Saturday, July 03, 2010

While my conscience explodes: Bob Dylan in Carcassonne, June 28 2010

Before writing a review of Monday's Bob Dylan concert in Carcassonne, I first felt like I needed to write a whole prologue to the experience: my personal journey into the labyrinthical world of Dylan's music, why I had never seen him in concert before, my expectations for the show, and so forth.

But I've decided to dive into the concert itself while it is fresh in my mind -- not that I'll be forgetting it any time soon.

On face value, the Théâtre Jean Deschamps (Théâtre Antique) in Carcassonne would seem to be an extraordinary venue for a rock concert:

The medieval atmosphere combined with the drop-dead gorgeous weather boded well for a lively evening, but the setting didn't entirely hold its promises... we will see when I write about the audience.

I had been following the setlists of Bob's European dates closely, so I knew what to expect -- sort of.

One of the fascinating aspects of the Never-Ending Tour, on which Dylan has played well over 2,000 shows all over the world since the late 1980s, is that every show is different.

Sure, there have been common points in the 2010 European leg that started on May 29 in Athens. But if I compare that setlist with the one performed in Carcassonne, only 6 songs are the same.

Seeing the great variety of material Dylan does on tour makes me wish I could have taken a few weeks off to follow the show, as some fans do. But I had one concert only, and here is its playlist:

  1. Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat
  2. It's All Over Now, Baby Blue
  3. I'll Be Your Baby Tonight
  4. Just Like a Woman
  5. The Levee's Gonna Break
  6. Tangled up in Blue
  7. Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum
  8. Love Sick
  9. Cold Irons Bound
  10. Mr. Tambourine Man
  11. Highway 61 Revisited
  12. Not Dark Yet
  13. Thunder on the Mountain
  14. Ballad of a Thin Man
Encore: 15. Like a Rolling Stone
16. Jolene
17. Blowing in the Wind

This was just dandy with me. All I was really sure of going in was that Ballad of a Thin Man and Like a Rolling Stone had been part of the end of every recent concert; I was looking forward to that. For the rest, I was flexible.

I was also prepared, as I had taken the time to get to know all of the "recent" material (as in from about the past 20 years) that he had been performing -- an effort that I would highly recommend to anyone who decides to see a Dylan concert in the future.

Dylan never ceases to surprise and amaze, and this concert was no exception. I knew all the songs, had checked out a few YouTube videos of previous dates, and, well, I know my Dylan fairly honorably. Yet all of this homework did not prepare me for the three main observations I drew from the show.

(Photo courtesy of Daphné Jouanneteau)

1. Forever young?

The concept of "for his age" ended up having absolutely no relevance to my evaluation of the concert.

This man not only rocks; he may be at the top of his form.
He cut a fine figure in his dark suit and white hat, and was clearly on stage to give an even finer concert. Assuring virtually non-stop vocals for nearly two hours while alternating between guitar, organ, and harmonica, his energy and showmanship were breathtaking.

Although Dylan didn't speak (directly) to the public except to introduce his band at the end, he certainly doesn't seem to be in a phase of erratic performances and diffidence.

He smiled repeatedly (and charmingly,) never slipped up, and made every song (with the possible exception of "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue," which was kind of tossed out) a show in itself.

The synergy with his excellent band was palpable, and the musical arrangements carefully crafted (unlike certain concerts decades back, ahem) while still leaving room for improvisation.

If you want further proof, take a look at this video of "Thunder on the Mountain" and "Ballad of a Thin Man."

2. Now everything's a little upside down...
Even if I knew and had grown to like the "recent" numbers that I thought I might hear, I was intrigued to find myself enjoying them as much, if not more, than the "oldies." The following songs were undoubtedly among the highlights of the evening:

The Levee's Gonna Break
(Modern Times, 2006)

Cold Irons Bound (Time Out of Mind, 1997)

Not Dark Yet (Time Out of Mind, 1997)

Thunder on the Mountain (Modern Times, 2006)

Jolene (Together Through Life, 2009)

The Levee's Gonna Break
and Thunder on the Mountain are unapologetic rock 'n' roll songs that work much better live than in their respectable studio versions -- as unapologetic rock 'n' roll songs should, I might add.

Jolene, performed at about twice the speed of the recording, kept the crowd on its feet and dancing during the encore.

Cold Irons Bound was one of Bobby's most impressive vocal performances of the evening, in my opinion topped only by Ballad of a Thin Man.

As far as slower numbers, Not Dark Yet moved me to tears. Interestingly, it was also one of the only songs in the main set to elicit an immediately enthusiastic reaction from the crowd.

It's not dark yet, but it's getting there...

(Photo courtesy of Daphné Jouanneteau)

3. Highways Revisited

I knew rule number one of Dylan concerts: don't expect to hear your favorite songs sounding like they did on the original albums, or on some old live CD (or LP) that you particularly cherish.

On Monday, I learned rule number two: expect to have your vision of certain songs changed forever.

In Carcassonne, Dylan slipped in a slightly eerie, processional version of "Mr. Tambourine Man," little-played in Europe 2010, and mixed in a bit of playful mockery of his 60s voice. It sure worked for me, and gave me a new take on a song I have grown weary of.

Just Like a Woman has never been one of my favorite Dylan tunes, but the current live performance is especially polished, and I ended up enjoying it more than personal favorites It's All Over Now, Baby Blue and Tangled Up in Blue.
The concert also made me acutely aware of the anthemic power of "Like a Rolling Stone." Of course I recognize its greatness, but I would easily put many Dylan songs on par with it.
Not so the lethargic Carcassonne audience, who after an hour and a half of treating the concert like a chamber music recital finally figured out they were at a rock concert when they heard "Once upon a time you dressed so fine..."

How does it know you've been sitting on your butts for 90 minutes rather than giving Bob Dylan his due?

(Photo courtesy of Daphné Jouanneteau)

To the Carcassonne Dylan audience: I wish you could stand inside my'd know what a drag it was to see you.
I was most distressed by the public's unresponsiveness at this show; my daughter finally had to tell me to get a grip because I was ruining the concert I had so looked forward to. She was right, of course, but I was living in fear that Bob might calmly leave the stage earlier than planned.

That didn't happen, and he even went in for a three-song encore, which hadn't been the case at every Europe 2010 show. I'm not sure Carcassonne deserved it.

Was it me, was it France, was it Carcassonne?

Apparently it was Carcassonne, as a contributor to the message board (re)assured me: You were unlucky. I went to all the French shows and this was definitely the dullest audience of all. You should have been in Bordeaux the day after, it was a different thing altogether, a young and very enthusiastic crowd and the show was really great.
Oh, perhaps I should have, but I was still delighted with the show overall.
The changing of the guards

One final word before I (finally) finish this lengthy post.

I was lucky enough to attend this concert with my 17-year-old daughter and a friend of hers, and they were appropriately awestruck. I certainly didn't have to drag them along either.

I did the math: this would be the equivalent of my being fascinated, in the 70s, with an artist over 50 years my senior who had started his or her career in the mid-1920s.

That would SO never have happened...but I was so much older then; they're younger than that now.


Veronica said...

That last line of your post refers to my Favourite. Dylan. Line. Ever :)

I was very interested to know your reaction. Pity about the audience. If I'd been at home, I'd have gone, although I was worried it would be a letdown compared to the last time I saw Dylan in 1981. Good to know he's still on form! Especially after that ghastly Christmas carol album :)

Lesley said...

Having seen him in Bordeaux the following night, I can certainly second the "don't expect to hear your favorite songs sounding like they did on the original albums". With "Just like a Woman", I felt that he was playing a little with us, deliberately waiting for the swell of the audience's singing and then subverting it with a phrasing that was completely different.
I wonder if we'll ever get another chance to see the legend?

Betty C. said...

@Veronica: It's. Mine. Too.

@Lesley: Who knows? The Never-Ending Tour has been going on for over 20 years and seems to be going strong, but will he tire or retire?

I think it's his doing 100+ gigs a year that keeps him so sharp on stage. He's doing a pretty big run in the American West in August and September, but my dates don't coincide. A pity.

Randal Graves said...

What a fantastic review, though too bad about the unenthused audience.

Quite true about an affinity for older artists while young, but comical how many of us enjoyed (and enjoy) Zeppelin or Cream, for example, but might have never thought to check out their blues antecedents, many of whom were plying their trade in the 1920s, until later on in life.

Youth really is wasted on the young. :)

Rock and Roll Guru said...

Groovy, Betty!! Exceptional account of what was clearly an exceptional show.

Betty C. said...

@Randal My daughters are certainly much more open-minded about music than I was at their age. I often wonder if it's because there's no "big thing" that suits their fancy to hook onto -- or maybe it's just their fine upbringing :)

Debby said...

Having seen Dylan many times since the early 70's, I agree that no show is the same. I agree w/ your perception of the new songs. Awesome.

I do think that if you, as a youth, had heard some of the great musicians of the 1920's, like blues / jazz / country greats like Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong, Blind Willie McTell and the Carter Family, you MIGHT have been won over, just like your kids and other young people are won over by Bob Dylan.

Betty C. said...

@Debby -- Thank you for your comment. I am honored to have one from a long-time concertgoer!

You do have a point about the musicians you mention, but I (and many of my friends) were big music fans, yet very concerned with what was new and what was cool. As Randal points out above, we didn't think to go back to the roots of things.

Maybe it's the fact that rock is not new any more that makes the younger generation less picky about dates...

Holly A Hughes said...

Wonderful review! Made me feel as if I'd been there with you -- as I wish I had been. I don't blame you for being annoyed with an audience that wouldn't give the master his due, though perhaps given what you describe as Dylan's lack of back-and-forth with the crowd, it doesn't matter so much for him. At any rate you got your three encores! Glad your daughter and friends enjoyed it. In my family, too often we go the other way -- I'M the one being dragged to see performers I wouldn't have seen on my own.

Betty C. said...

Thanks for the comment, Holly. It's true that Bob seemed into giving a great performance -- inspired by the surroundings, perhaps -- and maybe the audience was irrelevant. Also there were SOME fans clearly into it right in the front; he did seem to have some interplay going on with them, in his very subtle way.

I wish my daughters would introduce me to some new music, but it seems that all the concerts they want to go to are of older artists -- at least from the 90s if not before.

meredith said...

I've been to other concerts in France where I found the audience to be dull.I specifically remember a George Benson concert where I was the only one standing on my chair dancing...All that counts is that you enjoyed the concert and that he didn't cut it short due to the unresponsive crowd.

Betty C. said...

@meredith Hehe, my daughter would have killed me if I had done that! She went crazy at the end when everyone else did, but didn't like my standing out in any way... it was kind of funny.

meredith said...

Well, I didn't have girls back when I did that. I was with my husband and he's used to me standing out. But the girls are getting to the age where I better blend in, so I'll probably have to keep off the chairs, now.

Leon and Sue Sims said...

Betty C,
I've just put a link on my latest post as I did one of Carcassonne at the same time I read your Dylan post - hope you don't mind.
I have all of Dylan's CDs from the 60s and started to falter in the 80s when I felt he lost his way. He performed in Melbourne a few years back to very poor reviews as did Van Morrison, another of my all time faves.
I enjoy your blog - if you want to read about our experience of Carcassonne and the Languedoc, come and say hello.
My word verification is rantersi which is what I probably just did!!

Stef J. said...

Nice review. I attended the concert in Bordeaux on the following night, and have found very interesting to read your comments.
You can read mu review of the Bordeaux gig at the following address:

Cheers !

katiez said...

How wonderful - and fun to be there with your daughter. I've never seen him in concert... What a treat. I think that is what makes most concerts special - learning that the songs can grow and change and knock us out of the familiar.
Nice review.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for a wonderful review; lucky you to be able to hear him.

My husband dragged me to an Arlo Guthrie concert a couple of years back. I figured seeing him again would spoil my memories of when he was in his prime. But it turned out that, like Dylan, he's in his prime now.

Sharing thoughts said...

I am a 50 something year old American woman living in France, and a life long worshiper of Bob Dylan. I attended the 2010 Carcassonne concert with my French husband and took my 16 year old son and his best friend (a franco-american), to see the legendary Dylann, believing that it was a once in a lifetime opportunity we would never forget. What a disappointment! Luckily the boys brought earplugs for the lot of us because the accoustics were terribly distorted and sound painfully loud. You got it right, when you said that nothing he sang sounded like anything we had ever heard on one of his albums. There we were, all native English speakers and couldn't understand a word he "sang". He just grunted and whined. The French audience was lost completely. Plus, Dylan had zero stage presence and never said a word to them. His Zoro outfit was great for Spain, but he was in France. Wide brimmed hat covering his face, I never saw the smile, and thought at one point that it must be a stunt double we were watching. Just 5 or 6 songs in, we left our seats and moved to a standing position on the side wall near the exit where the sound was less deafening for the boys who both wanted to leave. We eventually did go early. It was such a disappointment for us all, not to mention loss of money on the expensive tickets. We all decided the noisy music must have been a ploy to cover up the lack of energy and content (maybe he no longer has a voice?). Dylan needs to retire, or do much smaller, human sized concerts on a less rigorous schedule. This is an honest opinion from a true Dylan lover, mourning the fact that my son is no Dylan fan after seeing that concert.

Betty C. said...

@Sharingthoughts Interesting to get a comment on this post after all this time. Did you read the comments above? Maybe you would have enjoyed the Bordeaux concert more!