Goosebumps sprang up on my arms when Bob Dylan emitted the words, “you just kind of wasted my precious time” during a rendition of “Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right” at the TD Garden in November. But the chills had nothing to do with the marriage of words, melody and delivery that I was actually hearing from the stage, but the memory of a perfect union of those elements from Dylan’s 1963 album, “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.”
Had I not been familiar with the original version’s resolute narrative and babbling brook guitar, the sentiment would have been lost entirely. Much of the show was like this, dependent upon the audience arriving with a thorough working knowledge of the 71-year-old man onstage and forgiving him for completely disregarding the melodies of the formative renditions that made up his hit-laden setlist.
But this was the first time I had actually gotten to see Bob Dylan, and I had been prepared by friends not to set my expectations too high in regards to enjoying what I already enjoyed about Dylan. I knew in advance not to expect to be lifted from the things that had lifted me in the past. In fact, I would have preferred not to have even heard him play tunes I loved since childhood like “Don’t Think Twice,” “Visions of Johanna” and “Like a Rolling Stone” than to have heard what he did with them.
But this is not to say that Dylan isn’t still capable of magic. He just doesn’t seem to like reciting the same spell twice. His band was ready with familiar arrangements and provided reminders of what those songs should sound like, but it was actually material I was less familiar with that worked best. “Forgetful Heart,” from his 2009 album, “Together Through Life” achieved that goosebump quality in the very moment, which is much more precious than the type of goosebumps stimulated by the memory of something superior.
This experience serves as an appropriate summation of 2012, the year in live music for me. Yes, I went to see and hear plenty of new acts, but I found myself saying, “ya know, I’ve never seen [fill-in-the-blank] live, I should probably go, while they’re still touring.”
The acts I’ve gone to see in the past 13 months that I had never seen before include the Allman Brothers Band, Wu-Tang Clan, Spiritualized, Glen Campbell, Neil Young & Crazy Horse, Peter Gabriel and even the Handel Haydn Society performing “The Messiah.” For the most part, these were rewarding experiences, but with veteran performers like these, I always found that same sort of thing I discovered with Dylan: that when I went in wanting them to deliver a specific thing, and they did actually play it, it was never quite as satisfying as getting to hear things I hadn’t heard before, whether they be little nuances or songs I wasn’t as familiar with.
It was heart-wrenching to see Glen Campbell forget where he was and mess up lyrics to “Rhinestone Cowboy,” but it was amazing to watch his fingers remember exactly what notes to play on his solos. And I may not have gotten to hear the Allmans do “Melissa,” but to watch them play a jammy cover of Van Morrison’s “And It Stoned Me,” was a welcome surprise.
One note though, to you veteran performers (I’m looking at you, Neil Young and Peter Gabriel): If you are not really known for your elaborate stage props and choreography, don’t just insert a “character” into your show. During “Don’t Give Up,” Gabriel left the stage-level area with a suitcase and ascended to another level as if he were leaving town. This is unnecessary over-illustration, pal! And during Neil Young’s “Singer Without a Song,” a woman who was either a model or actress came out onstage with a guitar case and lost look in her eye and wandered around as an over-illustration that she, the woman on the stage, was the singer without the song!
That is my advice to you veteran performers, as a veteran concertgoer.