I maintain a small list in my head of must-see musicians and bands. Some of these artists are personal favorites, while others are pieces of our cultural fabric worthy of a few hours of my time, at the very least.
Neil Young, Radiohead, and Willie Nelson are atop my list. So was Bob Dylan, until Tuesday night at the Fox Theatre in Detroit, when I had the opportunity to experience the legend in a live setting.
While it was my first time at a Dylan concert, my wife had already doubled-up my Dylan quotient; one as part of a twin bill with Paul Simon, the other, a more memorable performance as Dylan toured with the Grateful Dead in the late 1980s.
The latter performance came amid Dylan’s “lost years,” as he refers to that dark, messy period when alcohol and the inability to strike a creative spark robbed him of his immeasurable talent on and off stage.
My wife said Dylan was a sloppy wreck on stage that night, unable to recall his oft-quoted lyrics or finish his songs, which left his band in the awkward position of galloping carefully through the set list, only to be halted mid-song by their leader and pushed along to something else. At least once, she said, Dylan nearly fell off the stage.
He eventually rediscovered inspiration, and began making good to great music again. Dylan today has almost nothing in common with the imposter taking the stage as a musical legend decades ago, save for classic material and unwavering adulation of fans.
But that still didn’t guarantee a remarkable show at the Fox. A Dylan concert remains as predictable as a Lohan family reunion. Yet I took comfort in a pattern of stellar reviews from recent tours, including an August, 2011, stop at the Toledo Zoo Amphitheatre, about which my editor, Rod Lockwood, an avowed Dylan fan, gushed that this was the best he’d seen him.
So which Dylan was going to show up in Detroit, I mused in a Facebook posting.
“Good Dylan? Bad Dylan? Drunk slurring his words and can’t finish songs Dylan? Ambivalent Dylan? The OH MY GOD THIS IS FREAKIN’ INCREDIBLE Dylan? I’ve decided much of the night’s fun and intrigue is waiting and wondering.”
And so it was.
Turns out it was the latter. Dylan was the performer I hoped he would be: older, wiser, and fully engaged. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he isn’t a musician who needs to be on stage for financial reasons; he wants to be there. He’s someone who truly has grown comfortable in his own skin and everything that comes along with being a 71-year-old voice of a generation.
Of course, given his age, that voice isn’t what it once was.
Post-show, my wife commented that Dylan was no longer capable of even “sounding like Dylan.” I disagreed.
While never known for his singing prowess — “Lay, Lady, Lay,” withstanding — Dylan these days resembles something akin to an old bluesman, a voice that resembles Tom Waits after a two-week bender, followed by a chaser of Tabasco. The horsey rasp is a jolt when it wafts off stage and into your ears, but it grows gentler and more pleasant with each note. Consider it a trade-off for a Dylan who’s grown more playful and far more animated on stage with his age.
The band’s music was cranked up, as expected, but the rearrangements of his standards — “Tangled Up in Blue,” “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” “Highway 61 Revisited,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” “All Along the Watchtower,” and “Blowin’ in the Wind,” et al — to suit his vocal limitations now not only made these touchstones of the 1960s and ’70s unrecognizable to many at first, but also, in many respects, made them better.
At the end of the second-to-last track on “Bob Dylan Live, 1966: The Royal Albert Hall,” Dylan charges his band to “play it loud” in response to a crowd that is hostile over his going electric.
Nearly 50 years later, the band still plays it loud. And Dylan is still charging forward, regardless of audience sentiment, an aging but scarcely old performer framed by a weathered rasp, and the stubborn wisdom not to care.
Contact Kirk Baird at firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6734.