Twenty years ago, if anyone had suggested to me that Bob Dylan would still be touring the globe, playing lengthy concerts backed by a full band and selling out most venues in the year 2018, I would have scoffed heartily at the notion.
Furthermore, the idea that he’d as well be giving some of the most emotionally affecting, carefully nuanced and finely honed vocal and musical performances of his entire career might well have been reason enough to laugh out loud.
And yet, here we are. And here he is.
In a twist of fate few would have predicted, over the past two decades, Dylan has rather seamlessly morphed from an introverted, contrarian Americana trickster with an estimable back catalog of original rock, pop and blues songs into a tireless Renaissance man; albeit one with a beat poet’s sense of wry verbal irony and a riverboat gambler’s death-defying sleight-of-hand.
He’s become a bestselling author whose first autobiographical memoir was a top-five finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, a recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature — the first musician in 115 years to win that coveted title — and a world-famous visual artist whose sketches, paintings, photo collages and even ornate, towering wrought-iron gates have earned raves from a preponderance of critics.
In that time, he’s also released four studio albums of new original songs, and six studio albums of his own minimalist, jazzy interpretations of tunes written by others.
With a hardscrabble and at times nasally Midwestern growl, a wizened visage and a sinewy, lithe body that betrays his devotion to boxing as a form of meditation and exercise, Dylan, who for years has rarely been seen in public even holding a guitar and instead prefers now to show off his unorthodox, Thelonious Monk-esque skills on the grand piano, remains a delightfully shadowy and Chaplin-esque figure who exists to confound, bemuse and prod all.
An aggressively inscrutable troubadour who routinely plays between 80 and 100 shows per year and is as comfortable appearing in a Las Vegas casino as he is the London Palladium or the International Convention Center in Taiwan, this Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member and multiple Grammy winner has also received most every major accolade or honor the cultural world has to bestow. From the Academy Award to the Polar Music Prize, the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom to France’s National Order of the Legion of Honor, he serves as an ornery, exasperated shining light to malcontent poets, singers, songwriters and jive cats everywhere.
Most folks fall into one of three schools of thought on Dylan’s importance in the grand scheme of modern culture. The largest of the three groups tends to find his lyrics needlessly opaque and his music rudimentary at best, while viewing his public persona as rude and condescending and his singing voice grating and inexplicable.
The second largest group will readily admit to “not really getting what the big deal is” about his fabled talents, and to finding his vocal stylings lackluster if not downright annoying. Yet, they can generally be counted on to follow up such remarks with some variation of, “But I really like it when other people sing his songs.” They usually mean people like Adele or Olivia Newton-John.
The last group, and the smallest by far, is actually quite large, all things considered. They view Dylan as perhaps the single most important musical artist of his time, and view his unique and intensely idiosyncratic lyrical and creative sensibilities as remaining at or near the vanguard of such worlds. They also adore the peculiarly expressive and relatively unpredictable mannerisms inherent in his deceptively inimitable singing voices. He has used many extremely different voices over the past 56 years since the release of his first full-length LP.
They love the way he sings, and revel in the elements most others find untenable.
I am one such person. I have supported Dylan’s creative endeavors and championed his career, including its various detours and potholes, since I was old enough to operate a turntable. I have had the pleasure of seeing him scores of times in concert since 1986, backed by many of the finest rock musicians in the world. And I am here to tell you, at 77, Bob Dylan is presently turning in some of the most wonderful and intimate performances of his entire life.
Backed by a stellar group, all of whom have been playing with him for many years, and in some cases decades, the current tour finds him and his band offering up a two-hour show each night that features 20 of his own songs drawn from across his entire professional career. Many have been drastically rearranged from their official studio-recorded versions, and some less so.
Many now offer alternate lyrics which Dylan has only recently substituted for those previously assumed to be “cast in stone.” For those who are not overly familiar with the style of music he and his band have been making for the past two decades, many tunes may be hard to recognize immediately — even if the listener is extremely familiar with the original recording.
But they are all played passionately, with vim and vigor and heart and soul. And with a focus and precision and directness one might not expect from a 77-year-old man who could easily have propped his feet up by the fire a long time ago and lived out his golden years in quiet comfort, rather than continue to live much of the year in a tour bus, and to feistily improvise and provoke and defy expectations of just what it means to be a rock 'n' roll legend.
It’s 2018, and Dylan is coming to town in just a few days. He’ll be right here. And you can go sit in the same room with him, if you’d like. And watch him create art for you. That is amazing.