Forever Young: At a Bob Dylan Concert in Vietnam

By , Columnist
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."

And 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.  

bob-dylan-concert-vietnam.jpgIn 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 plugged 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.

Moving 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.

"Highway 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.

Dylan playing Vietnam.jpgFirst 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 show.

For 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. Exquisitely.

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.

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David has spent most of his career in advertising. That alone should call his writing skills into question. David currently writes the Wild Wild East Dailies from Saigon but has trouble seeing the forest for the trees because it's a jungle out there.

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