Saturday, April 13, 2019

Bob Dylan @ Grand Rex, Paris - April 13th, 2019

Almost exactly two years after his last Paris dates, Bob Dylan is back in Paris for three nights at the venerable Grand Rex Theatre. Bob Dylan has gone through many permutations: beat poet, hippy, protest singer, bard, rocker, circus ringleader, cowboy, preacher, junky... His most recent iteration is that of a Lynchian barroom crooner, subverting Americana with his tales of apocalyptic love and everyday disasters and mundane tragedies.

Up until very recently, Bob Dylan's shows were completely different from one night to the next. Not only did he change the setlist, he would also change song arrangements. This is what made Dylan bootleg collecting so rewarding. In the past few years, his approach is completely different: he now works with predetermined setlist and he has reworked his repertoire to fit the new country/jazz swing direction that he's used on his Great American Songbook by the way of Frank Sinatra covers records, as if to accentuate the fact that he, too, is now a part of this American music-hall tradition and to cement his place in that pantheon. Of course, we needn't be reminded: no one can argue that the man is now an international treasure, one of the few living artists who has actually influenced the culture and helped shape the world we live in now. One of the few, like Paul McCartney, Elvis or Marilyn Monroe who actually deserves to be called an icon.

And tonight, the last one of this short residency, the icon is in fine voice. Admittedly, Bob Dylan is judged on a different scale: the man is pushing eighty and it's an understatement to say that he was never Placido Domingo, but it feels like he has grown into his voice again. These new, gentle arrangements give new sense to his nasal growl which he seems to have tamed by learning to use more softly. If anything his piano playing is the only sore spot here. As in the last fifteen years, he is now almost exclusively stationed behind his keys, leaving all guitar duties to Charlie Sexton and Donnie Herron and his piano playing is unsubtle and imprecise. But even that cannot distract from the overall quality and emotion of the performance.

Compared to his last run of shows here, the material is now one hundred percent original and he no longer shies away from performing his classics. Not every song in his repertoire can sustain this new treatment: It Ain't Me Babe sounds like it is sung by a drunken Las Vegas lounge singer. Everything else however is spot on: Scarlet Town, Love Sick, A Simple Twist Of Fate, Don't Think Twice It's Alright, a dynamic version of Like A Rolling Stone, Blowing In The Wind... all these songs are given a new life in these new guises yet still manage to retain their essence.

The importance of these cultural artefacts is such that their writer was given a Nobel Prize a few years ago. Yet among the litany of praises and laudations, underneath the severity of some of the messages and beyond the reverence these songs and their creator understandably inspire, we forget that at their core, they are fun. And it seems Dylan himself is allowing himself to remember that popular music whether it be jazz, blues, rock, folk or music hall (and he's tackled it all), at its core, is fun. And I swear that on more than one occasion, betraying his dark, moody, taciturn, inscrutable persona, I caught the man smiling. The audience sure did.

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