Few artists have had such a wide-reaching impact as Bob Dylan. Steve Jobs famously projected Dylan’s lyrics at showings of new Apple devices in the company’s infant years, Jimi Hendrix used to profusely cover Bob Dylan’s music, and in the Penguin Classics translation of Soren Kierkegaard’s “Fear and Trembling” the introduction opens with a line from his song “Highway 61 Revisited”: “God said to Abraham, ‘Kill me a son.”’ Dylan was making popular folk music armed with only a harmonica and guitar in the 1960s, and was writing about Abraham.
It’s only natural that music-lovers in Santa Barbara were thrilled to witness Dylan’s performance at the Santa Barbara Bowl on Oct. 12. But Bob Dylan did not talk to the crowd, and did not smile or wave. He seemingly spontaneously performed numbers that were clearly not scheduled for that evening, and his band struggled to match his off-beat piano and singing. He rearranged classics of his so they were unrecognizable, and with hunched 78-year-old energy, he grumbled into the speakers of the full Santa Barbara Bowl with a weathered update to his already everyday voice. He was an honestly sub-par performer, but what should be expected? He’s 50 years past his prime, and his greatest strength has always been songwriting, not performance.
His personality has not notably deviated from what it was in the ‘60s, either; he sang about mortality and political and social corruption with an advanced wisdom when he was in his early 20s. And the content of his work was elevated in context. To the decade that held his highest popularity, he was needed.
The concert’s profundity came in knowing that it was Dylan who touched and stirred people performing on lawns and coffee shops full of teenagers torn by war and destructive realisms in the 1960s. In 2019, it’s doubtful that he could even play the acoustic guitar that he used to use, and his energy is spent, but he maintains nothing less than who he always was. He sang “Gotta Serve Somebody” as his last number, revealing the faith in the God that he discovered after his most famous decade. That song was a challenge like the rest of his canon. In “Gotta Serve Somebody,” he concludes that one can serve the Lord, or anything else. It was clear that his next triumph will be not by his creativity that has already sustained itself as a monumental legend for decades, but by the power of his faith.
50 years ago he rebelled against journalists and politicians, and spoke of mortality with a force that would make death crouch back in self-reflection, and now he goes on another tour, at 78 years old, seemingly laughing at his dwindling humanity. Crowds of thousands watch as he denies another force that oppresses and constricts.