Bob Dylan Review 07/08/11 – Rochester Hills, MI

As a Dylan advocate (you might at times have said “apologist”) I sometimes fear my legitimate praise of the great man will be perceived as mindless fawning.

So let me first complain about the last show I’d seen at the Kitchener Aud (terrible acoustics) with a bunch of Greatest Hits enthusiasts, and poor Bob looking almost bored to tears.  Even at this type of vaguely disheartening show I’d rationalize:  “Well it looked like he was having a good time.”  I was saying this because he bobbed his knees a few times.  And because at previous shows I’d seen he’d looked like he was having a downright bad time.

Well, last night in Rochester Hills, Michigan, Bob looked (not just to me but to even a neutral observer) like he was having a fucking hell of a time.  I think the biggest improvement is that Bob’s new configuration of switching from organ, to centre-stage crooning to playing guitar really mixes up the dynamic.

Previously, when all Bob did was plunk away on his circus organ (sometimes called the “instrument of torture”) things began to sound dreadfully similar and it could lull you to sleep, even if there were some grand moments.  It also led to a lot of sing-songy shouting that disappointed the people who wanted the songs to sound at least something like the songs they love.

But, now, for the handful of songs played on the IOT you get a great attack between the organ and Charlie Sexton’s subtle, exquisite guitar slinging.  In the past there had been accusations among knowledgeable fans that Bob was drowning Charlie out.

But it’s when Bob is crooning that his shows are now the most fun.  During his early 60s appearances in Greenwich Village some compared him to Charlie Chaplin because of the comical way he’d look nervous and uncomfortable before tearing into some ballad that held the room in the palm of his hand.  Also maybe because he is really short and cartoonishly cute in appearance.

Well, now the Chaplin comparison has come full circle as Dylan seems to, more than ever, embrace the role of comedian.  He prances about in a way so comical that I couldn’t help pointing it out to the somewhat aggravated “long-time-listeners-first-time-attendees” beside me.

These people were also trying to have a kind of religious experience with Bob but a kind that wasn’t quite up to date.  The woman was interested in my tips about what to expect.  But her companion, after delivering a non-sensical speech about Blowin’ in the Wind that kept coming back to his condemnation of marijuana-smoking, was shushed by his more-savvy companion, so he eventually became insecure and boorishly yelled at me to leave them alone in stereotypical American nastiness, for which his date later apologized, referring to him as “her friend” as though she wanted precious little to do with him after his dickish outburst.

As I have a sensitive psychic constitution this rattled me for the remainder of the show.  Also, because the premiere area under the pavilion is seated, it’s a totally different vibe than standing general admission which encourages dancing (and in my case, a Bob-inspired duck walk).  When I was yelling out the encouragement I felt Bob deserved I was generally perceived as a lunatic.

That brings me to my main point.  In the past I’ve had a theory that when an audience is rocking, Bob gives them what they deserve, but when an audience is passive Bob phones it in to a degree.  This might explain why the shows in Europe and abroad are consistently better than the ones in America.  Last night he fought through that beer-drunk passivity and just did what he does best now.

It’s my opinion that songs two through four are usually the highlight of any Dylan show.  And the last time I saw him, once those were over it was a long slow death march through Highway 61, Thin Man, etc.

Last night was a totally even show, consistently good from top to bottom.  Those aforementioned songs that I usually skip when listening to bootlegs are becoming nightly highlights.  It could also be that they’re meant to be heard live where the power of the band really comes across.  But more so than usual, the band was drum-tight on those songs.

The addition of Mississippi allows Bob to play with the lyrics to one of his most beautiful songs in the way he’s been doing with Visions of Johanna and Desolation Row for the last few years. 

For some this is, to quote one message board commentator, “pissing on the Mona Lisa,” but for others, going to a Bob show and hearing one of these lesser played masterpieces is, like, a reason for living.  I can attest to that somewhat extreme statement.  The night previous I’d been at a wedding, and, as usual, due to my proclivity for hard drinking and the sensitive psychic constitution mentioned above had made a sort of minor scene.  So I was hungover, plagued by guilt and a Kierkegaardian “sickness unto death,” and in this sorrowful condition, watching and hearing Bob healed and nourished me in ways that would only sound silly to anyone but a fellow Bob freak.

Back to the music:  When this boot comes out…pay particular attention to the clipped yelling on Things Have Changed.   Clipped yelling is what people have grumbled about for years.  Some idiots have even called for him to quit because of it.  Maybe that lit a fire under Bob.  Because this is a new kind of clipped yelling that even the Greatest Hits fans can’t help but be amused by.

Something is happening here…