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Dylan in Vietnam - Part II: The Concert

By: Garage Bar Phnom Penh Posted: April-12-2011 in
Garage Bar Phnom Penh

If one were looking for symbolism in Dylan's first concert in Vietnam, one wouldn't have to look any further than the venue itself. RMIT University, located 20 minutes from downtown Saigon in Ho Chi Minh City's District 7, is a spanking clean campus of hip modern architecture and well manicured lawns surrounded by the coffee shops and housing that would typify any small university community in the developed world. It is an English language university, but sadly, I still couldn't but help reflect just how poorly the Royal University of Phnom Penh campus in my town would fare in a side by side comparison. For me, experiencing this Vietnam was a a kick in the head, reinforcing just how long ago America's War in Vietnam, how much this country has changed, and how far Cambodia has yet to go.

Being billed as a part of a tribute commemorating the 10 year anniversary of the death of Trinh Cong Son, the concert began with one hour of Trinh Cong Son songs performed by an array of young Vietnamese singers. At the start of the set around dusk the venue appeared perhaps half full, with a 70/30 mix of foreigners and locals among the 4,000 or so present. Being a fan of Trinh Cong Son, I had high hopes that the pre-Dylan set would be a meaningful affair, which unfortunately it was not. A competent jazz-pop band backed the parade of singers, all talented, but, considering the material, ranging in stylistic approach from reasonably suitable -- Hong Nhung for example -- to excruciating, as were Quang Dung and particularly Duc Tuan whose primary influence seemed to be Wayne Newton and the Rat Pack. I don't know who he was blowing kisses at exactly. This was certainly not Trinh Cong Son's Trinh Cong Son, not even Khanh Ly's, this was just another version of Paris By Night, the ever-present face of bland Vietnamese pop on local televsion and DVD. The set, mercifully, was shorter than I expected but for me its end could not come too soon.

Dylan's appearance came shortly thereafter as darkness fell, and soon the crowd which had been seated and in a relaxed picnic kind of mood on the field, surged forward to get a closer look. Dylan came out quickly following his band, wearing a Western white hat, black jacket and pink shirt, his band favoring fedoras. Gonna Change My Way of Thinking, an overtly Christian song from the Slow Train album,started the show, as it had in China, and within a verse or two, it was quite obvious that Dylan was on the mark and engaged. "We live by the Golden Rule, whoever got the gold rules" Dylan sang with his familiar snarl, his 69 year old voice no longer able to generate much volume, instead moving up and down effectively within his limited range with the occasional staccatto attack to reinforce a lyric or musical moment.

Fans waiting for the hits didn't have to wait long, Dylan trading his keyboard for a guitar on a reworked version of 1964's It Ain't Me Babe, one which started with Bob rather quietly reciting the verses. Once the crowd recognized what it was he was singing, they responded warmly but it was not a particularly successful re-working of the song judging from the crowd's reaction or my own, needing a bit more energy. In contrast, Tangled Up and Blue, following a good rendition of Beyond Here Lies Nothin', was tremendous, with Dylan still holding the guitar position but now with harmonica, just as radically reworked as the earlier chestnut but far more successfully so. Bob's harmonica work gave the audience additional reason to enjoy this one, and as is always true of a Dylan show, Bob brief solos on the mouth harp garnered much more appreciation than did his guitar or keyboard work. Bob's guitar set ended with a fine, and more straight ahead version of Simple Twist of Fate. On this and many of the more familiar tunes, Dylan's opening verses were delivered a bit hesitatingly, as if he wasn't quite sure where he was taking the song vocally. Yet, in most every case, Dylan seemed to quickly find his way and any lack of confidence or focus was replaced with an authoritative delivery.

For many Dylan fans, "newer numbers" would refer to anything written after 1966, and most of these Dylan worked his way through engagingly, with a keyboard solo here and there, during which time he rocked his body up and down, looking with some frequency either at his band members with an occasional nod, or briefly at the audience. Bob's keyboard work isn't particularly noteworthy, but if Dylan has been criticized for just going through the motions in his shows, I did not all come away with that impression. Indeed on one short keyboard solo late in the program Dylan bopped around enough to almost become airborne (but not quite). We're not talking Bruce Springsteen territory here, but Dylan was clearly in the moment, and the audience responded in kind.

Dylan's band rocked on The Levee's Gonna Break but perhaps the audience felt the blues-rock number went on a bit too long as its end was met with polite applause. Fortunately for most of the crowd, the-songs-with "Gonna"- in-the-title medly continued with a superb rock reworking of A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall with Bob back on keyboards. Dylan looked straight at the audience and sang with assurance. Highway 61 followed sounding not terribly different from its more familiar incarnations, with three more of Bob's newer songs -- Spirit on the Water, My Wife's Home Town, and Jolene providing a bridge to a quite straight forward rendition of Ballad of a Thin Man the final song of the regular set with Bob at center stage. This was not Manchester 1966 and Dylan is not the angry twenty-something who then spat out the familiar lyrics with such venom, but Dylan something extra into his vocal, and with drums pounding and Charlie Sexton's excellent guitar work, it was an effective closer.

Bob has not bothered with song intros or chit chat since 1966 and this concert was true to modern form, with a band introduction providing the only occasion for formal acknowledgement that Dylan was playing to a crowd of fans.

Knowing Dylan would return for an encore, the audience which remained close to the stage -- now 90% white faces -- waited and offered up only polite applause and hand-claps. As it always does, Like a Rolling Stone took its place as the first encore, the audience singing along on the chorus. Not one of the best versions of the song I've heard, but hardly disappointing. All Along the Watchtower I thought worked better, Dylan now back at center stage with his harp. Leaving the stage, now the crowd wasn't so sure if Dylan would return and the handclaps had considerably more vigor. The concert closed with an excellent version of Forever Young, Dylan first on keyboard then taking center with his harmonica. Not one of my favorite tunes but an audience favorite, I thought this was among Dylan's finest performances of the evening. The crowd was ready for more, clapping along for some minutes before the recorded music came on to signal that Bob was off for good two hours after the show began.

Much of the audience which remained lingered on the grass for some time, enjoying another beer or two or some decent kababs or pizza on the sports field grass. One could see more Vietnamese now had remained in the back of the crowd rather than endure the crush at the front. I couldn't tell what had happened to the VIP crowd who had paid $120 for the privelege of sitting at chairs and tables in a fenced area off to the side of the stage, thus enjoying a considerably poorer view of the show than did the $50 General Admission ticket holders.

Getting back to town proved to be a bit of chore as taxis don't typically patrol the RMIT campus at late hours, but we managed to get back to the Phan Ngu Lao area, carrying on until morning having enjoyed a terrific evening of music and comradery.

For me it will be the most memorable Dylan show I've seen since his 1974 return to the stage with The Band, and that's saying quite something.

Thanks Bob.

Next in Part III: The Media Controversy Part III: The Press and the "Idiot Wind"


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