Dylan’s moody performance delights fans

Bob Dylan brought his iconic songs and some decent moves to Winnipeg’s Bell MTS Place last Wednesday.

The show of larger-than-life icon Bob Dylan last Wednesday night at Bell MTS Place was, well, rather intimate.

“I just love how he moved,” exclaimed my friend.

Dylan’s music alone was a moody experience; it was further enhanced by an artistic and sophisticated light system completely contained upon the stage to create an intimate space that drew close an almost full crowd at Bell MTS Place.

At times, the show felt strangely reminiscent. It pulled forth moods of of places once illuminated by the soft light of an amber glass votive upon a lounge table for two, or a restaurant booth with an overhead light turned off with an upreached hand as a new couple sat down for drinks.

Dylan’s light system somehow managed to create degrees of those very moods with peaks and troughs of lighting using seven hanging Fresnel lights (or what appeared to be such) upon scissor trusses. (Fresnel lights are famous for their washes of soft edged illumination and the creation of soft shadow).

Appearing like strange chandeliers of sorts, these lights were spaced in an arc behind the band. Backdrop to it all was a deeply folded theatrical “grand drape” curtain upon which blankets of light design were infrequently projected for a few songs.

Adding even more to the show’s moody atmospheric visibility were interjections of tall light stands from the stage. They were placed between each hanging lamp and topped with “barn door” attachments. Appearing suggestive of a photo set, and shining, at times, with the light of a photo shoot, they seemed to exclaim that something special was happening before them.

Nearing the 8 p.m. show start, concert goers were seated or bringing refreshments back to where they were sitting. The stage was in deep shadow.

Anticipation had grown when a bit of white light emanated somewhere from the stage floor. Smoothly, a figure in a superbly cut light-coloured jacket and characteristically chic floss-textured hair ambled (just like his music) onto the stage from the dark depths of the back curtain. He moved towards a highly glossed black piano that, in its momentous, dignified gleam and promised soundful glory, would put the reflective sheen of a funereal Cadillac to shame.

“That’s Bob Dylan! That’s Bob Dylan! That’s Bob Dylan!” exclaimed my friend as she beheld the form that emerged from the mysterious blackness.

Dylan opened with one of my favourite tunes, “Things Have Changed”. It was moving and impressive with a deep rumble from the drummer’s heavy floor toms.

(Worst nightmare directly at hand? Problems insurmountable? Not to worry…throw this tune on (crack a bubbly, if required)…and here, in its authentic lament, is the comfort of hearing that it is indeed within the realm of human experience that things can be beyond endurance at times. Here is something in this world that relates:

“I’ve been walking 40 miles of bad road
If the Bible is right the world will explode
I’ve been trying to get as far away from myself
As I can…”

With this song and its famed lyric “Don’t get up gentleman, I’m just passin’ through”, the evening began. Despite these words, the crowd rose to their feet anyway as Dylan began to play, and the mysterious darkness lifted.

And what a “passing through” it was! The “In Show & Concert! Bob Dylan and his Band!” event had begun.

His second song, “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” was an auditory medicinal that worked through the levels of anguish surrounding a lost love. It had a rather twangy yet full country/blues sound, with the drums distinctive and clearly heard in the sound mix. This was a feature that lasted throughout the show. The creative and high calibre drumming could, all upon its own, capture the listener the whole evening, if so desired.

Under the amber lights and shadows, Dylan played most numbers at the gloss black piano, excluding moments when, in lounge singer fashion, he moved to centre stage. Here he movingly and ardently sang, with tilted microphone stand in hand.

At times Dylan crouched with swells of lyrical emotion, first with Cy Coleman’s soulful, “Why Try to Change Me Now” and with other numbers throughout the night.

As Dylan stationed back to the piano, the tempo picked up again with the hillbilly rock blues of “Summer Days” that contained a frolicking violin. Hearts were captured as the romantic strains of “Feel My Love” began to rise in the auditorium. An amber lantern began to glow in front of the glossy piano and Dylan was haloed in back light.

From my 14th row floor seat, the imagery sent me pondering and I reminisced of lounges of long ago…and was also plunged into a thoughtful consideration of the perfect proportionality of Dylan’s chicly disheveled hair. It luminously framed him in perfect layers from a partial left side part. Hmmmm. He looked so much the Dylan upon the “Blonde on Blonde” album cover. (And those lounge memories, by the way, were from the 1980’s: days of big hair and its challenges).

Also absolutely characteristic was Dylan’s unique vocals that emphasized the ends of vocal phrases rinforzando. According to music aficionado and fellow citizen reporter Doug Kretchmer, who was also in attendance at the show, Dylan was in better vocal form this time than his last concert tour.

This night, Dylan seemed quite vocally agile and applied a bit of a graceful and rather beautiful muted warble over some quicker changing notes on “Feel My Love”.

Things picked up again with the bluesy “Duquesne Whistle” with heavy tom drumming. Dylan then again took centre stage in a way suggestive somehow of a 1940’s lounge style, one hand on hip and a bit of a foot shuffle going on.

Was that “Stormy Weather” being sung by by Dylan? He made it his own. Dylan also later torched through “That Old Black Magic” in a way only he could – to the delight of many.

The notably poetic “Desolation Row” was included on the acoustical menu. At this point Dylan’s momentum seemed to have increased and he was fabulously moving to his music. (It also seemed around this time the sound volume had increased; needlessly in my view. The show simply became too loud).

Dylan’s keyboarding was excellent with quickly lilting keyboard phrases punctuated by a soulful head shake – all very cool indeed. Perhaps Claudian the Ancient would have again poeticized “magna levi detrudens murmura tactu” at the sight of Dylan’s moves that seemed to breathe music. Dylan has said he considers himself a song and dance man. I could see why.

But a review cannot go by without comment on the poetic end of things for the first musician to win the Nobel Prize in Literature (2016). Dylan has also received a 2008 Pulitzer Prize Special Citation and Award “for his profound impact on popular music and American culture, marked by lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power.” Indeed, Dylan has a long, long list of other awards and recognitions.

“Desolation Row” like some of Dylan’s other poetic works, is a style that harkens, to my ear, much to poetic devices used in “Like a Rolling Stone” or “Ballad of a Thin Man”. Using archetypal symbols, cultural metaphor and no doubt personal imagery and other poetic representations, the song to me demonstrates many ideas including those of gender and other societal power structures and their differentials, all from the perspective of the omniscient writer’s place in it all.

In other words, these lyrics are highly relatable within our world (despite, perhaps, an initial sense of obscurity if simply glanced over). To me, this style is one I will call supremely Dylanesque.

“Desolation Row’s” straightforward, efficient rhythms and rhyme add weight to an already dense lyric, however thick with a cynical view one may feel them – or heavy with bare honesty to another’s measure.

Delivering “That Old Black Magic”, Dylan was a figure to behold in perfectly cut light coloured jacket, bolero tie, white belt and belt buckle and dark grey pants with white stripe down the sides.

“I didn’t get to see his shoes!” lamented my friend as we sat upon the floor seats located below the stage.

With a long sustaining note and copious applause, the stage darkened again and Dylan seemed to retreat to the blackness of the curtain, only to return by crowd demand. First in a two song encore was a fabulous and unique rendition of “Blowin’ in the Wind” with uptempo note cascades along with the legendary lyrical Socratic method of sorts creating the song’s familiar rhetorical questions.

These questions hint at classic references, but Dylan’s beautiful words and music bring them to common life and easy consideration. Fantastically, he delivered his queries in ever more progressive accentato phrasing. This night the song danced in the light, leaving behind anything that might have been heard as a once brooding, perhaps resigned outrage.

The second encore song was “Ballad of a Thin Man” that again showed Dylan’s profound storytelling skill in song, using a flourish that was an almost speaking style of vocal performance. It was done well, and he punctuated some phrases by leaning with his shoulder into the energy of the song.

The song seemingly commences lyrically from a “Who’s on First” – like press scrum, and moves along to perhaps various experiential depictions and feelings. Today the mouse click might be the modern replacement for the ballad’s famed pencil in our never-ending quest to write the “what it is” of the “something” that “is happening” in the Thin Man’s world. (But really, the pencil is an “eternal” within literary form, is it not?)

To me, and surely to those of the award-determining boards and especially to the general public served by his music – it is surely the eternally relatable nature of Dylan’s work therein Dylan lies.

The audience was mostly an older demographic with many younger, enthused music lovers. Security at Bell MTS Place was very tight. Security personnel were constantly walking the aisles and glancing down rows as if on sentry duty.

The vibe of the evening was slightly unusual; there was no spontaneous dancing, excluding one gentleman who waltzed alone nearby the sound crew close to the shows end; a couple of people nearby swayed to the music.

People were not standing and milling about socializing within the auditorium, unlike other shows. Socializing took place only in the outer hall after it was all over. Perhaps people were too much glued to the stage for this.

I am not sure if it was the heavy security presence or the large concrete space that might have added to what seemed a demureness (despite a great appreciation) within the crowd. Or perhaps it was the nature of the show that saw a curious dualism of a removed, larger-than-life icon who managed to draw us into a profound intimacy that produced the curious vibe. Or maybe it was all these things – and even more – that created the mix that was the Winnipeg Bob Dylan show this night.

Noted by more than a few people after the show was Dylan’s lack of talking to the audience.

It was true. Dylan did not speak to the crowd. Not once. Not a “Hello Winnipeg” somewhere in show and on stage; no “just flew in to Winnipeg and boy are my arms tired”; no nothin’.

Wait. Was it Dylan who told us “Why Try to Change Me Now” was A Cy Coleman cover? I wouldn’t have known that…

“Oh but he did speak to us,” my friend corrected. “He spoke to us through his music.”

Shirley Kowalchuk

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Shirley Kowalchuk is a Winnipeg writer.

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