So I went to a Bob Dylan concert and I could barely understand a word he said.
No surprises there, of course. Dylan came through Edmonton with his band and Mark Knopfler last Tuesday, and I went with a friend. Dylan played an outdoor show in Lloydminster in August which I had wanted to attend, but that didn’t work out. I think an outdoor show would have been better, but I wouldn’t have seen Knopfler.
It wasn’t clear to me whether Knopfler was opening for Dylan or playing with Dylan and his band. As it turned out, it was more of a double-billing. Knopfler essentially played his own full-length concert before Dylan. And that’s perhaps how it should be. Dylan may be a legend, but Knopfler’s no slouch either.
The Knopfler set was excellent. I didn’t come to see Knopfler; he was a bonus and I had no idea what to expect. He played what was as far as I could tell mostly new material. Only his encore went back to his Dire Straits days. That song (“So Far Away”) sounded vaguely familiar, but it was the cheering from the audience that clued me in. Knopfler’s sound (new album released just a couple of weeks ago, I think) these days hovers around the Celtic–mandolins, flutes, fiddles, etc–with a touch of country blues, but always with his signature finger-picking stratocaster sound. The Edmonton Journal Review said that “Their flute and fiddle tunes sometimes bordered on Zamfir and Titanic cheese.” False. This is only cheese if you have something against the flute and fiddle in the first place. Don’t bring Zamfir or Titanic (i.e. the James Cameron film) into this. There was no cheese in Knopflers music. But there was bittersweetness, melancholy, and much beauty, and at times it bordered on the spiritually moving (I may or may not have closed my eyes prayerfully at one point).
Knopfler was appreciative of and engaging with the audience–thanking us, telling us he was having a great time. Whether he was or not doesn’t matter. He engaged us (you can probably anticipate where this is going). His sound was tight, crisp, and well-mixed, and their technicians made good, mood-appropriate use of the stage lights. After Knopfler’s show I was that much more of a Knopfler fan.
Dylan… I went in with high expectations, low expectations, and not knowing what to expect. I had various stories about how Dylan does not interact with the audience at all, that I wouldn’t recognize any of the songs, that he is either on or off and if he’s off he’s really off. So here’s the lowdown: it was underneath a number of issues, a great concert. Actually, it was really only one issue: sound. It was way too loud. This is a common problem at concerts, but Knopfler managed to be loud without having all his music become a wash of lows. I wish I had remembered to bring earplugs–I don’t know how many concerts I’ve been too where it was clear that plugging my ears provided the perfect filter, presenting me with crisp, balanced sound and distinct instruments. But I didn’t want to sit with my fingers in my ears all night. Well there was also the lighting–which mostly had kind of a streetlights-in-Paris kind of feel, which is nice, but does not work well in such a large setting–and the fact that when Dylan was sitting at the keyboard he was nearly indistinguishable from the stage set.
He didn’t really interact with the audience. I was suprised to see him get up from his keyboard and walk around stage singing. He may have even gestured at the audience, though with my eyesight at my seats I couldn’t really tell. He even spoke outside of introducing the band: he bleated something about not playing his best or something (which I later learned was an apology for a poor cover of a Gordon Lightfoot song).
It was true what they said about not recognizing the songs: pretty much every song had a new arrangements. The only songs remotely close to the original were “Watching the River Flow” (the opening number) and “Summer Days” (from Love and Theft). With the rest of the songs it took some careful listening to Dylan’s semi-intelligible, and in the words of the Edmonton Journal writer, “raspy, cram-all-his-lyrics-into-one-sentence delivery” to discover what song he was doing. The set included “Things Have Changed,” his Oscar-winning 2000 song, but with a polka beat; “Knocking on Heaven’s Door”; “Tangled Up in Blue”; “Thunder on the Mountain.” The set included 15 songs total. I recognized most of them, but here’s perhaps the biggest oddity of the evening: he did not play a single song from his recently released album Tempest. Sort of bizarre, but then maybe by the time an album is recorded an artist is sick of those songs. Only slightly less disappointing than the mix was his one-song encore. It was “Blowing in the Wind,” mind you, but one song? Not a good encore.
I think the Edmonton Journal headline was right–“Knopfler outshines Dylan at Rexall Place concert”–but not because Dylan and his band played a poor set. Underneath the poor mix was a great band playing some excellent arrangement of classic Dylan songs. I’m glad I got to see Dylan. I even bought a t-shirt. And you know what? I’d go to another one of his concerts in a heartbeat (but maybe I’d opt for an outdoor show), though I have the feeling there won’t be many more of those.
But Knopfler earned an album sale or two from me.