BOB DYLAN: REAL LIVE (1984)
1) Highway 61 Revisited; 2) Maggie's Farm; 3) I And I; 4) License To Kill; 5) It Ain't Me Babe; 6) Tangled Up In Blue; 7) Masters Of War; 8) Ballad Of A Thin Man; 9) Girl From The North Country; 10) Tombstone Blues.
Although Dylan's touring activity did not slow down from his usual 1970s rate — in fact, with the beginning of the «Never Ending Tour» in 1988 it only kept accelerating — the same cannot be said about the verve with which he would continue to release live albums. In fact, Real Live is, in a sense, his last «proper» live offer: Dylan & The Dead should rather count as a misguided memento of a star-crossed event, Unplugged was all but forced upon the man by MTV, and all other subsequent live releases would be culled from the archives for the «Bootleg Series».
As one of the many who actually had a chance to catch one of Bob's live acts (Albuquerque 2007, if my memory serves me right), I kind of understand this decision. Throughout the Sixties and Seventies, Dylan kept experimenting with the live format, switching from acoustic to electric, there and back again, sometimes leaning towards a harsher rock'n'roll sound (Before The Flood), sometimes trying out a «symphonic roots» approach (Rolling Thunder), even taking risks with a glitzy big band sound (Budokan) or, of course, adding gospel elements to his Christian-era touring. However, once his «hardcore Christian» days were over, the live Dylan sound became, on the whole, more streamlined and typical. The backing bands (including the one I saw) are never anything less than professional, but most of the time they tend to gravitate towards well-established, predictable forms, with limited opportunities for spontaneity. Thus, Real Live may sound seriously differently from everything that came before it, but it does not radically differ from anything that came after it (granted, I am nowhere near an expert on the extensive field of Dylan bootleg studies, but those few dots that I know of are connected in a rather straight line).
Of course, sonic streamlining has never prevented Dylan from continuing to experiment with his songs, whose original incarnations he has always regarded as experimental material rather than sacred cows — all fans know that going to a Dylan show, be it 1984 or 2014, always presumes taking part in the «guess-what's-playing» game. But the downside has been the progressive deterioration of his voice, already well evident on Real Live, as it converts much of its former color into a high-pitched whine, and, more importantly, as Bob seems to be losing much of his control over it. It is almost as if his voice problems took him by surprise, and he never really learned to cope with them (unlike, say, Tom Waits, who gave us all a lesson in capitalizing on his guttural issues). Many people have learned to disregard the issue and keep insisting that Dylan continues to be a «vocal master» both in his «whiny» period and even later, when his frequencies took one more somersault and landed in «deep pharyngeal croak» territory — I cannot share this opinion and pretend that I have any love at all for Dylan's live vocal performance after his turning 40-45. (Studio records are a different matter, since he seems to be paying more attention to his limits and capacities there, and attunes his new songs respectively).
So that is what Real Live is: a tolerable, mediocre, middle-of-the-road live rock'n'roll album, with old hits and newer compositions alike all reduced to a single common invariant and «graced» by a singer who seems a little lost and confused — he'd like to roar like a lion, perhaps, but all he can is yelp like a jackal. His backing band would like to help, perhaps, but they gel fairly mechanically, and although Mick Taylor is given plenty of opportunities to shine on lead guitar, he does so without letting his hair down, and comes across as competent, but boring (he really needs a Keith Richard around for both to profit from the contrastive effect — on his own, he's just another careful, politely groomed, not-too-inspiring blues-rock guitarist). You really get to know that there is a big problem, though, when the guest star on one of the tracks (ʽTombstone Bluesʼ) turns out to be Carlos Santana, and when his leads on that track turn out to be stylistically undistinguishable from Taylor's on all the others.
As usual, Bob has a little acoustic set in the middle, with ʽIt Ain't Me Babeʼ to have the entire audience subtly glorify their male chauvinism (I wonder if the girls, too, are always singing along to "it ain't me you're looking for, babe"?), and a newly revised version of ʽTangled Up In Blueʼ with alternate lyrics, a serious collectible for fans, but not something I'd like to pay attention to because the vocal delivery sucks anyway. Of the new songs, ʽI And Iʼ, as befits its Rastafari title, is slightly reggaeified as compared to the studio version, but the results are crude, and the song is simply stripped of its moody atmosphere; and why they preferred to perform / include ʽLicense To Killʼ instead of ʽJokermanʼ is beyond me.
In the end, the only «interesting» bit of the album is in how ʽMasters Of Warʼ became radically reinterpreted as an «ominous-apocalyptic» rock song, now closer in spirit to (and even partially borrowing the riff of) ʽAll Along The Watchtowerʼ than ʽNottamun Townʼ which it originally copied — and maybe Taylor was reminded of his past glories playing on ʽGimme Shelterʼ under those conditions, so there is a little extra heat and freedom of expression in the several solos he takes on that particular song (not to mention length). But one song is not enough to revert the trend, and the verdict should be a grim one: Real Live marks the breaking point at which Dylan's live legacy generally becomes expendable. It ain't bad, but it ain't something you should be looking for, babe. A thumbs down here, in loving memory of all those other live albums.
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