At a certain point the setlist becomes insignificant and the intricacies of the performance become irrelevant. Bob Dylan is on stage and he is laying down the law. That loaded sentence becomes sufficient for understanding why seeing the legend perform never feels quite like attending a concert. It feels like sitting in a church or more precisely, a spooky Southern tent revival where the stakes feel apocalyptic, the promises have proportions that are Biblical, and things are happening that believers cannot explain and atheists cannot dismiss.
It isn’t that Dylan has magical powers or that he is laying hands on paralyzed people and enabling them to walk again. It is that perhaps more than any other living performer, there are such mythic investments placed within Dylan, and amazingly he manages to live up to them. His stage is a rare setting where myth and reality seem to meet. They dance together to the tune of rusty blues guitar. The razorblade-throated singer tightens their entanglement by documenting outlaw population groups who are submerged from the greater polity, and respond with a spirituality that is stoked in the fires of hell and ready to burn the unrighteous.
On Halloween night when Bob Dylan and his band took the stage at the Aragon in Chicago, the audience members, some of whom were clad in costume, erupted in wild applause. Dylan did not acknowledge the reception, and instead stepped up to his keyboard and immediately began a tough-as-nails rendition of the overlooked gem from Slow Train Coming, “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking”. The perfect song to set the tone for the evening and address a gathering in a time of recession caused by greed and political corruption featured some altered lyrics such as:
Jesus is coming to gather his jewels
Jesus is coming
Coming back to gather his jewels
We’re livin’ by the golden rule
Whoever’s got the gold, rules
Dylan snarled and growled each syllable of the song, and once again demonstrated that quality of singing does not necessarily have anything to do with vocal ability. A truly great singer, Dylan can give emotional nuance and subtlety to a song like no other performer. “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking” was given an urgency, passion, and by the conclusion, sense of redemption that was frighteningly singular. It was not projected onto the audience. It was Dylan’s alone, and the audience was provided the choice to emulate or ignore it. During slower parts of the next performance, a lazy “Lay, Lady, Lay”, many concert attendees were already taking out their cell phones, which appropriately symbolized why Dylan’s hard presence and uncompromising message is not for everyone.
The perfect anthem for the cell phone contingency of the crowd was the live premiere of “It’s All Good”, a furious yet fun song from Dylan’s latest non-Christmas album, Together Through Life. “It’s All Good” documents the spiritual decay, moral decline, and institutional failure that afflicts modern America with incurable disease, yet ends each description with that contemporary colloquialism that captures the stupid apathy and sickly indifference that makes all the calamitous conditions possible.
Big politician telling lies
Restaurant kitchen, all full of flies
Don’t make a bit of difference, don’t see why it should
But it’s all right, ‘cause it’s all good
It’s all good
It’s all good
Dylan’s mocking tone should give anyone pause who ever uttered the phrase “it’s all good”, and the performance in Chicago was elevated into a representation of the existential battle between apathy and outrage by an impressive guitar versus organ duel between Charlie Sexton, Dylan’s recently returned guitar player who is one of the best in the business, and Bob on the B-3. The jam on “It’s All Good” was topped only by the ferocious “Highway 61 Revisted”, which again featured Sexton and Dylan up front, but was strengthened by the thunder from George Receli on drums, which demanded greater speed from all surrounding players.
Dylan closed the main set with a spooky “Ballad of a Thin Main” after a rollicking “Thunder On the Mountain”. The two songs oddly complemented each other, because they are both imbued with a mysterious sense of doom. “Thunder” rocks through the doom with promises of spiritual resistance, while “Ballad of a Thin Man” seems to stay inside and take ominous comfort in it. Dylan and his band members’ shadows were cast above them by the eerie lighting that accompanied the band’s performance, which drifted from muted to forceful, while Dylan delivered the song in a croak that went from low to high. This vocal delivery carried an unsettling uncertainty that matched the lyric “Something’s happening here and you don’t know what it is.”
The encores of “Like a Rolling Stone” and “All Along the Watchtower” were popular with the audience. This was understandable, as the most common complaint about Dylan’s live shows is that he does not play much of his older material. There are those who still expect him to strum a guitar and sing “The Times They are A-Changin”.
What they may not realize is that Dylan is the rare performer who is not here to entertain or please in a conventional way. He takes prophetic measure of the world, indicts the spiritually unjust and morally weak, and projects fleeting opportunities for love and truth. The world of 2009 is not the same as the world of 1964. Therefore, the Chicago performances of “Beyond Here Lies Nothing” and “Workingman’s Blues #2” carry much more power, and give the audience something much more valuable than a run through of 60s favorites.
This was captured most potently in the middle of the set with the performance of “Cold Irons Bound” from Time Out of Mind. Dylan stood center stage, harp in hand, while the band played a dramatic version of the song that continues to drive along with a steady beat and one note guitar during the verses that instantly shifts to winding during the chorus and goes back to its simple rhythm after each chorus’ conclusion. The song builds into something that is unclear as there is no crescendo.
Dylan gives chilling couplets of lyrics like “I went to Church on Sunday and she passed by / My love for her is taking such a long time to die” and “It’s such a sad thing to see beauty decay / It’s sadder still, to feel your heart torn away.”
Throughout the performance a deadly spirit seemed to haunt the building. Its spectral presence did not waver even when Dylan referenced the “winds of Chicago” that have “torn him to shreds”. At one point Dylan even proclaimed that his conditions are such that it is “almost like I don’t exist”.
As the band marched on its warlike dirge, the voice of Dylan began to speak of an existential hero desperately needed in these times. This hero may or may not be accessible, but at least Bob Dylan is available. Throughout the destructive quality of “Cold Irons Bound”, the world-weary, seemingly undefeatable songwriter continually announced “I’m twenty miles out of town, in cold irons bound.”
Everyone should be able to take comfort in that.
David Masciotra is the author of Working On a Dream: The Progressive Political Vision of Bruce Springsteen. For more information visit www.davidmasciotra.com or follow him on Twitter.