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April 10, 2011

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Dylan delivery hard to decipher

BOB Dylan's shadow loomed large Friday night during his concert at the Shanghai Grand Stage.

While singing "Tangled Up in Blue", Dylan cowered upon the stage, squaring his legs like an old fighter and occasionally peering sideways at his band like they were his corner men. Behind him, the large curtain was flooded by a murky blue light that silhouetted the black shadow of his 69-year-old frame. It created a large avatar that stood tall over the proceedings. Appropriate, considering Dylan's titanic place in Western music over the past half-century.

The black figure stood featureless, malleable to the desires of the audience. The exact meaning of it all was impressive if hard to pin down. Also appropriate, considering Dylan's mercurial nature has always been one of his trademarks.

When questioned, much of the audience seemed to go to the show with a similar sense of bewilderment toward Dylan. A typical response was from Dirk Hangberg of Munich, Germany: "I didn't have any expectations." Was he expecting Dylan to perform a scene from Shakespeare or a tap-dance number? Probably not, though many in Dylan's past audiences were just as surprised when he turned his formerly all-acoustic performances "electric" in the late 1960s, or began to preach his newly found Christianity in the early 1980s.

More-articulate insight came from Yang Fan of Wuhan, Hubei Province, who summed up a few of the reasons the approximately 10,000-strong crowd went to see him: "No one can sing like him."

From the opening syllables of his first song, "Gonna Change My Way of Thinking," Dylan's voice ranged from a rasp to a bark that emphasized his punctuating phrasing. His singing has always been a polarizing force, and those who defend his gravely vocals may be hard pressed to defend that his diction grew steadily unclear as the night wore on. Still, Dylan's haggard and world-weary instrument reflected the perspective of many of his songs effectively.

Dylan never satiates the audience. They are kept hungry, balancing precariously between the Dylan they want and the Dylan he delivers in between the hits.

The stage lights seemed to reflect the mood of the crowd when Dylan tore into his signature "Like a Rolling Stone." After one more song ("Forever Young"), Dylan looked approvingly at the audience -- no bow -- and left the stage to thunderous applause. The applause refused to subside until it was chased away by the rising of the house lights, leaving the audience to figure out what it all meant.


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