Back in Sweden again

Uncle Bob in Helsingborg

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We went to see Uncle Bob last night — Bob Dylan was playing in Helsingborg which is only one town over from Lund where we live. I see Uncle Bob more often than most other members of my family, mainly since he comes to visit more often. I saw him in Shanghai two years ago, and in England a couple of times before that. The really crazy time was when he played in Finsbury Park in London, literally in our own backyard. Since Bob is stopping by we simply have to show up and say hi. We rented a car and drove to Sofiero, a royal palace and garden, with Helsingor, of Hamlet fame, on the other side of the water. The sky was dark and ominous-looking but it wasn’t cold and it only drizzled a bit in the end. A large crowd had turned up. Well over 7,000 people.

The stage was simple, with none of the light-show of an indoor arena, and suddenly Bob and the band were just standing there. No introduction, no symphonic overture. We found a place a bit off to the side of the stage, but really pretty close. Bob came on at 10 and by that time it was getting dark and quite intimate despite the outdoor setting.

No, I’m not the kind of Dylan fan who always loves everything he does. Some concerts — like the one in Bournemouth in 2006 — can be terrible, and beforehand I’m always apprehensive about how the evening will turn out. I so want it to be great, and it isn’t always. The opening number, “Things Have Changed,” gave me a sinking feeling. That cowboy beat takes all the power out of the song, and besides the band didn’t sync it right. Bob got the stresses wrong and it sounded off. Happily, things improved after that and very rapidly too. “She Belongs to Me” worked well and with “Beyond Here Lies Nothing” the band had definitely found its groove.

Very unexpectedly and slightly bizarrely, the evening turned into a jazz club event of sorts. The sound level was actually turned down quite low and the sound, from where we were standing, was crystal clear. You could hear every instrument very distinctly, neatly separated. Bob played the piano throughout, and it was very high in the mix. He sounded like a lounge lizard crooning his songs, despite the fact that he plays the piano mainly as a percussion instrument. And he sang really well. Better than in decades. He’s got to stop improving like this or he’ll turn into Frank Sinatra before long.

I got to hear “Workingman’s Blues,” and “Spirit on the Water,” but I must confess that I didn’t recognize the waltzy “Waiting for You.” I realize that this identifies me as a normal Dylan fan, not as a freak. I like his music, I like him, but I have a life.

I thought he botched “Love Sick” a bit. It sounded hurried. The song must be hard to do at an outdoor concert when there are a lot of different things going on. It must be difficult to build up the evocative atmosphere required. Or perhaps the band just needed to have a pee — it was the last song before the intermission.

After the break we got four songs from Tempest, and two from other recent albums, in excellent renditions. Bob may have lost the incredible power and energy of his younger days, but he has found other things — irony and tenderness and compassion. “Forgetful Heart,” and “Long and Wasted Years,” both give a very jaded view of middle age. But man, has he got things to tell us about ourselves? He sings the admittedly sometimes rather inane lyrics as though they conveyed eternal truths, and we listen attentively because we know he is right. He is right.

It doesn’t apply to all of the audience by any means, but the people around us seemed mainly to have showed up to gawk at a celebrity and to sing along with well-known tunes. When they had gawked enough and the well-known tunes didn’t come, they turned to their phones. They should have stayed at home. The reviews in the local papers complained: 1) that Bob doesn’t sing well; 2) that he rearranges his tunes so that we cannot recognize them; 3) that he doesn’t do his greatest hits. One of the local journalists even suggested he should wind up his Never Ending Tour. Oh well, what else is new? “I don’t believe you, you’re a liar!

The thing is: a Dylan concert is about here and now and it has nothing to do with nostalgia and “old hits.” He’s got absolutely nothing to prove, and yet he insists on his right to do it at every concert.

Fans complain about “Watchtower” as an encore, but I think it really, really works. True enough, it too lacks energy, but at the same time it seems Bob finally has reclaimed it from Jimi Hendrix. He is singing it much more the way he did on the original recording. It’s mysterious and medieval. And here too there is compassion and tenderness.

After the concert I had this terrible the-circus-is-leaving-town feeling that I always get after a Dylan concert. The next day we suppressed an urge to drive the 250 kilometers to Gothenburg and see him once more. Seeing more concerts provides no cure. Dylan comes into our lives, to remind us of our better selves, of how creative and exceptional life can be, and then he is gone again. The only consolation is that he’ll be back again next year. We’ll be there too. Thanks Uncle Bob for stopping by. We love you.

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