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Dylan mumbles through set

Seeing Bob Dylan, live in concert, is a bucket list item for many music fans. And it's a good idea to keep that bucket handy, like airlines keep little waxy bags handy at every seat.
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Seeing Bob Dylan, live in concert, is a bucket list item for many music fans. And it's a good idea to keep that bucket handy, like airlines keep little waxy bags handy at every seat.

I freely admit, there was a sense of wonderment in seeing such an icon of culture standing right before my eyes. Like so many in the CN Centre crowd, I'd grown up with Dylan coursing out of my parent's stereo and on black-and-white television. I wasn't a religious fan but I was one of those who applauded when he won the Nobel Prize for Literature because I believed his compositions to be of interstellar intelligence.

I expected Dylan to play a healthy dose of cover tunes on this tour. That has been his way in recent years. I also expected he wouldn't talk to the crowd at all (I hate it when performers don't have personal conversations with the crowd in each town, I think it shows disrespect for the community and lack of commitment to the fans) with his lifelong reputation for aloof behavior.

What I didn't expect was an almost complete lack of intelligibility. As I was leaving the show, I ran into a friend who said "that was an interesting rearrangement of Blowin' In The Wind, wasn't it?" I didn't know what he was talking about. I had to Google the set list to find out the first song of the encore was that massive, ubiquitous song. I didn't have a clue that's what it was.

My 10-year-old son said it best, midway through the experience. "I think they should have subtitles on the stage so we know what he's saying."

Amen, kiddo.

I managed to spot some stuff amid the chaos. I actually enjoyed a lot of what he did, like Highway 61 and Tangled Up In Blue. It almost felt like he was having fun, a couple of times, there, and his version of Make You Feel My Love was quite sweet. But the highlight of the night for me was a rollicking rendition of Desolation Row that had me smiling and engaged, but again, I had to Google it later on to make sure that was indeed the song.

His voice occasionally hit the right notes. It wasn't completely garbled and out of key. But it was like a classic car that had so much rust you had to describe it as having the odd paint spots in amongst the decay.

Amplifying the poor vocals was the choice to sing some of the biggest songs from the crme of the American pop canon. Stormy Weather, That Old Black Magic, Once Upon A Time, Melancholy Mood (the latter two he actually rendered admirably) and the like. But if you can't sing, those songs make the deficiency even brighter.

And they were odd choices to my ear. Many of them are hackneyed tunes in the first place, almost comical in their height on the clich list. In these troubled times of political angst, the patron troubadour of pushback, protest and pondering can't think of anything better to do with his influence than sing lounge pith? In these days of musical richness and abundance - days he helped shape at their beginnings - the most innovative thing on his mind were trite karaoke anthems?

He did succeed in showing some diversity. Standing on a stage set with Hollywood spotlights and vintage incandescent bulbs providing an intimate atmosphere, he struck a film noir pose for much of the show. He dabbled in the sounds of zydeco, Chicago blues, golden-age Nashville, soft rock, Texas swing, and a lot of pop jazz (everything except the folk music he captained in the 1960s).

But what could have been an iconic American songwriter hitchhiking across the great American songbook felt more like a drunken uncle stumbling around spilling the good Scotch from the expensive crystal.