While at the Cadillac Palace Theater in Chicago a few weeks ago, I noticed a lot of young men who could be Bob Dylan; mops of curly hair, non-descript pea-coats, with shuffling, languid walks that seemed to belong to a subterranean coffee shop in Greenwich Village circa 1965. They were, as I was, there to see him—Dylan, on his seemingly never-ending tour, was making a three-night stop in Chicago to play the Palace.
The shambling young men who stood out like colored tacks among the mostly sexagenarian set who’d dropped upwards of over 130 bucks to see their folk idol were one thing. To see Dylan was something else entirely; watching him shake his right leg in a suit that seemed to big for him, I wondered what he might have been like as a young man. I felt a disconnect—between the revolutionary Bob Dylan of the 1960s and the one before me at the moment— that remained for all of one song. For Bob Dylan isn’t preserved wax figurine of himself, continuing to pound out the hits while misguided morons yell, “You’re my boy, Bobby!” He plays what he wants to play, most of it new, some of it older but usually completely reworked. He is a musician, not a jukebox, and certainly not a figure of nostalgia.
And still, to hear him sing “She Belongs To Me”—his second song of the night, and one of three not written in this century—was lovely. The tune was mostly in tact, as opposed to other times I’ve seen him, where it takes the first 45 seconds to understand what you’re even hearing, but he didn’t perform it perfunctorily. He played it as if no one had ever heard the song before. In fact, he played every single song that way, and that’s what made him such a joy to watch. I felt no yen for the verve I’d heard so much about from the’60s and ’70s because I could see it in front of me—perhaps in a different form, with hindsight and life lived to mark it, but his spirit remained.
For as good as Dylan was, the experience would have been lacking without the help of his band. Tight and talented as hell, the kooky mix of Appalachian string/blues/jazz inspired backing did a wonderful job bringing the compositions new musical light. The band shone just as brightly as Dylan did. Guitarist Charlie Sexton’s solo of “Blue Moon,” blending into “Soon After Midnight,” was effortless and fun.
In fact, the entire tone of the show felt light. I’ve actually seen Dylan twice before—once at age eleven, when I could barely sort out the functionality of fractions much less appreciate a musical legend—and again in high-school; I was a bit more coherent then. The last time in particular, I sensed an edginess in Dylan—he played almost the whole show with his back to the audience; not necessarily a “fuck you,” but pretty close. This time, he really seemed to be enjoying himself. Never one for stage banter, Dylan kept the set taut, but actually addressed the audience at the show’s intermission. “Thank you. We’re gonna go offstage but we’ll be back soon,” he said with a slight sense of mirth—the headline for this article could have been “Dylan Speaks!”
Neither the revolutionary figure he once was, nor relegated to the shelf of schmaltz, I have to wonder where Bob Dylan fits in with the current cultural and musical world—and what he might think of the present climate. I’ll likely never know, but I can tell you one thing; the man still loves to play music. That seems to be enough for the moment.