Bob Dylan had been on my mind for a while even before I headed to his gig in Helsinki towards the end of June. I had just watched Martin Scorsese’s Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story, a quirky film that blurs fact with fiction but is enjoyable nevertheless. In the film, Scorsese, the film-maker, and Dylan, the subject, seem to be accomplices who create a tapestry of myths by inventing stories about things that never happened during the rock star’s fabled Rolling Thunder Revue, a 1975 tour across North America where he played nearly 60 shows with a constantly changing group of musicians, poets and friends.
Scorsese combines footage shot during that tour with subplots that could seem authentic but are not: There’s a fictitious documentary maker; a senior US politician and Jimmy Carter aide; a concocted “affair" with a young Sharon Stone; and other intricate fabrications.
Those who expected the Scorsese film to be a strait-laced biopic of rock’s most celebrated star made by an equally celebrated auteur could be left baffled after watching it. But if you keep an open mind bereft of preconceived expectations and go with the flow, the film is a visual and aural treat. It has exquisite footage of those shows and of intimate interactions that Dylan had with famous friends and collaborators such as Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell and the late poet Allen Ginsberg. It’s as if Scorsese and Dylan are having a bit of mischievous fun at the expense of the audience but, in the end, viewers can also be part of that fun—that is, if they want it to be such an experience.
Dylan has been on tour across the world since June 1988, playing over 3,000 gigs relentlessly for more than 31 years. He turned 78 in May, and his achievements were capped by the Nobel prize for literature that he was awarded in 2016. This year, during the European leg of his Never Ending Tour, he stopped by in Helsinki for a Monday night gig. The Hartwall Arena venue was packed with an estimated 8,500 people, ranging from the very old to the young. Before the show began, 80-year-old infirm fans jostled with 18-year-olds at the modest merchandise stall trying to buy memorabilia and waiting 45 minutes to an hour before they could lay their hands on a T-shirt, bandana or hoodie.
The gig began at 8pm sharp. The stage was lit by overhead studio lights, not too bright and occasionally dimmed. Dylan sat at a grand piano in front while dim stage lights illuminated him and his band—Donnie Herron (pedal steel, lap steel, electric mandolin, banjo and violin), Charlie Sexton (lead guitar), Tony Garnier (bass guitar) and George Receli (drums). The atmosphere on stage was that of a living room rather than a rock concert. And so was the music. It took a few minutes after the band launched into the set opener for me to realize which song Dylan was singing. It was Things Have Changed from 1999 but even after hearing the first few words of the lyrics (“A worried man with a worried mind/No one in front of me and nothing behind/There’s a woman on my lap and she’s drinking champagne…"), it took a bit of time to identify the song.
Dylan’s interpretation of his songs (he has performed more than 450 songs, some written by him but many by others) during the gig could leave you as baffled as Scorsese’s film can. Some songs get the big band treatment, reminiscent of the Swing era; some are delivered in slo-mo minimalistic style; others, like the opener at the gig, are ominously dark and heavy. He did 20 songs that day, smoothly segueing from one to another with not a word to the audience—no thank yous; no acknowledgement of the rapturous applause; nothing. Even though the band was playing to an arena full of people, it was as if they were really playing for themselves.
The set list included classics such as Highway 61 Revisited; Simple Twist Of Fate, a ballad from one of his best albums, Blood On The Tracks; When I Paint My Masterpiece; Like A Rolling Stone; Blowin’ In The Wind; and Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right. But if you were there expecting to hear them as they sound on his recordings, you would have been disappointed.
On the other hand, if you saw them through the lens that Dylan sees them nowadays, you would have been richly rewarded. It’s fashionable for many modern music critics to pan Dylan. In November, UK’s The Independent headlined a piece saying, “He’s still an icon but live he sounds like a pub singer with a throat infection". Harsh. And also incorrect.
In Helsinki, Dylan’s voice—which, through his entire career, has been received divisively by listeners—sounded surprisingly strong through the non-stop 2-hour gig. His performance at the piano and with his trademark harmonica were equally impressive, the licks interacting with Sexton’s guitar, the drums and the other string instruments. The audience—comprising predominantly Finns—was in thrall.
There is a rule that Dylan enforces at his gigs nowadays that disallows people from taking photographs or recording videos while he plays. Anyone who violates that is firmly escorted out by strategically positioned security personnel.
Dylan ended his performance with a two-song encore: very old ones—Blowin’ In The Wind and It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry. Then, without a word, he walked to the left of the stage, his bandmates accompanying him, and bowed. And said nothing. The lights went out and the band left.
THE LOUNGE LIST
Five Dylan songs to bookend your week
1. ‘It Takes A Lot to Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry’ from ‘Highway 61 Revisited’
2. ‘When The Deal Goes Down’ from ‘Modern Times’
3. ‘Scarlet Town’ from ‘Tempest’
4. ‘Lily, Rosemary And The Jack Of Hearts—Take 2’ from ‘More Blood, More Tracks: The Bootleg Series Vol. 14’
5. ‘All Along The Watchtower’ from ‘MTV Unplugged’
First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.