By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Dylan at twilight

Dylan meets the Obamas (White House photo; click on image for larger size)

There are so many Bob Dylans that I don’t want to read too much into this. For all we know, Dylan will hit the road with Pearl Jam next year and play a couple hundred hard-rock shows. But two lovely videos suggest that he is settling into the twilight of his career following his unexpected triumphs of the past dozen or so years.

I’ll deal with the better-known example first: his recent performance at the White House of “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” Backed by just Tony Garnier on upright bass and pianist Patrick Warren, Dylan offers an interesting contrast. He doesn’t seem to know what to do with his guitar (in fact, he’s spent most of his time on stage in recent years randomly stabbing at an electronic keyboard), and he stops and starts several times. Yet he’s right on top of it vocally, singing a downbeat version of what was once a confident anthem. It bears repeated viewing — and listening.

The second is a live-in-the-studio version of Woodie Guthrie’s “Do Re Mi” (it’s the second video here). Dylan plays guitar, accompanied by Ry Cooder on electric guitar and Brian Wilson collaborator Van Dyke Parks, of all people, on piano. As with the White House performance, Dylan’s singing combines his characteristic ragged edges with a softness and sweetness that I’ve rarely heard from him before.

I’m struck by what an effective, evocative singer Dylan can still be when his quiet rasp isn’t being overwhelmed by a full band. I’m also struck by the humility of these performances. The elderly-Western-gunslinger persona that he adopted during the past decade has been replaced by something more natural, more human.

None of us knows how much Dylan’s got left to give. His collaboration last year with Grateful Dead lyricist Rob Hunter, “Together Through Life,” was fun, but hardly up to his recent standards. His Christmas album was largely a joke, though I like the video for “Must Be Santa.” He is 68 years old and has a lot of miles on his odometer.

But he’s still capable of surprising us — and moving us.

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  1. I love Dylan’s songs, just not when he’s singing them. He’s a beautiful poet but has never been a great musician or singer, IMHO. That does not mean that he isn’t still a legend and a huge influence on music even today.

  2. Neil Sagan

    Kennedy’s preoccupation with Dylan’s death is morbid. He opens with it and closes with it. In between is a nice piece of writing.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Neil: His death? Good grief. I was thinking more along the lines of retirement.

  3. Saw him at Wang (what is it now – Citi?)Center last November in Boston. Electric guitars & drums drowned out his vocals. Was half way through “It’s all over now Baby Blue” before we guessed that’s what he was singing. Didn’t know if his military style costume represented Michael Jackson, Seargant Pepper, or an underweight doorman.

  4. Bob Dylan has earned the right to do anything he wants musically, but why anybody would pay to see him any more is beyond me. I say this after sitting through a god-awful 90 minutes of his incoherent mumbling and keyboard-poking in front of a second-rate band last year. For a million bucks I couldn’t have told you the set list; every song was identical mush.

    Elvis Costello was the opening act, unaccompanied except for his own guitar, and was terrific – demonstrating that mere age isn’t an excuse.

  5. Nice post, Dan: a keen contextual perspective on Dylan’s current poise. I’m hopeful that he still has some energy and positive surprises left in the tank, or at the very least wears the elder statesman mantel with dignity. Leonard Cohen is a good role model in that regard. His recent outings have been stunningly poignant.

  6. BP Myers

    NPR had a terrific interview last year with the old girlfriend of his who appeared on the iconic cover of “The Free Wheelin Bob Dylan.”

    Two things I most remember about it was her description of how brutally cold it was that day, and how much time Dylan took that day (and every day) to achieve that rumpled, “I just threw any old clothes on” look.

    And as cold as it was, that was the specific look he wanted for that album.

  7. Tom Underwood

    “Didn’t know if his military style costume represented Michael Jackson, Sergeant Pepper, or an underweight doorman.”

    That’s hilarious!

    My one and only was a show in a tent at Endicott College in Beverly of all places back in ’92. Fantastic.

    Dylan and Van Morrison live shows seem to either blow you away or completely leave you frustrated and disappointed.

  8. Paul Bass

    Do you think he’ll ever outdo his version of “Froggy Went A Courtin'” before hanging up his harmonica?

  9. Neil Sagan

    “I’m not dead yet” – Monty Python

    His death? Good grief. I was thinking more along the lines of retirement.

    Twilight without qualification “Dylan at twilight” could just as easily refer to his life as his career.

    “None of us knows how much Dylan’s got left to give.”

    Creatively he has a lot to give. He’s has an painting show up in London and he continues to perform … so my presumption is that you’re talking about time not creative inspiration or desire to perform.

    He is 68 years old and has a lot of miles on his odometer.

    And he took a lot of drugs so he may have done some damage to his body that would lower his life expectancy but the idea that musicians stop playing or stop performing when they get to be 68 must be stated not presumed becuase it is not obvious.

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