Bob Dylan: A hard catalogue’s gonna fall

Mark Thompson photo

It was perhaps indicative of what was expected of Bob Dylan at Fuji Rock that he was slotted not last, but rather as the penultimate act of the last day. Some might have thought he needed an early bedtime, given his age. Some others speculated that Smash wanted him to play during dusk, a risky proposition considering the weather. As it happened, the weather was exquisite. As to whether Dylan performed to the task is a matter of conjecture.

In any case, he actually started early, about four minutes early, with “Things Have Changed.” He stood at the piano and pounded out the chords to the dirge-like composition, turning it as best he could into a rock song. This was, he obviously realized, a “rock” festival.

He remained at the piano for the whole show, never once picking up a guitar. Nobody seemed to mind, though quite a few folks reacted viscerally when Dylan tooted on his harmonica.

But, in fact, he did play rock songs, or, at least adapted his deep catalogue to rock tropes.  He did a few blues numbers that were reconfigured as rock songs, The only two folk songs he did were “It Ain’t Me Babe” and “Blowing in the Wind,” but he rendered them as soft rock concoctions, piano based. “Highway 61” was cool but no longer essential.

The most animated he got was on “Desolation Row,” which was changed into an R&B tune. His version of “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” made famous by the Band, was almost incomprehensible, what with all the mumbling, and the sound booth didn’t bother to correct it. Does everyone in Japan know the words?

In the end, Dylan’s set was professional without being particularly exciting. The Jumbotron crew never took their camera off Dylan, an insult to the fine musicians who play with him. The fact that a lot of people, including myself, knew the titles of all the songs he played only goes to prove we probably know too much.

Dylan is in an enviable position. He’s got a huge back catalogue that everyone knows. He can play them any way he wants, and that seems to be the whole point of his neverending tour.