Walking into the Mission Ballroom to see Bob Dylan Thursday night, my expectations were low.
I’d seen him twice before: once around ’89 in Kansas City and the next time around ’99 in upstate New York. At both concerts, he went through the motions, as inspiring as a broken clump of concrete. In the late ’80s, he played a bunch of obscure material nobody in the crowd seemed to know. In the ’90s, the songs were just as obscure, and he was just as dull — only more vampiric.
At those shows, I stayed awake only out of reverence for his past as a political troubadour, a prophet of the counterculture, a lyrical visionary and a musical rebel. But deep down I resented the specter of greatness he had become. It was as though he had no desire to win over the crowd. He had a reputation for being rude and cold, and he was living up to it. He knew he’d have fans because of his reputation, and people would keep buying tickets no matter what. And for decades, some have. But like many, I quit showing.
And twenty years later — spoiled by throngs of forgiving admirers, a Nobel prize and a never-ending tour — he could only be worse, right?
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Let’s start with his band. This crew of savvy musicians knows its way around jazz, country, rock and blues, and infuses each song, new and old, with surprising licks and complex rhythms. These musicians don’t just back Dylan; they use their instruments to banter with him through each song. Doing so, they find fresh approaches to nearly sixty-year-old material and newer songs as well, keeping the music current.
Dylan, who is widely celebrated for his lyricism but often underappreciated as a musician, is a master of melody. When it comes to musicianship, it’s misguided to think of him as a straightforward songwriter; he’s more like a DJ, borrowing sounds from gospel, blues, country, rock, swing and jazz to underscore the themes his music addresses. Through that sonic collage, he creates a backdrop for the characters that he sings about. And his approach to building those characters — shifting from first-, second- and third-person perspectives — spans different cultures and generations. Yet somehow he roots all that in the present.
From the beginning of his career, Dylan’s voice has garnered him jeers and praise. And as time has passed, some older fans gripe that he’s just croaking out songs. But that’s absurd. His voice, now gravelly, has grown richer. He’s aged beyond youthful nasality and mumbling and embodied the vocal characteristics of the cigarette- and whiskey-ravaged old bluesmen he has spent so much of his life honoring. Now, he is one.
From the time Dylan came on stage to the moment he and his bandmates took their bows, he offered an intense, often stirring tour through his catalogue, with wild takes on old songs like “It Ain’t Me, Babe,” “Girl From the North Country,” “Highway 61 Revisited,” “Make You Feel My Love” and “Ballad of a Thin Man.”
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While other artists encourage sing-alongs, Dylan’s resistance to rhythmic and melodic expectations trips up those who attempt to join him. His creativity is unrelenting, and his variations on his songs inspire curiosity and attention rather than choral goosestepping.
Dylan was at his best singing “Lenny Bruce,” a song that Rolling Stone reported he broke out on October 11 for the first time in eleven years. The simple ballad from 1981 echoes the elegiac grandeur of Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind,” but with the earnestness of Daniel Johnston’s “The Story of an Artist.” It’s pure songwriting, without the lyrical flourishes that plague so many Dylan songs. And when he sang it, the audience — even the loudmouths around me who should have been at a bar rather than a concert, they were yakking so loudly — became still, listening to one artist honor another in plain, profound words.
But people weren’t silent the whole time. They also danced, especially during an upbeat version of “Gotta Serve Somebody,” which preceded the encore. They sang along with the tenacity of bull riders, jerked to and fro by Dylan's rhythmic and melodic whims. And they shouted, one guy screaming out “Bobbyyyyyyyyy” with the enthusiasm of a bro begging for “Free Bird.”
Old-time Dylan fans soured by his previous lackluster live shows over the decades might hesitate to return to see him, convinced that his career is solidly dead. (Rumors perennially surface that he is indeed dead; even Siri reported that as recently as September.) But that would be too bad. He’s great again, and his approach to his music is as urgent and alive as ever.