Review: Bob Dylan, essential

Apr. 27, 2014 | 13 Comments
Bob Dylan and his band played at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center on April 26, in the first of two concerts to be played in Hawaii. (Star-Advertiser photo by George F. Lee)

Bob Dylan and his band played at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center on April 26, in the first of two concerts to be played in Hawaii. (Star-Advertiser photo by George F. Lee)

BY ELIZABETH KIESZKOWSKI / ekieszkowski@staradvertiser.com

If Bob Dylan had not written some of the most literate, heartbreaking, provocative and important songs in American musical history, would his concert on Maui have been as remarkable and essential?

Guess not. With his now-ragged voice and willful approach to performance, Dylan has become as talented at challenging — or should I say confusing — an audience as at stunning us with wordcraft and musicality.

Dylan’s current concerts can be part folk-blues barn party, part carnival act and part devastating, time-worn performance of truly classic material, and his show at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center surely fit that pattern.

Sometimes it was hard to hear just what Dylan was singing, and sometimes it was hard to know just why he was doing it that way.

Ultimately, however, the concert was indeed essential. I expect people will have the same thing to say about his upcoming concert at Blaisdell Arena this Tuesday.

BOB DYLAN

Where: Blaisdell Arena

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday

Cost: $59-$125

Info: ticketmaster.com, 866-448-7849

ON THE tail end of a string of shows in prominent, midsized European and Japanese venues, the 72-year-old musician and his five-man band — two guitarists, a stand-up bass player (who switched to electric bass later in the show), a drummer and a multi-instrumentalist who plays lap steel and violin — landed in Hawaii for two concerts, one on Maui and one Oahu.

Dylan took the forefront with a voice like a honey-coated, rusty washboard, backed by a stellar band that moved from a choogle to a sublime, soaring groove at the whim of its leader. Some songs, he croaked out in a workmanlike shuffle; others took on inescapable momentum.

His first song was “Things Have Changed,” written for the film “Wonder Boys,” which won Dylan an Academy Award in 2000. That was a calculated opening move, documenting his critical acceptance while also setting the fatalistic tone of his performance.

“I used to care,” he sang roughly, as his band carefully chugged along, following his mid-tempo changes, “but things have changed.”

FTR dylan 4

Band member Donnie Herron, playing violin, followed Bob Dylan at piano during the encore. (Star-Advertiser photo by George F. Lee)

Right off the bat, you had to get used to the painful-sounding break that would sometimes crack his voice as Dylan moved from a lower to upper range. But the song itself is pained, haunting, wounded and hungry, and right off the bat, the music and delivery found common ground.

Dylan followed that with “She Belongs to Me,” with its contradictory refrain: “She’s an artist, she don’t look back.” The gentle melody and piercing, lovelorn lyrics left many in the admiring audience rapt. And when he blew on his harmonica for the first time that night, the sharp sound cut through the haze of chatter and weed like the lonesome train whistle it resembled.

FROM THEN ON, through two 45-minute sets and a 20-minute intermission, Dylan had our attention. For the most part, the audience remained rapt throughout, though cheers and whistles of admiration erupted frequently.

Perhaps the Maui air’s softness was good for Dylan’s vocal cords, because while his voice was raspy and damaged, it was relatively melodic. He sounded comfortable and bemused as he rambled through “Duquesne Whistle,” from his latest album, 2012’s “Tempest”:

Can’t you hear that Duquesne whistle blowing?
Blowing like the sky’s gonna blow apart
You’re the only thing alive that keeps me going
You’re like a time bomb in my heart

Dylan took his hat off for an encore song, revealing his still-curly locks. (Star-Advertiser photo by George F. Lee)

Dylan took his hat off for an encore song, revealing his still-curly locks. (Star-Advertiser photo by George F. Lee)

He moved between a standing mike, at which he sometimes played harmonica, to an acoustic piano, sometimes within one song. Occasionally, he stretched his mouth into what looked like a smile. But every direct interaction with the audience, including his nods at the end of the encore, left him looking distant and uncomfortable.

With the rhythm guitar player and drummer wearing porkpie hats, and Dylan in a black suit embellished with floral embroidery at the lapels, hips and wrists, the band took on the air of a pumped-up honkytonk act, jolly and stoic while playing songs about loss and love.

Dylan didn’t make eye contact with or reach out to the audience. He didn’t play his songs the way you hear them on the radio. He did build momentum and dynamism over the course of his two sets — only to settle back into a shambling, nonchalant rhythm for his final songs, including “All Along the Watchtower,” and what sounded to me like a musical quote from his “Hurricane.”

Inspired by a trumped-up murder case against black American boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, “Hurricane” arguably helped change the course of history, awakening millions to abuse of power and civil-rights violations in America. Perhaps Dylan has been thinking of Carter, who died just last week, on April 20. If you knew the story, Dylan’s gentle delivery took on an added layer of meaning.

So. That’s the thing. Dylan has written some of the most important songs in American musical history. His songs echo through our memories and experience. In the pantheon of American songwriting over the past 50 years, he has no equal. And when an artist of that stature performs, it pays to listen.

Evocative, passionate protest songs such as “Blowin’ in the Wind” (played as a subtly challenging encore) influenced the course of history and styles of popular music, and Dylan’s vivid, adept and ironic love songs (“She Belongs to Me,” “Love Sick”) inspired generations of writers and songwriters to come. Those stunning songs created a backdrop for his whimsical, puzzling, ragged and sublime concert at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center on Saturday, April 26.

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Elizabeth Kieszkowski is editor of TGIF, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s weekly arts and entertainment section. Reach her via email at ekieszkowski@staradvertiser.com or follow her on Twitter.

  • Steven Thwaits

    Um . . . he didn’t play Hurricane. Why would you say that? And how do you know he was uncomfortable? Bizarre. He sure SOUNDED comfortable. You know, when you’re reporting something, I don’t think you’re allowed to just make stuff up.

    • Margaret Arbo

      The concert was sublime. Bob Dylan is so polished now. His voice is perfect with just the right amount of gravel to sound authentic. His body language was honest and open. He only keeps getting better with time, like all real greats.

  • ElizabethKieszkowski

    Thanks for reading! You know, it was hard to decipher some of those songs, so please feel free to share your take on Dylan’s playlist.

  • ElizabethKieszkowski

    Attention Maui concertgoers: Were you at Bob Dylan’s show? What did you think of Dylan’s body language and delivery?

    • Fit HawaiiKai

      Horrible in Honolulu! No Aloha no goodbyes, no hellos, he just simply walked off the stage. How rude!

      • Garcia

        That my friend, is the legend of Bob Dylan, I don’t think you understand what you’ve seen and heard. Bob is not the kind of artist that plays a hits-only setlist. He’s not really the kind of guy to constantly thank everyone and say ‘hello everybody’, ‘goodbye’ and ‘Thank you so much, it’s great to be back again’, what’s the use in that anyway? Most artist who say that don’t mean a thing of it so why do you/we want it anyway? I think Bob was on fire, I enjoyed the show very much!

        It might be a good idea to pay a little attention to what the man has been doing the past 20 years, it’s been like this for a very long time. I don’t think I wouldn’t want to have it any other way.

  • Roger

    Weird that you’ve spend so much time discussing Hurricane when he didn’t play it.

  • Randy Hartshorn

    OkI think he really sucked I feel like he stole stole 200 dollars form me I know he is capable of entertaining people and he did do some good songs and was influential artist but I think everybody’s just afraid to admithe he really sucks now

    • Fit HawaiiKai

      I totally agree with you! My husband and I left the concert thinking what in the world was that about. We said oh well he is a legendary rock icon to appease the fact that we paid $175 each. That being said I still want my money back!
      So so so disappointed!

  • Sandra Osborne

    He never plays his songs “the way you hear them on the radio.” That’s why the live shows are such a joy. Also, if you haven’t paid attention to what he’s been doing the past ten or 15 years, you may have missed the greatness of this performance. To the folks who were shouting “Play the old songs.” I would only ask, why? He may be old, but this wasn’t an oldies show. He ain’t dead yet, and his bell still rings!

  • marie

    The last time some one i know saw Bob they said that the violin player was on fire really the violin caught on fire it was great. I’m going just to hang out in the presents of such a poet and one of my favorite Geminis. In Hawaii with Bob Dylan ya i like that vibe.

  • Fit HawaiiKai

    Just left the Bob Dylan concert this evening. I feel a little perturbed and disappointed! I loved listening to Bob Dylan’s music growing up however I am 30 years younger than Bob, I greatly appreciated his folks style bluesie music. The orchestra was amazing, Dylan played an awesome violin and the Piano, however it was hard to decipher the lyrics to the songs he was singing. Has a voice really sounded Monacella so I thought perhaps he may have had a stroke? He squirmed on his Piano seat and at one point we thought he was going to slide off. The concert started promptly at 7:30 and ended promptly at 9:30 PM no goodbyes no thank you just simply walked off the stage.
    I really don’t care if he is a legendary rock icon, my husband and I paid $175 per person to see Bob Dylan’s performance and walked out thinking what in the world was that about?
    Still love listening to his old tunes.

  • Charlieford

    Great review. The comments are hilarious. Folks, that’s what people have been saying about Dylan since the 1960s!