Last night, I attended the Royal Albert Hall to see Bob Dylan. Of all the singer/songwriters I admire, I have seen him the most often and without a doubt, predictability is something that he cannot be accused of.
Upon arrival in the auditorium, the usher was clearly anxious to reinforce the fact that cameras were not permitted. He added that this would be a strictly enforced policy even before the concert started and sure enough, it was. Within seconds of a couple of gentlemen sitting down, they were involved in a dialogue with the same usher over their usage of a camera. Now, the phenomenon of not taking photos and videos at Dylan gigs is not a recent occurrence. Having said that, looking at the lighting setup last night, if you could get a decent photo or video in those conditions, you would have to be a professional photographer. The lighting seemed to be generated by what looked like large Anglepoise lamps and a couple of low level stage lights. Occasionally, more extravagant lighting effects were generated but this seemed to be the result of back projection. The old faithful 'eye' symbol that Dylan has been using for many years as a back projection was apparent for the majority of the gig.
So why would Dylan and by extension, many other artists not want their images captured for public perusal (The Eagles are apparently even worse)? In defence of artists, there must be nothing more disconcerting than the flash of a camera (I remember getting Anna Friel's autograph outside the stage door where she was performing 'Breakfast at Tiffany's' and as she came out the press etc literally overwhelmed her with their cameras, she seemed positively happy to simply sign an autograph for me). Cameras are intrusive. They block the sight lines of other audience members and disrupt the performers. Bob Dylan is 72. His stage performance has changed significantly over the years. He rarely plays guitar and now regularly sits at a keyboard. Having said that, from a performance perspective, his occasional sojourns to centre stage armed simply with a harmonica is exciting to behold. He has the stance of a fighter (he boxes) and as he ages, he actually seems younger and happier. He does not like his photo taken. I like to think this has as much to do with his need to be remembered in the moment.
In terms of my concert experience last night, it was the first time that I have attended a Dylan performance with an interval but I guess, it is physically demanding pushing yourself non-stop year in year out. Also the gig started at just after 7.30 pm, so thus it was over by 10 pm. I respect the rationale behind an early start time. Maybe, it is also accommodating for the audience who are ageing with Dylan? I have been a fan for twenty one plus years. I am nearly forty. I heard his music for the first time in 1992. It's an odd and uniquely thrilling sensation to share the lives of people you admire over time. You are reminded of your own mortality but not in a negative way. The changes in your mental and spiritual outlook influences how you regard the work produced by the artists that guide you through life.
By admiring your heroes, you learn to accept yourself. After all, they reflect you and your needs. You don't want to be them, you want to understand them and learn from them. It's fascinating to realise that they need you as much as you need them. Audiences of all artists and mediums are essential ingredients in the creative process.
So what did I learn last night? I learnt that Dylan's current set list is more rigid than in previous years with only the odd variation in song from night to night, probably to stop him from getting bored. I guess this gives him the opportunity to experiment with the songs' arrangements. 'Tangled Up In Blue' and 'Simple Twist Of Fate' were both subject to lyric variations. Dylan is one of only a handful of artists who toys with his songs. He seems to see them as pliable and indeed, it does suggest quite rightly that songs and indeed, any creative work should not be viewed as finished. Interpretation cannot be predetermined. The meaning of one song can change from person to person and indeed, the songwriter probably feels differently about his creations as the years go on. Dylan focused his set list on his current album 'Tempest' and clearly he enjoys performing songs from his more recent albums. He only played about a handful of songs from his 60s and 70s output. I was overwhelmed as ever by 'All Along The Watchtower', which remains the most astonishing song owing to its seeming simplicity yet complexity in live performance. It is melodically and lyrically a masterpiece and in performance is like a piece of clay that is moulded into unique forms based on the musical arrangement. Dylan, if you want to perform a 60 minute version of this song, I will be there, salivating in the corner. A final lesson from last night, perhaps, darkness befits a living enigma, arguably the most important living singer/songwriter. Thanks, Bob for everything!
Barry Watt - 28th November 2013.
Anglepoise lamps are copyright to Anglepoise.
The Eagles are a little known American band. Perhaps, best known for their 'Hotel California' album which is copyrighted to Asylum Records.
'Breakfast at Tiffany's' was on the Theatre Royal Haymarket in 2009. Very good performance from Anna Friel and a nice adaptation of the story by Truman Capote.
'Tangled Up In Blue' and 'Simple Twist Of Fate' both appear on 'Blood On The Tracks' (Columbia Records).
The album 'Tempest' is copyright to Columbia Records and is well worth a listen.
'All Along The Watchtower' first appeared on Dylan's album 'John Wesley Harding' and has been covered by pretty much everyone since. Arguably, the most versatile song of all time. Discuss... ;-)