Ether column, June 2008

In my February column, I wrote about the visit to Vienna of the legendary Canadian singer-songwriter Neil Young. There aren’t many other living rock stars truly deserving of the term legendary, but Bob Dylan is certainly one of them, and this month he too touches down in Vienna. Since 1988 Dylan has been engaged on the Never Ending Tour, a ceaseless parade around the theatres, arenas and stadiums of the world. At these gigs, he regularly intersperses Dylan classics with total obscurities from his massive back catalogue and traditional American folk songs that you suspect no-one but he has ever even heard.

After almost fifty years as a performer, Dylan has absolutely nothing left to prove. For all the talk of his supposedly shifting, protean qualities (brought to the fore in the recent biopic I’m Not There, in which he was played by six different actors), he is essentially a man who writes songs, sings and plays guitar – no more, and no less. Musically, he’s broken no new ground since he carried out the small matter of inventing rock music in 1965-6 with the trilogy of albums Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde. His renunciation of the glib certainties of protest folk, and his creation of multi-layered and dreamlike texts to accompany what he called the “thin wild mercury sound” of those records, were – and this is no exaggeration – a turning point in Western civilisation. With a few notable exceptions (Blood on the Tracks, Oh Mercy, Time Out Of Mind), none of his later albums have approached the epic quality of his mid-60s work. His singing voice, meanwhile – never an easy thing to love – has gradually descended into a cracked and wheezing approximation of its former self. And yet a Dylan concert is still undoubtedly an event, due in large part to no-one knowing quite what the old buzzard will play next, nor what approach he will take to the performance of songs he has played literally thousands of times. Dylan may be in the autumn of his life, but he continues to demonstrate an unswerving commitment to live performance and a stubborn refusal to allow his career and reputation to stagnate. For that, as for so much else, he is deserving of the greatest admiration and respect.

Just space to mention Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, otherwise known as Will Oldham, who drops in this month for the first time since his excellent set at last year’s Donaufestival. A literate and piercingly honest singer and songwriter, Oldham’s songs inhabit a strange place somewhere between old-time American folk, country and confessional poetry. His quavery voice and spare musical aesthetic lend his work a distinctive sense of the uneasy, effortlessly binding together the earthly and the sublime.

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