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Bob Dylan 2001.03.14 at Budokan


Review of "Bob Dylan and his Band;" Nippon Budokan; 
14 March 2001

Otto Thompson 
Japan, 2001

This is a long "review."  Please remember I am a fan. I
might get carried away as I try to describe what I saw and
felt at the Budokan.  I don't think it's the best Dylan
concert I've seen live or on film, but it was a good show.

First of all, it was a long day for me, a journey from the
mundane (i.e., work) to the sublime (i.e., Bob and his
band).  To those of you who have never been to Tokyo,
driving into the heart of the city from even just 55
kilometers away can be a long, hard journey, essentially a
slow trek in an endless line of vehicles that moves forward
at a snail's pace. I found the trip to be especially tedious
since I was traveling alone.  Thus, as you read my
amateurish review, please keep in mind that although I
parked the car after the trip, relaxed and had a nice
sandwich, wandered around the Ginza a bit, and then rode the
subway to the Budokan itself, I was a bit tired when I
arrived at the martial arts hall.  I'm sure many others in
attendance had similar experiences in getting to the
concert. As I strode past the ticket scalpers, and checked
out the vendors, I was glad I'd had a cup of coffee just
before hitting the subway.

Before discussing the show, I'd like to comment on makeup of
the crowd.  I would be remiss not to note the apparent broad
age and experience range of the crowd, if appearances tell
any story at all.  For example, I saw a few non-Japanese
folks who looked like they might have attended one of Bob's
first shows in the Village and hadn't changed their hair and
clothing style since.  On the other hand, I saw many
fresh-faced kids, Japanese and "Westerners" alike, with what
appeared to be, and I kid you not, their parents.  In fact,
I saw a few where it looked as if parent and child had
dressed for a costume ball where the theme was the Beatnik
early 60's, or something like that. From tight jeans,
pointed black high heel shoes, a dark sweater, and a black
beret on a 50-ish Japanese woman to the ubiquitous gray
salaryman in the standard gray suit with the ever present
cell phone in one hand, the small briefcase in the other,
and the tired, worn look on his face, it sure was an
eclectic crowd.  With my longish hair, white beard, and dark
jeans and jacket, I fell into the appearance category of the
old guy who hadn't changed his look since maybe1965, except
for being grayer, balder, and wider.

Of course, appearances tell only a small part of the story.
Nonetheless, the crowd appeared to be, for lack of a better
term, diverse.

Despite my fatigue, I was really excited about seeing Bob. I
had last seen him at Wolftrap Virginia in August 1997, just
a short time before issuance of  "Time Out of Mind" and the
introduction of those songs into his show.   I am not a Bob
Trekkie.  I don't follow him everywhere, though that sounds
like a lot of fun if one has the time and money.  My other
significant Bob experiences include Oct '94, at the Warner
Theater in Washington, February 1994 in Singapore, and the
Omni in Atlanta in, I believe, 1975 (with THE Band).  I had
one other brief experience in May 1996, when I shared a
waiting area with Bob in LAX (Los Angeles International
Airport).  He was dressed in black and white patent leather
shoes, white coarse linen pants rolled up at the bottom,
sunglasses, and a gray hooded sweatshirt with the hood
pulled over his head.  I decided against asking for an
autograph.  I just kind of sat there, occasionally glancing
over to see what he was doing. He took his hood off for a
while as he spoke with his lady companion.  I remember
thinking how much younger he looked in person (especially
without makeup) compared to his photos and my sightings of
him on stage. I also realized once again how small he really
is.  I read an article later that discussed his stop at LAX
that day and his flight that same day to New York.  The
article focused on the hooded sweatshirt.

Going into the show at the Budokan, I was hoping Bob would
perform "Highlands," but my hopes were not too high.  I
figured that song wouldn't be the best choice for a largely
non-English speaking crowd; that much of the irony and ennui
would be lost on the crowd and Bob would know that.  In the
end, he didn't play "Highlands."

The first song was "Duncan and Brady," and this was the
first time I'd heard Bob play that song.   I immediately
jotted down in my notes, "Bob is ON tonight." Bob's voice
sounded strong and it rose clearly above the music. The
harmonies were wonderfully tuneful.  I must say I had no
expectations for this song, but was so caught up by it, that
I was sad to hear it end.   When I hear these kinds of songs
(including "Mama ,You've Been on my Mind," which Bob played
later, and "Roving Gambler," which he did not play), I am
always reminded of sitting at my grandfather's knee as a
small child in Alabama, listening to his endless supply of
bluegrass, "race," country, and folk 78RPM records he and my
uncles had collected over the years.  I don't remember much
about individual songs from those days, but I remember that
sound.  I know very little about  "Duncan and Brady" (Is it
a Leadbelly song?) other than its sound, and that is the
sound I heard as a child on my grandfather's old phonograph
player.

In my humble opinion, Bob is truly both a repository and a
curator of American musical culture, a writer, singer, and
performance artist who can bring Stagger Lee and "The Man in
the Long Back Coat" to life as if they were contemporaries. 
He gives us vital music in a raw and living way that makes
it honest, real, and revealing.  On top of all that, he is,
of course, well versed, if you'll pardon the bad pun, in
English folk tradition.

In Japan, the Government officially designates special
artists as living National Treasures. While Bob as never
needed the sanction of any Government, such recognition is
not necessarily a bad thing, especially if the end result is
a thorough documentation and preservation for posterity of
an artist's unique contribution to the culture.

Incidentally, some of Bob's most devoted and loyal fans
reside in Japan.  I do not think it is an exaggeration to
say Bob is revered here.  They honor the man.  They honor
and study his work. The Budokan appeared near full and its
capacity is around 14,000.

For the record, Bob was dressed in a Mississippi Riverboat
Gambler's outfit. I don't know anyway else to describe the
look.  The suit was white (or perhaps a flat silver), as was
the shirt.  The tie was a black kerchief tie typical of the
American West in the late 19th century. Bob wore black and
white cowboy boots, the front being white with what looked
like black lightning-like streaks extending back from the
toes to the heel.  Incongruously, the band were all dressed
in what looked to me to be standard fare American Lounge
Lizard leisure suits; burgundy jackets and pants with black
shirts (all except for Larry whose shirt was off-white). 
With the sharply pointed wide collars of the black shirts
neatly draped over the lapels of the suit jackets, the guys
looked, and I mean no disrespect to those who like this
look, as if they should be waiting for the crowd to show up
at a hotel lounge.  They didn't look like they were ready to
rip into Highway 61 in the Budokan with perhaps the world's
greatest living poet.  That's just my prejudice showing
through, though.  I never did like the leisure suit look. In
my eyes, only Tony Garnier can wear that kind of clothing
and make it look cool. And I've never been quite comfortable
with the Cowboy Bob look. That's just my shallow side rising
up though.  As a kid in Alabama, sequined or flashy cowboy
suits were anything but cool.  I'll try to be more
open-minded. To add to the overall effect, Bob is extremely
thin.  Nonetheless, when I looked closely, I was struck by
his healthy appearance.   Through my binoculars, he actually
looked great, his face quite rugged and surprisingly tight,
and his hair slowly transitioning to gray.

After "Duncan and Brady, Bob launched into "Mr. Tambourine
Man," a slow, measured version that was in my opinion, just
OK.  I have heard much more melodic versions from Bob in the
90's.  In fact, if I have one criticism of Bob's performance
at the Budokan, it is that he was a bit short on melody at
times.  Although he enunciated well, and his voice was firm
for the most part, he had a tendency to speak rather than
sing out many of is words.  Of course, to be fair, he has
changed again the already many-time changed arrangements of
so many songs, that it's easy to focus on the changes and
nearly miss the song.  I have to fight myself to keep from
listening to Bob that way.  After all, in the end, after the
changes have sunk in, I often find myself liking a
field-recording version of a song better even though it
bears little resemblance to the recorded version.  We all
know the changes in arrangements and delivery are what keep
Bob's concerts vital anyway.

"Desolation Row" was next and this was one of the best
versions I've heard in terms of getting at what I sense to
be the root of the song; that is something I can't
articulate but that also paradoxically seems apparent. 
Bob's voice was clear even in a whisper.  The words seemed
to be coming from deep within.  He summed the feeling of
song up at the very end when he spit out "on desolation …
RRRROOOoowwww!" with a grrr kind of growl.  Lots and lots of
guitar on this song; dueling guitars at times.  In this
song, Bob really started to get into his Elvis stance; legs
slightly apart, knees slightly bent, with that funny little
rhythmic bounce of his. Only Bob can pull something like
that off and make it seem somehow profound.

"Stuck Inside of Mobile…" in full electric mode was next. 
This is not one of my favorite tunes to hear live.  This
version, however, was very driven and quite good.  One thing
that seemed to be true throughout the night was the band on
the hard rocking "fast" songs was into all sorts of hard
breaks, weird rhythmic turnabouts, and surprises. The most
notable of this bunch was "Cold Irons Bound," which to me
was the best-performed song of the evening.

Next came "Tryin' To Get to Heaven."  Talk about weird! 
This song had the lounge jazz feel to the extreme.  At
first, it seemed to me that Bob was doing a Frank Sinatra
parody, but this song turned out to be a highlight of the
evening.  It was first, beautiful, and second, very, very
sad.  When Bob said he was trying to get to heaven before
they close the door, he blocked off "before they close the
door" and made it sound like a cry of desperation as opposed
to a cliché.  So much for my former view; I am now a fan of
lounge music; at least the Bob Dylan version. The
performance of "Tryin" was very moving, and, as I said, very
sad sounding to me.  In fact, all of the TOOM tunes carried
a much sadder and darker tone than I had expected, even
though no one can call TOOM a cheerful CD.

"‘Til I Fell in Love With You" came next.  Again, Bob took a
song that is not one of my favorites, made me see it anew,
and left me wondering why I had never noticed the importance
of this song before.  This song had a nice heavy feel to it.

"Mama, You've Been on my Mind" followed and it was one of my
favorites of the evening.  This song just jumps out and
grabs you with excellent uplifting harmonies, its hectic but
coherent pace, and its good traditional country music sound.
 I couldn't help but smile.

A guy above me in the audience had been yelling for "It's
All Over Now Baby Blue."  I'm sure the guy could be heard
all over the Budokan, so either Bob heard him and responded,
or the guy just got lucky, but anyway, "Baby Blue" was next.
 Larry's long and smooth steel guitar intro was absolutely
beautiful and set the tone for a moody, colorful version of
the song.  Bob sang in almost a monotone, though on this
song, as he did on many songs all evening, he punctuated
each line with an almost falsetto, crooning rise in his
voice.  He did none of the yelling he often does in this
song.  I thoroughly enjoyed this version.

"Tangled up in Blue" was next.  This was close to the
version I heard him play at Wolftrap, but the melody was
kind of flat. He made up for it, however, with energy.  In
many ways, he told the song rather than sang it.  In fact,
it was Bob at his story-telling best; though I had the
distinct impression that on this song and others throughout
the evening, he rearranged not only the music, but also the
verses and pieces of verses.  Of course, there are so many
versions of "Tangled," that it's hard to tell.

Another highlight followed; "Not Dark Yet."  This
presentation was deep and oh so sad.  To say Bob's
performance of this song was moving would be to engage in
gross understatement. When Bob sang this song to the dark
accompaniment of his band, you could feel the pain that
drove emphatic lines like "behind every beautiful thing,
there's been some kind of pain."  I heard every word and if
there's a better statement on mortality in all of popular
music, I don't know what it is.

Just when I thought it couldn't get any better, the band
started up with "Cold Irons Bound."  Incredible!  Bob should
let his band go crazy more often.  Though Bob does tasteful
and often inventive guitar work himself, Larry and Charlie
are in a class all their own.  When they really get going,
it's magic, and Tony, of course, accents the music perfectly
with his thumping bass. And with Bob's clear, firm,
controlled, melodic, and wonderful voice yelling out this
song in phrases that bite, well… there's nothing better.  
To me, this song presented the high point of the evening.
The audience was on its feet.  People were jumping up and
down.

"Rainy Day Women" closed out the first set.  This is
definitely not the song I long to hear, but Bob has changed
the arrangement slightly and I once again was won over.  In
my opinion, the arrangement Bob played at the Budokan is
more interesting than the older versions that focus on the
barroom whistle.

After the break, Bob opened with a very somber version of
"Love Sick."  This song had a surreal, dark background of
music vaguely reminiscent of the less dark but deeply
mysterious "Man in the Long Black Coat."   Interestingly,
keeping with the lyrics, the lighting was designed to thrown
Bob and his band's shadows up onto the backdrop.  Very eerie
indeed.

Next was "Rolling Stone."   This is an almost obligatory
performance in Tokyo, I suppose, but it was still a
hard-driving version. Bob was a bit short of melody, but the
clarity of his spoken words more than made up for any
shortfall in that area.  I have never heard the lyrics quite
so clearly in a concert.

Next came another jazzy song; "If Dogs Run Free."  This was
another highlight. In contrast to the TOOM's tunes, it was
delivered in a relatively lighthearted manner.  In fact, for
some reason, "In harmony with the cosmic sea, true love
needs no company" came across as quite funny to me.  When
Bob literally spat out in concise, measured words, "If dogs
run free, then what must be, must be, and that is all," I
felt like he was talking to us all in a very personal
manner; like he had slipped back into a talking blues mode.

A hard, razor sharp "All Along the Watchtower" was next and
it was absolutely devastating.  Still basically using the
Hendrix arrangement, Bob and the bad thundered, wailed, and
soared through the song.  In terms of power, this ranked
right there with "Cold Irons Bound," though it was much more
straightforward in terms of its arrangement.

"Knocking on Heaven's door" followed and it seemed Bob
changed keys in the middle of the first line.  Anyway, the
end result was a Nashville Skyline kind of feel to the song,
which was sung both individually and in harmony in the midst
of what sounded like a mild echo chamber effect.  One I got
past the change in melody or key or whatever it was, the
song was quite beautiful and Bob's voice, but for a bit of
scratchiness at moments, was almost as smooth as in his
Nashville Skyline days.

Highway 61 followed and it was its usual blistering self,
true to form and as good as ever.

Last was "Blowing in the Wind."  What can one say about this
song?  As I listened and recalled my days as a child in the
60's in Alabama and the impact this song had in the civil
rights struggle, as I considered the man singing the song
and the impact he has had on all of us, and as I looked at
the lines on his face, I thought how lucky we all were to be
in the same room with this man.  As the harmonies soared, I
counted myself fortunate to live in this man's time.

otto@zma.attmil.ne.jp


2001: February - March -

Tour