Thursday, July 02, 2009

A Bob Dylan Concert

There was so much that led up to this moment. The prophecy was made over 25 years ago, and last night was the fulfillment. I saw Bob Dylan.

I had heard so many stories about how terrible his live show was. One friend who saw him a couple years ago told me that he sat at a piano, mumbling incomprehensible nonsense the whole time. My brother in law told me that he could only recognize one of the songs. And sure enough, before Dylan took the stage last night, I heard a conversation a couple seats in front of me:

"Alright, well we're gonna take off."

"You were only here for Willie Nelson?? Oh man, you've gotta stick around for Bob."

"Y'know, I've seen Bob before. I don't think I need to again."

"Oh, man, he's off and on. That's just how it is. You've gotta stick around."

With some apprehension, he stuck around. Along with thousands of other middle aged Wisconsinites, crusty old hippies, stoned college kids and die hard Dylan fans. There were all sorts at Summerfest last night, but I felt like this moment was handcrafted just for me.

When Dylan came out, he was standing there in all black, like a Mexican cowboy. He was as skinny as ever, with one knee jutting out, an electric guitar above it. I had no idea what the song was, but it was bluesy, and loud. And his mouth was full of gravel. There was so much attitude on stage. It was great.

The first song ended quickly and then it was on to another bluesy tune. After a minute or so, I recognized a couple lyrics. "It ain't me babe," he mumbled. I turned to my wife, and told her what it was. She squinted her eyes, and then smiled. "It is!" We love that song.

When it was over, another song that I couldn't recognize was played. But he went over to a keyboard and changed his stage presence up a bit. After this though, "Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again." And it's never sounded bluesier. It took a while to figure that one out too, but my wife and I were enjoying the guessing game. The rearranged songs sounded livelier, and the band was tight.

It went on like this for the entire hour and a half concert. About half of the songs were recognizable, half of them were mysteries. Maybe I was familiar with all of the songs he was playing, but I'll never know now.

By the time he played the fifth or sixth song, I wondered if I would even hear him play his harmonica. Ever since hearing that blaring ending on "Desolation Row," I've decided that the sound of Bob Dylan playing a harmonica is my favorite sound in this world. How fitting that the first appearance of the harmonica last night was during an ominous retelling of "Desolation Row." The band was frontlit with yellow. Tension built. A long song, well beyond eight minutes. And all I could think was, "this is so cool, but I want to hear that harmonica." When it finally came at the end, it tore into my ear drum. It was so harsh. So loud. As it was over 40 years ago on Highway 61 Revisited, so the 2009 version of "Desolation Row's" harmonica solo was played with reckless abandon. This moment brought tears to my eyes. I heard the sound of independence in that harmonica. I heard freedom of speech and religion. I felt the rebellion of rock and roll screaming "fuck you" to all of those with fingers in their ears, unable to ignore the truth of authentic, unapologetic artistic integrity. Bob Dylan's harmonica blared, "I'm here. And you're welcome."

Some of his other great moments came in Highway 61, Like a Rolling Stone, Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll and All Along the Watchtower. By the time he finished his encores, I felt really good. It thought he sounded like a seasoned headliner at the Chicago Blues Fest. When the lights came back on and he took a bow with his band, I felt privileged. I looked down at Bob Dylan. I couldn't believe it. I had just experienced an hour and a half of entertainment, rock and roll style. It was just a concert, a show. But in this last moment, the weight of his career struck me. This one man just entertained me for an hour and a half, but for 50 years, he has been a centerpiece of American popular culture. America would not exist as it does today without this man's art. This is absolutely true, and if you don't believe it, just take a quick look back at the 60s'. It's not just the history of rock and roll that Dylan impacted, it's world history in general.

This one man. Standing right up there. 68 years old, and still causing people to leave their seats grimacing while they plug their ears. A living legend, still misunderstood by millions, still too weird for the radio. He plays blues rock and makes college pseudo-hippies dance around stoned. What an honor it was to see him.

It was an important show for me, but just a day's work for Bob Dylan. He doesn't know me, he never will, and there's nothing I can say to him if we ever did meet. But I've never been more sincere with my applause than I was last night. I wasn't just clapping for the hour and a half of entertainment. I am so appreciative of the inspiration that he's brought to so many. Without Dylan, we wouldn't have Wilco or Tom Petty. I've even heard that the Beatles didn't get "experimental" until they met Dylan. After Chuck Berry and Elvis, there is no artist more vital in rock and roll. He is the very definition of artistic integrity. He assures all artists for all time that if they don't create exactly what they want to create, they will regret it. He has assured us that there is nothing to fear. There is no life change too difficult. No pain too brutal. A real artist will not lie. Bob Dylan stands today.

In my most hopeless moments, Bob Dylan, at 68 years old, makes my ears ring. My namesake gives me hope. Whether he's on or off, I'll take it either way. Hell, he might have been off last night, I don't even know. But it didn't matter.

Next time (and there will be a next time), I'll go with my dad. And we can compare past Dylan shows. We can get filled with the Spirit and fulfill more prophecy. We can be encouraged and applaud that which deserves the loudest applause.

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