“I came, I saw, I conquered…” The words of Julius Caesar might easily have been coined by Bob Dylan after Wednesdays show at Bonn Kunst!rasen. You might even be forgiven for thinking that Caesar also first declared “The answer my friend is blowing in the wind” – it certainly seems like those words have been around since the Roman Empire existed. So how do you keep songs fresh that seem to have been literally written in stone? His Bobness knew how, and the many listeners came away knowing that where legends are concerned Bob Dylan is very much the living variety.
In Mary Wharton’s 2009 Bio ‘How Sweet the Sound’ Joan Baez recounts her frustrated efforts to get Bob Dylan involved in Civil Rights Marches and the like, until she realised his presence was always there in the Movements most potent weapon – his Songs. In 2012 it is still those Songs that matter most. There is never a word spoken to the audience, there is not even the glimpse of a solo from anyone in Dylan’s excellent Band. Each number has a groove into which Dylan pours his words; and like the grooves on those old black vinyl discs, at the end there is just silence from Man and Band until the next number.
It was certainly a perfect day weatherwise, and the sound at Kunst!Rasen is also excellent (I had feared the River breezes would play havoc, but the trees literally form a perfect ‘natural’ barrier). A women next to me had seen Dylan some 300 times she said. He must still be doing something right, but on the evidence of opener ‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues’ I wouldn’t have made three visits to his shows, never mind 300. The excellent sound system just accentuated the fact that even two syllable words seemed to come out in three different keys from his mouth. I guess it was ‘The Masters’ way of vocally tuning up though because come the second number ‘Man in the Long Black Coat’ and he was spot on (or as gloriously ‘spot-off’ as only Dylan can be with that raspy death-rattle voice of his). His smile hitting the beats of the chorus said “This evening will be fun” and indeed it was. Song three ‘Things Have Changed’ and they had – the smile was even bigger as he romped through a funky version of ‘Tangled up in Blue’. The closest we got to real spontaneity came up next with the Muddy Waters classic ‘Rollin and Tumblin’ which was a perfect description of Dylans joyous approach on piano – even though he was a spot in the distance I could see the setting sun glinting off Bobs smiling teeth on this one.
By now I think you have the pattern for the evening. Regular switches between piano and harmonica. Maybe it would have made more sense to block the piano numbers together, but in the event it gave the show an extra bustle, a man too excited by his music to stay in one place for long. His theatrical gesturing coming in useful since the absence of a video screen beside the stage (presumably a Dylan decision) made it difficult to gage his mood at times. Yes I know, the songs are what matters – but if we just wanted to hear them we could play the records at home. Note for future Dylan Shows – bring binoculars.
The ‘Dylanites’ around me were all relishing the little things around the songs: “Is he gonna play guitar on this one? YEAH! He is”. “I think he’ll put his hat on for this one? Wow YEAH!” and of course when ‘Simple Twist of Fate’ rolled round you can imagine the eruption of noise that greeted his picking up a Fender, even though Clapton has nothing to worry about from what came from it.
Highlights for me were the staccato rendering of ‘Hard Rains a Gonna Fall’, The Western tilt of ‘High Water’ with it’s banjo underpinning and most of all ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’ with it’s eery vocal echo. For Dylan, finding new ways to play old standards must be like reinventing the wheel, but for the most part he manages it somehow. ‘Blowin in the Wind’ with violin accompaniment was, for me, a moment that didn’t quite work. I presume he would probably personally rather explode than have to play the song alone with just an acoustic guitar as he did fifty years ago. But wouldn’t that have got the fans screaming!
In the event, Bob Dylan came, saw, conquered, and moved on to conquer again. Rather like Julius Caesar in fact. All hail the mighty Dylan – long may he Reign!