Bob Dylan holds his peace because his songs say it all

Bob Dylan performs in England in 2004. Photo: Getty Images
Bob Dylan performs in England in 2004. Photo: Getty Images
Have we ever seen Bob Dylan clearly, asks Paul Tankard.

After Bob Dylan's Christchurch concert, most people came away as I did: in a state as much thoughtful as anything else.

First: what didn't happen. For a start, there was a ban on smartphones, and the instruction had come from the top. Some people were seriously disconcerted (pardon the pun): the twinkling of tiny screens has become a staple of concerts for crowds who want to be the stars: to circulate selfies, and make themselves the spectacle.

Bob Dylan doesn't want his image trivialised into ''content'' for people's social media feeds. He delivers his art on his own terms.

There were no tiny screens, and there were no big screens. Horncastle Arena seats 6000, small enough for the ensemble on stage - the five band members in black and Dylan in an off-white jacket - to be clearly seen; if we couldn't see him sweat or look up his nostrils, too bad. He wants us to see him, not to see images of him - even if we don't see him clearly. Because, really, have we ever seen Bob Dylan clearly?

No-one should be surprised that celebrity doesn't appeal to Dylan. What is surprising is his success in avoiding it. He's not, like so many ageing rock stars, on the covers of women's magazines. His children don't appear on reality TV, they aren't filmed fighting at nightclubs or going into rehab. It's not clear where he lives, or with whom. He's not a phenomenon and not a commodity.

Famously, Dylan doesn't talk to the crowd at his concerts: so when the band settled into place at 8 o'clock, there was no, ''Hellooo Christchuuuurch! It's great to be here!''

He didn't speak to the audience before, after or between the songs. This is not because he's rude or bored - though no doubt he sometimes is - but because the songs say it all.

Indeed, most Dylan songs say more than we can take in or figure out, and him chatting about them is not going to help.

He wasn't rude or bored in Christchurch. Beginning with the slyly self-deprecating Things Have Changed, he was behind the baby grand piano most of the concert. A couple of times he moved to centre stage, swinging the mic and doing a bit of soft-shoe to Love Sick, as if to parody the role of big rock star. He was enjoying himself, grinning shyly, and perhaps trying not to let on.

Dylan's been touring non-stop - around 100 gigs a year - since 1988. Putting his songs out is, to put it very precisely, his vocation. He has a catalogue of about 400 songs, some of which in the 1960s embedded themselves into the vocabulary and imagination of a generation.

Everyone hopes he's going to do an evening of back-to-back hits, and we all know he won't, and he doesn't. But he does a few, just enough: the Rolling Stone magazine Greatest Song of All Time, Like a Rolling Stone, Don't Think Twice, It's Alright and, as first encore, Blowin' in the Wind.

Hardcore Dylanists have noted online that he's played Like a Rolling Stone only once before in concert in five years. So he's not on automatic pilot. The modernist slogan ''Make it new'' is in his DNA.

After the warning that things have changed, most of the 20 songs in the set were musically reimagined. Two verses into one, you recognise a phrase and think, ''Wow, so this is actually Tangled Up in Blue.'' The last song before the walk-off was a rocking rendition of Gotta Serve Somebody, which, while melodically recognisable, had a whole new set of lyrics.

Yes, Dylan's being tricky. He's only survived decades as an artist, being asked dumb questions even by those who love him, by being a tricky guy.

But he is also treating his audience as if we are there to hear him, and not to be mentally replaying and singing or clapping along to our own memories, which we can do in the privacy of our own homes.

Rather than the usual experience of sensory overload and self-congratulation, this concert was something more satisfying and mutually respectful. Because what do you do when someone turns up with a gift? You receive it.

It was, among other things, an evening of impeccable musicianship: of powerful, deeply blues-tinged rock.

Dylan has never been user-friendly. He's allusive and mischievous, wrong-footing critics and fans again and again: going electric, going quiet, going evangelical, becoming an old blues man and recently doing a couple of albums of Frank Sinatra songs. With a wry grace, he manages at 77 to be a Nobel Laureate in Literature, and to remain a protest singer.

He finished the show with 1965's Ballad of a Thin Man - something is happening and you don't know what it is /Do you, Mr Jones? We got that message, and knew there was no calling him back. You don't milk a privilege: which, like most things Dylan's been saying for the last five or more decades, is a lesson that has much wider application.

-Paul Tankard teaches English at the University of Otago.

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