Photo: Bob Dylan and Geoff Gans
On Sunday, Nov. 19, two of my friends and I drove to the Fillmore in Philadelphia to see American folk legend Bob Dylan perform material from his 2020 album, “Rough and Rowdy Ways.” However, hearing the album live itself wasn’t the reason for our pilgrimage that day. Bob Dylan, who at 82-years-old has spent the better part of six decades shaping the world of music, is someone with a lot of well-deserved prestige. To see the man who sang the soundtrack of the civil rights era and performed at the March on Washington in 1963 play in the place we grew up in in 2023, was an experience few people will have in the future. We were starstruck, to say the least.
Before this concert, I had a binge of all 40 of Dylan’s albums from 1963 till now. Part of me wanted to understand what the hype was about and why this singer with an admittedly jarring voice had gained so much respect among musicians. Why had he won the Nobel Prize in Literature? Despite it being a grueling task to listen to all of the albums (listening to his 80s albums was particularly rough), I understand the hype. Dylan reinvented music, pushing it forward in terms of what the medium could do while celebrating music’s past.
Dylan’s trajectory as an artist took many turns, and he underwent many metamorphoses over time. His output from 1962 to 1964 consisted of songs celebrating as well as inventing folk traditions. He stuck to the arrangement of himself, his acoustic guitar and his words. The protest songs and love songs he wrote during this period are well-known even among the “uninitiated” music fans. “The Times They Are A-Changin’” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” are staples of American culture and genuine literary achievements. After this, Dylan would reinvent his music, combining electric instrumentation with his poetic songs in a way that almost foreshadowed punk rock. His work influenced everyone from The Velvet Underground to Joni Mitchell.
My friends and I arrived at the venue as soon as the doors opened at 6:30 p.m., an hour and a half before the show began. We were met with a few surprises. For one, the age demographics of the people there were not what you would expect. While there were many older people and veteran Dylan fans, nearly half the crowd seemed to be young. Many were in their 20s or of college age. Despite being long past his prime, Bob Dylan has cross-generational appeal.
The Fillmore is a very small venue which fits a couple hundred people. The show was phone-free, and we were required to carry our cell phones in locked pouches. In the center of the stage, there sat a grand piano which I accurately predicted Dylan would play during the show. The small venue and the lack of phones created an environment conducive to an intimate concert experience. Everyone at the show had their attention glued to the stage during the entirety of the show. As we stood and waited for the show to begin, my friends and I made jokes about yelling “Judas!” if Dylan ever picked up an electric guitar during the evening. For the uninitiated, that’s a reference to when an audience-goer in the 60s yelled the very same word at the stage, angry that Dylan abandoned his acoustic roots and went electric.
When Bob Dylan stepped onto the stage he was met with irreverent cheers and loud applause. He sat down at the piano and immediately got into the music. His backing band included two guitarists, Bob Britt and Doug Lancio. Tony Gamier played bass, switching between upright bass and electric bass at various points in the show. Donnie Heron played both pedal steel and fiddle. Jerry Pentecost, who stood out to my friends and me, played drums, holding the groove together while spinning his sticks between snare hits.
The performance was amazing. The band, which primarily played blues, was incredibly tight. Like true professionals, they operated on the same wavelength, knowing when to let loose and play loud and when to fall back into a tight groove. There were moments during the performance when the band would let loose, jamming for several bars with intensity. The song “False Prophet,” which appeared on Dylan’s album “Rough and Rowdy Ways,” sounded like something that Cream would play in the 60s. My friend remarked that there were moments when the band sounded borderline heavy metal.
The elephant in the room, as is always the case with Bob Dylan, was Dylan’s voice. Even during the height of his popularity, Dylan’s nasal voice and semi-atonal singing style have been the sole feature which has alienated many music listeners. As he aged, his voice became raspier and rougher. My other friend even remarked during our drive that Dylan sounds like he’s “gargling glass” on his recent albums. In his youth, his voice suited the acoustic folk he was famous for. Since his voice now sounds closer to late-career Tom Waits, Dylan has leaned further into the abrasive blues sound. His voice is gravelly and sometimes frail, but it works well with the sound he’s chosen in recent years. While his diction was poor when singing at the Fillmore, his vocal ability was better live than on his recent album.
One disappointing aspect of the performance was the lack of hits or old songs. The oldest song performed in the evening was “Most Likely You Go Your Way and I Go Mine,” which comes from Dylan’s groundbreaking 1966 album “Blonde on Blonde.” Despite it being a well-known song by fans, the arrangement was much different from what appears on the album, and it took me a while to even recognize the song. Dylan also played some material from his late-60s country phase, including “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” from “John Wesley Harding” (1967) and “To Be Alone With You” from “Nashville Skyline” (1969).
Dylan hardly spoke to the audience during the performance, yet the performer/audience dynamic was unlike anything I’ve seen. Neither he nor the band beat around the bush. The night was about music and nothing more. In many ways, there was great respect conveyed between Dylan and the audience and vice versa. During the whole show, the crowd was dancing to both the fast and slow songs. The set concluded with Dylan’s 1980 song “Every Grain of Sand,” a sublime slow ballad about Dylan’s spirituality. When the performance drew to a close, Bob Dylan finally spoke to the audience:
“These songs aren’t easy to play but isn’t this one of the best bands you’ve ever heard?” he said, motioning to his backing band behind him. Dylan bowed to the audience, and amidst the vigorous applause, his face expressed gratitude to the audience. While it’s not hard to expect disappointment from a modern Bob Dylan concert, it was one of the best performances I’ve experienced.
Josh Czaja is a first-year Political Science major on the International Relations track. JC1029473@wcupa.edu