Thursday, April 07, 2011

Bob Dylan plays Beijing

Bob Dylan received a rapturous reception during his debut performance at the Workers' Gymnasium in Beijing on Wednesday. Thousands a mix of foreign expats and local Chinese attended the concert and gave a warm welcome to the 69 year old legend.

A creaky start

Wearing a black suit and donning a grey panama hat, Dylan started off a little croaky as he opened with Gonna Change My Way of Thinking taken from his 1979 album Slow Train Coming. He followed with It's All Over Now Baby Blue from the 1965 album Bringing It All Back Home and Beyond Here Lies Nothing, a lesser known song from his 33rd album Together Through Life which was released in 2009.

Dylan's performance of the classic Tangled Up in Blue from his 1975 hit LP Blood on the Tracks drew a huge applause, though his aged showed and he struggled through the five minute piece.

Around half the set was taken from his later albums and although well performed did not draw the same enthusiasm as his well known hits from the 1960s and 70s.

Later recordings included Honest With Me and Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum from his 2001 album Love and Theft. Love Sick taken from his 30th studio album Time Out of Mind dated back to 1997 while Thunder on the Mountain, Spirit on the Water and Rollin' and Tumblin' were from his more recent 2006 album Modern Times.

A better second half

But it was his older songs that made the night. Simple Twist of Fate from Blood on the Tracks was well received and A Hard Rain's Gonnna Fall from the 1963 LP The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan and Highway 61 Revisited, from the album of the same name, drew great cheers and applause.

The final songs were all oldies. Bob took to centre stage with his harmonica as his gave a superb performance of Ballad Of A Thin Man from Highway 61 Revisited. During his first encore he played a roaring rendition of Like a Rolling Stone from the aforementioned LP. All Along the Watchtower, from the 1967 album John Wesley Harding, was not so sharp and seemed to end somewhat abruptly. Dylan ended with a second encore of Forever Young, taken from his 1974 album Planet Waves.

The sound production was not the best, and seemed a little quiet during the first few numbers but as the concert went on this improved. The band did seem a little wooden as took a little time to warm up. There was no banter between songs making it all a little artificial. Between each track the stage was plunged into darkness and only towards the end did Dylan introduce his band.

Nonetheless it appeared most people had enjoyed this historic event. Many expats were beaming as they exited the arena, though there were a few puzzled faces amongst the many young Chinese who had attended.

Closely monitored

The event had been carefully controlled with Dylan forced to accept a strict adherence to playing an agreed set. This may have also extended to preventing him engaging the audience directly. Authorities were on edge given recent calls for protests in China and the arrest of prominent activists such as the artist Ai Weiwei who has not been seen since his detention on Sunday [BBC].

Bob Dylan's historic live concert avoided controversy and was closely monitored by Chinese authorities. He was not allowed to play what might be considered to be politically sensitive material. "I was a little disappointed that he didn't sing many of his songs because of the politics," said Zhang Tian, 30, a Beijing lawyer after seeing Bob Dylan. It would have been a mistake if he had deviated from his agreed repertoire some people suggested.

"It would have been a total disaster if he had said anything, this was a really high-profile event," Archie Hamilton, a music promoter in China, told the Daily Telegraph.

In China such events are strictly controlled and there are swift and draconian repercussions if rules are broken. The Communist Party imposed a two-year ban on foreign acts after the Icelandic singer Bjork made a plea for Tibet at the end of a concert in Shanghai in 2008.

Many Chinese had attended the concert out of curiosity and to experience something different. Foreign acts rarely play in Beijing or elsewhere in China, and although Dylan is not that well known he attracted a large crowd. One 24 year old advertising executive Yin Yang told the Telegraph that he only knew a few of Dylan's songs from karaoke and was not greatly familiar with the artist. However he was still happy at having seen the aged singer songwriter. "I think this was a historic concert and I'm glad I've seen him," Yin said.

The young concert goers from Beijing were not the only ones who were less than familiar with the Folk-Rock icon. When the Xinmin Evening News, one of Shanghai's most-read newspapers, wrote a story previewing his concert, they inadvertently used a picture of Willie Nelson! [xiaokang2020 / PDF].

Photographic restrictions

There were other controls in place as professional photographers were excluded from the event. Even those from Xinhua, the Chinese state news agency, were kept out. Many speculated that the reason was to do with an image rights management issue by Bob Dylan's management company. However there were many people dotted around the auditorium with professional camera equipment and despite tight security including metal detectors and X-ray machines at the entrance, there appeared to be no restriction on people entering with cameras.

At the beginning of the performance there was an announcement saying that the taking of pictures was prohibited, which was later changed to the prohibition of the use of a flash. Many seemed to ignore this however though security personnel targeted those using flash by pointing a green laser pointer at the offenders.

In China the times may not be a-changin' and the answer does not seem to be blowin' in the wind. But in recent years Dylan is more about entertainment than raising political ideas. This concert was perhaps no real concession for Dylan himself who would prefer to play his later material anyway. But as entertainment goes, it was great. Dylan is set to play Shanghai on the 8th April followed by dates in Hong Kong and Vietnam.

other reports: BBC / BBC (video)/ Guardian / Reuters / Xinhua

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

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