I hope it's not seen as self-important to create a thread to post my own review; I don't mean it as such, I just don't want to be responsible for filling up the setlist discussion thread with what many see as repetitive and useless drivel. setlist discussion thread is for setlist discussion, for fans of the way bob performs now. so without further ado:
I won't claim that this is an objective review of the Bob Dylan concert that took place on the 2nd of July 2012 in Berlin; it is instead a recount of the experience that tellmemomma1966 had at the aforementioned concert. I don't think I'm capable of removing myself (my personal feelings and thoughts and motivations and so on) from my concert experience, but I can at least declare what my biases are. To begin with, I must admit that of late I've barely been listening to Bob at all, and whenever I have it's been the 60's albums or occasionally Live 1966 or 1975. I stopped listening to NET shows (if for the sake of convenience we can call them that; I understand that it's a somewhat reductive term and that the period it covers is rather arbitrary) altogether around six months ago, for various reasons. The result of this is that I've been completely out of touch with what Bob is up to; I haven't been following setlists or listening to bootlegs. I've seen Bob four times, counting last night; the other three were in a total of four days last year. The last time(s) I saw Bob, I was in a phase of obsessively keeping up to date on the tour; I knew exactly what to expect in terms of setlists and performance and wardrobe and everything else that one can find fascinating in the weird and wonderful world of live Bobby. There was also a road trip involved, and the whole thing was sort of ritualised and excellent; my first Bob show was at a festival with a largely younger and energetic audience who got really into the spirit of things, singing along and dancing and having a rollicking good time. Last time, I was pleasantly surprised by what Bob delivered and was really happy that I had gone – though it's easy to see in retrospect that my utter devotion to Bob ensured that I would have the time of my life. This time was completely different because I felt completely differently going into it.
The problem with going to shows by artists that you know inside out is that you bring an enormous amount of baggage with you. Most of the best shows I've ever seen were things I had no idea about until I got there, that were spontaneous and last-minute. The result of being thrown into a new situation is that it inspires you to just be there and get into the vibe; with no idea what to expect, and thus no pre-concieved ideas about how to respond to it, your response comes naturally from what you're actually experiencing. With an artist you're already really invested in, you're already trying to contextualise the experience that you are having into the wider narrative of your fandom. This is great fun, but it prevents you from actually seeing the show for what it is (not that you mind in your bubble of bliss) and especially from coming to terms with anything difficult or negative about what you are seeing and hearing.
This was in my mind during the day before the concert. I decided, therefore, that the best thing to do would be to try as hard as possible to just watch the concert and listen to Bob and try and avoid deciding beforehand what kind of time I would have. This was made difficult by the fact that I saw a video of Things Have Changed that morning (taken at the show directly preceding Berlin on the tour) which shocked me to my core and almost made me reconsider the whole thing. Unaccustomed to the state of Bob's voice, which these days all will admit is at best an acquired taste and at worst all sorts of colourful expressions invoking something grating and repulsive, I was really taken aback, somewhat astounded and ashamed that I had been obsessed with this stuff for so long, and most of all completely bewildered and perplexed as to how and why anybody could stand listening to this more than once, let alone actually enjoy it. All sorts of thoughts flashed through my head upon watching it; I was convinced that it was not possible to think that this performance was a good one, and positively ridiculous to consider it worthy of such a formerly brilliant artist as Bob. It must therefore be only due to subtle self-delusion, or actual conscious dishonesty, that anybody could claim to enjoy this. I was dismayed at hearing a song which I actually really like, full of humour and sarcasm and complexity and feeling (somewhat ironically, given the assertion in the chorus that he doesn't care anymore; or perhaps this is part of the intended meaning of the lyrics) reduced to an incomprehensible series of growls, mumbles and barks which I was only able to understand because I'd heard the song so many times and could remember the words.
I tried hard, though, to put this out of my mind, resolved to see the show for what it was and to rid myself of any pre-conceptions about what kind of time I would have. There is no surer way to not enjoy something than to decide before you've even done it that you won't enjoy it. I therefore put all thoughts about the show out of my mind, made scrambled eggs, did some housework, did some yoga, and when the time came put on my polka-dot shirt and left for the venue. I listened to Live 1966 on the way, stopping only to listen to a busker playing beautiful Spanish guitar in one of the subway stations my journey involved. I'd never been to the part of the city the concert was in before, and it was fun and interesting being somewhere new – I've only been in Berlin for a week (though I've been here twice before; this time I'm living here for 6 months) but have already settled into something of a routine involving a limited number of places and it was good to break out of it; I was filled with thoughts of how there's so much yet to see and do and explore in this wonderful place. The underground line was a new and different one, and lots of the stations were decorated with interesting tile patterns. It was also fun trying to guess which of the other people on the train would be going to the gig; some, like the girl wearing 60's hippy get-up, were obvious while others (like the bunch of Italian fratboys) were harder to predict.
Before long I and the other colourful characters arrived at the station and started walking towards the venue. On the way there were perhaps two dozen people with signs in English or German (or both) pleading for tickets, as well as two guys busking. Their sign said “need $$$; just one ticket is our dream” and I gave them about 2.50 in coins. I hope they made it. The venue itself was really interesting and great; it was a large open air courtyard in the middle of a medieval fortress. The stage was at one end of the courtyard, and at the other were various stalls selling food and drink. I was excited very much by the idea that 500 years ago, people would have gathered here to have festivals and drink medieval beer and eat medieval food and listen to medieval music. When I thought about it, apart from the sound equipment and everybody's clothing, nothing seemed very much out of place; the 21st century people and the Medieval people seemed to be doing pretty much the same thing. There was also another layer, another series of things to think about – the fortress, called the Zitadelle, (which means Citadel in German) was obviously designed to safeguard the nearby town of Spandau (now a suburb of Berlin) in the case of war. Inevitably the citadel had been involved in the Russian-German war as the front line moved through Berlin towards the very end of that tragic and appalling chapter in human history, and it made me immensely happy that it could once again be used for something that was not its sole intended purpose but which was much more peaceful, productive and good.
The courtyard was about half-full when I got there, and Bob wasn't due to start for another half an hour, so I dealt with the important stuff first and got a Bratwurst and a beer. After this I headed forward to get a good spot, and having achieved this, drank my Berliner Kindl and ate my dinner feeling supremely German and excellent. Watching the crowd made for a lot of fun; my German's just good enough for eavesdropping, and it's always fun to try and gauge the mindset of the other people at a show before it begins. There followed a period of standing around doing not much, entertaining myself by watching and listening to the crowd. This passed quickly; there came the sound of somebody noodling around on an electric guitar, then a cheer, and suddenly, there was Bob, emerging from backstage and taking his position behind the organ! It had begun.
Bob looked cool, he wasn't wearing a hat and had sunglasses on, and his jacket matched the light grey of the suits that the band was wearing. Fashion report, check. The band wasted no time in launching into Pillbox Hat. My instant and natural reaction was that it sounded rather lame and tired compared with Change My Way Of Thinking, the opener for all three of the other Bob shows I'd seen. I couldn't help comparing the two; upon doing so, I realised that the vocals this time weren't anywhere near as clear or powerful as last time, when they had been rough, but still full of energy. Most of the lines were mumbled and hurried in a low growl which got lost in the rest of the mix and once again, had I not known the song, I wouldn’t have been able to understand a word. All the hilarity in the lyric was gone, as was the sarcastic fire and vitriol of their delivery in performances from years long distant. Despite all of this the thing sort of rocked along and there were people dancing and grooving, which made a big difference and made it kind of fun, as long as I put the disappointment about the voice more or less out of mind. This wasn't easy, though; asking yourself to ignore the fact that you can barely understand the words in a Dylan song is a tall order, in my book. Leopard-Skin is one of my favourite Bob songs; it's hilarious and try as I might it was really sad to realise that anybody who didn't know the song's lyrics back to front probably couldn't understand a word. The song's verses were separated by bits of jamming which I enjoyed a lot, mostly because all the people in my immediate vicinity were really into it, and also because I really like the way that Charlie Sexton plays the guitar.
Pillbox was followed by a version of It Ain't Me, Babe which was also completely ruined by the voice. Bob played the guitar on this one, and his playing wasn't terrible but didn't add very much to the song, either. At the other shows I saw, the guitar playing was the absolute low point of the show each time – it was at best meandering and pointless and at worst absolutely jarring and completely ruined whatever song it was imposed upon. Bob would usually wander around playing some repetitive licks halfway up the neck and usually on the lower strings, which weren't too loud and would sort of blend in with the rest of the band, and occasionally play much louder and more discordant things which would actually hurt the ears. A favourite tactic was to pick a random chord in the structure of the song and play it incredibly loud in a sort of stabbing fashion. Thankfully there was none of this in Berlin; the guitar wasn't anywhere near as loud in the mix as at my previous shows and he stuck to the midrangey noodling, which I wouldn’t say blended seamlessly with what the rest of the band were playing, but which was not altogether offensive. Once again and impossible for me to ignore was the feeling that all of the meaning in the lyrics was gone, replaced by something completely different. But I wasn't too despondent at this point; I remembered that at my other Bob shows, he had always played one or two of his personal acoustic songs and that they were always not very good.
After this came Things Have Changed; same story, though not as bad as the video I watched earlier in the day, which was a relief. Fantastic song rendered into something unpalatable and therefore rather unrelatable. I noticed that the band looked tremendously bored and was upset about this; it was very different from my previous experiences. Last time they had been either playful and happy, sharing smiles and winks back and forth, or intensely concentrated, constantly exchanging serious and presumably very important and meaningful glances back and forth while playing. This time there was none of that. I paid much more attention to the voice during Things Have Changed than I had for the previous two songs; whereas in the others I'd been somewhat dismayed and almost automatically ignored the singing to some extent, here I decided that I must face up to it, listen properly, and decide what exactly it was that made me feel uncomfortable about it. The more closely I listened, the more disheartened I became. The first thing I noticed was Bob's phrasing – the most positive thing I can think to say about it is that it's incredibly strange. He tended to spit out each line in two bursts, mumbling the first half quickly, waiting a bit, and then growling through the other half. His timing and intonation were completely unrelated to anything the band was doing, which was just irritating more than anything else. He also seemed more or less unable to express any nuance or dynamics with his voice other than bygrowling or grumbling some bits and shouting or barking others, which wasn't exactly my idea of the subtlety and depth of feeling that I think a song like THC deserves. The state of the voice itself was more and more shocking the more closely I listened; it's just a raspy, wheezy shadow of what it once was. This was all very upsetting. To top it all off, the arrangement was sort of jaunty and the contrast between this and the croakiness of Bob's delivery was just too much to bear. I was actively glad when this one was over, although the harmonica fills provided a respite from the voice and as a result I enjoyed them immensely.
At this point I realised that I was doing the exact thing that I said I would not do – contextualise the experience that I was having into a wider narrative of my total experiences. But try as I might I couldn't seem to avoid comparing what I was seeing and hearing now to what I had experienced the other times I saw Bob. I wondered why I had had such a brilliant and excellent time then but not so now, and indeed why the very things I loved about it then I now could barely stand. In particular, I was completely unsure if I had somehow tricked myself into enjoying the other shows, or if they had genuinely been better than this. I think it was probably a bit of both. Last time I had been looking for good things with all of my being (albeit somewhat unconsciously) and found many; this time, trying to avoid arriving at any pre-conceived judgment (but somewhat unconsciously judging the show as inferior to the other ones I'd seen) I seemed freer to deal with the negative aspects of what I was seeing. This train of thought was interrupted as Tangled Up In Blue began. I have nothing much to say about this; I've already said it – the singing was so bad and the lyrics so mangled that it was impossible to enjoy it. One of the greatest songs I've heard in my entire life reduced to something at once bland and deeply shocking. Once again I was happy when it was over.
It was followed by a really bad version of Cry Awhile, another song I really like. It had a stop-start arrangement that would have been fantastic had he sung the song with any feeling; once again it was growl-and-bark-tastic and completely lacking in any charisma and the whole thing fell flat and made me feel sad.
I was trying to work out a pattern in what made the songs bad; I remembered that at the other concerts, there had been clearly things that worked and things that didn't. Whenever Bob was centre stage, he injected a lot of life into the songs that had been missing behind the organ; the guitar songs had been unbelievably bad; the blues numbers were repetitive and samey while the softer numbers worked better. But this time none of the songs had been especially good. I was now really disheartened and wanted something to lift my spirits; this came with the next song, She Belongs To Me. I don't know exactly when it was last played but judging by the reactions of all the Bobcats in the audience it was obviously some time ago – a real cheer went up as Bob sang the first line. It was played much more softly and delicately than the other songs so far; there were even moments (never lasting longer than one or two lines, but my heart leapt every time regardless) when Bob dropped the rasp, stopped grunting through the lyrics and actually sung them with some real feeling. Those moments were completely magical. I have no idea if my standards had been so lowered by the first part of the set that I was able to enjoy something that I wouldn't have normally, if only because it was much better than what had come before, or if it was actually good. Maybe there's no difference; beauty being in the eye of the beholder and all that. It's an excellent song and I think he did it justice; at the end he repeated the first verse, singing sustained notes with real passion, and then repeating its last line - “she can take the dark out of the night-time, and paint the day-time black” - singing it (really singing it!) in a way that was incredibly moving. He actually put effort into singing a real melody, and not only this, but actually enunciated the words clearly and with subtle feeling. Up till now, I'd only been able to enjoy the show in the moments when I more or less completely ignored the singing, or accepted that it was a lost cause and enjoyed it almost as a circus spectacle. The moments in She Belongs To Me where I stopped wishing that the voice was better and enjoyed the singing itself were absolutely brilliant. I wish the whole show had been like that. It was only then that I was able to actually just be in the moment at the show, as I'd planned and wanted to do, rather than distracting myself with analysing the entire thing as it was happening. I'd also been able to enjoy it without deliberately suppressing negative feelings about the performance. I decided that I would try and do the same for the rest of the set.
The next song was a very rhythmic Love Sick, which I also enjoyed. Charlie's playing was at the forefront again, providing something else to listen to whenever I got sick of Bob's raspy delivery. He played the piano for the first time on this one, and this was also more or less okay. His playing and singing were more or less rhythmically intertwined with what the band was doing and though I have heard much better versions of the song (and was conscious of this the whole time I was hearing him perform it, and thus distanced from the performance and prevented from being “in ze moment”) it wasn't altogether terrible. That's more or less the best thing that I can say about it. Once again he saved up all the real feeling for the last line, which he sung with extraordinary (at least when compared to the rest of the song) sustain and emotional power. Once again this was the best part – I was in the moment, listening to him singing with conviction, je ne sais quoi. Too bad that it only lasted ten seconds or so.
After this came Levee's Gonna Break, to which I could apply any number of cliches from the pro- or anti- current Bob camps – anything from a plodding, boring blues fiasco to a rollicking good time which showed Bob in his best form ever! Instead I'll say what I think; it demonstrated that he can actually do a pretty good boogie-woogie piano, and once again that the whole thing was much more fun when the crowd were into it. It was the same way at the other shows I've seen; songs like Levee got the crowd moving and at least resulted in a good time, if not the sort of intellectual-spiritual-emotional enlightenment that Dylan's songs are capable of producing within a person given the right circumstances. But whereas last time he played such things positively overflowing with groove and energy, this time they mostly felt flat and lifeless. I understand that this is probably a result of me being less determined to have a good time than I was the other times that I saw Bob; I can't do anything about that now, though, and didn't feel that I could then, either – one must also take into account the fact that I wasn't as much interested in having a good time as seeing the truth from a wider perspective. The dancing produced the “in the moment” feeling, at least here and there. Towards the end of the song the band hit on a cool little riff and played on it together; this was fun, too. The vocals were largely the same deal as the rest of the show – grumbling and mumbling all over the place – but with the occasional brief burst of high-register clarity and goodness which made the heart leap. He might have sung about a third of the song as opposed to just growling it, and all the lines that he actually injected some nuance into were really great. Once again these brief moments went a fair way to justifying the whole thing.
This was followed by a version of High Water that was rather unspectacular. It didn't have the vicious energy of the versions I'd seen before; another series of grunts and growls against a nice but on its own pretty uninteresting backing. After this came a version of Desolation Row which contained both the night's greatest joys and its most bitter disappointments. The song began with just the acoustic guitar and Bob's piano, which was actually rather tasteful; it reminded me of the White House performance of a couple of years ago. And the voice, oh my god! Where had this been for the entire show? He sang the first verse in the usual manner, but the second was sung with such tenderness and subtlety (at least compared to the usual) that I was almost brought to tears. Here, again, was the Bob Dylan I fell in love with – a performer capable of a complexity of expression that had been missing from nearly the entire show. If he'd been able to deliver the rest of the song with the same clarity, the same purity, the same softness and depth and intensity, it would have completely saved the show. I don't need to explain why Desolation Row would have been the perfect song for such a thing; it “walks by itself” as they say. But it was not to be. After the exquisite beauty of the second verse, he adopted an unbelievably irritating and saddening staccato thing which completely ruined the impact of those beautiful words. My face must have completely changed expressions ten times in the first minute of the song; from reservedness to surprise to expectation to joy to astounded pleasure to disbelief. I gritted my teeth through the third verse and was once again astonished as in the fourth he sung ever single word with all of the sustain and power of a Bobby in his prime before reverting after this back to the indistinguishable grunting. I was completely flabbergasted. Either he was capable of this the entire time, and for some reason was singing in this insane and terrible way on purpose (the reasons for which I don't think I will ever understand, but it's certainly fun to think about; perhaps another deliberate attempt to destroy his fanbase, or to play with them and see how terribly he can perform before they can't stand it anymore) or he was only capable of this real, Dylan-worthy singing for a verse at a time. I was so uplifted by this transformation from grunting to beautiful and transcendent performance and so shattered when it didn't last that I couldn't pay much attention to the rest of the show.
The rest was nothing special, anyway, not by anybody's standards, fan or not of the way Bob performs in 2012. He played the standard (well I assume so, it's more or less what he did last year) closing sequence of Highway 61 Revisited, Simple Twist of Fate, Thunder On The Mountain, Ballad Of A Thin Man, Like A Rolling Stone and All Along The Watchtower before an encore (no idea whether “genuine” or not – last year the encores were really unpredictable, which was one of the best things about the shows I saw. Sometimes he would play two encores, sometimes none at all; it was rather fun seeing what would happen) of Blowing In The Wind. Highway 61 was another more or less lifeless mid-tempo blues jam, the hilarity and cool of the lyrics replaced by plodding (I can't think of a better word) blues cliches overlaid with unintelligible grunting. But once again the crowd loved it, and whenever I just wiggled with the others around me I had a nice time. Simple Twist is presented with really nice instrumentation and subtlety as far as the music is concerned, but the barking and grumbling ruined it again. Thunder was exactly the same as Highway 61, a mostly lifeless blues thing which was redeemed somewhat by ignoring the singing and just dancing along.
Ballad Of A Thin Man is a bit of a different beast; the way he does the song now has much more to be said for it than all of the others. Whereas the other songs are performed in spite of the physical limitations of Bob's voice, on Thin Man he seems to embrace the roughness, which thus becomes one of the song's strengths. Also, a lot more effort goes into the whole presentation – a light shines up from beneath him as he stands centre stage, harmonica in hand, casting a gigantic shadow-Bob on the curtain behind the stage, and there's a delay effect on the vocals which creates an interesting spectacle out of his ravaged voice. The result is that rather than being a bastardised version of a once-great song, essentially a standard version of the song but with Bob rasping and wheezing a mutilated version of the original lyrics, the result is something deliberately menacing and disconcerting rather than something just incidentally awful (setting aside the possibility that Bob sings the way he does on purpose, which I'm somewhat sceptical about) and off-putting. I liked this a lot, as I did the other times; it's rough and makes one feel deeply uncomfortable, but it at least sounds deliberate. At the time I speculated about whether or not the entirety of Bob's current show is intended in a similar way, to confuse and annoy and disappoint the audience, but I decided that it probably isn't because the hyped-up presentation of Thin Man seems to signify that it's intended in a different way. I was also reminded of many conversations with my philosophy-major student friends who declare that it doesn't matter at all how a piece of art was intended, what is important is the way in which it is received and interpreted; this didn't take much hold with me, though, because Bob's show is just so strange that one can't help but wonder why on earth he would choose to perform this way. I completely refuse to believe that Bob only continues to perform out of habit, or because he's motivated by greed. He wants people to come and see him, sure, but it's because he has artistic impulses to express and believes he has something to show to them. He's obviously not deaf, or stupid; if he doesn't have control over the way he sings, he does have control over whether or not he does it in a concert setting. It's therefore not really relevant whether or not he chooses to sing this way, because he definitely chooses to perform this way. Thin Man provoked a series of trains of thought like this, but as opposed to lots of the rest of the show, I didn't feel that this distracted or distanced me from listening to the music; on the contrary, I felt that it was somehow the proper response.
Like A Rolling Stone has been one of the anthems of my life and was the song that first got me listening to Dylan. I was already rather jaded and disappointed after the whole concert experience, and one would think that it couldn't have got any worse, but hearing Bob grunt and mumble his way through what is probably the most sublimely sophisticated and excellent pop song ever written dealt another blow. It wasn't redeemed by the usual crowd singalong, either; it was raining by now and most people just wanted to stand and listen and keep warm and dry rather than dance and sing. Bob is like any other performer; he responds to the feelings of the audience, and if the audience is lifeless and disinterested, he will be so, too. Watchtower was pretty much the same, and Blowing In The Wind has a nice arrangement which emphasises Charlie playing some interesting lilting little melodies that I actually hummed to myself most of the way home, but the vocals again prevented real engagement with the song.
After this it was over, and I made my way home, my head filled with a thousand conflicting viewpoints. On the one hand, I hadn't really had that bad a time. I had a beer and a German sausage, got out of the house, saw some cool Medieval architecture and felt some empathy and insight into the lives of Medieval Germans. On the other hand I was obviously thoroughly saddened by what I had seen and heard from Bob. On yet another hand (you've got three hands, cries Hugh Laurie) I was totally aware that it was my own fault; I knew what I could expect and went anyway, knowing that I might not enjoy it. All the same I felt unesasy. I had enjoyed observing and listening to the mostly German crowd a lot; they were mostly older people, vaguely ex-hippy looking, but there were also families and hip students all over the place. There were some people in the audience who yelped with joy at the slightest thing – Bob doing a little kick under the keyboard or waving his arms around while on the centre stage mic. Most merely stood and looked contentedly confused, becoming occasionally animated by something or other – I was in this bunch. Yet others spent the whole time screaming out “where's the Real Bob Dylan” and so on. The consensus seemed to be mild disappointment, justified on the grounds that Bob is rather advanced in years. “Seine beste Jahren sind genau lange her, aber es hat trotzdem Spass gemacht” (his best years were definitely long ago, but I had fun anyway) and similar things echoed around me as I made my way to the metro and back home.
There's a tendency among Bobcats to dismiss anything negative said about the state of Bob's voice on the grounds that, while it may be beyond doubt that its best days are long gone, everybody already knows this and there's no point going on about it; precisely because it's beyond doubt renders it unworthy of discussion. Besides, like it or not, Bob's gonna sing how Bob's gonna sing, and there's no point being upset about it. I vigorously reject this laissez-faire attitude to Bob's singing for two reasons. First of all, his lyrics are the heart and soul of his songs, and his voice is indispensable as the carrier of those lyrics and therefore the messenger of his songs. It's more or less impossible to separate Bob's songs from his voice; nobody sings Dylan like Dylan, as they say. Secondly, upon listening to a recording of Bob performing one of his songs in the last however-many years, and comparing it to a recording of him performing the same song before this vocal deterioration, it's absolutely impossible not to notice that his recent voice is not up to the task of expressing the beauty within the song in all its fullness. You don't go to see Bob to hear him play the guitar or the piano – you go to witness him performing the stunningly original and brilliant songs that he's written throughout his entire career. Those songs deserve a clarity, passion, subtlety and power that Bob is currently unwilling or unable to give them.
Another common response to criticisms of Bob's current performing style is to say that “changing it up” is an essential feature of him as a performer and that therefore we must embrace the weirdness with which he performs, just as the folkies had to accept his grabbing a Telecaster and turning Baby Let Me Follow You Down into an expression of majestic electric rock and roll defiance instead of a plaintive traditional folk ditty. I have a problem with this, too, because whereas previous examples of Bob changing his direction completely (much to the chagrin of the fans who'd just been converted to the last one) came as a result of artistic vision, this change has come about from a physical limitation. I'm not a doctor, and I have no idea what exactly has taken place in Bob's vocal chords or why, but something has happened there which has destroyed his ability to since with anything like the majesty, subtlety, nuance and depth of emotional expression of which he was once capable. Or perhaps this isn't the case, and he just really likes confusing people. Could be either one.
I don't really know why I went to Bob last night, and I don't really know what kind of time I had.