At GM Place on Friday, October 24
Wise-asses of the world, your time is now—at least when it comes to Bob Dylan, who’s been the butt of philistine jokes ever since he first crawled onto the streets of New York City toting a guitar and wearing that little Greek fisherman’s cap. Just last week, for instance, one of my more sarcastic colleagues had this to say about His Bobness: “Whuzzz gizzzz a zzzhit ee caaaaan uzzastanzz a sinnggg wuuuuud hee szzzzz.”
Once upon a time I would have felt compelled to come to Mr. Zimmerman’s defence, but that was before I went to GM Place and spent the first few minutes of “Like a Rolling Stone” thinking it was “Positively 4th Street”. Seriously. And I’m such a Dylan fan that I’ve even been known to enjoy his harmonica playing.
Still, the man’s latest Vancouver appearance had me verging on apostasy. Halfway through Dylan’s show I was ready to face east and pray—not to Mecca, but to Hamilton, Ontario, home of Bob’s erstwhile producer Daniel Lanois.
The French-Canadian guitarist and studio wizard has gotten a lot of stick for his tendency to overproduce—including, obliquely, in Dylan’s otherwise revelatory memoir, Chronicles Volume 1. But spend some time with Dylan’s latest collection of outtakes and one-offs, Tell Tale Signs, and it quickly becomes apparent that Lanois is the one who made 1997’s Time Out of Mind an indelible triumph. Dylan wrote the tunes, but it was his producer who carved them in marble. Left to his own devices, the singer all too often renders his work in quicksand, as he did, distractingly, at the Garage.
Why, for instance, did he employ the same murky blues backdrop no fewer than three times? “Highway 61 Revisited”, “Summer Days”, and “Thunder on the Mountain” were all set to a blandly generic shuffle—which might be fine at the Yale on a Saturday afternoon, but not when the price of a concert ticket would cover a week’s gas or groceries.
Similarly, “Tangled Up In Blue”—one of Dylan’s finest mid-career melodies—was given a rinky-dink arrangement that was 80 percent Neil Diamond and 20 percent unidentifiable fluff. The cotton-batting average was even higher on an unbearably mawkish “Make You Feel My Love”, while the exhilarating word-rush that was the original “Visions of Johanna” was reconstituted as a rheumy and largely undecipherable complaint.
Not all was wrong in Dylan’s world, though. The last time he was here—at the Orpheum in 2005—he cut a stiff and remote figure. Standing nearly motionless at an electric keyboard, sweat or something worse pooling at the end of his nose, he looked ill and sounded cranky, spitting out nearly every phrase with the same relentless, rising cadence.
This time around, he was far more relaxed, grinning at his backing musicians and stabbing at a Hammond organ with evident enjoyment. Dylan even sang well, at times, with real emotional force and surprising melodic fluidity. Too bad we cudddn unnnastan a sinnggg wuuuuud hee sdddd.