Bob Dylan, Vienna Stadthalle, 10 June 2008

A very frustrating and only sporadically entertaining concert by Bob Dylan at the Stadthalle. Dylan, of course, is one of the most important figures in the entire history of popular music, and is worthy of attention for this alone, if for nothing else. But this gig was, sorry to say, rather flat and uninspired.

My principal objection was that there was precious little musical inventiveness or passion in evidence. The band were competent enough (although the less said about Dylan’s keyboard playing the better), but very little attention was paid to the shape of the sounds being produced. Most of the songs sounded like generic boogie rock; they trotted along in a wholly predictable manner without coming close to anything resembling drama, intensity or crescendo. I wasn’t expecting Godspeed You Black Emperor, but I kept wishing that more of an effort had been made to surprise and shake up the audience, to nudge them out of their comfort zone somewhat. But it wasn’t to be.

I wouldn’t have minded this absence of creativity so much if Dylan had managed to surprise me lyrically, but on this score too I was to be confounded. This, after all, is one of the greatest lyricists in the history of popular music, with a boundless gift for ecstatic and moving wordplay and imagery. But, despite the Stadthalle’s reasonable acoustics, I was able to make out practically nothing that was being sung. Dylan’s default singing style, live far more than on record, is a kind of nasalised slur that changes pace, timbre and intonation apparently at will. It’s not a pretty sound, frankly, and along with the lumpen nature of the arrangements it more or less stymied my enjoyment of the show.

I did very much enjoy the look of the thing. The band were decked out in identical grey suits, except for Dylan himself, who really looked the part in a black suit with red piping and black stetson. In keeping with the occasional splashes of banjo and pedal steel guitar, there was a notion of old-time America there that was rather affecting. The evening nudged uncomfortably close to cabaret, though, due largely to the audience’s unnerving habit of applauding the slightest movement or vocal flourish made by the taciturn performer. For my own part, I applauded loudly at the end of one of my favourite Dylan songs, “Love Minus Zero/No Limit”, was rather intrigued by the dark swing of “Workingman’s Blues #2”, but was otherwise distinctly unimpressed.

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