Bob Dylan’s set at Bumbershoot 2010 was—for many reasons, as I point out in the review below—one of the best concerts I’ve ever seen. I’d seen Dylan numerous times before. This wasn’t just the best Dylan set, it was everything I wanted out of a concert. As I wrote at the time, Dylan’s reinvention of his catalog made the set a one-of-a-kind experience, and the perfect foil to the nostalgia that so many of his contemporaries peddle.
The review was met with a hail of comments spread across the board from “He sounds terrible! And different!” to “That’s the point!”
So to prepare those of you attending your first Dylan show Saturday at KeyArena, I thought it would be a good idea to warn you, for better or for worse, what you can expect to expect (but, really, expect the unexpected) when Dylan takes the stage. Here’s my take on Dylan’s last Seattle stop, plus the perspectives of some commenters.
Bumbershoot 2010 Review: The Fact That Bob Dylan Owned the Show Last Night Had Little to Do With His Songwriting
There are a hundred reasons people go to shows—from beer and camaraderie to an excuse to get out of the house—that have nothing to do with music (and there’s nothing wrong with that). But if you’re going out and you’re gonna see a show, you’re probably not in it for the discovery: You want to hear songs you know and love; to hear the songs of memory performed accurately, as they were on record. Toss in a gem of a voice, and it’s a great show.
Of the three acts on the mainstage lineup Saturday night—the Decemberists, Neko Case, Bob Dylan—the latter is easily the largest draw in the “He could just play it straight” fan constituency. And yet of the three, his renditions of fan favorites came the furthest away from the originals. And his set was easily the most inspired of the evening. It wasn’t even close.
Case in particular was characteristically rote, and at times glib. Was her voice angelic? Of course. But she’s offering few—if any—unforeseen turns in her canon. Last week The National’s Matt Berninger told me that after the band puts a record to rest, they get to know the songs on the road and flesh them out, something that’s apparent in their dynamic live sets. And while there was none of the aforementioned sense of musical journey and experimentation exhibited by Case or the Decemberists, it was the cornerstone of Dylan’s set.
Sure, it’d be easy to scoff and say, “Yes, but Dylan has ‘Just Like a Woman’ and a host of other hits and crowd-pleasers in his artillery.” But it’s not the fact that he plays the hits and classics, it’s how he plays them. He reimagines them. He does onstage what he could not or did not do with the songs in the studio. For example, it seemed for more than a few moments that “Just Like a Woman” was going to be an instrumental. And the gorgeous arrangement wouldn’t have been a letdown had Dylan not interjected with his gruff howl.
Saturday night, in addition to reviving some of the most heavily consumed songs of the past five decades, Dylan, the stoic recluse, was downright flirtatious. The man grinned down the audience from the opener, “Rainy Day Women,” straight through to the final encore, an erupting rendition of “Like a Rolling Stone.”
Through it all, Dylan crooned, cooed, rotated between guitar and keys, made love to his harmonica, and held the sold-out audience in the palm of his hand. Yes, he would have had a rapt audience had he showed up, played bland renditions of songs the entire crowd knew, and walked off the stage. But that’s not good enough for Dylan. He has to be the most engaged person onstage and in the room.
Last night he was. But there were more than a few thousand fans in the audience doing everything they could to keep up.
Michael H.: Did we go to the same show? “Held the sold-out audience in the palm of his hand?” I’ve never seen so many people walk out in the middle of a Bumbershoot headlining act. It’s very sad that Bob Dylan’s best live performing days are behind him.
Anonymous: Dylan was a rare joy and unexpected pleasure. To see someone of his legendary caliber still enjoying his music and charming the crowd with his extraordinary musicianship was such a treat. No one goes to Dylan for his voice—they go for his total artistry. And he’s still pretty hot for a guy his age. Thanks for the epic show (and career) Bob.
Davod: It took two-and-a-half verses for me to realize he was “singing” one of my favorite Dylan songs, “Tangled Up in Blue.” His voice is shot. Elton John can’t hit the high notes anymore, but he does his songs as faithfully as possible. I saw three Steely Dan shows in L.A. and two in Seattle, and they did their songs from the ’70s almost exactly like the records, which is what fans want to hear. Dylan destroyed his old songs. I saw Bob Dylan live in 1966 just after he went electric. I’ll remember that show, and try to forget this one.
Wayne Michaels: Giving this concert accolades simply because it was Dylan on stage demeans the music as an art form. Maybe Dylan’s next concert tour should be the river-boat casinos with all the other has-been performers of long ago. However, I hope that he does not further degrade his image and retires for good.
Anon2: I’m 55 and maybe it’s cuz I took a small toke of the joint being passed around me (something I do on rare occasion) but I was blown away by the heart/soul/spirit of Dylan.
Al Corwin: I’ve seen Dylan a few dozen times going back to 1965. I thought last night’s show was one of the best ever. It rocked right from the start, and it was earthy and sensual.
Random Comment: Sad, sad hippies. Dylan is singing to you and your thwarted lust for musical Viagra. You built him up as an artist and now turn on him when he dares to deliver something other than the warmed-over leftovers you long to gum. It’s amazing to hear someone of his stature who still dares to play from the heart. I can’t think of anyone else from his generation who has the balls.
From what I saw, almost all those who left were Boomers and most of those who stayed and rocked on were young. That should tell you something.
Mister Loach: For all the comments about Bob’s deteriorating voice, do you wonder if folks cracked jokes about Shakespeare in his later years, as he muttered and mumbled to himself as he shuffled back and forth between the Globe Theatre and the corner pub? Give Dylan the respect he deserves and realize that achieving your expectations has never been his goal. Artists create because they must, and suggesting that Dylan hang it up and retire is ludicrous. Dylan has provided me with a soundtrack for my life and I look forward to the opportunity to see him again.