My older son and I recently saw Bob Dylan and his band in concert. My son is quite the connoisseur of classic pop music going back to before he was born, and to some extent, before I was born. Going to this show was what he requested for his birthday because he feels certain that there won’t be too many more chances to see Dylan live, and judging from how frail the aging rocker looked on stage, I would agree. While 73 doesn’t seem so old when considering how many of his contemporaries are still touring extensively, Dylan doesn’t seem to “get around” with the same agility of guys like Mick Jagger or Paul McCartney.
Just before the show began, the house lights went out and the stage was dark. A single member of his band came out in the dark, picked up a guitar, and started playing a gentle, folksy tune. It was like being in church. When the lights went up, the rest of the band was in place, wearing matching outfits. I leaned over to my son and said, “How often do you see band members dressed alike?” He replied, “I never have.” They were definitely representing a different era, when rock-n-roll was reaching adolescence and getting more rebellious, but there was still a touch of class and style left over from the very early days of the bands that accompanied Buddy Holly and Elvis.
President Barack Obama presents Bob Dylan with a Medal of Freedom (May 29, 2012)
Most people don’t become legends during their lifetimes, nor do they become iconic. Bob Dylan is an exception. Some of his songs clearly define the rock-n-roll era, especially the elements in the genre that are most significant historically: protest, reflection, freedom, and change. More than any other popular musician and songwriter from my generation that I can recall, Bob Dylan has proven over and over again that rock-n-roll was never just about the music, and certainly not about beautiful voices. Hell, he never even tried to make pretty sounds with his voice, that is, on the occasions that he decided to sing instead of speak his songs. But I would argue with anyone that his lyrics were some of the most powerful and moving of that generation.
At this particular show, Bob Dylan sang an incredible variety of music in a short time. He was probably on stage for less than two hours altogether, but during that time, we heard folk, blues, country, reggae, and rock. He never picked up a guitar, but he played a miniature grand piano, and of course, the harmonica. The instrumental variety from his band was impressive, including tunes using a violin and a huge string bass. It was clear that he was playing what he wanted to play, not what the crowd expected or necessarily wanted. He didn’t include “Like a Rolling Stone,” which no doubt irritated some of the audience. But he did play “Tangled Up In Blues” and “Blowing In the Wind.” Dylan performed that last song as his finale for the single encore he gave, and true to form, he used a variation so different from the original recorded version that I didn’t even recognize it until he was into the chorus. I leaned over to my son and said, “I almost didn’t recognize this one, the way he’s playing it.” Looking straight ahead to the stage, admiring the legend, my son replied, “He’s earned the right to do it anyway he wants.” I couldn’t agree more.