Thinking of Bob Dylan's recent 70th birthday
I am reminded of the tweet I saw after the Dylan concert in
Vietnam in April. Dylan and the Backstreet Boys performed here inside
of a month of each other, in a previously culturally closed country. The tweet read: "Bob Dylan: 70 years old, 20 songs, no breaks. Backstreet boys: Thirty-something, lite dancing, 18 songs, six breaks."
that's about how the Dylan show went: straight ahead, no stops, no talking,
just playing. Early rounds of what seemed like a grand garden party on
the grass football pitch at RMIT university were spent sitting and
chatting and sharing some of the local herbal crops. Billed to
accommodate 8,000, this seemed about half-full with tents for beer and
food. Seen a concert in the U.S. or Europe? They had never seen that here,
and it was about as close to Ravinia or Wolftrap as one could get, but
in Vietnam this time. Positively civilized.
The opening acts, billed as a tribute to Trinh Cong Son
the reputed Vietnamese Bob Dylan, missed totally whatever Trinh's
brilliance was, lost in a haze of Don Ho-like theatrics and faux Vegas
production, dragging big local stars and even a Vietnam Idol winner on
stage to a primarily foreign crowd waiting for his Bobness. This
ham-fisted mash-up only underscored the local promoter's
misunderstanding that a concert should be all things to all people. It
wasn't, and nobody came for that.
a white skimmer hat, Dylan hit the stage, guitar in hand, and what had
become of our lawn party quickly disassembled. Time to see the star. And
with little or no fanfare the poet laureate
in. A few songs in and we crowded forward to see and hear better, "It
Ain't Me You're Lookin' For" clocked two stars on my hit list for the
evening. Followed later with "Tangled Up In Blue," his arrangements
would have baffled all but the most ardent fans, but this is where I
felt he hit his stride. Harp work on "Tangled" was ethereal.
to the back lawn away from the front stage mash, I spied a girl with a
laptop. WiFi on a soccer pitch - only in Vietnam. She's found the show
live-streaming and passed the laptop around for her friends to hear.
"It's Hard" is a soft lawn favourite and I sat with a fresh beer and
chill as if I were at any number of summer music festivals in the
states or Europe. A Vietnamese man around my age tapped his foot and rocked
back and forth as his 16 year-old son sat motionless.
"What do you
think?" I asked the kid. "Cool," he said, pretty much confirming that he
had never sat on the grass and watched a rock concert before. "This is
weird - and this is what my dad likes." I found it positively charming.
Change happens in teeny tiny ways and the times in Vietnam, they was a changin' just a bit that night.
61" brought a hard Texas blues twist to Saigon and Dylan brought his
best Tom Waits imitation in to accompany. Walking back up front for the
finish, I saw him playing lead vocalist on "Somethin's Happening Here," after
spending too much of the night on keyboards - a weird thing I thought,
having seen him once before in '79 during his Jesus days.
encore got everyone shouting along with "Like A Rolling Stone," but the
audience had trouble figuring out the timing on that one. "Watchtower"
didn't do much to solve audience arrangement confusion, but made the
crowd happy. Back for the second encore, a sublime "Forever Young" was
nice and soft and a fitting way for a seventy year old man to finish a
Dylan's entire Asian tour, Western journalists have got
it wrong by writing it as a protest singer finally hitting ground zero
and declaring some sort of victory - and nothing could have been further from the truth
Figure out what "Dylan goes electric" was in the '60s. Understand that
he had moved along musically and idealistically well before the end of
that time, and also understand that his touring schedule has been nothing
short of relentless for the past 20 years with a paltry number of
protest songs on the set list. Bob was here to play. And that he did.
All those stories about him being edited and censored by the
Chinese and even the Vietnamese in prep for his shows here? "Rubbish,"
said the local promoter. Even the communist censors couldn't
understand a word he was singing. Bob did what he wanted, and that alone
must be some sort of victory - although it seems he's been doing that
his entire career. It was just an absolute joy to see it being done here
- even at $50 a pop with a Jim Beam sponsorship. Don't think twice,
it was alright.