It's one of those circumstances in life where the line between being lucky and being blessed is rather a blur. Who knows the exact number, the frequency that we should expect to experience one of those perfect musical moments in life that we all sometimes have? One of those rare instances where what you are listening to perfectly echoes what you are currently going through?
I was on my way to St. Cloud the other evening to cover a legislative hearing. I left my house around five o'clock figuring two hours would give me plenty of time. But it took me forty minutes to make my way to Maple Grove in the bumper to bumper rush hour traffic. The drive, which I had been dreading to begin with, was now beginning to cause more than a slight bit of anxiety. Then in a moment of perfect harmony and synchronicity the CD mix I had gurgling out of my car stereo speakers came to Brian Wilson singing "Sloop John B." "Let me go home, I wanna go home. This is the worst trip I've ever been on," Wilson's wavering voice sweetly sang. The timing was perfect, the calming effect was even better.
It did occur to me that many of those people so spooked about receiving anthrax in the mail had no qualms, no second thoughts about driving their large metallic deathtraps 90 miles per hour in and out of heavy traffic so they could arrive at their destination ten minutes before the rest of us. But I digress...
Of course the purveyor of many of my life's most memorable musical moments was back in town Thursday night playing at the Xcel Energy Center in our state's finest city.
Over the past fifteen years I've been fortunate to see Bob Dylan in concert twenty times. I've been even more fortunate to attend those concerts in the company of many of the people I've considered the most important friends of my life. The names and faces may have been rearranged and different but often the reaction was the same: the concert (and Dylan) wasn't what the person expected going in. Beforehand all those involved had some appreciation for Dylan's music and an equal amount of curiosity as to why that music has had such a major impact on my life. Somewhat ironically (or is it sadly?) none of those people ever went to a second concert with me and many have disappeared from the beaten path meaning I've actually seen Bob more often over the past few years than some I thought would be around for a long time. Maybe they heard (or saw something) that I'm still missing.
I was particularly looking forward to taking a new friend to see my friend Bob. This friend's insight, intellect and inherent electric artistic soul have been truly appreciated over the past year. Upon meeting and conversing uncomfortably at a book reading party I asked her if she was a fan of Dylan's music (kind of a standard question) and she had a most perfect response. "I'm the more enthusiastic than educated kind of Bob Dylan fan." (She quite likes Tom Waits.) Any apprehension I had that she may not enjoy the concert disappeared a few days beforehand when she revealed she had never seen a concert in an ice arena before. She wondered if she should dress more warmly and if the band was going to be on skates (now that I would pay big money to see!). If those were her preconceived notions going in, than the quirkiness of Bob's performance was sure to entertain her.
I'm a little sheepish and not exactly proud that I've shelled out my hard earned (and I do mean hard earned) cash to see the same performer over twenty times. If I think of all the money spent on the concerts and the CDs that could have been invested in a high yielding mutual fund I most certainly could have had a house in the suburbs and three kids by now. I'm not sure there's another artist out there I'd want to see more than a handful of times (with the possible exception of Sandra Bullock reading Shakespeare soliloquies). But each Dylan concert is different in mood and shape. I've heard at least a couple different songs at each show (who can possibly forget the five concert 1992 Orpheum run where over 50! different songs were performed). On the off night there always is a turn of a phrase, a new twist of an old lyric that gives an entirely different perspective on a familiar song. As a live performer Dylan is at his best when things seem close to coming a part, where the band is struggling to keep the song together and Bob somehow pulls the rabbit out of the hat and brings home the bacon. He accepts chaos and chaos smiles upon him.
If Dylan were a meal he'd be a fine sushi dinner. Most people I know when asked if they would like to try sushi either squish up their faces and shake their heads in an emphatic no, or they coolly decline as if eating raw fish falls far below their hipster level. Yet the few people I've introduced the delicacy to, or those who admirably have discovered it all on their own, inevitably list sushi as one of their all time favorite meals and always seem enthusiastic in joining me for a meal. The variety of fish flavored with just the right amount of wasabi and soy sauce always leaves diners feeling refreshed and full of anticipation for the next time they can enjoy the meal.
Likewise most of my friends mostly unfamiliar with Dylan's work can't quite get around his unconventional voice to appreciate the quality of his music. I've made tapes and CDs for people of some of his more accessible and popular songs and still they don't seem to think he is all that special. Those that do count themselves as Dylan fans tend to list him as one of their all time favorite artists.
His new CD Love and Theft would be mandatory listening for any rock fan if only for the dazzling different musical styles it employs. It's an impressive stroll through American music history. Add to that some of his most playful lyrics in many years and it becomes something truly truly magical. His touring band provides the proper musical embellishments as effectively as the mixture of our favorite green horseradish and black sodium liquid.
Ever since the events of September 11 people have sought comfort, solace and some insight to try and make sense of things. We've been told countless times that the world is now such a different place. Even the President of the United States said so. Much (or at least some) has been made that Dylan's CD came out on the day of the attack and many of the lyrics seem so appropriate and true to the aftershocks. "I'm on the fringes of the night fighting back my tears I can't control /Some people they ain't human, they ain't got no heart or soul/But I'm a-cryin' to the Lord, tryin' to be meek and mild/Yes, I cried for you, now it's your turn, you can cry awhile." Yet Dylan ain't no Nostradamus, a seer of the future. Rather he is proof positive that the world didn't change so much as we became more aware of the ugliness that has always been out there. It's a world where people kill others for a cause they think is just and the only seemingly appropriate response is to do the same.
The band strolled on to the stage first, dressed in burgundy suits. Dylan followed in a white suit that made him look like he would be the perfect owner of a fast food fried chicken chain. They quickly went into the bluegrass based Fred Rose song, "Wait for the Light to Shine." It's the same opening song of every show since the new CD came out, the same opener since the first words Bob uttered would be examined for some connection to September 11. And it's the perfect opener. It's Dylan singing what he has been singing all along. "Pull yourself together and keep lookin' for the sign/Wait for the light to shine..." He also sang "Masters of War," (which he has been quick to point out isn't an anti-war song as much as it is an anti-military establishment song) "Blowin' in the Wind" ("how many times must a cannonball fly before they are forever banned?") and "Searchin for a Soldier's Grave."
I was sitting there quite enjoying the show when he played "I Don't Believe You" back to back with "Positively Fourth Street." I remembered the first time I really listened to either of the songs was back in my freshman year of college when the boxset Biograph came out and my parents gave it to me as a Christmas gift and I became one who was interested in Dylan to one who was fascinated with him. There wasn't a bad song on the five records in the set and several of the songs blew me away. Though I've heard the aforementioned songs hundreds of times since then I found myself sitting there in the arena thinking how much I really really liked both songs. Favorite lyric of all time? Try "I Don't Believe You"'s "From darkness dreams are deserted/Am I still dreamin' yet?/I wish she'd unlock/Her voice once and talk/instead of acting like we never have met." The lyrics of "Positively Fourth Street" are as bitter as they are sad and on this particular night Dylan sang them perfectly. "I wish that for just one time/You could stand inside my shoes/You'd know what a drag it is to see you."
He sang five songs from Love and Theft and each of them crackled with energy and urgency. "Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum" was rollicking; "Summer Days" swung and swung hard (it was amusing listening to a skilled singer get in all the words in a rather wordy song); "High Water (for Charlie Patton)" was menacing and intense; "Honest With Me" rocked hard. The highlight of the entire set was a quiet and reflective "Sugar Baby" which had a tremendous singer singing his heart out; a vocal full of mesmerizing power and fluidity getting to the heart of a complex song about regret and loss. It was as moving as it was stunning. In a recent interview Dylan has said this CD is his most autobiographical, that every line has something to do with who he is. The way he sang "Sugar Baby" shows he wasn't exactly joking. "Your charms have broken many a heart and mine is surely one/You got a way of tearin' the world apart, love, see what you've done/Just as sure as we're livin', just as sure as you're born/Look up, look up, seek your Maker, 'fore Gabriel blows his horn ." Twenty one shows and this was the single most moving moment of all. Right place, right time, with the right person at the right moment.