Could you, ummm, clear your throat, Bob?
by Will Brennan
A British writer named Andrew Almond writing in Gigwise magazine recently commented on Dylan’s performance at the Hop Farm Festival in Kent, England, saying the show demonstrated “an abysmal lack of quality,” and suggested that Dylan should give up the road.
Well, as much as I disagree with Mr. Almond in some respects, I do believe he’s got a reason to say what he's saying. Bob’s shows in recent times have been marked by his tendency to croak out the lyrics without much regard for melody or actual notes. It’s not that he can’t sing if he wants to – he can. Once in a while he’ll demonstrate that, raise his voice a little into an upper register, sing a recognizable snatch of melody, and the crowd generally goes bonkers, as if they’ve just seen the Red Sea parted. Admittedly, the voice itself is ravaged by relentless touring and probably smoking, which I think Bob still does. Whatever the case, when he sings, the first response you have is to hope that a roadie will get him a bottle of water, so he can clear the phlegm out and get down to business. But the damage to the voice is way past that.
To be fair to Dylan, his band is first rate, the show they put on delivers the goods, they play obscure stuff, they play the hits, the big important songs, and any notion of “abysmal lack of quality” is to a large degree in the ears of the listener. Though he may be speak/singing his lyrics in an old bluesy growl, sometimes when he does just that, Dylan can convey more depth of feeling and emotion than a thousand smooth crooners could ever hope for. Conversely, artists like Van Morrison, McCartney, Ray Davies and other contemporaries still sing in voices that sound pretty much like they did in their heyday. Mick Jagger recently re-recorded vocals over unfinished tracks from Exile on Main Street, and they sound incredibly good. Something similar would be an impossibility for Dylan.
I myself have often wished in recent years, hearing his live performances, that he’d take a year off, rest his voice, go to a doctor for treatment of the chords, quit smoking, do whatever it takes to bring some elasticity back to the voice of the man who once said he could sing as well as Caruso. Though he was joking at the time, he was right. Dylan’s sense of timing and the power of expression that has come through that voice is nearly unrivaled in modern music. Only John Lennon could cut as deeply into the heart of song as Dylan.
These days, Dylan is doing what he wants to do, playing music. As for his voice, it still can create magic. Just don’t go expecting to hear what you expect, go expecting to hear whatever he’s got left to give, which, even in a ravaged growl, can sometimes be profound.
If the rest sounds like tires on a gravel road, well... he's been traveling a long time.