I first started listening to Bob Dylan in high school on the long road trips with my dad and brother in a Subaru Legacy. During those road trips, I wore out certain Dylan albums: Highway 61 Revisited, Blood on the Tracks, Freewhelin’. My favorite songs from Dylan have to be “Ballad of a Thin Man,” “Tangled Up In Blue,” or “These Times Are a Changin’.” Like my love for Jack Kerouac, Bob Dylan is an artist I admire who has influenced my writing and personal philosophy. But I’ve never seen him play live. I’ve just heard so many bad rumors about his performances being terrible that I never went out my way to make it happen. Then my friend D gave my wife a ring and said she had two tickets to the Dylan concert at the Dolby Theater on Hollywood Boulevard. I jumped at the opportunity.
The seats were incredible, and we were so close to the stage I could actually give credence to the idea that Bob Dylan actually could see me. The theater was incredible, and the walls were velvet, and the balconies had an elitist feel of a country run by a monarchy. An old man sitting next to me was embarrassing his young daughter by dancing in his seat, and Val Kilmer was somewhere in the audience.
At Bob Dylan at the Dolby in Hollywood because Bob is eternal.
— Val Kilmer (@ValEKilmer) October 27, 2014
It was starting to hit me that I was about to see one of the greatest artists, poets, and musicians of the 20th century, but I honestly wasn’t holding my breath. I was expecting a skeleton to walk on the stage instead of a great poet. But Stu Kimball, the rhythm guitar player, starting strumming the opening chords, and Dylan sauntered out onto the stage in a wide-brimmed hat followed by his band. I can’t remember what song they played first — I wasn’t actually taking notes like in the old days when I was actually reviewing concerts — but Dylan stood in front of four microphones (he only seemed to ever use one) and the band played behind him like a machine that figured out how to sing.
What I was struck by right away was Dylan’s drummer, George Receli. Man, he could play. It seemed like at times he wanted to let loose, but he stayed generally calm and subdued behind the kit, setting the groundwork for a rhythmically complex session. When I think of Dylan I don’t really think about the rhythm section very often. I think about Dylan and his guitar and his lyrics, but seeing the band live gave me a whole new appreciation for the textured beauty of the songs, especially on his later able “The Tempest,” which I wasn’t that familiar with but now love.
Then the second aspect of the band I noticed was the guitarist Charlie Sexton, who had a guitar style the LA Times referred to as “typically gentle, evocative lines.” The whole band had this laid back and controlled sense to their performance, and Sexton seemed to lead the band’s aesthetic of controlled edge — or old-man rebellion. As I was walking out after the show, I was talking to a man about Dylan’s age who said he wished Dylan would just let Sexton rip a little bit more. Sexton was such an incredible guitar player, providing these subtle and nuanced riffs that just seemed perfectly placed, but every riff just left me wanting more. I think that’s his appeal as a guitar player, but like the man I talked to on the way out, I would have liked to have seen Sexton featured more in the performance.
It’s also important to note that Donnie Herron was a silent mad man, playing everything from the pedal steel guitar to the violin to the banjo. He was a pleasure to watch move around the musical table.
But the performance obviously wasn’t all about the band. Unlike what I’ve heard from so many people, I thought Bob Dylan was an incredible performer, without even considering his age, and that his voice was fantastic. People criticize him for mumbling now that he’s older and that he’s impossible to understand, but when has Dylan ever been comprehensible when singing? I also have heard a lot of complaints about Dylan’s voice live, but I loved the way it filled the space. Yeah, he sort of sounds like he’s gurgling salt water at times, but his voice is just so unique, and it seems he’s found the best possible sound from a 73-year old set of vocal cords. It’s sort of like a man who figured out how to make guitar sing with a whole in the body.
I hate to do this, but hearing Dylan sing kind of reminded of Michael Jordan. At the end of his career, Jordan played for the Wizards. He was old, and he didn’t have his legs, but he knew how to play the game in a way that he could use his strengths, which was his jump shot. While it wasn’t the life-changing experience of the high-flying MJ from the Bulls, he was still a master, fading away and nailing shots in people’s faces. That’s how I felt about Dylan. He still had the impeccable timing and poetry to his lines, and he still found so much nuance in his phrases that they felt individual to that time and space, even though he didn’t move as much or provide as much energy as he might have when he first went electric.
What really made me laugh was how cocky Dylan was on stage. At the end of the second set, he just kind of stood in front of the audience, looking at everyone cheering him with a bit of swagger and sway in his hips as if he was about to pull his penis out — a la Jim Morrison — so we could all see that it still worked.
But it was an incredible performance, and I was able to hear some classics like “Tangled Up in Blue,” which was such an interesting and slight deviation from the original, and “Simple Twist of Fate.” However, from what I’ve heard, he always closes his performance with “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “All Along the Watchtower,” but before the encore, I saw Dylan striking a key on the piano and looking frustrated. The key must have not been working, because when he came back out, he didn’t play either of his constant closers. This might have been the first performance in a long time that he didn’t close this way. Thanks to “D” for making this happen.