Bob Dylan in concert, Indiana University, November 7, 2021.
REVIEW AND ILLUSTRATION BY Evan Sennett, Indiana University
Bob Dylan Concerts Resume: The New Rough and Rowdy Ways World Wide Tour
As the silhouettes line the stage, Bob Dylan, now in his 80s, finds his seat in the center. He is mostly concealed by his upright piano, but he sits tall with a fiendish, lopsided grin. Happy to finally return to the stage? The maestro chuckles as he breathes his first lyric of the night: “What’s the matter with me? I don’t have much to say.” He laughs at his own irony. Not one minute into his show and he’s apparently run out of ideas.
The opening tune is relatively obscure, like many of the songs chosen for the new Rough and Rowdy Ways World Wide Tour. Originally released on his 1971 album Greatest Hits Vol. II, “Watching the River Flow” tells the story of a frustrated insomniac stuck in an “all-night café,” tasked with observing controversies. The insomniac—possibly one of Dylan’s alter-egos—finds himself both troubled and fascinated by the discrepancies of the world: “people disagreeing everywhere you look / Makes you wanna stop and read a book.” Chaos breeds curiosity. The opening song is as much about writing as it is about watching. And Dylan can’t look away.
The first time I saw Dylan live, I couldn’t look away either. Excited as I was, I entered the music hall with caution. Everyone seemed to have a different opinion about the live Dylan experience. My high school English teacher warned me she had seen him years ago, and “he stunk.” So I expected something controversial. Songs I knew (and loved) would surely be present, but distorted. The question seemed to be, how will Dylan disappoint me tonight?
The show I saw in high school was part of the decades-long Never Ending Tour, a near constant run of concerts around the world, which finally did end in late 2019, as the COVID-19 crisis began. Playing many of his more recognizable hits from the 60s and 70s, along with a few songs from his then-new album Tempest (2012), Dylan treated his audience to a balanced mix of old and new. But there was little I could do to capture the experience. Unlike many rock concerts, Dylan’s shows strictly forbid photography. Perhaps as a way to enforce this policy, a dozen or so mirrors were scattered across the stage, directly facing the audience. If anyone attempted to take a flash-photo, the image would come back as a blur. In this chapter of the “Never Ending Tour,” Dylan hid behind the reflected image of his listeners. Aside from some grainy bootlegs on YouTube, Dylan, the uncapturable performer, is only visible in the present moment—he becomes his audience.
Now with Dylan in a new chapter of his career, the “Rough and Rowdy Ways” tour comes with no mirrors. The six-piece band stands in an arch around Dylan’s piano, all of them dressed head to toe in black. Charley Drayton on drums, Bob Britt and Doug Lancio play guitar, and Tony Garnier, a Dylan regular since the early days of the Never Ending Tour, returns to play electric and double bass. All the way stage left, Donnie Herron wears many hats, complementing Dylan’s piano with violin, accordion, steel guitar, and more. Each member of the band soaks in more stage lighting than Dylan himself. The front man of the shadows remains less visible than the rest.
Before long, Dylan presents his newest songs. Bloomington, Indiana, was only the fifth stop on the new tour, which means it was also only the fifth time most of the setlist has ever been performed live. With “I Contain Multitudes,” the opening track from Rough and Rowdy Ways, Dylan abandons his equipment stand. The mic cable becomes his prop, following him across the stage. Dylan looks like an old gospel singer (or stand-up comedian). He really does contain multitudes.
The Whitman-inspired song is a slow-moving confessional, and it invites reaction. Dylan points to the audience, and in turn, we applaud, shout, and whistle to the strange collage of names in the lyrics:
I’m just like Anne Frank . . . like Indiana Jones
And them British bad boys the Rolling Stones
I go right to the edge—I go right to the end
I go where all things lost—are made good again
The crowd punctuates each refrain of “I contain multitudes,” cheering him along as if the Nobel laureate were at a slam poetry reading. Dylan is all smiles, delighted, perhaps, at the active call and response. I’ve never seen him so interactive—so happy to perform. But how could a name like Anne Frank provoke such celebration at a rock concert?
In last year’s interview with the New York Times, Dylan notes that “the names themselves are not solitary. It’s the combination of them that adds up to something more than their singular parts.” The “trilogy” of names in this verse creates something, as a collective. The entire setlist works in this way. No random mashup of greatest hits, the new tour presents us with a thematic narrative, each song complicating the previous one. Separate from any individual song or album, the “Rough and Rowdy Ways” tour is a story of its own.
And the story Dylan weaves together, in this particular setlist, is a map of identities. The fictional Indiana Jones, himself a collage of inspirations from James Bond to Errol Flynn, is given unusual space to mingle with the famous diarist and holocaust victim. The Rolling Stones, pioneers in their own right, complete the trifecta. All three figures help make sense of Dylan’s own presentation as part rock star, part confessional author, and part archeologist of long forgotten treasures—a witness of the unimaginable and yet to be imagined.
If the names in “I Contain Multitudes” show us how Dylan sees himself, “My Own Version of You,” performed later in the concert, reveals how he combines these seemingly unrelated influences:
All through the summers and into January
I’ve been visiting morgues and monasteries
Looking for the necessary body parts
Limbs and livers and brains and hearts
The macabre description makes him chuckle. He can’t help but narrate this sinister theme with half a smile. The song details the Frankenstein-like process of taking bits and pieces from songs across recording history, finally coalescing into the performance we see tonight. The resulting monster is difficult to identify: a kind of waltz, kind of spoken word poem, topped off with an extended slide guitar solo by Herron. The enigmatic piece eventually fades out with Dylan slamming disparate piano keys, searching for some coherent meaning with his fingers, but mostly landing on stale notes that go nowhere at all.
Such is the creative process—the procedure is simultaneously a tribute to older songs, and an assault on its many influences. After all, to grave-rob something it has to be dead first. Carving out a liver here, a heart there, Dylan transmits some motifs from the past and abandons others. Creating is, for Dylan, both a celebration and a violation. And the live performance might just be that final “strike of lighting” which brings everything to (new) life.
This kind of thematic grit works well with Dylan’s famous vocal timbre—scraggly, nasally, and mumbling. But tonight his vocal mix is crystal clear, like a whisper. In “I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You,” Dylan draws out every word with an emotional vibrato. Suddenly, the “you” in each song belongs, not to some distant lover, but to us:
I’m giving myself to you, I am
From Salt Lake City to Birmingham
From East L.A. to San Antone
I don’t think I could bear to live my life alone
The musician’s tour schedule becomes a love ballad, and we are on the receiving end of that romance. It’s a kind of vulnerability you would never expect from the man who at one time shielded his face behind a thick layer of white makeup. And here we sit, witnessing a performance with our own masks. Except we cover our faces to prevent the spread of disease, while Dylan devotes himself to us.
Even the older songs, scattered through the setlist, grapple with the complex dialogue of creating music, and the responsibilities at both ends of that conversation. We might continue to read the “you” in older classics like “Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine)” and “To Be Alone with You” as quasi-romantic confessions, an open-ended bond between Dylan and his listeners. Playing these songs from his own past, the eighty-year-old singer momentarily forgets a phrase. He quickly glances at a lyric sheet on top of his piano, and without skipping a single measure, recovers. “I almost forgot all the words to that,” he admits after the song ends. “I almost did!” But he didn’t. The audience laughs, comforted by his humility.
Not one to get caught up in nostalgia, Dylan instead keeps only one eye on the past, with the other on the future. “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” remains a mainstay of Dylan’s setlist in recent years. A relic from his back catalogue, the song also forecasts a distant day when “everything is gonna be diff’rent.” As a fan, it is good to know that Dylan has yet to compose his greatest work. But the song is also a reminder that Dylan himself bears a heavy burden: he must always find new ways to top himself. It’s an impossible goal. He has a method, however. As he reflects on his older material, he also searches for points of identification in the very songs which inspired him in the first place.
If we’re not careful, we might consider this never-ending task of scavenging meaning from old songs, and lifting them into new ones, a kind of plagiarism. But Dylan is no plagiarist—he’s a philosopher pirate. At least, that’s what he calls himself in “Key West,” one of his newer tracks. A shift from warm, red lighting to tropical blue and pink, the live performance of “Key West” is more than a confessional. It’s a downright ode to piracy.
“I’m searching for love,” he claims, “for inspiration / On that pirate radio station.” His voice meanders with a slow, melody-less accordion. For the next ten minutes, Dylan is in control of a trance. The spell harnesses visions of even more influences, all of them, in some way, related to the author. Dylan spins a song in which poets of the past were created in his image: “I was born on the wrong side of the railroad track / Like Ginsberg, Corso and Kerouac / Like Louie and Jimmy and Buddy and all of the rest.” The six influences in question cast a pall over the song. Is this a celebration, or a dirge?
And where does Dylan fit in this canon? Perhaps he meets this question of legacy with ambivalence, surrendering himself to his listeners, his partners-in-crime, for an answer. We have determined his status before, and consider him a living legend. Not that Dylan seeks out any particular label, but he does accept what he is given:
Twelve years old and they put me in a suit
Forced me to marry a prostitute
There were gold fringes on her wedding dress
That’s my story but not where it ends
She’s still cute and we’re still friends
Down in the bottom—way down in Key West
By this point in the song, we are well into the trance. He may not be able to control his legacy, but he can control these hypnotic episodes on stage.
The dream slowly ending, it came time to introduce the band. Dylan usually doesn’t offer a lot of banter on stage. But on his way out he did have this to say: “Alright now, on behalf of my band we want to thank you for coming out tonight—we really do. It’s really good to be in a place—a university—especially where people think for themselves.” Dylan never patronizes an audience, but he does trust us. He seems to believe that we will interpret the performance correctly, even if he offers no clear thesis. I might take a liver, and you might take a heart, but we aren’t required to take anything at all. No specific message can be found. If Dylan endorses anything, it’s discrepancy, not resolution. At the very least, controversy is stimulating—enjoy it!
Sometimes the conflict of ideas—the ways in which they clash together, polyphonically—is exactly what Dylan is after. And the Rough and Rowdy Ways World Wide Tour does not shy away from polyphony. Dylan can’t tell us how to resolve conflicts, only how to embrace them as creative opportunities. Borrowing ideas from the American music canon, Dylan faces the challenge of placing himself among that list. As he mentions in one of his new songs, he is “no false prophet.” Thanks to us, he’s the real thing.