Bob Dylan came to the nation’s capital earlier this week, and I went to his concert with Pete Muller, frequenter of this blog, who initiated the whole expedition. First he threw a birthday party for his wife with some other quite amiable friends who happened to be in D.C. At my suggestion, we met at my favorite Washington restaurant, that temple of haute cuisine known as Hill Country Barbecue. Then Pete and I walked a couple of blocks to the Verizon Center, a big venue that Dylan was able to pack out, even at age 71.
Yes, most of the people in the audience, like me, were similarly aged. Lots of gray hair, not as long as it used to be. Some were accompanied by their grown children. Or grown grandchildren. There were some whippersnappers in hipster glasses or concert T-shirts, serious music aficionados by the look of them. But most defied Dylan’s earlier plea to be forever young. It was an interesting crowd, and it wasn’t just aged hippies. Pete’s a surgeon; I’m whatever I am; I saw Fred Barnes, the conservative journalist and Fox News contributor, sitting not far from where we were.
The opening act was Mark Knopfler, the English musician who was once lead singer for Dire Straits. Remember them, back in the 1980s? “Money for nothing,” the first song played on MTV Europe? Now he is singing sober, intense, country-tinged songs that I’d characterize as Brittannia roots music, with his band of exceptionally fine musicians playing Celtic instruments along with the electric guitars. Pete called it “rock ‘n’ roll for adults.”
And then came the one true Bob. I had seen him about four times; Pete had seen him eight. We had never seen him so animated. Pete said that he had a touch of arthritis and so was no longer standing all the time playing his guitar. Now he sits behind a grand piano, which he plays quite well, adding numerous harmonica solos, as at his beginning. But on a couple of songs, Bob came out, took the mic, American-Idol style, and just sang. Not only that, he was kind of dancin’ and jivin’. And he was even smilin’.
The other times I saw him, he was concentrating on playing his guitar and often had his back to the audience. Not this time. He didn’t say much–”Thank you, friends!”–but he was engaged and connected with the crowd in a way that I found surprising. He has a new album out that I am really enjoying, Tempest, and he played a couple of songs from that (the enigmatic “Early Roman Kings” and the lovely “Soon after Midnight”). But he mostly played old songs (“Highway 61 Revisited,” All Along the Watchtower,” “Blowing in the Wind”). The thing is, though, every time he plays those old songs, he does it in a different way. The arrangements, the rhythm, the inflections, even the tunes are different. And yet they are still the same songs. This is what rewards going to Dylan concerts again and again through the years. And it says something about Dylan and about all of us other old guys in the audience.
Postmodernists have talked about the myth of individual identity, arguing that we really are different people, depending on whom we are with and the different stages in our lives. But Dylan is the same person, for all of the changes that he has gone through–including his religious changes–and the 60-year-olds in the audience are the same persons who were moved by Dylan’s music when they were young and are still moved by it in different ways, who have been following him through his changes and through their own.
P.S.: For a good account of this particular concert, see this review in the Washington Post.
Also, I would like to make an off-the-wall prediction so that if it happens you will have seen it here first: I predict that Bob Dylan will once again surprise his fans and confound the musical world, this time by joining the Roman Catholic Church. In the Rolling Stone interview we posted about, he is evidently reading Roman Catholic theology. (When asked about “transfiguration,” Bob tells the interviewer, “You can go learn about it from the Catholic Church.”) And then in “Duquesne Whistle,” the best song on the new album, he has the line, “I can hear a sweet voice callin’./ Must be the Mother of our Lord.”)