July 2, 2016
(STOCKBRIDGE, Mass.) – While it undoubtedly mystified many who had come to hear the legendary Bob Dylan sing his greatest hits – not a necessarily unfair, if uninformed, expectation – Dylan’s concert at Tanglewood on Saturday night instead was a profound work of music-theatre that relied less on his setlist and more on the moods his particular song choices evoked.
That may have been small solace to those who came to hear “the voice of a generation” sing “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “The Times They Are a-Changin’” and “All Along the Watchtower,” as well as any other dozens of fan favorites from Dylan’s five-plus decade career. But those who simply opened themselves up to what was happening in the here-and-now were repaid with a concert that was as fierce and engaging as any a Dylan fan has ever likely witnessed.
The 75-year-old enigma who never caters to crowd expectations nor fulfills ordinary rock concert protocols was, however, fully present for an internal battle being fought within, across, and through the songs he played, most of which were 21st century original compositions alternating with pre-rock pop standards invested, explored, and arranged with and by a uniquely Dylanesque aesthetic that nearly rendered their provenance meaningless, if so much meaning hadn’t resulted in the transformation of songs associated with Frank Sinatra into Bob Dylan songs.
Dylan came out of the gates roaring with his band through a punched-up, revitalized version of “Things Have Changed,” the surprise 2000 hit that Dylan wrote and recorded for the soundtrack to the film “Wonder Boys,” which garnered him his first Academy Award for Best Original Song. He followed that up with “She Belongs to Me,” the first of only two songs from the 1960s he performed all night, with its admonition that has throughout his career served as a kind of creed both for the singer and his listeners: “Don’t look back.”
Indeed there was very little looking back in this concert, even when Dylan sang those pre-rock songs like “The Night We Called It a Day,” “Melancholy Mood,” and “How Deep Is the Ocean?” among a handful of others. Those songs, interspersed as they were for the most part in between original songs Dylan has recorded over the past decade and sung with surprising beauty and delicacy, served more as a bit of lightness and relief after the devastating blows, the prophetic raging, the accounts of apocalyptic violence and the musical thunder of tunes including “Pay in Blood,” “High Water,” “Early Roman Kings” and “Scarlet Town,” portraying a scarred battlefield of humanity betrayed, sung in a voice desolate and torn, and rendered with blistering ferocity by Dylan’s versatile road band, where guitarists Charlie Sexton and Stu Kimball and multi-instrumentalist Donnie Herron fired shrapnel-like blasts of rootsy heavy-metal that punctuated, underlined, and emphasized the stakes laid out by Dylan.
Dylan himself took part in the creation of that mood-inducing sound with vibrant turns on grand piano and mouth harp, while longtime bassist Tony Garnier and drummer George Recile kept the numbers moving. Dylan spat and barked out his own songs like testimony from on high, while he mined the standard tunes for heretofore unexplored nuances of blood and betrayal. This was no mere Frank Sinatra tribute; if anything, it was the opposite, a tribute to the men who wrote the songs, and Dylan staking a claim for them as his own, as tunes written by men just like him, who find betrayal in every promise, who behind ever victory find deceit, who know that “behind every beautiful thing there’s some kind of pain.”
The precise lighting, itself moody and dark and mostly drenching the players in white from behind so that they were playing in the shadows, the steady formation of the players while Dylan crossed the stage from right to left like a restless general, and the juxtaposition of the old sweet melancholy melodies with the new torn and broken ones, lent the entire production an aura of theatricality, even suggesting a tesseract – a David Lynchian dream (or nightmare) in which the proceedings were happening simultaneously in four dimensions. Dylan conjured up a state of prophetic mysticism the likes of which I’ve rarely seen him accomplish so strongly, purposefully, and meaningfully.
In the end, the sum was much greater than any of the parts, which in themselves were as great as any parts whatsoever, such that to call this exercise of spiritual power a Bob Dylan concert diminishes and trivializes what was being played out both onstage and in the implied covenant between performer and audience.
The only question remaining is, “Did they know right then and there what that power was worth?”
Seth Rogovoy is the author of Bob Dylan: Prophet Mystic Poet (Scribner 2009).