Illustration by Don Sparrow (click to enlarge).

ON NOVEMBER 1, I was fortunate enough to see Bob Dylan live for the second time in five years. The 2003 tour I caught was in support of his much-praised comeback album Love and Theft, and, while Dylan’s latest studio effort Modern Times isn’t as classic in my mind, my appreciation for Dylan as an artist has only grown in the intervening years.

After a tidy, career-spanning introduction at the Brandt Centre in Regina, Saskatchewan—an introduction that five years ago made prominent mention of how Dylan “met Jesus Christ”—Dylan quietly emerged with his band, skipping the support act. Elegantly dressed in a natty western suit and Bolero hat, he looked every bit the “Joker” Don McLean allegorically depicted in his opus “American Pie.” Dylan’s band also shared the formal look, rocking out in matching purple suits, which reminded me of the early days of Dylan’s performing with The Band.

The set opened with 1971’s “Watching the River Flow”, cleverly framing the rest of the evening with detached observation of time’s passage. It was during this sound that the sound problems at the venue became apparent. I’m not sure if Dylan was going for a fuzzy, jangly sound, or if it was sloppy engineering, or simply the constraints of playing in a Hockey Arena, but the sound was pretty distorted for the first bit of the show, and never improved dramatically.

That was also when Dylan introduced the audience to his vocal quirk of the night. (He’s famous for rarely performing a song the same way twice). When I saw him in 2003, Dylan seemed to vocally ascend on the end of each syllable or in the last word of each phrase, giving his lyrics a moaning and plaintive tone. At this year’s show, he delivered his words in a gruff, Jimmy-Durante-style staccato, which both made most of the songs more spoken than sung, and helped the audience understand what was being said in the face of the amp buzz. The gravelly whisper also gave the songs a sense of urgency and intimacy, which helped transcend the minor-league hockey arena ambience.

Dylan followed “River” up with a reggae-inspired reinterpretation of “Mr. Tambourine Man” which had a very heartbroken feel, perfectly suited for the destitution of the song.
For the duration of the show, he would alternate between more recent tracks (2006’s “The Levee’s Gonna Break”) and classic early cuts (a moody version of “Visions of Johanna,” from a full forty years earlier) to good effect. The familiar oldies would get applause in the second or third line (sometimes later, depending on how intelligible the version was) while the newer, jazzier tracks got mostly polite applause at the end.

A particular highlight was a bouncy, upbeat version of one of the saddest songs in recorded history, “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.” Given the grim, true-life subject matter of the song, this performance could have seemed irreverent, but in that moment, it really wasn’t. In fact, the defiantly hopeful tone of this version took on a perhaps intended poignancy, played against a backdrop of a historic Presidential election, and a watershed moment for the same country that once saw fit to give William Zantzinger just six months for callously causing the death of a black woman for taking too long to procure his bourbon. Though we weren’t treated to that particular track, one couldn’t help but feel that the Times had indeed Changed, all under the keen observation of the poet laureate before us.

I was also struck by the mixture of ages I saw in the capacity crowd around me—they ranged from the young clump of hipsters who wore variations of Cate Blanchett’s I’m Not There 1966 Dylan look, to the middle-aged poncho-wearing ponytail dudes to the pensioner in the next row (who continually dove across my lap to share indispensable pieces of trivia with the person sitting next to me). Dylan’s appeal genuinely seemed to cut across all ages and walks of life. Each member of the audience had “their” Dylan represented, as his songs skipped along through time periods and even genres.

While “my” Dylan (the mystical, rambly late 70s-early 80s Dylan of marathon songs like “Brownsville Girl” “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts,” and “ Jokerman”) was a tad underrepresented for my liking, the Dylan we got was pretty amazing (and I also concede that I’m a weirdo—almost nobody likes “Brownsville Girl”). All the more amazing when one considers just how many dates Dylan plays a year, all at the age of 67. If there were anywhere Dylan could have “phoned it in”, Regina, Saskatchewan would be a tempting choice.

But as he proved with his spirited revisits to standards like “All Along the Watchtower” and “Like A Rolling Stone,” the Bob Dylan of 2008 is still bringing it. So much for not trusting anyone over thirty.

Don Sparrow is a freelance writer and illustrator in Saskatchewan.

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