Bob Dylan let’s you know what to expect right off the bat: “It Ain’t Me” is maybe the second or third song in his setlist. Besides it being a masterpiece of pettiness (“Leave at your own chosen speed” – damn.), he performs it to different musical arrangement than the original version. It’s nothing new for him, I suppose, to always slip away from the expectations set of him.
I bought tickets to the show less than 24 hours before it started, on whim while watching TV. “He’s going to be in Boston tomorrow, should we go?” asked my husband, knowing the answer. Should we go? Yes, of course we should, if just to say we’d seen a Nobel Laureate, an iconic musician, a legend.
The attendees at the show skewed toward the 55+ crowd, though there were plenty of young people in the crowd. We happened to be seated near a large number of young men, some in suits, many in an unbearable amount of cologne for a 7 p.m. start time. There were plenty of ‘hipster’ types and women with bandanas tied around their long hair in homage to the styles of the 60s and 70s. I wondered who was there as a diehard fan, and who was there like me – for the experience and the credit of saying you’ve seen Bob Dylan live. I wonder now who was thinking these questions about me when they saw me in my blazer and millenial pink flats.
All around the arena, bold white text glowed: “NO videos or photography allowed.” Announcements emphasized that you’d be removed if you were caught. As my husband succinctly noted: “Bob Dylan, always in touch with his fans.” The ushers roved around the arena, scouring the seats for any sign of a dim glow. Get caught and that dim glow would be drowned out in the bright ray of a flashlight, a prompt scolding, and the shame from disobeying Dylan.
Mavis Staples opened the show, with an energy that can only be described as divine. Her performance was powerful, joyful, musical, and engaging; she shared stories between songs like she was preaching, like she expected us to want and need transendence. A quick trip to Wikipedia mid-show revealed that Dylan once proposed to Mavis. She declined.
A few minutes later, the stage was set: drums and an upright bass to the left, a piano to the right. Soft, golden beams of light lit the stage dimly. Five men in cream-color jackets and dark slacks, ties around their neck, emerged on stage, hiding behind their instruments. There was no introduction, no announcement, just a musical interlude as the men got into position and prepared to perform. And then he started. There were some enthusiastic screams coming from behind me, but for the most part, the crowd was subdued. With the exception of one 70 year old guy near the top of arena dancing to every single song, most people tapped a foot or nodded their head. Almost no one sung. Of the 15 songs played, only maybe four were popular, well-known songs. I’m a casual Dylan fan, at best, but he didn’t even play the ones I skip to get to the ones I like. My husband, who is much smarter and more culturally polished than I, knew only a few.
It wouldn’t have even mattered if you knew them, because you could’ve never recognized them. Again, this comes as little surprise. It took me a solid 10 minutes before I could determine which man on stage actually was Dylan. And while he was never known for enunciating, the gravel of his voice (good for modern Dylan standards) made it nearly impossible to make out the words he was singing. Halfway through a song my husband turned to me and said with a look of surprise, “We know this one. It’s Tangled Up In Blue.” Of course, it was set to an entirely different musical arrangement, but there it was: a famous Dylan song made nearly unrecognizable.
This is not to say it was bad. The music was good – his band was exceptional. Guitars, piano, upright bass, banjo, and more made their appearance in the show. But the result was half Americana mumbling and half lounge singers with a growl. Every pause between songs was greeted with darkness as the lighting shifted and a wordless interlude played, while Dylan changed instruments or position, preferring to take a wide-legged power pose with the microphone tilted heavily sideways, like he was some odd incarnation of Elvis. I’m not sure what to make of it. I forgot Dylan went electric, I think. And I forgot what he sang in the second or third song in its new, unfamiliar arrangement: “It ain’t me you’re looking for, babe.”