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Bob Dylan, troubadour at last

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President Barack Obama presents American musician Bob Dylan with a Medal of Freedom.

Bob Dylan has been called many things over the decades. Wikipedia’s list includes "poetic songwriter, singer, painter, writer and Nobel prize laureate," adding, "He has been influential in popular music and culture for more than five decades.”  

Most profiles emphasize Dylan’s early work, noting that early songs such as “Blowin' in the Wind” and “The Times They Are a-Changin’” became anthems for the Civil Rights Movement and anti-war movement. His poetic language and allegories carried political messages too, right in tune with the 1960s and ‘70s.

The iconic Bob Dylan image, then, is the tousle-haired young man sitting on a stool with a guitar, talking his way through “You know something is happening but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr Jones?”  

Philosophy was his strong point in the early years, as well as authenticity. I knew fans who cried when he released an electric guitar album, because they believed deeply he should stay with acoustic. Legend says that the Newport Folk Festival fans booed Dylan when he appeared onstage with an electric guitar -- backed by a pickup group that included Mike Bloomfield on guitar and Al Kooper on organ.      

Only when Linda Ronstadt recorded "I’m going to let you pass," in the 1990s, did I realize (with a shock) how melodic the tune was – that there really was a tune there. Damn, I thought. Somebody should teach Bob Dylan to sing.

Actually, Bob Dylan has been teaching himself to sing, and play piano in dozens of different musical styles. From his early folks and roots music, he’s spent decades exploring the whole range from blues to rock-a-billy, from gospel to Frank Sinatra, from Celtic music to jazz. This year, 2017, he released a three-album set called The Great American Songbook.

Since the late 1980s, Bob Dylan has toured steadily, backed by various musicians, on what’s been called the Never Ending Tour. These days, Dylan is touring Canada almost anonymously, hitting 17 Canadian cities from June 27 to July 27.  He played Calgary on July 16, with remarkably little publicity or fanfare, probably because he doesn't do interviews.

My husband is a huge Bob Dylan fan. I splurged on concert tickets for (almost) our 30th anniversary -- first row centre, behind the orchestra pit seats.

We'd heard that he'd sung romantic ballads on recent albums, and at his Saskatoon concert. Somehow the idea of Dylan singing romance seemed incongruous. His nasal protest voice just did not seem suited to pitching woo. Except, when he started, he was pretty good.

For almost two hours, Bob Dylan and his multi-talented back-up band changed up musical styles with every song. They played "Don't Think Twice" in reggae beat, and another tune in Louisiana zydeco. Jazz followed full-out hard driving rock 'n roll.

Dylan stayed mostly at the piano, except for the occasional centre stage vocal solo. His band changed instruments around him, swapping electric and acoustic guitars, electric and tall bass fiddle, steel guitar and ukelele. One played a synthesizer with remarkable string and horn voices.  

To my surprise, Dylan really can sing "That Old Black Magic" and other lounge standards. He put new spins on his own familiar songs, making "Blowin’ in the Wind" upbeat for the final encore. There were no introductions, no pauses to tune up instruments, no breaks and no intermission -- just nearly two hours of extremely well-crafted music. Very quickly, Bob and I decided that we were okay with the fact that it wasn’t at all the kind of music we expected.   

According to Exclaim, Bob Dylan’s Canadian tour started in Kingston on June 27, followed by dates in Montreal, Barrie, Oshawa, Toronto and London. "From there, he'll keep heading west through Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Moose Jaw, Calgary, Medicine Hat and Edmonton. Once over the BC border, Dylan and his gang will hit Dawson Creek, Prince George, Kelowna and Vancouver, before bringing his trip to a close in Victoria on July 27."

Born in 1941, Bob Dylan is 76 now. He performs with power, authority, and an unexpected verve. Although his lyrics powered a popular revolution and won him a Nobel Prize for Literature, music itself seems to be what matters most to him.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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