It was time to order tickets again, for yet another last Dylan show I’d ever go to. I usually do that, and probably will for as long as he stays on the road. Thinking that it’s the last time, adds a certain nostalgic undertone to the experience.
After the past few years of mediocrity, the expectations were low. I can’t say I was overly prepared either, but at least I knew that the band was the same as the one I’d seen a year and a half ago, and that didn’t bode well.
Then there was the new album… A good one, for sure — must be, since it could bring the old bard to the top of all the charts in the world. Some people had voiced misgivings about the legitimacy of the phrase “All songs written by Bob Dylan”, but hey, he’s a genius, right, so he must be right, right?
There’s one scenario under which the Copenhagen show was a huge disappointment. That’s the scenario where I had been hoping for a bad show to match the previous ones, so that I could write here: “Dylan’s Dead” or something, and then sit back and enjoy all the comments; it would have been a nice way to boost the activity around here.
Luckily that didn’t happen. It was a good show and a good experience. That’s not because the band was great — I don’t think they are. George Receli on drums is the exception; I like his style (and his beret). And Tony Garnier does what he’s supposed to, of course — neither more nor less. But the rest of them… I understand that they are great musicians, but one can’t claim that they show it. The guy on the left — Don Freeman? — played some run-of-the-mill solos once in a while, lost his way in the chord sequences a couple of times, fell out of rhythm, and (so it seemed) got a few angry looks from the boss. The other guitar player was fairly anonymous — the only reason I noticed him at all, was because he played a nice Gibson J-45 … :-)
But I’ll leave that aside, because, as I said, it was a very pleasant musical experience all the same, and that’s all because of Mr D himself. If we compare this year’s show with previous ones, we get:
|All song lines reduced to single tones with ridiculous octave leap at the end||Melodious, inventive singing with a clear sense of melodic direction, and a nice level of variation|
|Toy piano; barely audible; barely used as anything more than a drum kit||Organ sound; clearly audible, revealing some nice counter-melodies|
The singing — What a relief it was, not to be dragged through an hour and a half of “justlikea-woman“, “how does it feel?“, “Desolation row” — all on the same two tones. Only a handful of times were there reminiscences of that mannerism, which was infrequent enough for it to be perceived as an effect and not just as a throat condition or a lack of inspiration.
I don’t know for certain that Dylan is more inspired now — that’s not for me to judge either — but his singing definitely was.
Then the keyboard instrument — It was fun to hear the piano when he first started playing it in 2003, but I’m not sure how much it contributed. I’m not saying that it was bad. His way of using it stands in a respectable tradition going back at least to Bela Bartok, who also saw the piano as a percussion instrument. But one couldn’t hear much of it, other than the occasional bangs.
The organ sound he uses now is a different matter. It carries through more clearly, so one can hear what he plays, and — lo and behold! — it’s good! There were several occasions where he definitely had some nice interplay going on between improvisational figures in the singing and in the playing at the same time. Not at all trivial, not at all the three-note solos he is famed for, but real integration between several different musical strands. Enough to make this old contrapuntist’s heart melt…
The sound itself is also interesting. I don’t know exactly how to describe it (and I can’t remember exactly either), but the associations I got from it were somewhere between a hammond organ and a chapel organ. This goes well with the two styles that Dylan has explored a little more than usual during the 2000s: the swing jazz style of “Love & Theft” and Modern Times and the hymns like Rock of Ages and Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior.
I have this recording of Stephen Foster’s Hard Times, known to most from Dylan’s Good As I Been To You, but available in quite different versions. This one has a women’s choir singing to the accompaniment of a pump organ, quite like the sounds Dylan produced during “When The Deal Goes Down” off Modern Times. There is no reason to assume that this is what Dylan has had in mind, but during that song, I raced through a chain of associations in my mind, from Bing Crosby’s slow and sentimental “Where the Blue of the Night” which is the basis of the song, through Dylan’s own version “When the Deal Goes Down”, to Stephen Foster and the women’s choir. That is some span to cover just in an organ accompaniment, and I would probably call it an overinterpretation, if it wasn’t for the fact that it matches so well Dylan’s own musical universe, where sugary-tender Tin Pan Alley goes hand in hand with religious hymns and Civil War balladry.
I welcome the stronger singing, the new instrument sounds, and the stylistical melting pot. If only he could get a more interesting band…