I didn’t hear anyone protesting, no apologists willing to leap to the great man’s defense.
Rarely have I seen an audience leaving a live performance so utterly listless. They’d come for spectacle, a chance to pay tribute to one of their heroes and here they were, shaking their heads, trying to figure out why a legendarily enigmatic artist would present them with such a haphazard, irritating evening of music.
Talent certainly wasn’t the problem. Dylan’s touring band—Donnie Herron, Tony Garnier, Charlie Sexton, Stu Kimball, George Recile—are top flight musicians but they were cruelly hamstrung by Dylan’s presence, subdued, seldom breaking out of the tightly controlled box he stuck them in. The positioning and body language was instructive: the backing band remained huddled (cowed?) on one side of the stage while Dylan crouched behind an electric keyboard on the audience’s right.
Ah, yes. That fucking keyboard. A good place to hide, Bob, if you can actually, y’know, play the goddamned thing. Dylan, remember, started out on keyboards with his high school band back in Hibbing, Minnesota. Unfortunately, someone should tell him that his technique hasn’t improved since he loudly and tunelessly thumped out Little Richard hits fifty-five years ago. I know a number of fine harmonica players have taken him to task for his misuse of their precious harp, but what Dylan really needs is a classically trained pianist to come along and slam a keyboard cover on his fingers. Repeatedly. His inexpert noodling, amplified and isolated, evoked continual winces throughout the 90-minute show.
I can understand taking a fresh approach to old, stale material, but Dylan’s re-inventions reduced beloved favorites like “Visions of Johanna”, “Shelter from the Storm” and, yeah, even “Blowing in the Wind” to a discordant and indistinguishable mush. Was there a single song off his latest (B+) album, “Tempest”? If there was, I didn’t hear it. There was a perfunctory rendering of “Man in the Long Black Coat”, an epic tune casually tossed off, a forgettable five-minute abridgement. I cannot think of one song other than the opener “Watching the River Flow” that worked all the way through.
On those rare occasions when the band finally did cut loose—during extended jams on “Highway 61” and “Levee’s Gonna Break”—we got a hint of what might have been possible, had they, like the thoroughbreds they are, been given their head and allowed to run. I found it maddening to watch superb artists diminished and under-utilized to that extent.
Only one other recent experience in the arts left me as angry and disillusioned with a revered artist and that was a viewing of Jean-Luc Godard’s “Film Socialisme”. Like Dylan, Godard has what I think is an unhealthy contempt for his audience and, as a result, “Film Socialisme” is a futile mess, a blot on a distinguished, ground-breaking career. This attitude that you can continually flip the bird at people who pay good money and come to your work expecting to be enlightened or entertained or just not bored, exposes artists at the end of their creative rope, an acknowledgement that if you can no longer provide the goods, you might as well sell the rubes lusterless trinkets and spent tailings from exhausted mines.
I think it’s a shameful stance, childish and self-indulgent. While Dylan was under no onus to play pre-packaged, excruciatingly faithful renditions of his classics, he was obliged to at least make them recognizable versions of the originals. And though he may think of himself the consummate iconoclast and contrarian for refusing to cater to the crowd, he also revealed himself as a man no longer able to rock and roll.
I would be remiss if I didn’t sing praises of Zimmie’s opening act, the great Mark Knopfler and his stellar accompanying band.
Now this lad knows the score.
He avoided playing all but one of his “Dire Staits”-era hits (“So Far Away”), yet left those present cheered and enlivened by his musicianship, poise and presence. He teasingly responded to those dolts who like to shout out requests from the floor (do you people know how fucking retarded you sound to everyone else), and played his heart out, generously collaborating with his musicians, recognizing their virtuoso skills.
Some of us wondered ahead of time why Dylan would choose such a celebrated artist, a headliner in his own right, to take to the stage ahead of him. Both share a love of history, epic ballads, cinematic storylines—they could well be brothers in arms.
But unlike Dylan, Mr. Knopfler has never forgotten the folks out there beyond the footlights, the steep price they paid for being there.
As he left the stage, he blew kisses to the crowd.
Contrast that to Dylan’s coldly dismissive raspberries…
the troubadour arrived unheralded
the mood sullen in the crowd
he had the reputation of trickster
hat and cape & concealing cowl
he played the part of wise man
tried to bend them to his will
but his magic was much diminished
it only made them ill
he rallied his most stalwart
minions to the King
the others were left abandoned
denied a song to sing
confused and upbraided
filing from the flickering hall
no one there to guide them
catch them should they fall
the troubadour was untroubled
he’d been paid in brightest gold
fools were they who lamented
he’d grown so tired and old
for our idols owe us nothing
evince scorn for our trusting ways
in their eyes we are dupes and fools
refusing to turn the page
put your faith in butterflies
follow their aimless flight
but beware of traveling minstrels
who vanish into the night
* Completed following the Bob Dylan/Mark Knopfler concert, Credit Union Center (Saskatoon, Saskatchewan)
I’d heard that Trent Reznor had included a couple of mood/ambient pieces from his Ghosts I-IV album in his live show. How would that go over with the banger crowd?
To their credit, the youngish (compared to me) audience listened in respectful, if not exactly rapt silence, as Reznor slowed things right down about a third of the way through the concert. During the spacey instrumentals, the lighters came out and most of the of the people around us sat down; even the mosh pit subsided into good-natured jostling.
It was a courageous move on the musician’s part. Rather than play a standard greatest hits package, he touched on all aspects of his career, from the commercial highlights to his experimental side.
The new material stood up well: The Slip is a fine, accomplished album.
The stagecraft was topnotch: the layout fairly standard, providing good line of sight. Metal partitions descended at various points, serving as screens for projected visual effects like rain, shapeless abstractions, things on the verge of coming in to focus…
The musicianship was unbelievable. These are guys Reznor hand-picked to help spread his misanthropic gospel to the great, brainwashed masses. The chosen ones. Guitarist Robin Finck is a wonder and Josh Freese provides thunderous accompaniment on drums…and then there’s Reznor himself, stomping about, whirling, howling; a ferocious performance. It was a form of shamanism, there’s no other way to describe it.
Professional, polished? Yes. Carefully considered, manipulative, rehearsed to the nth degree? Undoubtedly.
But you can’t choreograph stage presence, sheer magnetism. Reznor has it, baby. So does Maynard Keenan (in spades). An unmistakable aura, almost otherworldly in its vibe. It radiates from them and electrifies a crowd of thousands, tens of thousands. How much power does that take?
Reznor has his critics, of course, those who are unimpressed by his music or persona. They call him a phony or a poser–my buddy Chris King had one of the best lines ever:
“Trent,” he snorted. “What sort of fuckin’ name is that for a metal guy?”
“So what’s a better one?” I challenged him.
“Glenn Danzig,” he replied without hesitation and with that we both collapsed into a fit of laughter. Because he was right, of course. Glenn fuckin’ Danzig.
But I think even ol’ Chris would have been impressed by the show T.R. and his lads put on last night. No effort or expense was spared to present Reznor’s fatal, poisonous vision of the world to a very receptive audience.
We were off to the side, terrific seats overlooking the stage–and we could also see the incredible computer control centre the stage crew monitored and operated to keep everything in synch. It looked like something out of a science fiction movie or a missile tracking station at fucking NORAD.
Trent Reznor is at the top of his game right now, his artistry evident in every track on The Slip. He is a man thoroughly in control of every aspect of his music and, clearly, thriving in that environment.
His aesthetic has expanded in the past few years especially and with it his range and depth. Whereas someone like Al Jourgensen (Ministry) will go to his grave shrieking and raging, Reznor’s psyche and sensibilities allow for far more variation, subtlety and virtuosity.
His bleak worldview is enticing, alarming, convincing; all the more so because the soundtrack is constantly changing as the skies darken and the wind begins to rise…