On Friday night I attended the Bob Dylan concert in Shanghai. The concert was held at the Shanghai Grand Stage (上海大舞台) in Xujiahui. The concert lasted around two hours, from 8 to 10 pm. Dylan and his band, a blues-based combo of two guitarists, a bassist, and a drummer, played a mix of old classics and newer songs. Dylan sang, played guitar, keyboards and of course, blues harp. The performance was low-key in terms of theatrics, though Dylan and the members of his band all wore sharp fedoras, and their sillhouettes were projected in gigantic dimensions against the backdrop of the stage by spotlights trained on them fronting the stage. That was pretty cool. There were some different projections on the stage, with themes of red fire or blue vertical bands. Dylan himself said nothing (my wife remarked on this several times: why isn't he talking to us?) until the end of the show when he introduced the band members.
Personally I found the concert a bit disappointing. I was glad to be there to see this living legend perform, but the venue was totally wrong. The bluesy style of the band and the persona of Dylan would have been much more appropriate in a small smoky bar. The seats were tight and uncomfortable, we were too far away to see any facial expressions of the band members, and there was no on-screen projection of them, a normal practice in arenas where most people are too far away to see the whites of the performers' eyes.
Over time the songs started getting monotonous. Dylan has a tendency to indulge himself in long blues-based AAA-style songs with a dozen or more verses, and as everyone knows, his singing style is very repetitive and lacking in melodic flare, and it doesn't help that his voice is increasingly raspy over the years. If you don't know the song it can be very hard to hear what he's singing.
Half way through I had to get out of that terrible seat and stretch, so I went out of the arena to find a bottle of water. This wasn't easy. All the vendors in the arena were selling ice cream and beer and there was no water to be had, so I had to walk all the way to the entrance of the stadium area to find a kiosk that sold water. The walk and the water refreshed me and I was able to enjoy the last few songs.
Towards the end the concert picked up as everyone stood up and started to move and sway. I can't stand sitting down to a rock concert, it just seems unholy. Dylan ended with a couple of encores: "Like a Rolling Stone" and "Forever Young." Other songs that I recognized included "Don't Think Twice It's All Right", "Tangled Up in Blue," "Simple Twist of Fate," and "Desolation Row". "Highway 61" became "Highway 65", and many of these other songs were sung and played in styles so different to the original that they were practically different songs. This makes it harder for a fan to make an emotional connection with the music since we're used to hearing it a certain way. Thus did Bob Dylan maintain an ironic distance from his audience.
As for his playing, I have to admit that I found his piano work pretty childish, but then again, he's the great Bob Dylan so what gives me the right to say that? His blues guitar was pretty basic but on track, and his blues harp always brought a rousing cheer from the audience, who were mostly foreigners. The other band members were solid, but no pyrotechnics.
The audience must have been around 6000 (I could be totally wrong, that's just a wild guess). The Chinese who were there tended to be the female partners of foreign men (mea culpa as well). There were some Chinese men, including a guy next to me who spent the entire concert videographing it with a little HD camcorder, much to my annoyance, since the seats were so tight and his camera was right near my eyes. This will probably end up on some Chinese version of youtube.
All in all, it was a worthy event given the legendary status of Bob Dylan and my longtime admiration of his songwriting and storytelling skills, but I would have prefered a smaller venue or even better, an outdoor park where we could drink beer, dance, run around, and enjoy the freedom of an open space. Perhaps that was what was most lacking in the end.