page by Bill Pagel
Review by Otto Thompson
This is a long "review." Please remember I am a fan. I might get carried away as
I try to describe what I saw and felt at the Budokan. I don't think it's the best
Dylan concert I've seen live or on film, but it was a good show.
First of all, it was a long day for me, a journey from the mundane (i.e., work) to
the sublime (i.e., Bob and his band). To those of you who have never been to Tokyo,
driving into the heart of the city from even just 55 kilometers away can be a long,
hard journey, essentially a slow trek in an endless line of vehicles that moves
forward at a snail's pace. I found the trip to be especially tedious since I was
traveling alone. Thus, as you read my amateurish review, please keep in mind that
although I parked the car after the trip, relaxed and had a nice sandwich, wandered
around the Ginza a bit, and then rode the subway to the Budokan itself, I was a bit
tired when I arrived at the martial arts hall. I'm sure many others in attendance
had similar experiences in getting to the concert. As I strode past the ticket
scalpers, and checked out the vendors, I was glad I'd had a cup of coffee just
before hitting the subway.
Before discussing the show, I'd like to comment on makeup of the crowd. I would be
remiss not to note the apparent broad age and experience range of the crowd, if
appearances tell any story at all. For example, I saw a few non-Japanese folks
who looked like they might have attended one of Bob's first shows in the Village
and hadn't changed their hair and clothing style since. On the other hand, I saw
many fresh-faced kids, Japanese and "Westerners" alike, with what appeared to be,
and I kid you not, their parents. In fact, I saw a few where it looked as if
parent and child had dressed for a costume ball where the theme was the Beatnik
early 60's, or something like that. From tight jeans, pointed black high heel shoes,
a dark sweater, and a black beret on a 50-ish Japanese woman to the ubiquitous gray
salaryman in the standard gray suit with the ever present cell phone in one hand,
the small briefcase in the other, and the tired, worn look on his face, it sure was
an eclectic crowd. With my longish hair, white beard, and dark jeans and jacket,
I fell into the appearance category of the old guy who hadn't changed his look since
maybe1965, except for being grayer, balder, and wider.
Of course, appearances tell only a small part of the story. Nonetheless, the crowd
appeared to be, for lack of a better term, diverse.
Despite my fatigue, I was really excited about seeing Bob. I had last seen him at
Wolftrap Virginia in August 1997, just a short time before issuance of "Time Out
of Mind" and the introduction of those songs into his show. I am not a Bob Trekkie.
I don't follow him everywhere, though that sounds like a lot of fun if one has the
time and money. My other significant Bob experiences include Oct '94, at the Warner
Theater in Washington, February 1994 in Singapore, and the Omni in Atlanta in, I
believe, 1975 (with THE Band). I had one other brief experience in May 1996, when
I shared a waiting area with Bob in LAX (Los Angeles International Airport). He was
dressed in black and white patent leather shoes, white coarse linen pants rolled up
at the bottom, sunglasses, and a gray hooded sweatshirt with the hood pulled over
his head. I decided against asking for an autograph. I just kind of sat there,
occasionally glancing over to see what he was doing. He took his hood off for a
while as he spoke with his lady companion. I remember thinking how much younger
he looked in person (especially without makeup) compared to his photos and my
sightings of him on stage. I also realized once again how small he really is.
I read an article later that discussed his stop at LAX that day and his flight that
same day to New York. The article focused on the hooded sweatshirt.
Going into the show at the Budokan, I was hoping Bob would perform "Highlands," but
my hopes were not too high. I figured that song wouldn't be the best choice for a
largely non-English speaking crowd; that much of the irony and ennui would be lost
on the crowd and Bob would know that. In the end, he didn't play "Highlands."
The first song was "Duncan and Brady," and this was the first time I'd heard Bob
play that song. I immediately jotted down in my notes, "Bob is ON tonight." Bob's
voice sounded strong and it rose clearly above the music. The harmonies were
wonderfully tuneful. I must say I had no expectations for this song, but was so
caught up by it, that I was sad to hear it end. When I hear these kinds of songs
(including "Mama ,You've Been on my Mind," which Bob played later, and "Roving
Gambler," which he did not play), I am always reminded of sitting at my
grandfather's knee as a small child in Alabama, listening to his endless supply
of bluegrass, "race," country, and folk 78RPM records he and my uncles had collected
over the years. I don't remember much about individual songs from those days, but
I remember that sound. I know very little about "Duncan and Brady" (Is it a
Leadbelly song?) other than its sound, and that is the sound I heard as a child on
my grandfather's old phonograph player.
In my humble opinion, Bob is truly both a repository and a curator of American
musical culture, a writer, singer, and performance artist who can bring Stagger Lee
and "The Man in the Long Back Coat" to life as if they were contemporaries. He
gives us vital music in a raw and living way that makes it honest, real, and
revealing. On top of all that, he is, of course, well versed, if you'll pardon
the bad pun, in English folk tradition.
In Japan, the Government officially designates special artists as living National
Treasures. While Bob as never needed the sanction of any Government, such
recognition is not necessarily a bad thing, especially if the end result is a
thorough documentation and preservation for posterity of an artist's unique
contribution to the culture.
Incidentally, some of Bob's most devoted and loyal fans reside in Japan. I do not
think it is an exaggeration to say Bob is revered here. They honor the man. They
honor and study his work. The Budokan appeared near full and its capacity is
For the record, Bob was dressed in a Mississippi Riverboat Gambler's outfit. I don't
know anyway else to describe the look. The suit was white (or perhaps a flat silver),
as was the shirt. The tie was a black kerchief tie typical of the American West in
the late 19th century. Bob wore black and white cowboy boots, the front being white
with what looked like black lightning-like streaks extending back from the toes to
the heel. Incongruously, the band were all dressed in what looked to me to be
standard fare American Lounge Lizard leisure suits; burgundy jackets and pants with
black shirts (all except for Larry whose shirt was off-white). With the sharply
pointed wide collars of the black shirts neatly draped over the lapels of the suit
jackets, the guys looked, and I mean no disrespect to those who like this look, as
if they should be waiting for the crowd to show up at a hotel lounge. They didn't
look like they were ready to rip into Highway 61 in the Budokan with perhaps the
world's greatest living poet. That's just my prejudice showing through, though.
I never did like the leisure suit look. In my eyes, only Tony Garnier can wear that
kind of clothing and make it look cool. And I've never been quite comfortable with
the Cowboy Bob look. That's just my shallow side rising up though. As a kid in
Alabama, sequined or flashy cowboy suits were anything but cool. I'll try to be
more open-minded. To add to the overall effect, Bob is extremely thin. Nonetheless,
when I looked closely, I was struck by his healthy appearance. Through my
binoculars, he actually looked great, his face quite rugged and surprisingly tight,
and his hair slowly transitioning to gray.
After "Duncan and Brady, Bob launched into "Mr. Tambourine Man," a slow, measured
version that was in my opinion, just OK. I have heard much more melodic versions
from Bob in the 90's. In fact, if I have one criticism of Bob's performance at the
Budokan, it is that he was a bit short on melody at times. Although he enunciated
well, and his voice was firm for the most part, he had a tendency to speak rather
than sing out many of is words. Of course, to be fair, he has changed again the
already many-time changed arrangements of so many songs, that it's easy to focus
on the changes and nearly miss the song. I have to fight myself to keep from
listening to Bob that way. After all, in the end, after the changes have sunk in,
I often find myself liking a field-recording version of a song better even though
it bears little resemblance to the recorded version. We all know the changes in
arrangements and delivery are what keep Bob's concerts vital anyway.
"Desolation Row" was next and this was one of the best versions I've heard in terms
of getting at what I sense to be the root of the song; that is something I can't
articulate but that also paradoxically seems apparent. Bob's voice was clear even
in a whisper. The words seemed to be coming from deep within. He summed the
feeling of song up at the very end when he spit out "on desolation … RRRROOOoowwww!"
with a grrr kind of growl. Lots and lots of guitar on this song; dueling guitars
at times. In this song, Bob really started to get into his Elvis stance; legs
slightly apart, knees slightly bent, with that funny little rhythmic bounce of
his. Only Bob can pull something like that off and make it seem somehow profound.
"Stuck Inside of Mobile…" in full electric mode was next. This is not one of my
favorite tunes to hear live. This version, however, was very driven and quite good.
One thing that seemed to be true throughout the night was the band on the hard
rocking "fast" songs was into all sorts of hard breaks, weird rhythmic turnabouts,
and surprises. The most notable of this bunch was "Cold Irons Bound," which to me
was the best-performed song of the evening.
Next came "Tryin' To Get to Heaven." Talk about weird! This song had the lounge
jazz feel to the extreme. At first, it seemed to me that Bob was doing a Frank
Sinatra parody, but this song turned out to be a highlight of the evening. It was
first, beautiful, and second, very, very sad. When Bob said he was trying to get to
heaven before they close the door, he blocked off "before they close the door" and
made it sound like a cry of desperation as opposed to a cliché. So much for my
former view; I am now a fan of lounge music; at least the Bob Dylan version. The
performance of "Tryin" was very moving, and, as I said, very sad sounding to me.
In fact, all of the TOOM tunes carried a much sadder and darker tone than I had
expected, even though no one can call TOOM a cheerful CD.
"'Til I Fell in Love With You" came next. Again, Bob took a song that is not one of
my favorites, made me see it anew, and left me wondering why I had never noticed the
importance of this song before. This song had a nice heavy feel to it.
"Mama, You've Been on my Mind" followed and it was one of my favorites of the
evening. This song just jumps out and grabs you with excellent uplifting
harmonies, its hectic but coherent pace, and its good traditional country music
sound. I couldn't help but smile.
A guy above me in the audience had been yelling for "It's All Over Now Baby Blue."
I'm sure the guy could be heard all over the Budokan, so either Bob heard him and
responded, or the guy just got lucky, but anyway, "Baby Blue" was next. Larry's
long and smooth steel guitar intro was absolutely beautiful and set the tone for
a moody, colorful version of the song. Bob sang in almost a monotone, though on
this song, as he did on many songs all evening, he punctuated each line with an
almost falsetto, crooning rise in his voice. He did none of the yelling he often
does in this song. I thoroughly enjoyed this version.
"Tangled up in Blue" was next. This was close to the version I heard him play at
Wolftrap, but the melody was kind of flat. He made up for it, however, with energy.
In many ways, he told the song rather than sang it. In fact, it was Bob at his
story-telling best; though I had the distinct impression that on this song and
others throughout the evening, he rearranged not only the music, but also the
verses and pieces of verses. Of course, there are so many versions of "Tangled,"
that it's hard to tell.
Another highlight followed; "Not Dark Yet." This presentation was deep and oh so
sad. To say Bob's performance of this song was moving would be to engage in gross
understatement. When Bob sang this song to the dark accompaniment of his band, you
could feel the pain that drove emphatic lines like "behind every beautiful thing,
there's been some kind of pain." I heard every word and if there's a better
statement on mortality in all of popular music, I don't know what it is.
Just when I thought it couldn't get any better, the band started up with "Cold
Irons Bound." Incredible! Bob should let his band go crazy more often. Though
Bob does tasteful and often inventive guitar work himself, Larry and Charlie are
in a class all their own. When they really get going, it's magic, and Tony, of
course, accents the music perfectly with his thumping bass. And with Bob's clear,
firm, controlled, melodic, and wonderful voice yelling out this song in phrases
that bite, well… there's nothing better. To me, this song presented the high
point of the evening. The audience was on its feet. People were jumping up and
"Rainy Day Women" closed out the first set. This is definitely not the song I long
to hear, but Bob has changed the arrangement slightly and I once again was won over.
In my opinion, the arrangement Bob played at the Budokan is more interesting than
the older versions that focus on the barroom whistle.
After the break, Bob opened with a very somber version of "Love Sick." This song
had a surreal, dark background of music vaguely reminiscent of the less dark but
deeply mysterious "Man in the Long Black Coat." Interestingly, keeping with the
lyrics, the lighting was designed to thrown Bob and his band's shadows up onto the
backdrop. Very eerie indeed.
Next was "Rolling Stone." This is an almost obligatory performance in Tokyo, I
suppose, but it was still a hard-driving version. Bob was a bit short of melody, but
the clarity of his spoken words more than made up for any shortfall in that area. I
have never heard the lyrics quite so clearly in a concert.
Next came another jazzy song; "If Dogs Run Free." This was another highlight. In
contrast to the TOOM's tunes, it was delivered in a relatively lighthearted manner.
In fact, for some reason, "In harmony with the cosmic sea, true love needs no
company" came across as quite funny to me. When Bob literally spat out in concise,
measured words, "If dogs run free, then what must be, must be, and that is all," I
felt like he was talking to us all in a very personal manner; like he had slipped
back into a talking blues mode.
A hard, razor sharp "All Along the Watchtower" was next and it was absolutely
devastating. Still basically using the Hendrix arrangement, Bob and the bad
thundered, wailed, and soared through the song. In terms of power, this ranked
right there with "Cold Irons Bound," though it was much more straightforward in
terms of its arrangement.
"Knocking on Heaven's door" followed and it seemed Bob changed keys in the middle
of the first line. Anyway, the end result was a Nashville Skyline kind of feel to
the song, which was sung both individually and in harmony in the midst of what
sounded like a mild echo chamber effect. One I got past the change in melody or
key or whatever it was, the song was quite beautiful and Bob's voice, but for a
bit of scratchiness at moments, was almost as smooth as in his Nashville Skyline
Highway 61 followed and it was its usual blistering self, true to form and as good
Last was "Blowing in the Wind." What can one say about this song? As I listened
and recalled my days as a child in the 60's in Alabama and the impact this song had
in the civil rights struggle, as I considered the man singing the song and the
impact he has had on all of us, and as I looked at the lines on his face, I thought
how lucky we all were to be in the same room with this man. As the harmonies
soared, I counted myself fortunate to live in this man's time.
page by Bill Pagel
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