Let me preface this show review by stating that I don’t believe you can really understand someone’s assessment of a concert without context. Context is absolutely vital. You might have taken a bad something of something right before the greatest set of music ever to be performed or witnessed, so you never got to accurately assess or appreciate its splendor, and besides, even if you hadn’t gotten food poisoning from that goo ball, there’s no way you’d be interested in watching Phish perform on a stupid flatbed truck. Or…you may have just won the lottery, bought a new Maserati, then proposed and gotten engaged to the woman of your dreams an hour before the most trite, insipid, overpriced karaoke “show” in recorded history and just trust me bro, as far as I’m concerned, the Kajagoogoo set in August of ’86 at the Shit Shack in Wheeling, West Virginia was better than the original Woodstock. Or maybe you’re tone-deaf, clueless, and/or tasteless. Either way I’m kind of a pretentious jerk for writing this paragraph, but I felt it needed to be said.
So context matters, right? Well, here goes: in February of 2014, I accepted a request from my company to move to Osaka, Japan for 1 year to work for a client. Since arriving, my life has been a series of confusing incidents, unanswered questions, and baffling communication failures. I moved here knowing absolutely zero Japanese. As I write this, I’m now semi-conversant but still illiterate. Records, podcasts, Slingbox, and HBOGo help to stifle the pings of insanity, but I really hadn’t yet had any truly great live music experiences here. All of this may have contributed to me enjoying the absolute fuck out of Bob Dylan (whom my father calls “The Bard”) and his outstanding band’s final night of their 17 show tour of Japan. I got home from work, changed, and walked the 1.2 miles from my apartment to see Dylan’s third straight night at Zepp Namba in Osaka (Japan’s second largest city by population), during the 73rd year of my favorite troubadour’s existence.
You might be sensing a theme here, but it’s time for some more context: I seriously love Bob Dylan’s music. It represents comfort for me in a profound way. My father would always play Freewheelin (1963) and Another Side Of (1964) for and around me when I was younger. Today, our conversation is often casually sprinkled with references like “Abe said ‘Man, you must be putting me on.'” I consider Dylan to be the greatest living songwriter (though there are some days when I’ll insist it might be Neil Young). I’ve been playing and covering Dylan’s songs since I first picked up an acoustic guitar (my father’s) and a Dylan 3-chord songbook (also my father’s) in 6th grade. My best friend and I performed “The Times They Are A Changin'” at a 9/11 benefit concert in high school. In 2004, I went on my college television station’s morning show (estimated average daily viewership: 11) and performed a spoken word version of “Like a Rolling Stone” whilst smoking a cigarette, a la Shatner doing “Rocketman” on the 1978 Science Fiction Film Awards. I’ve also read way too many books about Dylan. I pathetically took solace in the fact that Dylan had been a member of the same fraternity as me during his brief tenure at the University of Minnesota. I know enough to know that Dylan’s famed devastating “motorcycle accident” may not have ever actually taken place. Of the two sisters in “Ballad in Plain D” (a song which is actually in C with a capo on the second fret, i.e., not exactly “plain” D, but I digress), I know the truth about the “creative one” and the “parasite,” and why things didn’t work out. I own Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper albums on vinyl. In 2009, during my first year of law school, I even managed to cite Dylan’s staunch refusal to be anointed a 1960s “protest singer” as part of a cogent argument on legal interpretation in an essay I wrote for my Constitutional Law final exam. When my cousin passed away, I listened to “Desolation Row” on repeat for a long time, because he was the person who first turned me on to its brilliance. Now that song makes me cry, but in a beautiful and positive way. I used to get told I resembled a young Mr. Zimmerman, but that was before I lost most of my hair; now I get compared to Chris Martin or Telly Savalas.
Yet, despite this obsession, ever since and including 1997’s Time Out of Mind (which, although good, is still perhaps less memorable than the “Soy Bomb” disruption of Dylan’s promotional performance for the album on the 1998 Grammys telecast), upon the release of a new Dylan record, including his most recent, 2012’s Tempest, the same thing always happens. I will, in this order: (1) get excited, (2) give it a few listens before giving up and deeming it inaccessible and tedious, (3) not give it another thought until the critics orgasm over it in best-of lists or it wins a Grammy, then finally (4) try again to connect with it before ultimately concluding, with a considerable degree of guilt, that it’s great but “just not my thing.” And when I’ve gone to see Dylan in the past, it has never lived up to the magic of all of the live recordings of his that I’ve obsessed over, from Royal Albert Hall to Newport Folk to the Rolling Thunder Revue. On paper, this show really wasn’t much different than the previous ones I’ve seen. Dylan no longer plays guitar. His vocal chords, always gravelly, informed by the wisdom of age, and susceptible to hyperbole and satire, now lie somewhere between incomprehensible and death’s door. And he plays almost exactly the same songs in almost exactly the same order every night. But given the context, none of that mattered at all. Not on this magical night, in this unnervingly nondistinct venue, in this crazy country, during this bewildering year. I hate to be dramatic, but for me, this concert was truly life-affirming.
The crowd was almost 100% Japanese, though there were a few Westerners scattered about. I ended up going out for sushi afterwards with a German couple who traveled to Japan to catch a few shows. He is a lifelong taper who’s spent most of his life working for German public radio (GPR?). They are self-proclaimed Deadheads, so I had a ton of fun just listening to them tell stories about the hundreds of shows, bands and lineups they’ve seen. I also spent some time hanging out with a group of 3 Brits. They’d each gone to all 17 of the shows on the tour (and over 1,000 Dylan shows cumulatively) and had designed and printed up some posters. They were selling them a few blocks away from the venue afterwards until security showed up and made them stop. But not before my limited Japanese (may have) helped win them a few sales. 1 for ¥500 and 3 for ¥1000 (~$5 and ~$10), by the way, if you’re curious. Sadly, that was the entirety of the Dylan Osaka lot scene though. I asked them if they cared that the setlist hasn’t changed in 2 years, save for the fifth song of the first set, a wild-card slot of sorts, which is still fairly predictable. They claimed ambivalence and unabashed enthusiasm, then admitted that when Dylan first started doing it, they were upset. But they also stressed how incredible the two November shows in Rome had been, wherein Dylan had randomly and inexplicably busted out all sorts of incredible masterpieces like “Boots of Spanish Leather,” “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” and “Positively 4th Street.” For all 3 of the Brits, their first time seeing Bob Dylan was 1984, the year of my birth.
At the few Japanese rock concert venues I’ve been to, the beer/alcohol/shochu sales are always in a separate room from the music area. Usually you cannot hear the music at all outside of the soundproofed music space. And Japanese crowds are really quiet during songs, almost disturbingly so. Zepp Namba was no different. The sound was incredible. The band, bolstered by Charlie Sexton and Stu Kimball on lead and rhythm guitar, respectively, multi-instrumentalist Donnie Herron on too many instruments to name, bassist Tony Garnier, and drummer George Recile, was the definition of consistent. Their playing was primarily relegated to the background, but on the few occasions when each was able to step out, they did so impressively and succinctly. Dylan’s piano playing was adequate and marked by a few nice passages, but I think it’s fair to say nobody came to see Dylan tickle the ivories (I once tickled a girl named Ivy, does that count?). Most importantly, Dylan’s voice was in pretty good form. There were a few frog-gargles and larynx-feedbacks interspersed, but he generally sounded solid. And articulate. For the songs I know all the words to, like 1965’s “She Belongs to Me,” “Tangled Up In Blue,” “Simple Twist of Fate,” and the obligatory “All Along the Watchtower” and “Blowin’ in the Wind” encore, his diction was impeccable. He changed the tense of “Tangled Up in Blue” to third person for the first several verses, adjusting and rewriting the lyrics as necessary to fit the new form. Then he sat down at the piano for the last verse, restoring the 1975 Blood on the Tracks original’s first person tense. The lyrics and the arrangement evoked a plaintiveness, as the song took on new meaning with the altered perspective, like a wistful man urging his younger self not to let her get away. It reminded me of the way the meaning of a lyric can change depending on who’s singing it. Trent Reznor wrote “Hurt” about heroin addiction, not the inevitability of aging, but when Johnny Cash sang it, “Everyone I know goes away in the end” had a completely different significance. Ditto for Willie Nelson covering Coldplay‘s “Clocks.”
Of the new Dylan material, the highlights for me were “Duquesne Whistle” (you must watch its incredible music video if you’ve never seen it), “Forgetful Heart,” “Pay In Blood,” and the show opening “Things Have Changed.” On the latter, from the soundtrack to the Michael Douglas box office dud Wonder Boys, Dylan sounded like a preacher evangelizing to a jaded parish, “I’ve been walking 40 miles of bad road, If the Bible is right, the world will explode.” When Dylan sounded the refrain, the crowd cheered loudly and for a prolonged period, then shushed up, almost as if on command, for the start of the next verse. The loudest cheers of the night were reserved for Dylan’s harmonica playing. Rightfully so, since his harp was testifying in hymn, filling the ~2500 person capacity room (seated balcony, standing GA floor) with an ethereal whimsy. It was loud and it gave me chills a few times, particularly during a lengthy solo in “Simple Twist of Fate.” There were also some boisterous yelps during the choruses of the best known songs. But the crowd never sang along even in the slightest. To be fair though, it’s almost impossible to sing along to a Bob Dylan concert since the melodies are completely different than on record. Also, (understatement alert!!!!), there may be a slight language barrier.
I went to the booze area to use my two free drink tickets towards the end of the first set and again in the middle of the second set. At Japanese concert venues, drink tickets are included in the ticket price. One benefit to knowing Dylan’s entire setlist ahead of the show was that I was able to plan which songs to miss to avoid long lines. To Dylan’s credit, this evening’s wild card song saw its historic live debut earlier on the tour in Tokyo. So, I saw the second ever live performance of “Huck’s Tune,” from the soundtrack to 2007’s Lucky You, starring Eric Bana as a poker player (lucky me for never having even heard of it?). If you’re keeping score at home, that makes two Dylan soundtrack songs on the night, both from films I’ve never seen directed by Curtis Hanson, who unfortunately has nothing to do with “MMMBop” but did make L.A. Confidential. While I procured my beverages, I used my limited Japanese to attempt to strike up conversations with the young folks working the bar counter. They appeared to all be in their 20s, and I’m pretty sure a few of them were teenagers. (The drinking age is 20 in Japan by the way, in case you were wondering.) First I tried a joke. “Kare wa watashi no oji des.” (He is my uncle.) The glasses- and shit-eating-grin-clad man’s eyes widened. He seemed confused. I clarified. “Jodan deshita. Kare wa kami yori motto toshiyori des.” (Was a joke. He is older than God.) This drew a laugh. More polite than genuine though. I asked him and the others if they liked Bob Dylan’s music. Deathly awkward silence. The closest I got to actually receiving a response was faint eye contact from a vaguely goth-y woman with bangs covering her entire forehead and one eyebrow. I turned to her. “Anata no ichiban sukina bando wa nan desuka?” (What is your favorite band?) She got serious and declared proudly “Nine Inch Nails.” YES! Victory! A sincere response to an honest question. You’d be amazed at how infrequently my interactions with Japanese strangers work out this way. I asked the first guy the same question. He responded but I couldn’t understand. I asked him to repeat himself. Still couldn’t understand. I tried again. “Mou ichido onegaishimasu.” (Once more please.) This time I understood. “Avril Lavigne,” he declared emphatically and without irony. “Oh,” I said. “Kakoi des.” (Cool.) I politely bowed, thanked everyone, backed away from the bar, and headed back inside with my drink, my worst fears about those damned kids on my lawn having officially been realized.
This review is already longer than a list of the religious allegories in Dylan’s songs, but fear not, it’s almost over. By now you’re probably wondering why I haven’t included any photographs. That’s because photography was not permitted inside the venue. I got yelled at 3 times and finger-pointed and scolded another time just for trying to take a photo. I repeatedly pretended I didn’t understand (not entirely inaccurate) but still was only able to snap one hopelessly blurry pic:
And I can’t find any photos from the show online. But who cares? This concert was all about just being there. It was about wondering if the other 2500 people around me could understand anything Bob Dylan was saying to them (enunciation-wise and English comprehension-wise). It was about my father and my cousin and sharing maguro and ootoro with German Deadheads. It was not about Avril Lavigne (or maybe it kind of was?). It was about the universal language of music as a powerful mood-adjuster. It was about harp and blues guitar and banjo and mandolin and steel pedal and upright bass. It was not about hearing the songs, melodies or vocal styles that I most wanted to hear. It was about learning to appreciate and celebrate 2014’s Bob Dylan, the American folk-blues musician who sounds like Tom Waits singing into a blender (even if I’m still not sure this incarnation will ever be “my thing”). And just like my decision to move to Japan and my life here as a whole, it’s really kind of simple: this concert was entirely about the experience. And what an awe-inspiring, soul-stirring, thought-provoking, visceral experience it was. One of the best live music experiences of my life in fact. But as you know, you can never really evaluate an experience without truly understanding its context…
– Eric The Lev
Here’s a recent version of “Tangled Up In Blue,” as I described:
And a recent version of “Blowin’ in the Wind”:
Here’s the first night of the Roman Miracle, audio only:
Finally, here’s the full setlist, courtesy of BobLinks.com:
April 23, 2014
Things Have Changed
She Belongs To Me
Beyond Here Lies Nothin’
Workingman’s Blues #2
Pay In Blood
Tangled Up In Blue
High Water (For Charley Patton)
Simple Twist Of Fate
Early Roman Kings
Spirit On The Water
Soon After Midnight
Long And Wasted Years
All Along The Watchtower
Blowin’ In The Wind