The fog, call it drizzle, blew in and out, in and, finally, out of Berkeley’s Greek Theater. It never quite took over, giving us a mild Friday night; most of the heavy clothes we brought stayed in the tote bag. Mark Knopfler’s band had surrendered the stage, finishing a sturdy, well-received, if at times slightly boring, set. The standard thirty-minute wait murmured with excitement about the Giants game, everyone checking their devices constantly and calling the situation out to one another as it changed. The house lights went down and the stage, dark, buzzed. After a minute, the crowd spotted that unmistakable white bush hat over that bobbing walk as the man wound through a scattering of equipment. An immediate and huge cheer went up as he took his place at an electric piano.
There’s something about Bob Dylan taking the stage that never fails to thrill. This is left over, at least in part, from a time some can still remember when a Dylan concert was a rare thing—the recluse emerges from his cave and all that—and not just another stop on the continuous travelling show it has become. It is nevertheless undeniable that, more than any other living musician, he has the best claim to the words ‘legend,’ ‘genius,’ and ‘titan,’ and crowds continue to respond not only adoringly but with respectful awe merely upon seeing him take the stage. We were, after all, in the presence of a musician on the same Rushmore with Armstrong, Ellington, Sinatra, Lennon and Elvis.
The stage was lit from below with footlights that turned the chrome-plated mike stands and drum accessories a lurid glowing gold and the players spectral and weird, looking like kids holding flashlights under their chins. Dressed in his customary black pants with white stripes down the legs, fancy Western jacket with a string tie, and looking like a card sharp moonlighting as a pimp, Dylan and the band swung into a nearly unrecognizable ‘Watching the River Flow,’ which has been his set opener for most of this tour. It took me a full two minutes to figure out what song he was playing; I could only parse out a few words here and there. Halfway through he switched from standing at the electric piano to sitting at a grand, which was where he stayed for most of the rest of the evening, pumping that thing with one leg propped on a monitor speaker, rearing back imperiously like Jerry Lee Lewis.
In recent performances his aging voice has made his music sound dark and bizarre, like Howlin’ Wolf after reading “A Season in Hell.” Though now his vocal cords have degenerated to the point where he sounds like the toughest parts of a week-dead mandrill being forced down a kitchen disposal, his voice remains as ineffably evocative as ever. The band, Charlie Sexton and Stu Kimball (guitars), Tony Garnier (bass), George Receli (drums) and Don Herron (violin, guitar, steel), has been together, with the exception of Sexton who rejoined in 2009 after a seven-year hiatus, for well over a decade. They laid down a greasy, fast, Memphis-style funk making no attempt to frame the songs in familiar arrangements or contexts; they’re way beyond even pretending to be reproducing the hits at this point. Dylan has spent his career challenging his audiences, forcing them to trip over their own expectations and daring them to keep up with him. Friday night was no different, he gave us nothing to grab onto, no foothold at all; just throwing down the music without compromise for either our pleasure or scorn, and he didn’t care which. It took my wife and me, and the crowd, too, a little while to figure out what all he and his boys were up to. Dylan and this band, already among the best touring units going today, are now one. They have merged into a unit of pure music-making, dressing the songs with intros that give no clue as to what’s coming and trailing off into long, interesting instrumental passages with plenty of room for the soloists. And it’s an awe-inspiring thing to behold. They reminded me of how Dylan sounded with The Band on tour in 1974, with the musicians charging ahead like a giant head-lowered rhinoceros with Dylan, squalling and bellowing, astride like Pecos Bill, lass-oo twirling, and bouncing off the saddle. The result was, as my wife put it, “apocalyptic,” with every song sounding like a prophecy of doom and cataclysm, or at least the promise of the complete destruction of your musical mind. This approach suited some of the darker songs, like ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’ and ‘All Along the Watchtower’ perfectly, enhancing their already doom-y moods, but some of the more fragile material, ‘To Ramona,’ for instance, was garbled beyond recognition. (‘To Ramona?’ Not exactly what one whistles when picking at random from Dylan’s song book, huh? Really, all I caught were “…cannot explain that in rhyme,” and part of the coda “…and someday, maybe/Who knows, baby/I’ll come and be cryin’ to you,” and I even doubt I got that much; I know the line well enough that I may have filled a bunch of it in myself.) ‘Tangled Up In Blue’ and ‘Shelter from the Storm’ may also never be the same after undergoing Dylan’s croaked, stop-time deconstruction. (It was interesting to watch the Berkeley students who turned out to see Dylan. Judging, unscientifically, merely by watching the audience reactions, their favorite records would seem to be Blood on the Tracks and Highway 61 Revisited, which, I would say, is just about nailing it.) All the while Sexton and Company remained so relentlessly and flawlessly funky that major portions of the crowd abandoned their seats to dash down and dance in the aisles. When was the last time anyone saw dancing at a Dylan concert? Imagine.
Of course don’t for a minute think Dylan is not in full control of every detail of what’s happening on that stage. When push comes to shove he knows what his audience, challenged or not, has come for And so after playing four non-hits in a row (‘Cry a While,’ ‘Make You Feel my Love,’ ‘Levee’s Gonna Break,’ and ‘Desolation Row’) he led the band through a show that built subtly, slowly, funkily, through ‘Thunder on the Mountain,’ ‘Ballad of a Thin Man,’ and then grandly, finished with a nearly-orchestral, if inevitable, climax of ‘Like a Rolling Stone,’ and ‘All Along the Watch Tower.’ The crowd went nuts, the lights went down.
And then, for an encore, he and the band returned to the stage and completely deconstructed—no, ripped apart—‘Blowin’ in the Wind.’ It was indecipherable, cacophonous, ruined and beautiful. There in Berkeley, California, where so much of what became known as the Sixties began, on a stage at the university that most exemplifies the student politics of that era, on some of the left’s most sacred ground, Bob Dylan had the guts and the imagination and the utter gall to take that decade’s earliest and most cherished anthem and tear it limb from limb simply to blow the minds of an entirely different generation of Berkeley students. Dylan led Peter, Paul and Mary’s old Progressive war horse to the glue factory in a way they could never have imagined in their worst collective nightmare. He scattered the bits of bone, teeth and gristle that remained of the song at his feet, leaving them there for the janitor to mop up. There was nothing left of it when he exited the stage.
Of course, if you look at the web sites where those obsessives post set lists for every concert Dylan has ever done you’ll find out he closes with ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ just about every night. Still…
This article will appear in the upcoming issue of Isis Magazine