Forever Young: The Shocking Power of Bob Dylan’s Live Vocal Performance

I had been looking forward to this past Friday night ever since my birthday nearly a month ago.  My wife got me a ticket to see the Chicago performance of the Americanarama tour, which is the heavily touted nation-wide tour that features My Morning Jacket, Wilco, and, of course, Bob Dylan.  I had never seen MMJ before, but I own all their studio albums, and I’ve heard they put on an amazing live show.  Wilco is one of my favorite bands, and although I have seen them live, I was excited to get to see them again.  Both groups easily lived up to expectations, and add in a blistering 30-minute opening set by The Richard Thompson Electric Trio, and you already had a memorable evening.

As is so often the case, Dylan was another story.  I had also never seen him live, but my path to his music was less direct than it was with the former two.  It took me awhile to open up to his music, but you don’t go through life as my father’s son without at least developing an appreciation for Dylan’s music.  I have come to thoroughly enjoy Dylan, and I certainly have a profound respect for the way he perpetually evolves and reinvents himself as an artist.

Honestly, though, I wasn’t expecting a lot coming into the performance.  My dad has seen him live multiple times, and he has had nothing but glowing things to say.  So I knew that.  But I also knew that my dad has a tremendous bias on the subject.  I knew that Dylan is 72 years old, and I knew that his voice has noticeably carried the weight of every one of those years on his last few albums (which I have enjoyed, for the record).  I think it’s great that acts like Dylan, McCartney, and The Stones tour deep into their twilight years, but that doesn’t mean that I would expect their live performance to move me musically.  This is not to say that I’m not amazed by what these musicians do, but I think that this admiration is built off and contingent upon established context.

Sometimes in life, you need to be proven wrong.  What I experienced this past Friday evening, particularly from Dylan’s vocal performance, was a profoundly moving experience for me, and it made me think about music in ways I had not considered before.

Dylan

To be clear, this is not a write-up on how impressive a performance this was for a man in his seventies; the performance Dylan gave was one of the most inspiring I’ve seen from any artist.  Granted, it wasn’t the same experience as attending a CSO concert, but it was never intended to be.  As far as a folk-rock/Americana performance goes, it was virtually flawless, and in many ways it transcended technical perfection by tapping into the deep wells of the music’s raw emotional core.

Probably the biggest gap between what I saw Friday night and what I expected going in occurred in the amount of control Dylan demonstrated over his voice.  Listening to Dylan’s catalogue, I get the sense that he can’t always control his vocal output, be it through his inconsistent timbres or his horseshoes-and-hand-grenades approach to pitch accuracy.  When used in moderation (and with the luxury of studio technology and multiple takes), these can be effective.  More importantly, though, Dylan would not be Dylan without them.  However, in an organic and unedited live setting, too much of this comes of as amateurish, and it gives listeners the impression that the singer is dependent upon the crutch of the studio.

Not only did Dylan not overindulge in his freewheeling vocal tendencies, he seemed to be in complete control over his voice at all times.  There wasn’t a single lyric he sang all night where I felt like he didn’t know exactly why he was singing it the way he did.  He utilized a wide range of vocal timbres (spanning from a relatively clean tone to his trademark Satan-with-a-smoker’s-cough growl), and he would often weave throughout these seamlessly to create a striking balance between them.  His capacity for a clean timbre was particularly surprising because, while in a much lower tessitura, this was more reminiscent of his earlier records, and I don’t remember hearing it much on his recent work.

Another surprising aspect about Dylan’s performance was his superb pitch accuracy.  Again, this has never really been a club in his bag.  Not that rock/folk singers are particularly renowned for consistent excellence here, but Dylan is an admirably associated offender.  Yet Dylan was spot on with his pitch all night, and this was true regardless of range or timbre.  He consistently executed several challenging and effective techniques, including wide melodic leaps and delayed resolutions.  Perhaps “he sang all the right notes” may not be the most glowing compliment one can impart, but for someone like Dylan to add this to his arsenal while still maintaining his trademark timbral rawness, it proved to be highly effective.

Generally speaking, Dylan did what most outstanding vocalists do: he used his voice as an instrument.  Put another way, he used more than just pitch and lyrics to tell his stories.  It seemed as if Dylan’s approach to singing shared many similarities to that of a blues guitarist, who will give at least equal priority to how he plays his solo as he does in determining the notes themselves.  Every lyric sounded like it was handcrafted, possessing both a flowing emotional trajectory and a sense of organic spontaneity.  Even without text, everything about the way Dylan sang would have told an incredibly engaging story.  Going back to Dylan’s control, it was a riveting performance because I never knew what was coming next, yet I always had sense that Dylan did.

Aside from the shock of how impressed I was by the performance, this proved to be a very inspiring experience for me because it was an unlikely reminder for me that music is about so much more than technical perfection.  Of course, technique is still vital (as Dylan also demonstrated).  Yet music built off technique alone is not really music.  To be engaging, it needs to have some form of personal engagement to remind us that the soul of music comes from the soul of a human being.  Regardless of what phase he was in, Dylan has spent his whole career telling stories with the songs he has written; this past Friday night, Dylan told another dimension of stories through his remarkable embodiment of his music.


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