I cannot speak French. It’s sad, but true. I understand a few words, I will utter a plain “Merci” when I’m in a good mood, but still, though French is a beautiful language, it’s one that I really don’t understand, I need translation. Still, when I was a little boy and for the first time heard Edith Piaf sing, it immediately brought me to tears, and I loved her ever since. She spoke to me. She spoke to my heart. The sadness, the intensity, the power, the drama, the truth, the voice – it all summed up to this, for me, wordless language, that reached to the depth of my soul. I heard a voice.
While I’ve been to “gay Paree” several times, tonight is the first time I see Bob Dylan here, him the Commandeur des Art et des Letters (1990) and nothing less than the Officier de la Legion d’honneur (2013), what means that he in this country is especially highly valued for his significant contributions to Art and Literature, and as an overall great inspiration to French culture. Dylan even once talked about maybe recording French songs, maybe something by Edith Piaf, whom he loved for obvious reasons. He mentioned “La Vie En Rose” as one possible choice, or maybe he should do another favorite, “Sous le ciel de Paris” (Under The Sky of Paris), a song from the film by the same name, by Julien Duvivier. With Dylan’s great interest in French movies (notably, Les Enfants du Paradis, an important inspiration for “Renaldo And Clara”) one could easily think that his fascination for the film and the song are intertwined, as is the simple twists and intertwining of fates of the people in the movie, a not so foreign theme for Dylan. I think of this as I sit down in the beautiful Grand Rex, about 2700 seats in a theatre of mesmerizing beauty, making it all a great experience even before the concert starts. Actually, it crossed my mind that I got my money’s worth just being in this room for the first time.
I’m seated at the perfect spot tonight, at the front of the balcony, a bit to the left, and I’m able to follow every moment in the band, I’m even seeing the pianist when he sits down. It’s a delight to follow the drummer in action. The stage floor is a floor of light that’s turned on every time Dylan starts to sing, to beautiful effect for the whole experience, especially for those of us looking at the stage from above. Maybe it’s the floor itself that invites Dylan to step out from behind the piano several times this evening.
To the left I see this castle-like part of Grand Rex, one to the left, complete with greek arches and a little watchtower, and there is lights flickering from the opposite loft on the right, a higher tower, maybe the Ivory one. Before the show starts, the lights make us wonder if something is going on inside the castle. The venue’s ceiling is a sky full of stars. Under The Sky of Paris, indeed. We’re surrounded by beauty, an important part of what makes this night so different from some of the other and larger, more impersonal venues. Tonight we got the perfect frame for the dramatized performance we are about to see. And yes, this is why I come to love this setlist so much, more and more it grows on me that this might be one of the most perfectly curated sets of them all, seventeen songs united over the field, welded together to tell the whole story. It’s a story being told, and the totality is greater than the sum of its parts, like the architect of this set planned it.
Yes, tonight we’ll again listen to the singer who “try to harmonize with songs the lonesome sparrow sings”, this unique soul brother to soul sister Edith, luckily not in any way with such a tragic life-story as hers, the black rider of death carried her home only 47 years old. But then again we all live with both life and death in our beds. That’s the human condition. Memento Mori. Be busy being born. “In ten, maybe twenty years, and I’m gone,” sings Bob tonight in “Crossing The Rubicon”, and a lonely voice of a man shouts “Noooo!” on behalf of us all.
The sound is perfect & crispy clear after some adjustments through “Watching The River Flow”, we can hear Dylan whisper “I Contain Multitudes” in our ears (after “I’m just like Anne Frank”, he fuss with his hair!!), and his barking as sharp gunshots in “False Prophet”, the new arrangement fits like a glove!
When Greil Marcus recently was interviewed about his new book, “A Bob Dylan Biography In Seven Songs”, he is asked the simple question: “What’s so special about Bob Dylan?” Marcus’ answer is brilliant: “Well, I’ve always said, I’ve always believed, that it’s the voice, it’s the inflection, it’s the way of dramatizing small things, enormous things, small things expand in the way he sings about them, enormous things like the meaning of life or the nature of freedom are brought down to earth in the way that he sings about those things.” This is true of Dylan’s art as a whole, but it is also true about Dylan’s performance at Grand Rex this night. In Dylan’s own words about how the enormous things shadows the small, and how the small things can outshine the greatest, it’s put this phenomenal way:
“Darkness at the break of noon
Shadows even the silver spoon
The handmade blade, the child’s balloon
Eclipses both the sun and moon
To understand you know too soon
There is no sense in trying“
In the “60 Minutes” interview in 2004, Dylan noted that he not longer were able to write stuff like that, but that he “can do other things now”. What he still can do is perform in a way that takes the dark out of the nighttime, like he does in “I Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You” and the beautiful closer of this evening, “Every Grain of Sand” (even if he, understandably tired, did mix up some words in the first verse), and he can paint the daytime black, like he does in “Black Rider” or in the rather spooky Frankenstein story of “My Own Version of You”. He still can do that. He owns the audience tonight, young girls behind me shouting and hollering every time one of the new songs come around, yes, actually the whole audience welcomes the sound of the Rough And Rowdy Ways songs like it was his greatest hits – as when he lands on the titles “Crossing The Rubicon”, “Key West”, “I Made Up My Mind…” and so on – there is a sigh and there is cheering, like the tunes are familiar and welcomed. There is no begging for other songs than the ones we are served, which is more than enough to satisfy this evening’s audience. “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” brings the house down from the first “Baby tonight” – a steaming version where Bob grasps the harmonica when the guitars are picking up speed, and plays a fabulous solo until the mockingbird’s gonna sail away one last time. “Thank you, all you Baby lovers!” is Dylan’s comment after this great duet between him and the audience. When “Gotta Serve Somebody” is picking up speed, the audience’s cheering is rising in just the right place, the place where we else might miss the back-up singers from the gospel years. Not tonight. The songs goes on like rolling thunder.
The sadness, the intensity, the power, the drama, the truth, the voice. The perfect venue, the great audience, the tight band behind a terrific Dylan in an incredible jazzy mood, eagerly changing both pace and color inside a song, or maybe inside one stanza, to dramatic effect, and the perfect way to keep the audience interested and listening – what’s happening now, what’s happening next – you never know – combined with the great sound it’s a fabulous performance tonight, from start to finish. The master of the syncopation in one moment, singing like a whip on the drummer’s beat the next, throwing himself into unknown territory on the piano, exploring and inventing all the time – no, not perfection, we all gave up on that looong time ago – not perfection, but the blank canvas painted for us tonight, and it’s brilliant in all its imperfection and daring beauty.
Tonight I thought, more than one time, this might be one of the best shows I ever seen. I stand by that. Not because of the parts, but because of the totality, the whole package. It was a wonderful night in a wonderful venue, and when Dylan stands proud in his black suit and red shirt at the end – well, I guess many of us just want to shout “Ne Me Quitte Pas”.