Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Dylan Annihilates Audiences at Toronto show

I recently missed my first Dylan show in Toronto since the first time I saw him at the concert hall on April 28, 1996. At that time I was only really familiar with his greatest hits and a few of his early albums. His setlist was so diverse that I only knew four songs.


The set included two Grateful Dead covers, presumably in homage to Jerry Garcia who's ashes had, unbeknownst to me, just recently been dispersed into the Ganges river. I remember Dylan's face being eerily lit up in red during the performance of "Friend of the devil". It was remarkable to me that the man, who was only just crystallizing as an idol in my mind, seemed to pander so little to his audience, by playing so few of the songs for which he is well known. He was obviously many thousands of miles ahead of his audience, and it took me more than 10 years to "catch up". I am now familiar with his entire catalog including most of his bootlegs, and I have memorized the lyrics to more than a few of his songs, which I play on guitar and piano.

Having missed the show last week, I still feel that I am in a better position to write a review than any of the critics that I read in the local media. So here goes.

Last night at the air Canada centre, Dylan once again confounded his audience by giving them what they didn't know they needed to hear. He once again confused them by altering the melody, phrasing, delivery and arrangement of all the songs, with the notable exception of "ballad of a Thin Man". He once again frustrated them by singing his songs like an aging blues man, channeling Charlie Patton or Howling' Wolf, with a highly guttural inflection. His vocal delivery is even different from how he currently sounds on record. Many of his aging fans could be seen leaving before the show had even finished, dumbfounded that Dylan was not singing an acoustic duet of "we shall overcome" with Joan Baez. 

I can imagine that his new vocal style might be tough to swallow for some fans, especially those that are hanging on to the hope that he's gonna go back to singing the way he did 50 years ago.  However, I have found that overcoming what to some might seem like a mildly annoying vocal (Tom Waits, Dave Matthews, the guy from the Decemberists) can lead to whole new worlds of enjoyment in music. In fact Dylan's live vocals are one of his greatest qualities. He has developed an entirely new and unique improvisational approach, which is somewhat akin to rap or jazz. Although I personally don't have the stomach for jazz. There is a certain warmth and honesty there also. He takes risks. He makes himself vulnerable. Not many artists can pull this off, or think to try. At his age and stature he could play it safe and boring and we would still love him, but he chooses to challenge himself and his audiences. 

A friend of mine recently challenged me on this assessment. He commented that Dylan could fart into a mic and fans would be gushing over his new artistic expression. There could actually be some truth to this. I recently read a review of a Dylan show in vice magazine. The author was off base about much of what he said, but after listening to the clips I realized Dylan did indeed sound like he was channeling Scooby Doo.


The only thing that disappointed me about the Toronto show is that he only played one song from the new album, "Early Roman Kings". However, I was impressed that he followed it immediately by his other song about New York gangsters, "Joey", off Desire, which I had never heard live before.

All in all, a fantastic show!