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Expat's Eye
Print Edition> Expat's Eye
UPDATED: April 18, 2011 NO. 16 APRIL 21, 2011
Tangled Up in Bob
A rave from a South African
writer about Dylan in Beijing


LEGEND: Bob Dylan sings at his concert in Beijing on April 6 (CFP) 

How does it feel, to be sitting at a Bob Dylan concert in Beijing? I had to keep asking myself that question when the living legend sauntered on to the stage at the Beijing Worker's Gymnasium.

The troubadour who blew in the wind like the pied piper all those years ago and has managed to roll through 77 albums (according to iTunes) was here in front of me.

Standing statue like in a black military style suit and gray fedora, giving an occasional twitch of his legs—the famous Dylan sidestep—the 69-year-old abandoned his acoustic guitar for keyboards and raunched into serious blues/rock. Backed by a tight backing band and employing a no frills set —no big video screens, no pyrotechnics, no gyrating bodies. What you saw was what you got.

The partisan crowd of 6,000, more Chinese than foreigners, remained quiet for most of the show, in a venue that really does not suit live music. The setlist was a smattering of Dylan standards like It's All Over Now, Baby Blue, Tangled Up in Blue and Simple Twist of Fate. He also sprinkled in some more recent work—Lovesick, Thunder on the Mountain and Beyond Here Lies Nothin'. The sound at times strained against the walls of a venue that is acoustically challenged and should be reserved for basketball.

Dylan does not speak between songs. I guess he rightly figures the words of his songs need no elaboration. The only words he spoke all night was to introduce his hard working band, and even that introduction sounded like the first verse of a song. None of the Bono style sermonizing from our dear Bob, not even so much as a "ni hao Beijing." He just bloody well got on with it.

The biggest cheers of the 17-song set were reserved for a killer version of Highway 61 and of course Like a Rolling Stone. People began clapping, whistling and whooping around me. Every time his lips blew the blues harp there were more cheers. A Chinese couple sitting next to me were smiling. I asked them what they thought of the performance. The woman replied she wished she could understand the words, but she was happy to be there as she had read that he was "so famous and important in Western music."

"Why does he talk in the songs and what about his political music?" asked her partner.

What about it indeed, I thought.

Much was made of Dylan and his "politically incorrect" lyrics before the show, most notably in the whining British press, but as anyone who has heard him sing live will tell you—you can't really understand what is being said anyway. So who is going to be able to distinguish words of protest even when they are being sung right in front of you? In fact he was halfway through Tangled Up in Blue, my all time Dylan favorite, before I realized what he was singing. The man possesses a voice of true granulated malice and arrangements of his songs vary with his moods.

I called my sister up during the show back in South Africa, and held up the handset—later sending a message saying "his voice has gone." She replied at once, "what voice?"

On a completely different note, if you're going to ban cameras from rock concerts then enforce the ban or let people bring them in. I was told that we could not bring in "professional cameras" meaning anything with a casanova lens.

It seemed to me, however, that every Tom, Dick and Harriette around me had a camera (and I don't mean cellphone cameras). A hard rain of flashbulbs fell with gay abandon. Dylan must have been pleased. Presumably in an attempt to identify people using cameras, an irritating green laser light then began flashing into people's eyes from the front left and right of the stage. Classy.

Unusually he played two encores. The man has a heart. Perhaps he knew he would not be passing through this way again and made a special effort. Perhaps he just had a little juice left after two hours.

I watched as the stage lighting cast a looming shadow of Dylan on the faded curtain backdrop. It seemed to remind us of his presence and contribution to the world of music. Thinking about the words of Forever Young, his last gift to Beijing, I felt satisfied. The wait to see this reclusive poet had been worth it, not just to tick off my bucket list, but because I really wanted to. Yes. Admittedly his fans know he can't sing—but when it comes to a living legend, you just love him anyway.

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