Bob Dylan – still a work in progress

We don’t need the bard from Minnesota to patronize us with a “Shalom"; we should be thanking him for the gift of his songs.

Bob Dylan Ramat Gan 311 (photo credit: Sarah Demmi Levin Photography)
Bob Dylan Ramat Gan 311
(photo credit: Sarah Demmi Levin Photography)
I made a number of friendly bets in the weeks leading up to Bob Dylan’s concert on Monday night at Ramat Gan Stadium whether he would do or say something to acknowledge that he was in Israel.
I wagered that the rock legend wouldn’t say “Shalom,” spout any anti-boycott support or recite some blessing for the country, like Elton John and Leonard Cohen with his Priestly Blessing did at their shows in the same venue.
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Well, not only was there no “Shalom” or “Great to be in Tel Aviv” during or after Dylan’s 90 minute, 15 song set he performed with his band before an estimated 20,000 fans.
Dylan went one step further than even I anticipated – he didn’t acknowledge his audience at all. No “thank you,” no band introductions, not even a hand wave at the end of the show – just Dylan and the band lined up like musical outlaws with somber faces staring at the crowd, as if they were daring the fans to demand more.
For some patrons, that seemed to matter. “Nu, he can’t say Shalom?” one 20-something male attendee said exasperatingly to his friend about half way through the show.
And the answer, my friend, is ‘Nu, aren’t his songs enough?’ Following short, politely received acoustic sets by Asaf Avidan and Rickie Lee Jones, which only whetted the appetite for the main event, Dylan emerged on stage, dapper in his by now standard uniform of a white top hat and suit with a big stripe down the side of the pants.
Storming into “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking” from 1979’s Slow Train Running, Dylan and his veteran roadhouse band bristled with energy.
Even with the ravages of time reducing his vocal range to nonexistent (if nobody else, Dylan introduced to the world that a “good” voice isn’t a requirement to make great music), the bard from Minnesota imbued his vocals with passion and feeling. While he altered his delivery on classics like “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue,” “Simple Twist of Fate,” and a stunning version of “Tangled Up in Blue,” they were still easily identifiable and even strengthened by the reinterpretation.
Sometimes Dylan’s irreverent approach to his material led to frustrating – if somewhat comic – twists. His loping version of “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall,” had the crowd swelling up to sing along with the “It’s a hard…” chorus, but Dylan’s arrangement delayed the chorus by a couple beats. The crowd sang along to their version, Dylan to his.
Other Dylan classics like “Highway 61 Revisited” and “Ballad of a Thin Man” were performed more faithfully to their original versions, with the band cooking on the former like last call in a crowded bar on Saturday night.
DYLAN DOESN’T play guitar onstage much anymore, preferring to stand behind an organ or move front and center to just sing – the freedom enabling him to accentuate the lyrics with quirky hand gestures and body dips, like a village story teller. And when he frequently picked up his harmonica for solos, he often crouched like a cobra ready to strike.
His organ playing embellished some of the tunes, but occasionally, he would play figures that sounded more like a five-year-old banging indiscriminately on the keyboard. The same thing with his electric guitar forays, where he seemed to be putting his fingers on the frets wherever they landed. Luckily, the band was strong enough to compensate.
For the encores, Dylan trotted out the songs he’s most identified with – a heartfelt “Like A Rolling Stone,” a perfunctory “All Along the Watchtower” and an interesting country waltz version of “Blowing in the Wind” which had the crowd erupt in cheers with the line “How many deaths will it take till he knows that too many people have died?” Dylan’s voice was a growl by then, and it ended the show on a sublime note.
The set list was standard Dylan, circa 2011, with no left field choices, and certainly no special selections geared for an Israeli or Jewish audience. Some concert goers complaints of poor sound quality, and everyone suffered due to the substandard video screens which provided only a singular stationary shot with no close-ups, and shorted out for the latter part of the show leaving fans on the periphery of the stadium virtually sightless.
But from a performance angle, Dylan delivered exactly what he was expected.
Nobody attending the show should have been surprised at: * the radical reworking of classic songs * the gruffness in Dylan’s voice which sometimes garbled words or sounded like phlegm balls on the rise * the lack of engagement with the audience In this day and age, when consumers extensively investigate online every purchase they make – whether it be electronics, books or vacations – it’s inconceivable and irresponsible before plunking down hundreds of shekels to see Bob Dylan that prospective concert goers didn’t watch YouTube clips of recent performances, and didn’t download songs from his last four or five albums in order to assess his current artistic situation.
We don’t need Bob Dylan to thank us for clapping at his shows or patronize us with a “Shalom” or “Hello Tel Aviv.”
We should be thanking him for the gift of his songs, and the fact that he still performs them like the works in progress they are.