The Circus-Grotesque: Bob Dylan in Concert by Jack Caseros

It was early June when I picked up a copy of Lloydminster’s free weekly newspaper—altogether probably the fourth time I have ever looked at the paper in as many years—and skimmed lazily through stories about cheery neighbourhood achievements and local sports teams until I saw Bob Dylan, moody as ever, grimly slinging his guitar in a file photo, bannered by the headline, Wind Blowing Dylan to the Border City.

We get tempest winds in Lloydminster (Canada’s only border city), it’s true. It’s nothing extraordinary for the wind to gust above 50 km/h (~31 mph). The only other place I knew that was windier than Lloydminster was Lethbridge—so it seemed like more than coincidence that Dylan was playing there too. Bob Dylan, 71 year-old musician and iconoclast, had scheduled three obscure Canadian tour dates in 2012: Cranbrook, British Columbia; Lethbridge, Alberta; and, Lloydminster, Alberta/Saskatchewan.

So when the tickets went on sale, I took time off work to buy them, thinking they would sell out fast. The Lloydminster Grandstand has a capacity for 4,500 people, split between bleachers and the open dirt floor, but the newspaper reported that as of August 9th, the day before the show, there were still ~1,500 unsold tickets.

The show was opened by menace—not a local opening band, but a tangible fear, as crisp as thewhoa that the crowd offered up to lightning in the eastern sky. In fact, Dylan had no need for an opening act. He cut right into his first song, “Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat” in typical Dylan style, without so much as a grunt of acknowledgement to the crowd. In the entire two hours, the only time Dylan spoke to the audience was at the end, when he introduced his band in an incomprehensible grumble.

Incomprehensible grumble. I think that would be a fair description of Dylan’s most current voice. The man has never been lauded for his vocal performance, although he mentioned in the famous 1966 Playboy interview that he thought he sounded fine and hit all the right notes—which might have been true up to about the nineties, when cigarettes and a demanding tour schedule grizzled his voice beyond recognition.

Any Dylan fan would know the constant struggle with non-fans who complain about Dylan’s jeering tones. The common argument is simple but profound: it’s what he says, not how he says it. And I made this same argument to my girlfriend, who moaned and mocked the man’s distinctive voice—but I had little argument during the show, when you could only catch the odd word or follow along only because you already knew the lyrics.

He followed “Pillbox Hat” with the easily recognizable “Don’t Think Twice (It’s Alright)”, which he followed with a handful of modern tunes from more recent works which I admit, I didn’t recognize and wouldn’t care to. For me, anything beyond John Wesley Harding (1967) was a stretch for Dylan. His music was both playful and banal in his later age; any artistic compulsion or serious depth he had achieved in the sixties was frazzled into the eighties.

He left his keyboard for the first time to take centre stage with his harmonica and belt out the honky-tonk “Things Have Changed” where he insisted in the chorus, “I used to care, but things have changed”.

So take that, all you assholes that cringed when I sang off-key or hit wonky piano chords in my last two songs. I used to care. I used to stand by myself on stage with a harmonica and acoustic guitar and point an angry finger at the whole fucking establishment, but you know what? I just don’t care anymore. I’m seventy-one goddamn years old and everyone thinks I’m a prophet or a hero or something, so why get so uptight? I got God and I got time, so here I am. Applaud.

And we did, although before the beer flowed freely the applause was sporadic and low-key. I had the sense that most people had come to see Bob Dylan because he was here. It wouldn’t have been a stretch to estimate that about half of the audience could be less concerned about the music. They were here to see a legend, to be part of an event. They couldn’t wait for it all to finish so they could post on their Facebook and Twitter accounts: OMG saw Bob Dylan live! cooooool lol.

So the entire show took on the aspect of a freak show, or a travelling circus. People loitered and wandered more than I have ever seen at a non-festival concert. People talked and joked in small groups like they were at a county picnic, completely ignoring the six-piece on stage.

My girlfriend and I showed up later than intended. We were left with slim pickings for bleacher seats, so we found a place in the second row, beside a trio that I would have never pegged as Dylan fans: a regular background guy (who kept in character and didn’t do much besides laugh at jokes the whole night, or nod when appropriate), a midget who spilled more of his beer than he drank, and a douchey Jersey Shore guido complete with sparkly shirt, gold rings, fake tan, and frosted hair tips. A few songs in, Jersey Shore is greeted by a drunken friend who stands in front of him (and in front of me). They shout about where they were earlier and where they were going after. They show each other photos on their cellphones. I finally have to tell the man to sit down because he seems to have forgotten that there is a show happening right behind him. He proceeds to tell Jersey Shore about how he almost ran someone down earlier because they pissed him off. To top off the madcap absurdity of the situation, the drunken fool goes on to rant about how no one here even knows who Bob Dylan is, they aren’t true fans. He says all of this with his back to the stage. Meanwhile, Bob Dylan continues chugging away on his keyboard.

I am completely dismayed by this encounter. I can’t shake the overwhelming feeling that we are in a circus, a grotesque circus with Dylan trapped on stage, rattling around like a grumpy gorilla who we all came to see. People on the floor come and go, taking a few moments to sip their beer and watch the music man wail loosely on the keys, then continue on their way to, I don’t know, the magic mirrors or the haunted house or fairway rides and cotton candy. It is twisted. I feel sick, but I try to hold my focus on Dylan. Which works, until I notice he is dressed like a ringleader on a steamboat: white plantation-style Panama hat, blue sailor jacket with golden buttons, and starchy white pants. I realize that my whole night will be able to be summarized in one bastardized term:circus-grotesque.

I get excited again when I catch the word Ophelia, because I piece together that he is playing an unrecognizable version of “Desolation Row”. In his old age, Dylan has become his own cover band. He doesn’t play any song like he did on record—it’s all repurposed. Certain sections sound completely improvised, the lead guitar clashing with Dylan’s piano riffs, or the piano falling out of time with the rest of the band.

As the night darkens, the stage lights wash the band. The colours accentuate the whole circus-grotesque feeling, especially when Dylan plays what is my highlight from the night: “Ballad of a Thin Man”. The chugging rhythm is irresistible, the guitar perfectly creepy, and the organ maddening. Dylan echoes his vocals for a haunting effect—You try/ you try/ So hard / so hard / But you can’t / But you / Understand / Understand—the words repeating, although just as difficult to understand the second time.

As the show rolls into its second hour, Dylan redeems himself. He plays “Highway 61” (which I romanticize was chosen because Lloydminster is located on Highway 16), and, to everyone’s amusement, “Like a Rolling Stone”. The crowd attempts to sing along to the chorus, but they forget: Dylan doesn’t give a fuck. He’s creating his own timing, squeezing out How does it feel? just in time before the next bar begins.

He closed the 105 minute show with “All Along the Watchtower”. The crowd cheered for an encore as if it enjoyed itself, and Dylan obliged, the ringleader he was, and performed a song I couldn’t recognize.

Altogether, I ruminated that there were three kind of people who would have enjoyed an increasingly decrepit Dylan: die-hard Dylan fans who wouldn’t be dismayed by anything the legend put out; desperate hipsters who wouldn’t be caught dead saying they were disappointed; and musicians who could appreciate a complex blend of borderline-improvised music.

And because I was all three, I fully enjoyed the show. Dylan has matured as a musician—his ambivalence toward criticism is what gives him the freedom to pound the piano or sing whatever way feels right to him. And in this way, Dylan remains defiant, like he always was; more fundamentally, he remains an artist for the connoisseur, not the consumer.


Jack Caseros is a Canadian writer and ecologist. His prose has recently been featured in steelbananas,Linguistic Erosion, and Eunoia Review. His first novel, Onwards & Outwards, was released in early 2012 to zero acclaim. You can read more about Jack at www.jackcaseros.webs.com.