After a ferocious set by My Morning Jacket, and a solid but unexceptional one by Wilco, both of whom are joining him on this bizarrely titled "Americanarama Festival," Dylan and his five-piece band took the stage. The lighting was subdued. Dylan, in a white hat and jacket and black pants, stood at the microphone, sans guitar -- he never touched one the whole evening -- and produced an indescribable sound from his throat. His singing has always been an acquired taste, but this wasn't singing. It was a guttural growl, something unrelated to music. Someone said he sounded like Scooby-Doo, but it was worse than that. Melodies were all but unrecognizable and lyrics were incomprehensible.
After a few songs, Dylan moved across the stage to a keyboard, where he stood in total darkness. During the next song a spotlight lit his torso, but his face remained invisible.
He sometimes played in a different key than the rest of the band and he would often lose his place in the songs. The band, which was great, just stayed on a root chord until they could figure out what Dylan was doing. A couple of times when a song got out of hand the band tried to end it, but Dylan just kept playing. Or Dylan would catch the band off-guard by ending a song abruptly.
About five songs in, my friend commented that Dylan had not done even one song she knew. "Don't you know this one?" I asked. "It's called 'Tangled up in Blue.'" "Oh," she said. "I love that song. That's not what he's playing, is it?"
After almost every song, Dylan leafed through a binder from which he apparently picked out the next number. He did 16 songs, including "Duquesne Whistle" (the closest thing to a highlight the show had), "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall" and "All Along the Watchtower." The single encore was "Ballad of a Thin Man." He never said a single word, not even a "thank you" for the applause that he didn't deserve. He barely showed his face.
There were a lot of empty seats in the amphitheater when Dylan started his set. There were a lot more before he finished.
Nothing can excuse such a disgraceful exhibition. Even if Dylan is suffering from some kind of infirmity that keeps him from recognizing how bad his singing and playing are, someone who cares about him should have stopped him.
But it really didn't seem like that. It appeared that Dylan just didn't care that he was delivering a performance that bordered on audience abuse.