I first saw Dylan in Rome, June 1984. A deft hand had picked clean my pocket as I rode with friends to the concert on the Metro, taking possession of my wallet and concert ticket contained therein. For reasons I can’t recall, I actually got off at the next stop to file a report at the nearest police station while my fellow concert goers continued on to the arena. After a policeman showed about as much interest as Italians in a clean election, I finally arrived outside the venue sans ticket and lira prepared to make my case to the heavily armed Carabinieri guarding the perimeter.
If you’ve never pled with foreign-speaking, machine gun toting men asking to see an American icon perform, well…
I explained my dilemma maybe 5 times to several soldiers of varying rank, none of whom expressed a great deal of understanding of the English language. Finally, an officer, maybe a Lieutenant or Major, asked in broken English, “You want to go to concert?” Replying in my best Italian, “Si,” he shrugged me towards the entrance with the tip of his M-16 and I passed through the gauntlet of Italy’s finest rock concert Centurions. Once in, I caught the very end of Carlos Santana’s opening set and found my friends before Dylan started his.
While Carlos played with a full band, Dylan had little accompaniment. His guitar, harmonica contraption, and a couple of backups. Though hard to understand at times, his voice retained the extended, expected raspyness as he played through a set of mostly familiar tunes. A satisfying evening, particularly given how it began.
When considering retirement, age alone should never be the determining factor. Sure, I understand that pilots and others entrusted with peoples’ lives might require a hard cutoff. But generally, as long as a person is competent, an asset and physically able to perform, I see no reason that anyone, including athletes, actors, singers or rock n rollers, retire strictly because of a point in time.
Thus, as I explain that maybe it’s time for Dylan to end the Never Ending Tour, know it’s not an age thing (Dylan’s 72). It’s also not because his voice lacks range or that he didn’t play guitar, contributing musically only on harmonica and key boards. Rather, the kicker for me was Dylan’s apparent cluelessness as his audience’s engagement with the show. If he didn’t care, or expressed indifference towards those in attendance, well that’s Bob. What I saw was an artist out of touch.
In 1966, Dylan played London’s Royal Albert Hall soon after “going electric” and was famously heckled for doing so. Released on CD in 1998 as part of Dylan’s Bootleg series, it’s an awesome concert that captures Dylan’s, “don’t give a fuck attitude” while edging towards his most creative period. His return to RAH would not come until November 26-28, 2013, the end of his fall European tour and last dates of this year. These concerts happened to coincide with my family’s trip to London and as soon as we booked our flights, I purchased some decently priced, box seats for opening night.
Now first things first, while I did retain both my wallet and tickets in advance of the show, the fact my iPhone was either lost or lifted the following day on the Underground in no way influences my comments.
What does influence it was a set list that included few familiar titles, none performed with the original arrangement. Most disturbing, an almost unrecognizable Tangled Up in Blue. Now I’m not emphatic that artists only play the known version. They play the same songs over and over again and want something fresh. Springsteen does it quite often. But it’s one thing when playing a number of hits and quite another when playing maybe three. The altered version of Along the Watchtower worked well; it’s a song which allows for variation and improvisation of which the band took full advantage. But you have to be tone deaf not to give the audience at least a couple of standards.
The expert musicians backing up Dylan, most notably Charlie Sexton on lead guitar, played with gusto and soul, keeping the evening interesting even when the songs sounded similar.
Some might suggest I’m whining about not getting to hear my favorite songs. But I don’t go to a show with a checklist; just hope there’s a mixture of old and new and that all the material seems fresh to the performer. At RAH, Dylan played 7 out of 10 songs off his 2012 Tempest album. The best by far was Roll on John, a John Lennon tribute performed in the encore made more appropriate as Lennon had once performed on the very same stage. No doubt though I would have enjoyed the concert more if I’d familiarized myself with the new material.
Knowing Dylan speaks little at his shows, I didn’t expect a lot of audience interaction. However, a couple of words like, “Hey, the Brits finally redid the seat cushions,” would have added something to the evening. Instead, Dylan reacted similarly to the audience after each song, whether the applause was slight, as it was for well over half the songs, or loud, for maybe two or three songs.
And from the consumer discontent department, the marketing material as well as tickets advertised an evening with “Special Guests.” Thinking Dylan must know some pretty cool cats in London, I could only imagine whom might show up for Dylan’s historic RAH return. The answer: no one. No opening act, no guests during set one or two and none during the two song encore.
The Royal Albert Hall, a spectacular venue build in 1874 with great sightlines and acoustics, in itself is worth the price of admission. The show just left us feeling a bit empty; like that opening act with one hit song. You endure the first 40 minutes knowing there’s a payoff, but in this case it never really came. (For another viewpoint see: The Independent Review of 11/26/13). Nonetheless, my teenage kids can say they saw Dylan, and all in all we enjoyed the evening.
Of course I remain a loyal fan and highly respectful of Dylan’s place in the history of both the 60’s and Rock n Roll. I would recommend, however, that if the Never Ending Tour comes to your town, check the set lists of the previous concerts. You may be more satisfied with buying a bootleg instead.