Lost in transcendence 

Has Bob Dylan’s reinvention hit a wall?

When last week's Bob Dylan show at Big Sky Brewery was first announced in the spring, I had a nearly identical discussion with a number of my friends, all of them Dylan fans of various degrees: "You going to Dylan?" "Um...I don't know..."

In a vacuum, this seems an absurd scenario. Ambivalence towards seeing arguably the greatest solo artist of the rock era, a man possessed of a songbook so expansive, so deep in lyrical and musical excellence, that one can spend a lifetime swimming in its waters? WTF?

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WTF, indeed—the very phrase most often generated by Dylan’s show in Missoula two years prior, a train wreck of a concert that saw Dylan at his disengaged and guttural worst. Hell, I’m no fan of John Mellencamp (and my brain hurts even typing this), but his opening set blew Dylan out of the water, “Pink Houses” and all.

Still, the lure of a true legend won out, and I saw most of those friends at the show, which was, thankfully, leagues better than his last. The famously reserved Dylan seemed interested, if not engaged, in the proceedings, and at several moments even seemed to be having a bit of (gasp!) fun. His band was locked in, the crowd was responsive and a welcome breeze blowing out of the west carried a sweet mojo as it purged the air of wildfire smoke.

But if the ultimate goal of concert-going is a transcendent experience, this show fell far short. At no point could I make the leap from interested observer to impassioned participant, despite any number of band-driven moments that easily could have triggered the rapture. Because nearly every time Dylan sang, I came crashing back to earth.

Non-fans have forever harangued Dylan on the quality of his voice, but that’s simply a matter of taste and/or ignorance—his work is rife with examples of compelling, creative vocal styles and execution. Casual fans also tend to have issues with Dylan’s penchant for significantly rearranging the structures of his songs in concert, but in my mind the combination of his melodic instincts and his band’s proficiency makes the altered versions a genuine treat. And when a guy plays live as much as Dylan does—since the so-called Never Ending Tour began in 1988, he’s logged somewhere in the neighborhood of 2,500 shows—you’ve got to figure that reinvention is the only way to stay sane.

It wasn’t simply a matter of the limitations that time and wear have imposed on the 71-year old Dylan’s vocal cords, either, though there were enough instances of off-key and totally unintelligible vocals to suggest that his most appropriate backup singers would be a trio of old guys wheezing through tracheotomy holes.

No, the surreal part of the evening was due to the delivery of those vocals. Based on a handful of shows I’ve seen over the last decade or so, it seems that Dylan’s phrasing has become faster and faster, particularly on his older songs. During “A Simple Twist of Fate,” for example, it sounded as if the lyrics were made of hydrochloric acid, that he couldn’t get them out his mouth fast enough and thus what is at its root a haunting and elegant song (and remained so musically, altered arrangement and all) became jarring and discordant, like viewing a favorite movie at double-speed.

Bob Dylan has obviously earned the right to do whatever the hell he wants to do with any of his songs. But when the most significant stylistic stamp he can come up with is sheer vocal velocity, it’s hard not to conclude that either his well has run dry or that he just doesn’t give a shit. And the answer to that question is very likely the one my friends and I will be pondering in advance of Dylan’s next show in Missoula—if he does return.

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