Friday, December 12, 2008

Big screens at Bob Dylan’s London O2 show next April: “slim chance”

Thanks to Matthew Zuckerman:

"But if the big screens aren¹t used the Dylan show could be embarrassingly poor."

The chances of Dylan allowing screens to be used at the London O2 gig are slim. How slim? Well, he has insisted that the screens be turned off at just about every festival he has played over the years, so it would be a big turnaround. (Mind you, he did allow cameras at Woodstock 2, and how many of us would have bet their mortgages -- even in the present economic climate -- against the possibility of Bob writing his memoirs, hosting a radio show or advertising ladies underwear . . . right up until the moment when he did it?)

This may be annoying for those in distant seats, particularly if Bob stays behind his keyboard all evening, as he has done most of the time in recent years, but that's the way he works.

That's what he's doing on stage, working, and like every successful worker, he takes the opportunity to arrange his working conditions the way he likes them. And the way he likes them is to have everything conducive to his being able to put maximum concentration into his performance.

This means:

1) No cameras flashing in his eyes [There are countless mobile phones
pointed at him, to be sure, but they don't flash -- at least, not with the strength of a professional photographer's camera -- and they are far enough away to be ignored]

2) No cameramen dressed in black creeping around his stage on the periphery of his vision, cameras Quasimodo-like on their shoulders [I hear that he likes as few people as possible around the stage, and even insisted that the likes of Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard cleared the backstage area when he was touring with them a few years ago]

3) No distracting chatter with the audience [Just one 'thank you' and the names of the band members, plus a smattering of words every dozen or so concerts if there's something he really wants to say -- eg on election night]

4) No eye contact with the audience [This is, I would guess, one of the reasons he likes to stay behind the keyboard, on the side of the stage and angled away from the audience. A few times a concert he might come to centre stage or look out at us, but he can choose the times and curtail them whenever he wants]

Now if you are stuck at the back of Earl's Court, the NEC or the O2 arena, the gig will be a whole lot less affecting than if you were lucky enough to get a seat up front, but that's the way the man works.

Would it be better if he played smaller venues and left the arenas to the Rolling Stones, U2 and -- since he is at ease with the cameras and with reaching out to large crowds -- Leonard Cohen? As long as you can get a ticket it would be, but if Dylan stopped playing arenas, ticket demand would be fierce and many would be left with nothing at all. (He can hardly double the number of shows to compensate!)

I have seen Dylan at Portsmouth Guildhall and the Urawa Bunka Centre just outside Tokyo, both small halls, as well as his residency at the Brixton Academy, and the performances have been wonderful. But no more wonderful than his 2005 performance at the cavernous NEC in Birmingham, possibly the finest of the 50 or so shows I have witnessed.

P.S. I know I am a bit of a Luddite (I prefer vinyl to digital and shellac to vinyl, for example), but when I saw the Rolling Stones at Tokyo Stadium in 1994 I had an excellent seat about 10 rows from the front, and yet still found myself drawn to watch the giant close-ups of the screens. The result? It might have been a great cinematic show, but it was not the kind of 'live' performance that I would expect from a Dylan concert. In order to achieve a standardized attractive appearance, supermarket produce often sacrifices the true flavour of the fruit and we are frequently in danger of doing the same with music. If you're looking at a screen, something in your mind tells you that this is cinema or a TV programme, and you become less present in the moment. Enjoy being in the same room as Bob, even if you are at the back of the room.