out to be the concert’s first standout performance, a remarkable feat after four other marvellous songs. With Dylan back on guitar, the band increased the album version’s breakneck speed, delivering a dirty blues rock number that made every one in the fairly spacious standing area jump.
After a beautifully melancholic “Tangled Up in Blue” and a pacy “Summer Days”, whose refrain perfectly summed up the day’s weather (“Summer days, summer nights are gone”), another highlight followed: “John Brown”, the excellent protest song never released on a regular album. Accompanied by more subdued instrumental performances, led by Donnie Herron’s haunting banjo, Dylan used his trademark sneer, which we know from songs like “Masters of War” or “Ballad of Hollis Brown”, to tell the heartbreaking story of young John Brown sailing off to “a good old-fashioned war”. After this it was time for another rock song: a powerful “Highway 61 Revisited”, one of the constants of Dylan’s live performances.
Now the show was entering its final third, but the high points did not cease. The beautiful and romantic masterpiece of poetry that is “Visions of Johanna” was to follow; as were “Thunder on the Mountain” with a radiant keyboard performance by Dylan, and whose pace was exceeded only by “Honest with Me”; and the very vaudevillian “Ballad of a Thin Man”, garnished with a new and very effective reverberation effect, and delivered by Dylan with an untamed force. At that point, the audience’s enthusiasm had already turned into ardour and the last three songs – a zippy “All Along the Watchtower”, an inspiring “Like a Rolling Stone”, and a gruff yet lovely “Blowin’ in the Wind” – were all met with exuberant, thundering applause, and rightly so. Seemingly every spectator was aware that they just witnessed a truly majestic concert by an extraordinary musician, poet and, yes, performer.
Just 24 hours later, I sat in the rostrum of Zurich’s Hallenstadion, waiting for another magical night. And sure enough, Wednesday night’s show was another exhilarating experience. After the opening “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat”, during which some sound mixing issues had to be fixed, my wish from last night was granted and the anti-love song played was “It Ain’t Me, Babe”. It was succeeded by a once again very satisfying “Things Have Changed”, a wonderful “Mississippi” and a rocking “Honest with Me”, which this time didn’t rely on Dylan’s guitar playing so much as on his idea of using the microphone to hilariously showboat a little bit. Then Wednesday’s first high point occurred: a gorgeous rendition of Time Out of Mind‘s “Not Dark Yet”, sung with a tender, even slightly crooning voice. Up next was the swinging country rock ballad “Jolene” from 2009’s Together Through Life – another standout. And still, the string of highlights continued. Dylan returned to the centre of the stage and obliged me with a fantastic performance of one of my favourite songs: “Man in the Long Black Coat” (Oh Mercy).
You’d think that playing a song for the 86th time in one year would somehow lessen its force sooner or later. Well, think again because the poignant “Highway 61 Revisited” was another one of the Zurich concert’s brightest moments. After this, I just knew nothing could go wrong now. “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” followed. Although I’ve already heard that in London and Sursee, Wednesday’s version deserves only the highest praise. Dylan’s splendid delivery culminated in an intense final verse in which music and vocals built up an impressive crescendo. For the last five songs the band cranked up the volume without sacrificing musical accuracy. “Thunder on the Mountain” blasted out of the speakers, only to be one-upped by an apocalyptic “Ballad of a Thin Man”. They finished up, as expected, with “All Along the Watchtower”, “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Blowin’ in the Wind”, each one a classy version, lined up at the front of the stage, and left, the people still cheering for quite some time – those who had stayed at least. If I have one gripe with Wednesday’s show, it’s the audience. I know that the Hallenstadion’s acoustics make the applause evaporate a bit, and that sitting in the lateral rostrum of a hockey stadium is not the most intense way of experiencing a concert, but I felt that the Zurich crowd could have been a bit more enthusiastic. The majority of people loved Bob Dylan’s set, I’m sure, but the fact that spectators kept leaving the auditorium during the show – a little too many to have just come to see Mark Knopfler – put a small damper on an otherwise brilliant concert experience.
Still, I wouldn’t want to choose one show over the other. Both featured consummate performances, wonderful moments – such as Dylan spitting on the stage floor of the Geneva Arena after a particularly passionate harmonica solo during “Tangled Up in Blue” –, songs I ached to hear for some time. I don’t complain because a song’s rhythm has been changed – as a fellow concertgoer in London said: “You’re bound to be disappointed when you expect to sing along. But if you imagine the songs to be completely new, it’s just so beautiful” –, and I don’t fuss over what Dylan didn’t play but rejoice over what he did play. Maybe that’s just me as a passionate Dylan aficionado. Be it as it may, I’ll be sure to go again as soon as the opportunity arises.