Monday, November 19, 2012

Dylan and Knopfler: Idolatry and True Religion

Last night at the TD Garden, Katie and I caught the Boston stop on Bob Dylan’s North American tour. I grabbed tickets as soon as they were available because Katie is a Dylan junkie of 60s vintage while the man opening for Dylan on this tour is my all-time top pop musician, Mark Knopfler. It was the perfect date night for two old rock-and-rollers.

Knopfler, the front man of Dire Straits (“Sultans of Swing” 1977), has had a great solo career since his original band broke up for the first of two times in 1988. For my money MK is the most musical rock guitarist going.

A pleasant evening came to a halt when Katie and I were a mile from home and I offered my grand metaphor for the evening. Seeing Dylan (age 71), I said, was like bowing to a shrine, while hearing Knopfler (63) was closer to hearing a great homily in a living church. She didn’t appreciate the analogy.

But seriously. Bob Dylan, fifty years past his debut album (left), sounds like Phyllis Diller imitating Louis Armstrong: solid gravel, with shrieks filling in for high notes.

And the get-up! The stage crew spent a half-hour resetting the stage for Dylan after Knopfler’s hour-long playlist. Finally the lights went out, dark silhouettes burbled around on stage, and when the lights came back up, there were six musicians in black standing in a line at the back and one old geezer at the piano halfway to the front, styling courageously in a faded white Panama.

“The white hat!” I muttered to Katie. “There he is.”

Dylan wore white shoes and black athletic warm-up pants (Nike? Adidas?) with white piping down the sides of his legs, like a Casanova at a retirement community who gets all dressed up for senior aerobics to hit on the widows. His “dancing,” which he performed as though moving with with the aid of an invisible orthopedic walker, the better kind with wheels on it and a little bicycle bell, was equally creepy.

Like I say, Katie wouldn’t agree.

I looked around the loge section where we were seated as Dylan played and it looked like a busload from a nursing home: gray heads and fat bellies, with a few vestigial Deadhead hairstyles dotting the landscape. A countercultural couple in braids (his and hers), wider in the girth than they were in the shoulders, stood up during an early Dylan song and began waving their arms overhead. But it was like watching a baseball crowd doing the wave when there are only two people in the stadium. The old hippies soon gave up for lack of support.

Knopfler, whose latest album is “Privateering” (left), was all about musicality. He introduced his band of eight supporting players: a drummer from Wales, an uilleann piper from Ireland, a stand-up bass player from Wisconsin, and so on—a roster of international excellence each dressed in his own colors and style—no need for a Men in Black look to contrast with Dylan’s flashes of white. My Man Mark stood front and center (Dylan lurked at the piano and behind it), and Knopfler put the spotlight on other instruments including a long duet between fiddle and bass. He used his battery of guitars (a different one for each song) to complement his mates, weaving melodic riffs through the warp yarns set down by guitars, fiddles, pipes, keys, and drums. His voice, which may be no Caruso but has far more range and bend than Dylan, is just another instrument, though his lyrics are every bit as poetic as Bob’s (see below).

By contrast, Dylan’s backup band ground on, unrelenting in pitch or style, “good” rock ’n roll, but as hard and monotonal as the black clothes and hats. Dylan, whose arthritis prevents him from playing guitar, no longer has vocal flexibility either. So he can’t make anything but eccentric rhythm pieces out of classics like “Visions of Johanna” and “Like a Rolling Stone.” You’re halfway through a song before you realize what it is, Mr. Jones. All Dylan has left to do is play with phrasings, like an actor trying to play Hamlet differently each night. To be . . . or . . . NOT (screech) . . . t’be . . . The band behind him has to make up for this by blasting your eardrums out of your head. To be heard above the blasting (he is the star, right?) Dylan’s mics (voice, harmonica, piano chords banged out) have to be amped up to levels never heard in the coffee houses of his youth.

I felt blessed when Katie turned to me, and not the other way around, to ask if it wasn’t time to go home. The Dylan Fan admitted that the Dylan band’s blasting was wearing on her. By then people had been streaming out the exits for 15 or 20 minutes, like Red Sox fans in the seventh inning of a one-sided loss to the Yankees.

Bob Dylan and Mark Knopfler are in Philadelphia tonight (11/19), Washington tomorrow night (11/20), and Brooklyn on Thanksgiving Eve (11/21). Catch them, get there on time to hear MK’s first, and feel free to leave before BD’s last.

This YouTube clip from the overseas start of the tour begins with the same song Knopfler kicked things off with last night, “What It Is.” The lyrics are printed below.

The drinking dens are spilling out
There's staggering in the square
There's lads and lasses falling about
And a crackling in the air
Down around the dungeon doors
The shelters and the queues
Everybody's looking for
Somebody's arms to fall into

That's what it is
It's what it is now

There's frost on the graves and the monuments
But the taverns are warm in town
People curse the government
And shovel hot food down
Lights are out in the city hall
The castle and the keep
The moon shines down upon it all
The legless and asleep

And it's cold on the tollgate
With the wagons creeping through
Cold on the tollgate
God knows what I could do with you

That's what it is
It's what it is now

The garrison sleeps in the citadel
With the ghosts and the ancient stones
High on the parapet
A Scottish piper stands alone
And high on the wind
The highland drums begin to roll
And something from the past just comes
And stares into my soul

And it's cold on the tollgate
With a Caledonian blues
Cold on the tollgate
God knows what I could do with you

That's what it is
It's what it is now
What it is
It's what it is now


There's a chink of light, there's a burning wick
There's a lantern in the tower
Wee Willie Winkie with a candlestick
Still writing songs in the wee wee hours
On Charlotte Street I take
A walking stick for my hotel
The ghost of Dirty Dick
Is still in search of Little Nell

That's what it is
It's what it is now
It's what it is
What it is now . . .


  1. thanks, man. we're headed up to the philly show tonight. did MK get on stage any with the dylan band? like...dylans encore, or anywhere else? wouldn't want to leave early and miss any of THAT action. we're definately going to see the Knopfler Band...always a treat!

  2. Katieb said...
    You would be right in saying I disagree with a lot of this Dylan bashing, we ALL have our shrines. Though his voice did remind me of Louis Armstrong. I though it was very cool what he and his band did with his older balads.... It was Dylan doing something different with his vocal limitations. If you want to hear him sing them the way he use to- download them from iTunes! For the times they are a changin"...

    1. The previous comment (Katieb) is from my darling Katie. Agreed, the times are a changin' for all of us! :-)

      As to my anonymous friend going to the Philly show tonight, Knopfler played about three tunes near the beginning of Dylan's set. I can't tell you whether he comes on at the end for encores with Dylan, because we had left by then.

    2. Knopfler played on "Girl From the North Country," "Tangled Up In Blue" and a blues song ("Early Roman Kings" from the new album, TEMPTEST, which is fantastic). And he was freakin' awesome. For you to throw off Dylan's performance like it was some geriatric charade shows how much you of it you seem to get, Jonesey

      Dylan is an American Legend, and so I had a great time, dancing hahrd even though I was one of two 20-somethings trapped in a sea of recending hairlines.

      The times they are a changing?
      ..well, progress rides in a hearse..

  3. "...his lyrics are every bit as poetic as Bob’s."

    That statement, even before an examination of Knopfler's Dylanesque lyrics tipped me off that maybe you don't really get it.

  4. Brother, it is not to late to repent.

  5. I was next to several Boston College students on the train after the show -- and I was surprised to listen to them rave about Bob Dylan and his band and how much they enjoyed "Bob being Bob".

  6. Webster-Dylan's voice, well, it is a wreck. But the melodies and lyrics are still coming. Try "Pay in Blood" from his new album Tempest. The Devil, the Rebel, the Accuser of the bretheren, is the voice through every verse--except that Dylan came up with a final line sung at the end of each verse which is so deliciously ambiguous that it also be taken as the Christian's quiet reply to all Satan's ravings. See:

    Jim McCullough
    DRE Our Lady of Grace
    Greensboro, NC

  7. Have to say that the divine presence that comes with such creativity
    is hard to miss in Dylan's writing. The guy is on his own planet,
    and old blues voice and all comes down to our planet about 100 times a year to grace us with his message. Sometimes disguised as nothing more than good kick ass rock and roll, it puts me on a different plane.
    Took in the Boston, Philly and DC shows. Philly was outstanding, both bands had a really high energy moving through them. Knofler Band is something to behold, the most accomplished group of musicians, but on top of that Mark's voice and his unbelievable signature guitar style were to die for. But the Dylan experienc is something you have to be ready for, and if you are, and you know what you want fromit, what is actually possible, then man he can deliver, and deliver me he did. thanks baby, you know what it's all about. DC was a bit more mellow, can't say I wasn't loving the piano on too Rmona, so thrilled to hear it live, But the real thrill came when I heard the first few notes to "Soon After Midnite"
    A pleasure I had only dreamed about hearing live. Go Go Go!!!!
    Everybody's Goin' and I want to go to!!!!!


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