Comrades From The North
As we write this, Dylan's touring year has just reached its conclusion with a trio of shows in London, UK. Staged in three, contrasting venues, these concerts were compelling not least because Dylan spiced up what had become relatively predictable song selections by re-inventing the set-lists. This is the essence of Dylan, the performer. Take risks, react to the moment, change things, then change again. This precept is not always upheld but in most tours there are always moments when it is obvious that the key has been turned in the lock of Dylan's imagination to reveal a new aural landscape.
There is one other element which might define Dylan's role as a performer. Don't give the people what they want? That is a question as much as it is a statement. And it's hard to get at the truth of it. In his review of the Shepherd's Bush concert in the UK broadsheet newspaper, The Observer, Casper Llewellyn Smith made some telling observations on this theme:
"Dylan appears both older than peers such as Macca and Mick (Jagger) and wonderfully stranger. .It is amazing that he still walks among us this peerless and still vital artist. Dylan certainly didn't look like someone tonight who caters to a heritage-industry notion of what Bob Dylan should look like".
(The Observer 30 November 2003)
IFair enough. Yet there is still something uneasy about the performer/audience relationship. It's about the audience really. When Dylan played his 1981 UK shows, Paul Gambacinni famously was miffed by what he described as the lack of critical ears of the audience. His view was that the audience applauded anything and everything that was old or familiar whilst being decidedly lukewarm about the newer material. In both cases he felt that these reactions were regardless of the musical worth of the songs. Judging by crowd reaction at Dylan shows during the course of the NET, where every clunking Dylan solo or grating harmonica break is greeted as rapturously as the true moments of greatness, not much has changed. Except perhaps even the unfamiliar songs are given a break now. Dylan could readily roll out a Bob Dylan juke-box of a show and most would not complain. But this man appears to be searching for something else - it is a search which is played out on the stage for all to see - anger, frustration, success, ecstasy. The stage is Dylan's laboratory of the soul, so to speak, and no-one but himself would know that if you judge from his reaction to the crowd's reaction. If the audience were more critical, would he even notice? Probably not but at least it would be an authentic reaction. When something's not right, it's wrong. So don't support complacency, don't settle for less. Don't put a coin in the Bob Dylan juke-box. But, hey, there really has been plenty to cheer about these past few shows.
Best wishes to all of you for this festive season,
And to each of you, may you climb on every rung ..........
Mike and John
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