Review: Bob Dylan, essential
BY ELIZABETH KIESZKOWSKI / email@example.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.
Where: Blaisdell Arena
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday
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.”
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
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.