Date: April 6, 2011
Location: Workers’ Coliseum, Beijing.
Back in the old days, Bob Dylan was known to open concerts by reading a couple of reviews by his reviewers and then letting his audience boo and cheer as they saw fit. Expectations for the night, especially regarding energy level and amount of interaction, would therefore be set early on. No such thing happened in Beijing. After arriving on stage, Dylan and his band immediately began playing “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking”. The audience, initially inebriated with this “I am at the concert of a rock and roll icon” phenomenon, soon returned to a sit-and-clap mentality as the night wore on, periodically letting loose mechanical and icy applauses more appropriate for a B-grade circus trick than for a rock and roll performance. The only real “interaction” between Dylan and the audience occurred between encores, when he introduced his band. There was nary a hint of energy to suggest that he would speak his mind out loud other than through his lyrics. His verbal delivery was occasionally muddled, but not as bad as expected, especially after having read that, at times during his current “Never Ending” tour, Dylan would mumble through his lyrics and produce so much off-key dissonance that he would leave his crowd wanting more. The acoustics at the Workers’ Coliseum bore some blame too: even if he shifted and morphed phrases ad lib – and he most certainly did – or even changed his lyrics, most people would not have noticed. The encore pieces, “Like A Rolling Stone” and “Forever Young”, stimulated a tad more excitement from the audience, but not by much. If all that Dylan needed was a little extra bit of audience rapture to get him to do or sing something that would piss off the censors, the audience did not oblige.
The controversy over his playlist in China is well-known: see here, here, and here. While I belong to the group who does not believe Dylan’s intention was to deliver a kosher playlist to please the censors, it was still remarkable that Dylan, being who he is and who he represents, would perform in a venue whose stage orientation requires him to directly face a red-carpeted, privileged section where two dozen VIPs would sit comfortably in cushioned chairs and be offered free glasses of water. The “man of the people” ‘s acquiescence in this regard, if nothing else, would partially vindicate Maureen Dowd.