14 November 2012

Bob Dylan at Woodstock – And a New Album

by Kirk Woodward

[Once again, my friend (and frequent ROT contributor) Kirk Woodward contributes an interesting article to this blog.  Kirk’s sent in many pieces over the years covering a variety of subjects and fields, including several recounting events and experiences from his own life.  One of Kirk’s most frequently visited topics is music, especially pop music and rock ’n’ roll (“The Beatles and Me,” 7 October 2010; “Lady Gaga: Artist for Our Time,” 1 November 2011), and he’s very knowledgeable and perspicacious when it comes to discussing an art about which I know very little myself.  So here he’s contributed a report, which comes close to a review, of two performances by Bob Dylan, an artist for whom Kirk has had a strong attraction since the ’60s.  He’s discussed Dylan on ROT before, as he notes (“Bob Dylan, Performance Artist,” 8 January 2011), but this time Kirk’s offering an assessment of a Dylan concert and his new album, Tempest.  I’m confident you’ll find his evaluation as informative as I have.  ~Rick]
I wrote of my enthusiasm for Bob Dylan in this blog early last year (http://rickontheater.blogspot.com/2011/01/bob-dylan-performance-artist.html, January 8, 2011), acknowledging in that piece that he’s not the easiest performer to like. I thought of this fact again when I saw him perform on September 2, 2012, at the Bethel Woods Arts Center, located where the original 1969 “Woodstock” music festival took place generations ago. As I’m sure everyone knows, that astounding festival actually took place in the town of Bethel, New York, forty-three miles from the town of Woodstock.

But the name sticks. Bob Dylan at Woodstock! How remarkable is that! Although Dylan didn’t perform at the original Woodstock festival, he used to live in the area (as did The Band, in the house famously known as Big Pink), and his influence has always been felt in the event – his impact on music was particularly powerful in the 1960s.

Several of us drove the two hours from our homes in New Jersey to Bethel Woods. The only way in is through the frequently two lanes of Route 17, and our moderate level of traffic made me visualize miles and miles of cars parked by the side of the road, deep in mud, decades ago.

The Bethel Woods Arts Center is one of the best designed venues of its kind I’ve ever seen – much nicer than Wolf Trap in Vienna, Virginia, or the PNC Arts Center on the on the Garden State Parkway in Holmdel, New Jersey. For one thing, the geography of the site is stunning – vistas, hills and valleys. Everything is designed in curves – wide curves of sidewalks, buildings with conical roofs like tents at medieval jousts.

The concert hall, open at the sides with a huge roof, seats several thousand, and people can also sit behind it on the grass. Lots of tailgating before the show, and, honestly, a kind of mellow feeling that really did seem like it belonged in the setting of Woodstock – people actually smiled, the ushers were friendly, and a sufficient number of people were pleasantly toasted.

Of course there were numerous signs telling one what not to do – don’t walk here, don’t bring in your own food, don’t take pictures of the performance (this last item “at the artist’s request,” presumably Dylan’s request, not that of Ben Harper, the opening act). The spirit of Woodstock, assuming there was such a thing, isn’t precisely recreated, and in fact the present concert hall isn’t on the actual site of the original performance stage, which was several hundred feet away, beyond the museum.

There are certain things one can count on at a present-day Dylan concert, starting with the fact that a Dylan performance is unpredictable. That statement may be a little blunt, so let me refine it a bit by quoting Jon Pareles, who wrote in The New York Times September 6, 2012, about a concert he saw two nights after the one I attended:

A current Dylan concert is always a matter of shifting expectations. At first his voice sounds impossibly ramshackle, just a fogbound rasp. But soon, at least on a good night, his willful phrasing and conversational nuances come through. . . . [H]e has rearranged many of his songs so that only the words are immediately recognizable . . . .

Other certainties include: his band will be muscular and will rock; its members will watch Dylan like hawks the whole concert to make sure he doesn’t suddenly change direction and do something unpredictable; Dylan will sing several songs in a voice so low and gravelly that you won’t be able to make out a word; most of the songs will be considerably rearranged from the way you remember them; and several of them will be so brilliant that you will hardly be able to believe what you heard. All in all, Bob will do what the great ones do, which is to draw you into their worlds, whether you want to go or not.

The set list, as reported (here slightly edited) by the website Boblinks.com, mentions the musical innovation of this tour: Dylan plays a grand piano for several of the songs.

1. Watching The River Flow (Bob on keyboard)
2. It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue (Bob on grand piano)
3. Things Have Changed (Bob on guitar)
4. Tangled Up In Blue (Bob on guitar)
5. The Levee’s Gonna Break (Bob on grand piano)
6. Blind Willie McTell (Bob center stage with harp)
7. Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum (Bob on grand piano)
8. Tryin’ To Get To Heaven (Bob on grand piano and harp)
9. High Water (For Charley Patton) (Bob center stage with harp, then on piano)
10. Visions Of Johanna (Bob on grand piano)
11. Highway 61 Revisited (Bob on grand piano)
12. Spirit On The Water (Bob on grand piano, then center stage with harp)
13. Thunder On The Mountain (Bob on grand piano)
14. Ballad Of A Thin Man (Bob center stage with harp, then on piano)
15. Like A Rolling Stone (Bob on grand piano)
16. All Along The Watchtower (Bob on grand piano)
17. (encore) Blowin’ In The Wind (Bob on piano, then center stage with harp)

This is a fairly typical set list for Dylan these days – hits, obscure items, songs from five decades, nothing from the new album (more about that below). He changes it from night to night, although his selections are a bit more predictable than they were a few years ago; still, you never know for sure what you’re going to get until “Thin Man,” “Rolling Stone,” and “Watchtower,” which he has been singing in those positions for a while now.

It should be clear from the set list that Bob moves around on the stage. This is in itself an innovation: for years he performed at center stage with guitar and harmonica; more recently, he planted himself among the band members and played virtually everything on an electric keyboard. Currently he moves between that keyboard, a grand piano, and a singer’s microphone where he either does or does not play guitar. He may play the harmonica (“harp”) at any location.

“Watching The River Flow” was clear and not unlike the original, and I had hopes that he’d sing everything clearly, which were dashed by the next two numbers, both very hard for me to understand. “Tangled Up In Blue,” one of my favorites, was hugely rearranged and he’d written a new last verse for it.

But “Levee,” a terrific song from Love and Theft, was strong, and “Blind Willie McTell” was brilliant in every way. He sang it up front, holding a mike, sashaying (the only possible word) around for all the world like Tom Jones. After that everything worked, usually intelligibly, with “Spirit On The Water” from Modern Times being particularly lovely.

The last three songs of the regular concert are the way he ends all of them these days. “Thin Man” is as weird and creepy as ever, and he used a substantial echo effect on it, making it even more than previously like a Halloween song. “Rolling Stone” was substantial and not hugely reworked.

Some people had left by the encore, and I wonder what they’d have made of it. “Blowin’ In The Wind” was completely, utterly rearranged – I couldn’t identify the song until the second verse. In a way I was dumbfounded, and in a way I thought, well, here it is decades after Woodstock and he’s singing “Blowing In The Wind.” Everything’s changed, I’ve changed, he’s changed, the song has changed, but somehow, here it still is. And it was an interesting arrangement, too.

Dylan is much stranger than any other performing artist I can think of. I like that, though. Music would be a lot duller without him. The truth is, I left the concert exhilarated – in my head I was calling it the Bob Dylan Dance Party.

And, be honest now, is Dylan the only rock singer of whom we demand precision recreations of his songs (as though he were his own cover band), perfect diction, and absolutely under no circumstances any risk-taking? Are those reasonable demands for us as the audience to make, of a rock singer, for heaven’s sake? And consider: punk rockers have for years now berated, insulted, and sometimes even beaten up their audiences. Is Dylan not to be allowed the right to be a little edgy when he performs?

Dylan wants to sing his songs in continually creative ways, and he wants us to experience the songs in the same way – creatively. Is he insulting his audience by making the experience difficult, or is he giving us credit for having brains that can encompass more than just the recorded tracks that we’ve heard? To me what he does is courageous, and remarkable.

If the point needs any more proving, on September 11, 2012, Dylan released his latest studio album, Tempest, which was greeted with numerous hats being thrown in the air. It is a stunning album, not least because he appears to be in excellent control of his material – it is clear that his choices for the way his songs sound are just that, choices, and that he can sing pretty much any way he wants. On Tempest he often sings – unless he wants to speak a song, as he does with distinction in the track “Long And Wasted Years.” He performs the way he wants. Grab on and come aboard.

It’s easy to forget that Dylan is as much a poet as a songwriter, or at least that poetry is a large part of his songwriting. One of his gifts is the ability to take an everyday expression and put it in a context or a rhythm that makes it stand out as remarkable. Poets do that – they recover words for us.

In Tempest Dylan matches vigorous verse with emphatic singing and with more attention to musical settings than he has paid in years. I’ve presented previously my theory that Dylan’s artistic aim has been to put the values of the music he loves – today known as “American roots music,” music with its roots in country blues and little bands – on the big stage.

In this album we hear, as Jon Pareles listed in the Times (September 11, 2012), echoes of “western swing . . . 1950s-flavored slow dance . . . Celtic-country waltz . . . an old Carter family song . . . a Mississippi Sheiks refrain . . . the stop-time riff of Muddy Water’s ‘Mannish Boy’ . . . bits of the traditional ballad ‘Barbara Allen’ and phrases from John Greenleaf Whittier poems . . .” But Dylan’s songs transform their source materials.

What do we ask of a work of art, anyway? Surely, among other things, an experience, a journey somewhere that we wouldn’t be likely to take without the help of the artist. Dylan offers journeys to what I call Bobbyland. Bobbyland is an odd place. A song will start out fairly conventionally – often it’s a love song – but soon we notice that it’s starting to take extremely peculiar twists and turns. For example, “Soon After Midnight” begins as a familiar kind of love song:

I’m searching for phrases
To sing your praises –
I have to tell someone.

But by the time we’ve gone through a few verses, Dylan is singing:

Two-Timing Slim,
Who ever heard of him?
I’ll drag his corpse through the mud.

The same progression is true of Tempest as a whole. Its opening is charming, its first song entertaining. But song by song it moves deeper emotionally, the level of intensity climbing. There has always been a significant amount of aggression in Dylan’s songs. In Tempest aggression is in the forefront, climaxing in a brutal love triangle story (“Tin Angel”) that precedes two final long songs – about the Titanic and about John Lennon.

Dylan has been quoted as saying he originally intended to write an album about religion. This album isn’t it, but we should note that even if he did write such an album, it wouldn’t be just about religion, because these days Dylan doesn’t compartmentalize life. This album has religion in it. It also has violence. Both are parts of life and Dylan doesn’t try to put them in boxes. Reality is reality.

Similarly, the comment has been made for decades that in the later 1960s Dylan stopped writing protest songs. He didn’t – he just doesn’t compartmentalize the protest. “Early Roman Kings” in particular is a protest song if we want to hear it that way, a protest against the oligarchy we’ve become.

And the song “Tempest” isn’t just a song about the Titanic. (“World’s Largest Metaphor,” the old Onion headline reads, “Hits Iceberg.”) Notice how Dylan frames the story with the image of the watchman dreaming that the Titanic is sinking. (Compare his song “All Along The Watchtower”.) The Titanic isn’t the only thing that’s sinking . . . and yet, although in the words of another song from the “Watchtower” days, “Nothing is revealed,” still, as is frequently the case with Dylan, there’s also an image of redemption nearby.

All in all, I can’t think of another artist as difficult as Dylan, and also as rewarding.

[Upcoming shortly will be another, somewhat surprising contribution from Kirk.  I don't want to give anything away now, but I'll say two things in advance: it's about the Beatles again, and it's a window back to a bygone era.  I'll add one more note: I enjoyed it immensely, and I'm convinced ROT readers will, too.]

1 comment:

  1. On the morning of 13 October 2016, the Nobel Committee announced that the 108th winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature is Rock 'n' Roll singer-songwriter Bob Dylan. The former folkie, 75, is the first musician to win the prize and the first American since Toni Morrison in 1993, 23 years ago.

    The citation for the award states that Dylan won for "having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition." The Swedish Academy released a statement that the composer-lyricist "is a great poet in the English-speaking tradition," drawing parallels between Dylan's songs and the poetry of classical Greece.