Does Bob Dylan suck? Thoughts on Americanarama and audience expectations

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It took five songs for Bob Dylan to play a “hit.” Ironically, it was at this the point that the exodus began.

Last Friday, I began my summer vacation with a quick pit-stop in Chicago to catch the Americanarama tour (I’m returning later this week for Pitchfork Fest and JT/Jay-Z). The show, on paper, was a no-brainer, pairing America’s greatest living songwriter with two of its most dependable live bands (Wilco, My Morning Jacket).

But anyone who’s seen Dylan in recent years knows he’s a wild card, at best. The last time Dylan came through Halifax was in 2008, and I often run into Haligonians who are still angry about that show; not disappointed, but outright disgusted. I was there, and while I didn’t quite share that level of vitriol, I could easily understand where people were coming from. Locked behind his keyboard, barely moving or indicating the presence of even a band, I wasn’t quite sure who Dylan was performing for that night — but it probably wasn’t us.

In Chicago, under dim, white stage lights, Dylan and his band emerged shortly after 9:30 p.m., and launched into “Things Have Changed,” probably his most recognizable song from his past 20 years of work (it did win an Academy Award, though that’s not always saying much, I suppose). Standing centre stage, wobbling around, doing probably all the frontman gesturing he can manage, Dylan powered through the song with every tear in his ripped-up throat. I thought it was a fine enough starting point, but I could tell the crowd was already growing restless: rumblings, mumurs, overtalk. Three bluesy songs from later records (Time out of Mind, Tempest) followed, and the background noise escalated.

It was at song five that the blues riffs gave way for something more energetic, folksy — the band’s attitude seemed to shift as well — but it took until the chorus for me to tell that this was actually “Tangled Up in Blue.” I confess I kind of loved the new arrangement, though whether it was worth abandoning the definitive arpeggios of the original is up for debate. The crowd started toe tapping, singing along quietly. It’s like everyone found a moment to get engaged and were going to make the most of it, even if they hadn’t quite found their entire way into it.

And yet, that’s also when people started to leave. Presumably, these were people who came more for the Wilco/MMJ part of the lineup, but the volume of the exiting crowd kept growing. It never really let up for the entirety of the 14-song set. I’d wager that close to a majority of the crowd had their “Dylan breaking point” before the actual end of Dylan’s set. Could it have been a desire to beat the traffic after a long day? Sure — but, seated near the far end of the stadium to relax during Dylan’s set, I also overheard many people’s exiting thoughts.

More than a few could be heard proclaiming, “Dylan sucked.”

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If a concert ticket is like a contract — a document representing the exchange of funds for services — then what are the terms?

On paper, it’s rather simple: the person or band on the ticket is going to be there, doing something (presumably, performing music), and you, the ticket holder, gain access to witness it, provided you abide by all the rules and regulations of the venue. That’s it. Nothing more.

Unwritten in that document, though, are legions of expectations, poses, codes that shape the concert experience. In some ways, these are hyper-personal — what I want from a concert may be different than you — but there are certainly common attitudes among any artist’s fanbase about what should (or must) happen at a show. Take, for example, a breakout artist with their first hit single on its way up the charts: if you went to the show and they didn’t play that hit, you’d be outraged. You’d feel like the terms of your contract were violated, even though nothing on the ticket says that song has to be played.

Philip Auslander’s writings about artistic personae — popular musicians’ “characters” that, ultimately, is their primary performance, he argues — illuminate the artist/audience relationship and just how far an artist can push expectations. To wit: an artist like David Bowie who defined himself as a chameleon was able to make radical persona changes throughout his career because his fans expected it, whereas someone like Garth Brooks, defined as “authentically” himself, failed miserably when he tried to become Chris Gaines. He pushed too far outside of his audience’s expectations and suffered for it.

These tensions are at play in any concert, especially with artists for whom live music is a crucial (if not primary) venue of performance. What I find compelling, though, is how the language around this tension is increasingly shaped by consumer language: “As a paying customer, I should get what I want.” This isn’t surprising in an era when the Rolling Stones are charging $180 for a shitty seat, but it’s not just baby boom mega-stars who are coming across this line of thought: earlier this year, indie rockers Low filled its 30-minute set at the Rock the Garden festival with a single, feedback-heavy song and faced massive outrage from fans who felt they hadn’t gotten what they paid for.

To an extent, I’m fine with this line of thinking: besides time, money is primarily what we exchange to attend a concert, so it’s only reasonable that when we feel our end of the artist/audience relationship hasn’t been properly addressed, we express our discontent in financial terms. But in an era of Internet-driven instant gratification, are we overvaluing our end of that relationship?

Two years ago, Prince played Halifax. It was a blockbuster show with excellent musicianship, captivating performances and loads of hits (“Purple Rain,” “Let’s Go Crazy,” “1999,” “Kiss,” “Baby I’m a Star,” and his now trademark medley playing long excerpts of tons of others). And yet I’ve had conversations with multiple people who were disappointed because a) Prince jammed on a bunch of covers (which is a key part of the soul/R&B live tradition, mind you), and b) that he didn’t play certain songs (I’ve had three or four people say how upset they were that he didn’t play “Little Red Corvette,” for example). These are perfectly valid disappointments — I love “Covette” — but it’s bewildering to me that they would be so significant for people that they would outweigh the entertainment value of what Prince actually delivered.

At what point do we, as concert consumers, ask too much of our end of the contract?

stones

I have a great deal of sympathy for baby boom artists — not as commercial entities, mind you (one is hardly concerned about the pocketbook status of the Stones, McCartney, etc.) but as capital-A artists.

Rock and rollers were never supposed to grow old: it was young man’s music for a young man’s game. (*note: I’m being intentional with my gendering here.) But with Tattoo You and its subsequent tour, the Rolling Stones created a concert model for aging artists, one that matched the rapid development of “classic rock” radio.

Give ‘em the hits.

I admit this is hardly a novel idea — lots of older singers and performers toured oldies circuits well before the Stones — but the Stones brought the nostalgia act to much grander, more respected stages, in a way that aligned with the increasing conservatism of its audience (not politically, but socially). They realized that as concert-goers got older (and able/willing to pay more for a ticket), they didn’t want to see Mick, Keith, Ron and Charlie. What they wanted was “The Rolling Stones” — a memory, a reminder, a feeling from their past. And so they built a touring regime around a broad, mass experience that delivered those feelings to as many people in the crowd as possible.

I saw the Stones in Halifax in 2006 and the show left me somewhat cold. If a concert is a conversation between artist and audience, the Stones delivered a loud, pandering monologue — like a political speech designed to stir the hearts of its target audience, but which felt strikingly hollow to me. One of the few moments that felt like it had room to breathe was when the Stones performed one of their new songs from A Bigger Bang. The ballad, “Streets of Love,” is rather generic, but it felt like a reprieve during which the Stones were inviting me to join them on stage emotionally, rather than blasting me in the ears with someone else’s memories. And yet, I bet it’s a moment when a lot of the crowd chose to chat or bathroom break.

It’s always been challenging, but perhaps increasingly so, for an artist to keep an audience’s interest as an artist as they grow older. At a certain point, they become a “legacy” artist. Having made their contribution to the form/culture, the artist’s legacy is seen as complete and, ergo, the expectation is that they’ll spend the rest of their career playing to that legacy. The tricky thing about becoming a legacy artist is that it’s only tangentially connected with artistic output: yes, most later-career artists don’t produce work that’s as compelling as their earlier work, but even those that produce great, acclaimed albums (Bruce Springsteen, Leonard Cohen, perhaps Dylan) will never see that work canonized in the same way. Put another way: even if the Stones could make a new album that’s as good as Exile on Main Street, we’d never receive or appreciate it that way. Context prevails.

So if you’re an artistically-minded performer — and let’s keep in mind that as much as these people may like their money, they’ve have written/recorded some of the most important, groundbreaking popular music of all time — how do you react to becoming a legacy artist? Some, like the Stones, simply go with the flow and embrace their fate: setlists with a couple deep cuts, the token new song and, mostly, the greatest hits over and over again. Others, like Springsteen, maintain a more fluid conversation with their audience, striking an effective balance in weaving new material thematically amongst their previous work.

But these examples are great performers, people for whom losing track of their audience would be a soul-crushing disappointment. When the roar of the crowd, or the kinesis of a live performance, is as much (or more) of a thrill than the creation of something new, you’re going to find ways to sustain it. But what happens when your performance is the least of your concerns? How do you react when you’re still driven more by creation than by connecting with your audience?

What do you do when you’re the most important American songwriter of all time?

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Despite recording a series of critically-acclaimed albums over the past 20 years, Bob Dylan’s legacy is defined by the work he recorded between 1963 and 1975, the series of albums and songs that stretches from The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan to Blood on the Tracks. It’s fair to say that if you ask almost anyone to name Dylan’s top five albums, or top 10 songs, every answer would be from before 1980.

At the Chicago stop on the Americanarama tour, Dylan performed just five songs from before 1980.

This is, on paper, crazy. It would be like seeing the Stones and them playing post-Exile material for two-thirds of their set, or Springsteen doing the same with post-Born in the U.S.A. tracks. Throw in the fact that nearly none of those “hits” sounded quite the same and you’ve got a recipe for widespread audience disappointment which, from my vantage point, is more or less what Dylan got in Chicago. (Though I must say that a good half or more of the crowd stuck around to the end, and many seemed totally keen to go along for the ride — but what other headliner on a four-band bill would lose half their crowd in such a way?)

In short: Bob Dylan is saying “fuck you” to the idea of being a legacy artist.

I think it’s possible to both admire this while also acknowledging that it’s deeply problematic. It’s a problem because it’s simply too far removed from the expectations of his ticket-buying audience, many of whom want at least some nostalgia as part of the exchange — flashes of their “Bob Dylan” rather than Bob Dylan circa 2013. It’s admirable because the consumer attitude’s dominance over the artistic impulse of live performance deserves to be challenged. To ask a performer to simply play to our expectations threatens the act of discovery, to be wowed by something we never knew we wanted in the first place.

But this brings me to the real problem with Dylan in 2013: his inability to wow.

wilco-300Wilco’s set at the Americanarma show offered a striking contrast to Dylan’s subsequent performance, despite one key similarity: a lack of classic hits. With no new album to promote, Wilco’s setlists have been incredibly varied during this tour, sometimes repeating only one or two songs between shows. Yet I’d never even think of building a Wilco set like the one in Chicago: nothing from Summerteeth, nothing from Wilco (The Album), and only one song from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (a deep cut, no less, though the fan in me was thrilled to finally hear “Poor Places”). Only two songs could be considered Wilco classic “hits” (“Misunderstood,” “California Stars”) and when you throw in two cover collaborations (“Ghost,” with Richard Thompson and “Cinnamon Girl” with My Morning Jacket) you have a setlist that easily could have disappointed.

It didn’t (though it was hardly a blockbuster show). And that’s because Wilco are great musicians and showmen. In particular, the band’s decision to increasingly feature Nels Cline’s miraculous guitar is incredibly astute, turning rather dull songs like “Impossible Germany” into tour-de-force moments. Throw in the overall talent of the other musicians on-stage and Jeff Tweedy’s wry charisma and even when Wilco aren’t playing what you’d prefer, there’s no question that they’re playing the hell out of it. You leave impressed and entertained.

Bob Dylan has a great band, as you’d expect. But he contributes so little to its success. His voice, entirely worn out and ragged, somewhat works for the newer material written with it in mind, but it’s a disaster when trying to tackle the classics. None of the new arrangements compare to the originals, even when (like “Tangled Up in Blue”) they’re interesting on their own terms. And while it’s admirable that there’s nothing nostalgic about the show, there’s no question that what’s on stage isn’t nearly as exciting as the nostalgia experience Dylan’s rejecting.

So does Dylan suck? No, that’s probably too harsh. But he’s caught between two audiences and two realities, ultimately appeasing neither. His nostalgic fans aren’t getting the Bob Dylan they expect, and those seeking a new experience aren’t getting one that measures up. And so, in his restlessness without reward, few go home happy.

“I try my best to be just like I am,” goes the lyrics to “Maggie’s Farm.” “But everybody wants you to be just like them. They sing while you slave. And I just get bored.”

3 responses to “Does Bob Dylan suck? Thoughts on Americanarama and audience expectations

  1. I just watched the second half of Bob Dylan: No Direction Home (still haven’t seen the first part. Long story). Your experience is interesting to me adjacent to my recent viewing experience. Dylan thought aloud, when he started going electric “I was ok with the booing. You know…you can kill someone with kindness, too.”

  2. artists cant only play ‘hits’ or ‘classic’ stuff… they must get so sick of playing the same song over and over again for people… yeah the people like it, but sometimes the artist needs to think about him/herself

  3. Sorry to say, but you are correct. I’ve seen him several times live and the last time was in 2006. God, what an awful show. He’d always been a “hit or miss” live performer but he was abysmal that night. Much of the audience walked out before the end of the show. What is puzzling is why he still bothers to perform live at all. It’s almost as if he’s deliberately trying to undermine his reputation as an artist. Either that, or he’s just plumb loco.

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