A few weeks ago, I went to see Bob Dylan for the first time.
At this show, like some other concerts Ive attended, see is the right verb choice rather than hear. The venue, a new one a short distance from my current suburban digs, had fairly good acoustics by sports arena standards, and I picked up a fair amount of music. (As I have gathered is his tendency, Dylan did what he could to bewilder I didnt recognize The Times They Are A Changin until the end of the first verse.)
However, many of my memories of the gig relate more to sights and personalities than music. I will remember the obese guy in the aisles during the opening acts set and my wifes concern about whether the ushers would let him sit in front of us. (He drifted off somewhere during the intermission.) And the parents giving their kids an early dose of culture. And trying to look around the swaying guy in front of me to gather some information about how Dylan interacted with his stoical band. And the sound guys with their computers and screen savers, and how Dylans engineer cracked up when the band came in on All Along The Watchtower in two different keys at once.
Some may consider this heretical, but I prefer recordings to concerts. In the case of this Dylan show, it helps that, as with so many other musical events these days, I could get a recording for no charge within days. It was this recording which let me gather much of the music from this event the weird arsenal of croaks and growls which Dylan employs to help put across those celebrated lyrics, the solid if sometimes overly cautious support from his band.
That being said, seeing music has given me information about the performers which at least supplements my knowledge of their music. Ill remember Miles Davis breaking his trademark snideness towards his audience to flash a boyish grin and gesture towards his keyboardist, Joey DeFrancesco, when Joey got off a good solo. And Robert Fripp shaking his head in self-mocking dismay when he muffed a note in the first seconds of a King Crimson show.
Sometimes seeing music makes it entirely better than hearing it. I remember a Santana show from 1995 and getting lost in an exuberant Black Magic Woman which seemed to go on for a half hour. And getting a tape later from a show within a week of that one which was full of dreary new songs and wondering what happened.
When luck strikes, seeing and hearing music come together. I was at the first of the four Wilco shows last year at the Vic during which they recorded their live double CD, and it was a comfortable experience where all six members were easily visible. It made up for the previous year at the Auditorium Theatre, where, thanks to the magic of pre-sales (unfortunately sponsored by Wilcos web site) and Ticketmasters choice of best available seats, I was stuck trying to watch the band from somewhere near the roof of the venue.
One of my strongest memories of that Vic show, though, has only an indirect relationship to Wilcos music. It had to do with the pre-show music they chose, a song called The Man by an early-70s British band called Patto which starts on a nondescript note, drifting along with, of all things, a vibraphone solo, before gradually building to a screaming frenzy at the end. I bought Pattos CD later, but I doubt I will hear this song without thinking of the tension that song built which broke when Wilco came out. Its a concept Brian Eno might appropriate Music For Audiences.
Since Dylan has grown more fond of the stage and less enamored of the studio in recent years, Ive gathered that being a Dylan fan now means being interested in the risks of seeing music. New venues, new bands and new attitudes from the singer towards his catalog and his audience. Something different happens each time. This makes me glad about taking the risk at least once, despite my misgivings about the situation, and I am tempted to do it again next year or whenever he rolls through again.