2011 in Review - Surprise of the Year: The Answer Is Blowing in the Wind

Who would have believed that Bob Dylan's Ramat Gan Stadium concert would be so exciting?

One person's dream can be another's nightmare. Now multiply both sides of this equation by a few thousand and you get Bob Dylan's June 20, 2011 concert at Ramat Gan Stadium. Thousands of people left the concert disappointed, puzzled and angry. Thousands of others, based on the looks on their faces and the talkbacks, left the same performance happy and amazed, or at least very satisfied. It has been a very long time since a concert met with such mixed reactions. Of course, it is to be expected that a stubborn performer and contrarian like Dylan would create such a complex experience.

Complex on paper only though, because anyone who was at the stadium that night had an intense and cutting experience, for better or for worse. I can imagine others' bitter taste of disappointment, but I personally experienced the elated spirits stirred by a concert that exceeded all expectations.

Bob Dylan - AP - 2004
Bob Dylan performs at the Apollo Theater Foundation's 70th anniversary benefit celebration at the Apollo Theater in New York on March 28, 2004.Archive

In my wildest fantasies, I never dared hope that I would enjoy the show so much and be moved by it. In the best case scenario, I thought, Dylan's deceitful voice would hold out, and his band would play well, and he would not chop up his timeless songs. In the worst scenario... God help us. Either way, I dared not hope that the live encounter with the aging Dylan could almost match the intensity of my volatile meeting with the young Dylan's albums.

Two preconditions were necessary for full enjoyment of the show. First, it helped a lot to sit on the grass - instead of getting the expensive tickets (or press tickets ) - and not in the distant and alienated stands of the awful stadium, where people who bought reasonably priced tickets were directed.

Those in the stands were victims of the shortage of video screens, which did nothing to enlarge Dylan and which made it impossible to communicate visually with the stage. I was not sitting at the front of the stage, but the middle rows on the grass were close enough for me to see Dylan in an unmediated way, even if on a rather small scale. The truth is that I didn't even notice the video screens, or lack thereof.

Bob Dylan - Moti Milrod - 05112012
Bob Dylan at Ramat Gan Stadium, June 2011. The artist 'subjugated his past to his present.'Moti Milrod

The second precondition was an extensive knowledge of Dylan's repertoire and the spirit of his live performances. Dylan's concert performances are always very different from the original versions of his songs. Anyone not prepared for this and not intimately acquainted with the repertoire had a hard time recognizing the songs, and after doing so, was disappointed by the unconventional nature of their rendition.

Since I'm deeply connected to a large part of the maestro's repertoire, I was able to get around any complications effortlessly and to experience the concert on its terms. Dylan and the band came onstage, started playing, and within a few seconds I knew. Unequivocally, the body felt it - and only afterward, did the head. The first song was a rhythmic and not very familiar segment, and it made me stand up instinctively and walk forward, to the extent it was possible (the area around the stage was blocked off ). The music was fresh, sharp, rolling, and when Dylan opened his mouth, the sound emerging was rusty and coarse, but focused and far-reaching. The song, incidentally, was "Gonna Change My Way of Thinking." If this was a comment regarding my low expectations for the concert, it was right on the mark.

The second song, "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue," revealed the DNA of the entire concert. Dylan, it turned out, takes his biggest songs from the 1960s and 1970s and performs them like the ringing blues ballads that fill his albums from the 1990s and onward. Say good-bye to the beloved original music - Dylan pushes out the songs with a rhythmic growl that verges on grumbling, and the band accompanying him envelops his growl in the buzz of a fine all-American nightclub band.

From a purely rational point of view, the interpretation generated admiration for Dylan. What did he actually do? He subjugated his past to his present, which is the exact opposite of most of his contemporaries, who subjugate their present to their past. Kudos, then, for the approach, but it was not the main point. The point was the fine translation of the formula into actual performance. From a musical perspective, not just from a rational one, the live renditions sounded relevant and vital, almost as much so as the canonical versions. And that was a big surprise.

If you knew the songs and quickly understood Dylan's approach, you could change the familiar algorithm of the songs, and recalibrate them according to the ringing formula that the star employed in Ramat Gan. You could then sing the new version of the songs along with Dylan.

OK, "sing with Dylan" is a somewhat problematic way of putting it. You cannot sing with Dylan. He makes it impossible. It would be more accurate to say, "I sang to myself, out loud, in a way that corresponded to Dylan's unconventional phrasing." It was a rare pleasure. When the correspondence began during the fourth song of the show, the great "Tangled Up in Blue," I almost felt as if I were knockin' on heaven's door. And even though the rest of the concert was not as exciting (although there were a few more outstanding performances ), the initial elation framed my experience. For me it was a terrific concert.

In Haaretz's review, Yankele Rotblit related how after he left the stadium for home, satisfied and even excited, he was astonished to read - that same night - the stinging reviews of Dylan's onstage behavior ("he didn't even say Shalom to us!" ) and the quality of the performance. The same thing happened to me. The next day, when I learned of the problem with the video screens, I realized I had not seen the whole picture. Still, I could not help thinking of Dylan's infamous 1980s concert in Israel, which I did not attend. If the fine show that had just ended sparked such harsh criticism, is it possible that the other concert, which was filed in the collective memory as a terrible flop, was actually not that bad?

The best thing about Dylan's performance only manifested several days later. The show sparked within me a desire to hear his latest albums, from the 1990s and the past decade. I was in for a surprise. Unlike many Dylan fans who see his later albums as wonderful and even exemplary creations (primarily, "Time Out of Mind," but not exclusively ), I never really liked these albums. The mature Dylan did not speak to me. I never managed to connect to the warbling voice and the ringing blues despite my intense admiration for the artist in his youth.

That was before the Ramat Gan concert opened my mind. In one fell swoop, I connected to the mature Dylan, and I can report that six months later the connection is alive and well. It is no longer a surprise; it is something that verges on the mystical, and it happened at a concert that thousands of people left furious. Go figure.