On April 21, 2013 I saw Bob Dylan perform live in Bowling Green, Ohio at BGSU’s Stroh Center. The indie-folk band Dawes opened for Dylan, and they were pretty good. The doors opened at 6:30; Dawes began their set promptly at the designated 7:30 set time. Around 9 p.m., a 71 year-old version of Robert Zimmerman appeared on stage. He performed for approximately an hour and a half with a large group of very talented blues musicians. Dylan sang (well, he did his best with his decrepit vocal chords), played piano and played harmonica – at times a tad too loudly. His set list revolved around mostly playing new songs from his very good 2012 album Tempest, and really only played four classics: “Tangled Up in Blue,” “All Along the Watch Tower,” “Ballad of a Thin Man” and “Visions of Johanna.” (Apparently he opened with “Things Have Changed” but I don’t remember/didn’t recognize it.)
This is the only thing I can confirm from that unforgettable evening. Everything that follows this sentence, is purely speculation and me trying to figure out what actually happened on that fateful April Sunday evening.
Bob Dylan is the last of his peers. Sure, there are the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys and the surviving members of the Beatles, but Dylan is on a planet of his own. He is an enigma; he loathes the spotlight and media attention, but has actively toured and released music since 1962. Seeing him on stage, there is a profound self-awareness about him as he carries his aging body in front of a crowd made up of a few college-aged hippies and a large assortment of middle-aged fans enthralled to witness a man whom they admired since their youth. All of these people will leave around 10:30 p.m. completely alienated and confused.
Dylan stands in a mostly-filled arena, that on tamer nights is the home of a below-average college basketball team and the occasional graduation ceremony, and he is noticeably the oldest member of the congregation. When he comes on stage the crowd erupts, and this would be the last time that Dylan’s performance meets any expectation of a concert or live performance.
The legendary singer-songwriter gets right into his set without greeting the crowd. This was the first tip off that this night was going to be both bizarre and completely unforgettable. Like many have warned me before the show, his vocals are not what they once were. I was fully prepared to hear the man on Tempest and his weird ass Christmas Album, and not the man on Blood on the Tracks and Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, so his vocal performance was not in the least bit upsetting to me.
The crowds’ reaction ranged from completely excited (the middle-aged die hards) to completely withdrawn, checking their cell phones and eagerly awaiting their next beer (the college kids who realized they are not as big of Dylan fans as they would lead their Facebook friends to believe), to drugged out (that one crazy lady who had a minor seizure in the aisle next to me), to completely alienated and confused (everyone else in between). The audience was asked to sit a couple times throughout the performance; the most annoying time was during “Tangled Up in Blue.” This event led to much of the crowd interchanging arguments on concert protocol and whether or not they should stand or remain seated.
In their defense, I too was a bit confused on what the appropriate position for the performance. I have attended many high-energy shows where everyone would stand and sing or rap along with the artist. I have also attended soft, intimate performances where the audience will remain seated while a bearded gentleman will sing and play acoustic guitar. Bob Dylan’s performance at BGSU was somewhere awkwardly in between those two settings. The music was often slow-tempo, but there was enough energy in the performance from his harmonica and guitar players to call for your typical standing position. But at the same time, it was not a performance that one could sing along with. For one, a vast majority of the audience probably only recognized a third of the set list. And the songs that were recognizable, were often warped – likely so Dylan could sing along, as his chops are no longer able to match the faster paced songs – beyond recognition for the average fan.
Dylan’s set list was also much longer than I had expected. And I think the most surprising moment of the evening was when he came back on stage to do an encore. He did “Ballad of a Thin Man,” which was totally unexpected and awesome. At the end of the song, he approached the mic; up until this point he did not speak or engage the crowd in any way (ie: your standard “thank you BG!” or “how we feelin’ tonight?!”). It appeared that he was about to speak, but decided to instead point with both hands to right balcony area of the arena. This was awesome and confusing. We’re still unsure what he was pointing at, but someone told me that it involved some sort of promotion for the Red Cross or something. I like to think he wanted to make the crowd feel more confused.
My friends and I left the Stroh Center dumbfounded. We thought it was incredibly “ice cold” (cooler than being cool (c) Andre 3000) that he did his set without doing anything a performer normally would. As we were about to cross Wooster Street to get some Burger King, we saw Dylan’s tour bus head towards I-75, no less than 15 minutes after his show had concluded.
It’s been weeks since that night, and I’m still trying to figure out what exactly happened. My hypothesis: Dylan is the last living true rock star. In an era where the masses love a politically correct, clean-cut entertainer/athlete, we are not used to an artist who is going to do what the fuck he wants. And that’s exactly what Bob Dylan does – and always has. Most musicians, like the opener Dawes, are eager to impress a crowd, Dylan would rather challenge and alienate an audience. Dylan, who has spent the bulk of his life entertaining, no longer has anything left to prove and he is completely aware of this fact. This is why he would release an album that Rolling Stone called the darkest in his catalog, 50 years after his debut. This is why he is not selling out arenas and playing “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Times They Are a Changin’.” While many artists his age are happy with letting their legacy keep them relevant, Dylan is continuing to re-invent himself.
While I can’t say exactly what happened at the weirdest performance of music I have ever witnessed, I can say it was truly unforgettable. And awesome. Stay cool, Bobby D, stay cool.