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I Like You Bob, Even if You Don’t Want Me To

By Staff | Aug 26, 2008

Standing in the second row from the stage on Aug. 9, at the first New American Music Union Festival, I’m racked by the anticipation of seeing Bob Dylan, possibly the greatest American poet and songwriter of all time, live on stage.

But I’m hiding it the best I can.

I don’t want Bob to know I like him because, oddly enough, for a world-famous performer, hailed as the voice of protest and expeditionary of folk rock, Dylan doesn’t seem to want to be worshipped or adored or even liked, really.

He’s built a world of mystique and conjecture simply by being irascible, unintelligible and unapproachable. He’s not the voice of anything or anyone, a leader or a poet. In his own words, he’s “a song and dance man,” but certainly not a revolutionary or a missionary.

Still, on the drive from Huntington to Pittsburgh, I insisted upon listening to nothing created after 1975, hoping this would set the stage for Dylan to play “Blonde on Blonde,” “Bringing it All Back Home,” “Highway 61 Revisited” and “John Wesley Harding” in their entireties, rather than the slapdash amalgamation on old and new, mostly new songs, set to new tempos, arrangements and instruments I’ve heard about.

Maybe I would get lucky and the festival would be conducted in an alternate reality that only exists in black and white. Is there a word for being nostalgic about things and times you’ve never experienced?

I missed the press conference on Friday, not expecting Bob to attend, given his history with such affairs. The rest of the day followed a similar sequence, with The Tiny Masters of Today opening up the main stage. The band is indeed tiny, their average age being about 14.

I suppose they were talented for their age, but that’s not really the point. Playing in a band when you’re 12 is only impressive if you play like you’re 25, which they did not. I may sound heartless, but that’s just because you’re accepting mediocrity under the guise of kitsch, which is something I refuse to do.

Even Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the curator of the festival, said as much when he thanked the crowd for showing the band respect, rather than glowering over how much they rocked, as he did about other bands.

Following the Tiny Masters was a pair of glorified, ennobled DJs, called NASA. They were skilled, but ultimately out of place in a festival crowd. You can only get by with so much computer-generated music, no matter how many half-naked, green women you have dancing around you. And they only had two, which gives me the impression they didn’t even try.

After The Black Keys finished their set, Kiedis came onstage and waxed poetic.

“I feel like I just watched Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock or something,” he said. And, for once, this may not have been an unwarranted hyperbole.

With only two members, The Black Keys filled the stage with the presence and charisma of a demon orchestra playing Led Zeppelin covers. Guitarist and vocalist Dan Auerbach is undoubtedly possessed by something akin to the apocryphal rock and roll spirit found in crossroads stories.

The Roots played next and immediately disemboweled the subversive rock and roll feel with their brand of radio-saturating hip-hop backed by instruments. This type of music only serves to dilute whatever potency and authenticity hip-hop has left.

Kiedis introduced them as the funkiest band in the universe and I can’t help but feel I’ve seen funkier, maybe even when The Tiny Masters of Today covered “Jump Around.”

Saturday began with a perpetual onslaught of college bands on the free stages, located in the shopping center outside the main stage. 

Standouts included “The Delicious” and “My Dear Disco.” “The Delicious” had a front man with a mustache that made him look like he might tie someone to the railroad tracks any minute.  My Dear Disco matched the facial hair’s appeal with dance-inspiring, synth heavy pop music and stereo button-themed ensembles.

By the time I made it to the main stage, I’d missed two acts and Gnarls Barkley was set to take the stage. I ended up about eight rows back and to the right of the stage, but determined to make it closer before Bob Dylan performed. But at the moment, the crowd was packed tight, a sea of shoulders and the backs of heads, with no Moses to be found.

That doesn’t stop some people from trying, those that don’t have the decency to surreptitiously drift forward in the crowd. The most popular methods are as follows:

1. “I’m dancing and thereby rendered incoherent. Sorry if I bump into you, jostle you out of your position, take your place and then immediately and conspicuously stop dancing.”

2. “Outta my way! I’m drunk, belligerent and I love this damn song!”

3. “I’m an attractive, half-naked female. You wouldn’t mind if I unceremoniously, unabashedly pull you backward into the nosebleeds while I continue my ruthless advance to the front row, right?”

That last one is especially effective and nigh indefensible.

That being said, I held my position admirably, taking in Gnarls Barkley and Spoon before people started to inexplicably leave their places in front of me.  Gnarls Barkley was entertaining, even if I wasn’t sure which guy was Gnarls. And Spoon certainly held their own on a stage soon to be occupied by Bob Dylan. Nevertheless, people continued their evacuation so that by the time The Raconteurs strummed their first chord, I found myself in the third row.

Jack White, of White Stripes fame, launched The Raconteurs into a full rock and roll assault, aided by his fellow members of the front line, Brendan Benson (guitar and vocals) and Jack Lawrence (bass and vocals).

White wrestled guitar solos into submission, despite how many strings he broke (two, at least) and made his axe as biting as his howling voice, alternating between apropos aplomb and vulnerability seamlessly. By the time the set ended with a reprise of “Blue Veins,” I was in awe, so much so that when White proclaimed, “Up next, big Bobby D!” I wasn’t sure the lineup was in the right order for a festival held in an urban setting in the year 2008.

But Bob Dylan didn’t disappoint, any more than I expected, anyway.  He didn’t look at the crowd for more than a second at a time, never spoke a word and played keyboards and harmonica facing the wings of the stage for his entire set. I expected all this and was still enamored with his mere presence.

That he played some older songs, such as “Tangled Up In Blue,” It Ain’t Me Babe,” and “Ballad of a Thin Man,” just seemed magnanimous and generous of him. It takes a true fan to understand that though his behavior sounds achingly close to that of a jackass, it’s not.

The rest of his set was filled with newer material and every song endured significant changes in arrangement and presentation. It is particularly evident that Dylan never sings the same song the same way twice.

When, after three songs both the guy and two girls immediately in front of me left and allowed me to claim a portion of the railing lining the front row, I was overjoyed and spent the rest of Dylan’s set reveling in my good fortune and his enduring talent. At 67, Dylan still seems insightful, sharp and virtuosic.

The lights dimmed and the stage was empty before Bob Dylan returned with his band for a single song encore. And I don’t have to tell you what song it was.

As I gripped the rail and pounded my fist into the air, I knew Bob Dylan is definitely the voice of somebody, an irrefutable leader and poet, a musical revolutionary and missionary for the American spirit. His ascetic self-denial and contrite diffidence only endears him to us all the more.

“How does it feel?”

It feels good.

Contact Cory at cjackson@graffitiwv.com