Live Review: Bob Dylan at the IU Auditorium
The IU auditorium stood tall before the Showalter Fountain on the cool, wet evening of October 27th; its facade set ablaze with electric spotlights shining their intense focus on the plethora of “Book of Mormon” banners hanging from the upper outline of the building.
In the weeks leading up to this momentous night, it was difficult for one to see any promotional material around campus or online for the concert. It seemed that IU was not prepared to host a musical icon as legendary as Bob Dylan.
Despite this, the turnout for the show overcame the lack of marketing. As I walked through the main doors, I was joined by a continuously-flowing group of inspired young students intermingled with older patrons who wished to relive the musical glory days of the 1960’s and 70’s.
I made my way to my seat and waited for the show to start. Shortly after the clock hit 8:00 pm, the lights fell and the concert began to go underway. An array of soft, yellow lights descended upon the stage. This revealed the make-up of the stage design: A tall, black curtain provided the backdrop for the set. Before this curtain stood a trio of faceless mannequins adorned in early 20th century formal wear. In terms of decoration, the stage was fairly plain, but it exuded an elegant Art Deco aesthetic of the 1920s. Soon the musicians took the stage. To accommodate the theme of the set, most of the players were dressed up in matching, light-colored suits, with a couple of them wearing what appeared to be either fedoras or bowler hats. Strangely enough, a pre-recorded track of symphonic music played over the speakers as the band prepared to start. Although it may be inconsistent with the type of music that Dylan is known for, I must admit that the track did excite the atmosphere of the auditorium
It is clear that Dylan has come a long way from his origins as a ragged, acoustic folk singer from Minnesota. Upon seeing such a spectacle on stage, one is tempted to yell out “Judas!” as one disgruntled fanatic so famously did back in 1966.
But there I was, sitting quietly in the mid-section of Balcony C side-by-side with my fellow nosebleeders, waiting for the man of the hour to make an appearance.
Dylan came out with an electric guitar in his hands, opening the show with his song “Things Have Changed”. Unfortunately, this would be the only time Dylan would play the guitar. He would keep the audience satisfied enough for the rest of the night by alternating between piano and his signature harmonica. The band also brandished a variety of instruments, ranging from a bluegrassy coupling of double bass and fiddle to the steel guitar.
Dylan continued to play his songs, one after another, without many tracks standing out from the others. He went on in this manner for the entirety of the show. And this is where I place my first major gripe: The progression of songs was very flat. Each track flowed directly into the next without many interludes placed between, and there seemed to be no rhyme or reason as to how/why the songs were compiled in that particular order in the setlist.
There are several ways in which an artist can structure their show in order to make it more interesting. A couple that come to mind include A “history of the music” structure, which has the band/artist play the highlights of their repertoire in a chronological order from the start of their career onward, or a more traditional kind of “plot diagram” structure with a rising action and an encore acting as a falling action to bring the show to an ultimate resolution.
Dylan did not follow any such structure. Nor did his show incorporate any common theme. As a result of this, The concert partially suffered from a lack of dynamics.
It must be noted, however, how impressive Dylan’s performance is for his age. Still going quite strong at age 78, Dylan spent most of the show standing up and walking about the stage. It is also clear that his prowess on his chosen instruments has remained up to par with his standards as a professional musician over the years. The one complaint that I ever hear about his current capabilities is in regard to his vocal state.
I would challenge any notion that Bob Dylan’s aged vocals detract from his performance. It must be recognized that Dylan has never had a very mellifluous voice to begin with. In fact, it is the imperfections of his vocals that have endeared him to such a wide audience. His nasally style of singing is iconic in popular culture and has been subject to countless parodies by other fellow musicians over the years, from Frank Zappa (see “Flakes” from Sheik Yerbouti) to Simon and Garfunkel (see “A Simple Desultory Philippic” from Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme). Dylan does indeed sound different than he did in his youth, but the idiosyncrasies are still there.
I would actually argue that the age in Dylan’s voice enhances his performance. He has developed a sort of gravelly smoker’s voice that I find very complementary to the reflective and wise lyrics of his music. This is a common phenomenon among aging folk musicians. A good artist to use as a comparison is Leonard Cohen. The difference in Cohen’s voice on a track such as “Suzanne” from 1967 compared to any track off of his final 2016 album You Want it Darker is immense, but the different tracks do not necessarily differ in artistic value based on that factor. If anything, they provide more variety to the artist’s catalog. And more variety is always good.
After the bulk of the show had run its course, Dylan and his band briefly left the stage, came back on for a somewhat lackluster encore of “Ballad of a Thin Man” and “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry”, quickly took a bow before I had the time to whip out my phone for a picture, and left the stage as quietly as they had entered.
Therein lies my final complaint: Dylan did not say a single word throughout the entire show.
I cannot say that I am surprised. Dylan has been known to do this type of thing. Even at shows as high profile as Desert Trip 2016 with 75,000 in attendance, he stuck to his inexplicable vow of silence.
I think back to a few years ago when Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, when he waited months to accept the honor and did not even give a formal speech – opting instead to record a rambling recollection of his career spoken over a soft jazzy piano in a style akin to a beat poet of the 1950s. A strange person indeed, but an original nonetheless.
Regardless of what his reasons may be for not speaking on stage, it can’t help but leave a lot to be desired for Dylan’s audience. The type of folk music that Dylan is known for, with dense, poetic lyrics, beckons to be given some sort of commentary while being performed live. I can’t help but compare Dylan to other similar artists that I have seen in concert. Just last month, I had the opportunity to see Art Garfunkel in Nashville, IN. Garfunkel was absolutely in his element during that show, taking the time to provide background on almost every track he performed, and even taking an occasional break to read out of his newest book. Although a certain degree of pretentiousness could be detected at times, the stories that accompanied the songs were very much welcome.
Two summers ago, I saw Donovan, Dylan’s Scottish counterpart, play in Davenport, IA. This was a performance even more stripped-down than Garfunkels, consisting of Donovan sitting alone upon a stool with an acoustic guitar, singing songs and telling stories. It was one of the most inspiring nights of my life.
Dylan’s concerts would greatly benefit from adopting such an approach to performing. Especially when he is performing in a concert hall such as IU auditorium where the acoustics render some of his vocals unintelligible, a bit of context given before the song would improve his engagement with the audience tenfold.
Despite some of these shortcomings, The concert was definitely worth going to see. It is not often that the opportunity comes along to see such an icon of pop culture as Bob Dylan, especially on campus. I suggest that everyone at IU or in the surrounding area continue to keep an eye out for shows such as this. These legends will not be around forever.