Nearing the end of his Wednesday night performance at the Bren, Bob Dylan takes center stage for the first time. It is a deceptively simple act that highlights just how little interest he has in being the voice of anything other than an authenticity born of curiosity and experience.
In silence, he raised his arms and tugs on each of his cuffs, as if to say, ‘There’s nothing up my sleeves.’
Is Dylan suggesting that what we’ve just heard is the love-starved grinding-out of music made the same way our grandfathers played poker in some outlaw basement for pariahs, or is he simply hoping not to get mugged in the parking lot? I honestly don’t know.
Whatever he’s trying to tell us, one thing is clear: Even the most casual fans are under the impression that these minor gestures are supposed to mean something.
Many of us leer at him with a sort of embarrassed reverence, though fewer seem to notice or care that we are all, in turn, being likewise scrutinized by a giant crowned eye that has been projected onto the curtains behind the stage.
This classic design has been one of Dylan’s signature backdrops for years. The logo can also be found adorning baseball caps, T-shirts and stickers, all for sale just this side of the box office.
Those of us who think we ‘get it’ keep waiting to catch a glimpse of Emerson, Pharaoh and the $1 bill fighting for the rights to Dylan’s crown. The one girl who doesn’t is just hoping for one hell of an encore.
Sure enough, the band resurfaces to deliver a raucous, affirming rendition of ‘Like a Rolling Stone,’ and Dylan-apologists can once again defy anyone to listen to ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ and not want to spend at least one terribly uncomfortable, soul-searching night in that landscape, among those characters and surrounded by that desolate haze.
For those of you who haven’t heard it lately, Dylan’s voice has matured into an arresting artifact; doing the work of a documentarist and an instrument, it is at once penetrating, lyrical and seemingly in the act of breaking for the very last time, every time it’s used.
Take 1963’s ‘Masters of War,’ for example. It is among the most bitter of all Dylan’s songs, yet tonight we get from him an aged, Lear-like lamentation worthy of our collective suffering. Regardless of your politics,
there cannot help but come a moment when you feel as though the White House walls might rightly dissolve into sand beneath his feet, and that these past months might turn out to have been a dream.
You have to have been with these songs a long time to appreciate what Dylan’s doing with them tonight. None of the songs sound the way you expect them to, unless you understand that he is constantly making them new.
Whether it’s the fourth or 40th time around, these are old blues, these are known tunes, and sometimes even Bob Dylan gets to steal from himself.
In ‘Floater (Too Much To Ask),’ Dylan finally gives up the ghost: ‘My grandmother could sew new dresses out of old cloth / I don’t know if [she] had any dreams or hopes.’
Tonight, his is likewise an act of continual refabrication absent of a clearly defined pattern.
The evening’s set list is an eclectic mix of the old and the new, as well as a sampling of many different genres. These songs cover a lot of terrain, from the opening 1969 Nashville Skyline ballad ‘To Be Alone With You,’ to the 2001 Alice in Wonderland-inspired, ‘Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum,’ to the 1981 spiritual ‘Every Grain of Sand.’
This last song best conveys the set’s overall tone. It finds Dylan in the continued act of confronting and accepting his essential loneliness and vulnerability as he sings, ‘In the broken mirror of innocence on each forgotten face / I hear the ancient footsteps like the motion of the sea. / Sometimes I turn, there’s someone there, / other times it’s only me.’
Dylan seems to have take
this lesson to heart. Earlier this month he released ‘Chronicles,’ the first volume of his
autobiography. He has been everywhere, met everyone, done everything and yet what’s most striking is the simple power of his
More than anything he actually says or does in ‘Chronicles,’ it is this enduring hunger to connect, though always from a safe distance, that lifts and moves you like a freight train.
Whether or not we realize it, this is why most of us are here. So that when Dylan lifts his arms into the air near the end of the show like some mock angel dressed in black, it is the fact of this modest gesture, and not the nothingness it reveals, that will survive the evening’s passing.
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