Sub Par Homesick Blues: Bob Dylan Live In Vietnam

As Bob Dylan plays Vietnam, Tim Russell finds that, without the hot air of the Western media to keep him up, Bob Dylan is a deeply mediocre performer

So revered is Dylan by the baby boomer generation that, in the media at least, it seems dissent is not an option. Thanks to the Dylan paradigm, even now, in 2011, the solo acoustic singer-songwriter is inexplicably given more critical kudos than pretty much anyone else. He has become one of those few lucky artists whose every release garners almost unanimous praise, regardless of its quality – as Tim de Lisle observed in a recent piece for the Economist, “The people giving him raves are surely reviewing his reputation, his aura, rather than the actual work.” Even his 2009 Christmas album, which featured Bob mumbling his way through ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’ et al, got the critical thumbs up.

But even if you happen to agree with this sentiment there’s a reason for going to see him play a concert if you live in Saigon. We are starved of live music here in Vietnam. Unless Filipino cover bands are your thing (which, as you’re reading The Quietus, they probably aren’t), Saigon’s live music scene is virtually non-existent. There’s no market for original CDs, no decent live venues or international standard sound equipment, and, thanks to decades of cultural isolation, the Vietnamese are only just becoming aware of foreign artists. While we were getting high, they were listening to Richard Clayderman, Leo Sayer and Celine Dion, and many of them still are – one of my employees, a male in his mid 20s, has Richard Marx’s ‘Right Here Waiting’ as his ringtone, which speaks volumes.

Things picked up in 2010, with excellent gigs from NY electro duo Ratatat, US-Khmer psychedelicists Dengue Fever, flamboyant Britpoppers Melodramas, German laptop electronica/post rock heroes Mouse on Mars (who played an astonishing free outdoor show in the shadow of Notre Dame Cathedral late last year), and best of all, a mad, intimate and totally unexpected 4-hour solo show from former Posies frontman Ken Stringfellow. But in 2011, normal service has resumed. Well, the Backstreet Boys were here last month, which merely reinforces my point, as does the fact that over 20,000 people turned out to see them.

Then there’s the subject that looms over anything remotely related to Vietnam – the Vietnam War or, as we call it in these parts, the American War. Rightly or wrongly (mostly wrongly), Dylan is frequently seen as a leading light in the US anti-Vietnam war movement, purely by dint of having been a 1960s protest singer. In fact, his one overtly anti-war song, ‘Masters of War’, was written before the US sent troops to Vietnam, he pretty much gave up the protest songs in 1965, and never once appeared at an anti-war rally or concert. But that hasn’t stopped much of the press coverage of tonight’s show stressing the war angle, as if thousands of Vietnamese are going to show up to personally thank Bob for helping them beat the Yanks. The truth is most Vietnamese, especially those who were alive during the war years, don’t even know who Bob Dylan is. Some of the younger generation do, but they don’t really care – they’d rather be watching Lady Gaga or Westlife, and it has to be said that tonight’s audience is at least 70% foreigners. But whether the war link is relevant or not, there’s no denying that, as far as Vietnam is concerned, this is an historic event all the same. Dylan is by far the biggest international artist ever to play here, and it is hoped that a successful show will open the floodgates and attract more well-known acts to the country.

So come on Bob – it’s a beautiful warm evening, in a beautifully organised venue (a miracle in Vietnam), I’m several beers to the good and am planning to consume several more – the situation is ideal.

But… it just doesn’t happen tonight. I came expecting a somewhat loose, ragged show, but Dylan and his band of well-drilled, competent and workmanlike session musos deliver a slick, professional and utterly soulless performance, honed in US arenas and exported to a worldwide audience who, like the journalists mentioned above, are so blinded by Dylan’s aura and reputation that they don’t realise they’re being cheated. To paraphrase the title of Todd Haynes’ 2007 Dylan biopic, he’s not there. He may be here in body but he could have stayed home and phoned it in, and we’d scarcely have been any the wiser. He barely looks at the audience, standing behind keyboards and facing the band. His voice, never the strongest instrument but at least always distinctive, is now reduced to an emotionless, half-arsed mumble, occasionally rising to a sneer, and whilst this works on the more vindictive songs in his set (‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’ and ‘Love Sick’ are two rare highlights), it murders most of the rest. My favourite Dylan song – ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ – suffers particularly grievously. The band sound inspired rather than insipid for once, and with the audience finally primed for a mass sing-a-long, Dylan can barely be bothered to mutter the chorus, and you can literally feel the atmosphere deflate as he does so.

Admittedly the band don’t help, reducing everything to either a polite rock & roll shuffle or plodding blues-rock – if you were booking a band for a victory party for the US Ryder Cup team, they’d be your guys, and I don’t mean this as a compliment. Their trudge through ‘All Along the Watchtower’ in particular just reminds you how great Hendrix was. A more spontaneous band – the swaggering majesty of the Bad Seeds, or the junkyard clang of Tom Waits’ band for example – would elevate the material to the point where Dylan’s indifferent muttering wouldn’t be an issue. But I guess Bob just doesn’t want to be upstaged.

No, it’s all very safe and inoffensive, musically and politically. As he did in China, Dylan bows to alleged political demands and omits his more anti-establishment songs; a waste of time, as if he had played them, the lyrics would’ve been unintelligible anyway, and should the revolution ever come to Vietnam, it’ll be inspired by Thomas Friedman or Mark Zuckerberg rather than by a 70-year old folkie. I’m not complaining that Dylan has settled comfortably into his dotage; what rankles is that his fans in the media continually claim that he still has fire in his belly, when he patently doesn’t. Instead of taking the Johnny Cash route, staring his mortality right in the eye and raging against the dying of the light, he’s happy just to plod through his repertoire a couple of hundred times a year to people who are too convinced of his genius to notice that this particular emperor shed his clothes a long, long time ago. You wonder why he does it really – he can’t need the money, and it can’t really be for fun, as he doesn’t seem to be having any.

But regardless of Dylan’s can’t-be-arsed attitude, this is a landmark event for Vietnam. Organisation and logistics are not the country’s strong point, but the Australian promoters do a great job in turning a university sports field into a superb outdoor venue that is every bit as good as any in the UK – complete with increasingly foul chemical toilets and long beer queues. Take away the scantily-clad beer promotion girls and the hot weather, and you could almost be in Finsbury Park. And although a lot of people drift away during Dylan’s disappointing set, those that remain have a good time regardless, especially the Vietnamese, despite a couple that I chat to being baffled as to why we weird Westerners have elevated a performer of such mediocrity to such revered status.

Vietnam proved that it can host international-standard live events last night – let’s hope that next time, it gets the performance it deserves.

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today