The first and only time I've seen Bob Dylan live was in 2007 at a festival in Pittsburgh. He was headlining the closing night, performing after The Raconteurs. As Jack White and company left the stage and the crowd started dispersing towards beer stands and bathrooms, a grey-haired, tie-dye covered hippie — who was probably the oldest person in the crowd, since it was a student music festival — was yelling for everyone to leave, that Dylan was washed up and that it would be a waste of time to stay. "Save yourself the frustration, just go," he kept shouting. While most people were grabbing a drink or deciding what to do, me and a buddy pushed to the front, towards what would be simultaneously the most satisfying and disappointing concert I have ever been to. There were glimpses of perfectly aged beauty, where new numbers and old favorites worked wonderfully with his dramatically worn vocal chords. There were also moments where I was embarrassed to be the guy that pushed to the front.
There are many reasons why I haven't seen him since, but, mainly, it's boiled down to timing. When I saw Dylan in 2007, he had just released Modern Times, which I consider to be, by far, his best album since 1978's Street Legal. (Yes, 1997's Time Out Of Mind is good, but after two consecutively rough decades from Dylan, I'm pretty sure it was critically rewarded for not completely sucking.) When he came to the Zoo last summer, I opted not to go, since his most recent release at the time, Together Through Life, was a disappointment, which his work with former Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter has priorly proven to be. (See 1988's Down In The Groove). But, after 2012's brilliant The Tempest — a set of stream-of-consciousness gems that pertain to his voice — you'll be able to find me at the Stroh Center in Bowling Green when Dylan visits on Sunday, April 21.
Dylan's voice is broken. Anyone who says differently is delusional. But this isn't news: it started to go somewhere in the late '70s or early '80s, and, if we're going to be honest, Dylan never awed crowds with a firehouse of a voice in the first place. Naturally, when you think of his prolific career, the fist thing that comes to mind is his songwriting; the unmatched and uncanny period from 1963's The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan to 1975's Blood on the Tracks. Undoubtably, this has a tremendous amount of weight toward whether you're a fan of his or not, but it should carry very little influence in terms of whether you're going to see him in 2013. Currently, if you're going to shell out the $50 to see Dylan live, the reason should be more about a skill he mastered in the early '70s: the ability to reinvent, rearrange and revitalize his tracks on the fly, making room to do what he seems to enjoy more than anything — being completely unpredictable. The man never plays the same song the same way twice and that's something that's more valuable than being able to sing like Adele or break shit on stage like whoever's pulling that tired old trick these days.
Yesterday I stopped into Culture Clash before a road trip and scooped up Dylan and The Band's 1974 live album, Before The Flood. When "Like A Rolling Stone" — a song I hear on the radio at least once a week — came on, it sent shivers down my spine. The way Dylan and the Band effortlessly, yet obscurely flowed through the track — Richard Manuel sprinkling touches of rolling organ, Robbie Robertson ripping on his guitar, Rick Danko filling an incredible amount of space on bass, Levon Helm steering the ship with his usual tight and meticulous drumming and Dylan energetically powering through the all so familiar verses and chorus — made the crowd go nuts. And it made me realize why it's worth it to see Dylan live: if it's a good night, you're going to get a wave of pure emotion from him and whatever talented backing band he brings with him. But, it won't be even close to perfection, it won't be what you've heard on his records, but who cares: I don't go to a concert to see a band play a string of songs verbatim. That's what studio albums are for. When I go to a show, I want to see an artist push themselves, for better or worse. These days, with Dylan, you might get either. But, with a solid album and the clock ticking, it's worth the chance.