Going to a Bob Dylan gig these days requires a certain sort of mindset. Worship, obviously, but also a readiness not to see or hear anything pleasant for two hours. The greatest fan of Dylan I have ever met wears earplugs during his concerts. And Dylan’s voice on his latest album occasionally sounds terrifyingly close to a death rattle. Last week, by way of preparation for a performance at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center my friend put himself on an expectation-suppressing diet of the worst ever Dylan tracks. “I listened to ‘Let’s Stick Together’ from ‘Down in the Groove,’” he reported, “Awful. Just dreadful, and the worst CD sound imaginable. Loved it!”
Brooklyn was Dylan’s last stop on a thirty-three city U.S. tour. And moments into his first set, he had us all wondering once again what we were doing there. As if to underline this question, a mirror was set up, front of stage—face-out. Without any sort of greeting, Dylan entered under his white brimmed hat and croaked “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” indecipherably from behind the keyboard. Only one word really came through: “Whoo-ee!” The earplugs went in next to me, the crowd dug in—silent, enduring. It looked like we were in for another terrible night, but as the song advanced one detected a devious energy in the delivery, a hint that he could give better. And he did—a lot better.
Old songs in new arrangements sounded as though they had just been written, and details to which he gave focused articulation, seemed alive with fresh experience. “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright”, drained of bitterness and self-pity, was sung with mischief, and gentle curiosity. Lines like “You could have done better / But I don’t mind” became almost forgiving. In a haunting rendition of “Visions of Johanna,” he brought immediacy to the smallest fragments of narrative, singing of the room where “the heat pipes just cough” as though he’d just come from a small cramped apartment in the Village. And even when Dylan misses a line, it can seem palpably present to a fan in the grip of aural madness. In the same song, I thought I heard him whisper of “escapades out on the D train” as vividly as though he might have taken the D train to the Barclays Center that evening, but Earplugs (can he lip read Dylan?) turned to me moments after and said, “Skipped a line”.