at the Orpheum
by Kerry Joyce
The world can roughly be divided into two kinds of people: Those who get Bob Dylan and those who don’t. Those of us who find Dylan’s lyrics poetic and profound, and his music, a haunting complement that catapults his mood swings and mysticism into an almost overwhelming artistic experience. And then there are the others, those who will never know what it feels like to have a Bob Dylan song “hit ’em like a freight train,” because, well… usually because the gate keepers of their unlucky souls find his singing voice intolerable.
In mixed company, an enormous chasm cracks wide at the broadcast of a Bob Dylan song, separating generally like-minded people onto either side.
“As the light burst through a beat up shade where he was waking up…” the Dylan express winds on through radioland, in and out of mini-vans, hash houses, beauty parlors, and poker games.
At the finish, the Dylan detractors and the Dylan admirers blink incomprehensibly at each other, well into a 30 second spot for Tread Ease, the discount tire superstore. As the naysaying Dylan detractor nonchalantly checks for chronic inborn, or creeping shallowness, the Dylan loyalist feels compelled to rise in defense of one of the few true geniuses of American popular culture, as if he were some incredible, no-account boyfriend, but with a greater passionate intensity.
In that lingering spirit, Dylan took the stage last month in the Bay State as he has done quite regularly for over 30 years. It was a capacity and predictably pessimistic crowd that filled the Orpheum for his performances. “I saw him in Belgium and he was terrible,” one Dylanoligist said rubbing her ticket stub expectantly. The most extremely idolatrous had no musical expectations whatsoever. “I just want to breathe the same air as him,” one said. More typical was the longing expressed by one fan for a “magic minute,” meaning the not unreasonable desire that Dylan would sing a familiar favorite in a familiar way for at least the length of a chorus or something.
Was that too much to hope for? The wire services reported Dylan had been revived somehow from his live show stupor of the past decade or more during a recent tour with the Grateful Dead. Improved (perhaps) would be Dylan’s performance vocals, famous for demonstrating all the range of a Chinese rap singer. Fodder for the dimwit comedians on dim lit stages, who parody him from here to L.A.
Dylan took charge early, opening with a credible song that not a single ticket holder was hoping to hear. As usual, he kept his emotional distance with the adoring audience throughout. Toll booth operators get more emotionally involved with their customers. And while it’s to hard to imagine him flossing or passing wind, Dylan’s barely sociable stage persona made it not at all hard to imagine him and the band storming off stage and kicking the shit out of the whole unisex-denim-clad lot of us.
And with impunity. Sure, we went along for the ride when he sang about getting a job in the great north woods working as a cook for a spell. But it wasn’t like anyone at the Orpheum that night would actually do such a thing. No, we were more the types who consume our communal canned bean suppers vicariously, safely inside the friendly confines of a Steinbeck novel while curled up alone in bed.
Still, Dylan needs us. He needs to be a singer, not just a songwriter. Why else would he constantly be on tour? Sometimes it seems possible that Dylan wrote all those great songs as a gimmick; so that he could be a professional singer and guitarist, in the same way that Jan Wenner made himself a rock ‘n’ roll publishing baron because he wanted more than anything else to hang out with Mick and the Stones.
Happily for his audience, Dylan played many of his most well-known songs: “All Along the Watchtower,” “Mister Jones,” “Tangled Up in Blue.” He was backed up surprisingly by a first-rate band with a hard rock sound. Dylan makes the transition from folk balladeer to electric guitar god at least as well as Neil Young, or better, for knowing his limitations. The boys also performed a couple of acoustic sets, garnished with several of Dylan’s astounding harmonica solos.
The renditions of his most popular songs were far different from the recorded originals, yet arguably just as good. But for those steeped in the originals, the live versions were difficult to remember and savor even a little while after the great man left as the good show ended.
Dylan remains, despite all his touring, a delightful and elusive mystery.