Meditations: Dylan on Campus
You wouldn't think that Bob Dylan, the singer songwriter responsible for a generation of music, would make his backing band wear matching uniforms. I know I didn't either, until I caught his show at the UIC Credit Union 1 arena (holy crap I hate that name) last week. Sure enough, the freewheelin' man and his freewheelin' band hit the stage dressed in matching white and black suits. You'd be forgiven for confusing them for a bowling team.
This was just one of the of the many observations I made while watching what might have been the most fascinating concert I’ve ever seen.
Bob Dylan sits in a unique spot. He’s not just another old artist or group like Elton John or The Who still out touring well into their autumn years. Both of those artists are incredible, (I caught the Who over the summer and my god do they still kill it) but they aren’t Bob Dylan. While they were certainly at the forefront, they didn’t spearhead a generation. It’s a position Dylan shares only with… Paul McCartney… maybe?
It’s hard to describe. Seeing Dylan felt closer to going to a museum then going to a concert, and I sincerely don’t mean that negatively. I can’t think of very many other artists whose contribution to not only just music, but culture in general is as profound as his. Maybe Mozart? Jesus? It reminded me of when I saw former president Barack Obama at the JB Pritzker rally, also held at the arena with the worst name for an arena. Regardless of your politics, you can’t deny that Obama was in a way as much a symbol of the 2010s as Dyaln was of the 1960s and early 70s. This may sound preachy and weird, (I promise I will vaccinate my children) but seeing both of them felt almost uncanny.
My reaction to finding out he was coming to UIC was also the same as my reaction to finding out about Obama’s visit: “Why?”
Dylan doesn’t treat himself like an icon though. To pregame the show, I watched Martin Scorsese’s new(ish) Netflix documentary Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story, which chronicles the songwriter’s ill-faded yet iconic tour with other folk rock heroes like Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell. One of the first interviews of the film was with Dylan himself, whose opening line was close to something like “Rolling Thunder Revue? Why the hell would you make a movie about that?”
I’ve listened to his music forever, but it wasn’t until then that I realized I’d never heard the man talk. His words are blunt and poetic like his songs, and his commentary throughout the film, which plays almost like The Avengers if the heroes were all a bunch of mid-seventies weirdos, is often hilarious. It was reminiscent of the two old guys who make fun of The Muppet Show. He doesn’t seem to take anyone, including himself, all that seriously.
Side note: There is probably a flash drive filled with 200 hours worth of Bob Dylan roasting the tour sitting in Martin Scorsese’s Pool house right now and I will not rest until it is found.
But that’s enough mythologizing, how was the show? Like I said, it was fascinating.
Bob doesn’t have a lot of preamble, and started the show right at 8pm with a “Things Have Changed,” a song he wrote for an early 2000’s Tobey Maguire movie. People often forget that Dylan didn’t ever stop writing after his classic period, and his sets reflect that. You might go a full twenty minutes at a Dylan show without hearing a classic, and the ones that are there sound so different that it may take you a couple minutes to realize what it is. Expect to say “oh wait, this is ‘Simple Twist of Fate'” or “Oh my god is this ‘Ballad of a Thin Man'” a lot. Dylan’s voice, which fluctuates between a Truck engine’s rumble and a Chief Wiggum impression, doesn’t make things any easier.
None of those are negatives however. In fact, it’s part of the fun. There’s this underlying sense of chaos during the show, as if no one really knows what’s happening. Dylan’s band watches him intently, as if they aren’t even sure where the show will end up. Bob’s old man perm is a lot larger in person, which, in conjunction with the stage’s intentionally dim lighting setup, often makes singer look like a manic dusting wand from afar.
Bob alternates between a few different modes during his performances. The first was piano mode, and involved the singer standing at, you guessed it, a piano. I wouldn’t have guessed it, but Dylan is an underrated key player. His solo piano rendition of “Girl From North Country,” a song I’ve always thought was meant more for guitar, was sublime, and a personal highlight of the show.
After a few songs, Dylan would get tired of slapping the keys, grab a microphone, and do what I can only assume was an Elvis impression. I’m just going to let you picture that. These two modes would dominate, and Dylan would rarely use a guitar outside of a few select numbers.
I shouldn’t need to convince you to go and see Bob Dylan live. He’s an icon whose performances are still just as worth catching in 2019 as they were in 1969.
Things Have Changed
It Ain’t me Babe
Highway 61 Revisited
Simple Twist of Fate
When I Paint my Masterpiece
Honest With Me
Tryin’ to go to Heaven
Make you Feel my Love
Pay in Blood
Early Roman Kings
Girl From North Country
Not Dark Yet
Thunder on the Mountain
Soon After Midnight
Gotta Save Somebody
Ballad of a Thin Man
It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry