Review: Bob Dylan at Wolf Trap With Mavis Staples

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Bob Dylan and the balmy air of the Mid-Atlantic summer: the folksy voice of an era and the backwoods feel of Wolf Trap seem like they were meant to go together. However, for those fans hoping for a glimpse of that 1960’s Dylan likely would have been disappointed with last night’s performance. The Dylan that showed up is the “new” Dylan – if by new, we mean the Dylan of the last 20 or so years, the one that protests less and croons through cross-genre love stories more. This latest Dylan iteration is Dylan as cigar lounge front-man, with a big, loud band to support largely forgettable bluesy standards.

Bob Dylan. Photo courtesy of Wolf Trap.
Bob Dylan. Photo courtesy of Wolf Trap.

Dylan’s summer tour promotes his latest album, Fallen Angels, released in April of this year. Fallen Angels is his 37th studio album (yes, that’s 3-7) and follows on his Frank Sinatra tribute album Shadows in the Night from last year. Many of the songs in the performance are rehashings of old classics, such as Irving Berlin’s What’ll I Do from 1923 and Sinatra’s I’m A Fool to Want You (1951), All or Nothing at All (1939), and Autumn Leaves (1956). The sole entrants from the 1960s Dylan that I could discern were She Belongs to Me (1965), a rousing rendition of Tangled up in Blue (1975), and a nearly-unrecognizable version of Blowin’ in the Wind (1962) during the encore.

Dylan is touring with Mavis Staples, the renowned R&B and gospel singer and civil rights activist. Like Tina Turner, also born in 1939, Staples makes 76 look like the new 35. Staples puts on a stirring show that peaks with a rhythmic improvisation on the Staples’ Singers classic “I’ll Take You There.” Staples howls – at a times with such energy and power that James Brown came to mind – and proclaims that she’s been “taking us there for 66 years.” Staples reminds us, too, that she marched from Selma to Montgomery with Martin Luther King, Jr. and that the memory of that struggle is not over. “I was there,” she tells us, “And I’m still here!”

She is still here, and her performance was an impressive show of energy and consistency that serves as a reminder not just of her own role in the civil rights movement, but Dylan’s too. This is particularly meaningful given that the Dylan of late is not the civil rights icon many of us remember. The 1960s Dylan is not a natural predecessor to the 2016 Dylan that sings Sinatra love songs, but Mavis Staples ties together the old and new Bob and reminds us that he, too, is still here.

An interesting side note of history is that Dylan purportedly asked for Staples’ hand in marriage in the last 1960s: she turned him down after 7 years of dating, a decision that she has said she regrets. In a 2004 Washington Post interview, she voiced her regret: “We had gotten with Dr. King and I was young and stupid, and I was thinking Dr. King wouldn’t want me to marry a white guy.” Dylan has, in turn, referred to Staples, as the “love that I lost.”

Though many have criticized the quality of Dylan’s voice over the past few years, I found his voice to be stronger than the last time I saw him at the Verizon Center in 2012. Whatever your personal feelings about his recent turn to classic standards, he’s still Bob Dylan. He has reinvented himself time and again, gliding between folk, rock, jazz, blues, and in between with that gravelly garble we expect.

As Mavis Staples said during her set, “I like to hear him sing. But I also like to see him walk. He’s got that – what do they say? – swagger.” Bob Dylan is still Bob Dylan, and we’ll keep seeing him, even through muddled vocals and musical missteps. And he can still play the hell out of a harmonica.

Bob Dylan plays July 5 and 6, 2016 at 7:30 PM at the Filene Center at Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts, – 1551 Trap Road, in Vienna, VA. For tickets, call the box office at (877) WOLFTRAP (877) 965-3872, or purchase them online. For future Wolf Trap events, go to their calendar of events.

21 COMMENTS

  1. As an Old Hippi I was so excited to get tickets to see Dylan. I still listen to his old mustic and couldn’t wait. I was so disappointed. Not only because he didn’t sing any of his old music but the acoustics were so bad that I could not understand a single word or even hear his voice. It was all muffled and the instruments were all we heard. So very disappointing. When we went out he was singing “Autumn leaves” and I could actually understand it from outside but the inside acoustics just terrible. Would have been better off with lawn seats.

    • Most of the current fans never saw Bob being Bob. They think this is it. Ater 50 years of going to see him, I think I’ll stop now. This is not the Dylan I know.

    • We had exactly the same reaction. We purchased expensive inside seats, and could not understand a single word of the song. I’ve vaguely recognized autumn leaves. So incredibly disappointing. How could he ignore his fans so blatantly. The whole experience is just terrible

  2. Wed night was disappointing. Too many down tempo “standard” songs that Dylan simply cannot carry well. Face it, this is no Sinatra. Rod Stewart and Paul McCartney can do these numbers justice, but Dylan cannot. The up tempo numbers went much better, as his fine band can carry him.
    Most disappointing was Dylan’s complete lack of any connection to the audience. Literally the only words he spoke to the crowd were announcing intermission. He gave no acknowledgement to his band (which was actually quite good), and might as well have been playing to an empty room.

  3. Absolutely the worst concert I have ever been to. I was so excited to get tickets, I absolutely love the old tunes and Dylan’s music. Warm up act Mavis Staples was great – she worked the crowd and had the crowd on their feet ready to go for Dylan, but he didn’t play any of the old familiar tunes. It’s as if he just didn’t care. Every one kept waiting, for an old tune – after a while folks just stopped clapping they were so disappointed. With Mavis, folks were up dancing; didn’t happen with Dylan. My husband walked out after second intermission, more people dropped out with each song that disappointed. I stayed until the end, just sure we would get a couple of old familiar favorites, but it didn’t happen, not one old familiar tune. As I left, I heard others in the crowd expressing their disappointment too.

    • I totally disagree. I have seen Dylan quite a few times over the decades. While it wasn’t an epic/classic show it was a very solid performance representing several phases of his long career. There was a focus on his recent few albums of Sinatra covers and old standards but also several songs from the Oh Mercy to Love and Theft period as well as the great versions of Tangled Up in Blue and Blown in the Wind (from his early career) as well as She Belongs to Me.

      Due to his longevity and creativity there is no way he can fit a representative number of songs from every phase of his career in every show. His band sounded great and his voice, while not consistently strong, was pretty good. He is also 75 years old. So expecting him to just play a greatest hits from 1960 – 1966 is totally unrealistic.

      Just appreciate that you got to hear a living legend. Mavis Staples was amazing icing on the cake.

      • I agree Doug. I was there wed night and I’m familiar with all Bob’s music from all the eras and I agree with you 100%. Thank you for saying what needed to be said. It was an honor to be there. I felt strong connection from him, he looked my way many times, he was not disconnected at all. He put his heart into it.

  4. I was center Row C. Barely understood him. So unlike the first time when I went to Rolling Thunder Revue In Rhode Island in 1975. My favorite of all time, but I won’t pay $100 for a ticket again.

  5. Jeanette Quick – I don’t know what concert you are reviewing, because I was at Wolf Trap last night and what I saw was an abomination. Dylan was completely unintelligible throughout the performance. Even the songs that I know by heart did not have one word that I could make out. I am not exaggerating, I was sitting up front and Dylan just made noise through his mouth, I would not even call it using his voice. If the tickets had a money-back guarantee I would be demanding my money back. Mavis Staples did a great set and was full of energy, but after sitting through that absolutely wretched first set of noise we joined the throngs of disappointed and disgusted fans leaving the venue. If you like Bob Dylan just stay home and listen to his recordings.

  6. I gotta say, no mention of the opening number, “Things Have Changed”??? My goodness, that song is every bit as caustic and relevant today as any of the old “protest” numbers. Maybe the reviewer is in the dark?

  7. Thanks for your accurate review of last night’s underwhelming Bob Dylan performance. He did not seem to be too focused on his audience’s interests–surely he knew many fans were there to hear at least a couple of his old hits. But sadly he didn’t throw any of his fans any musical bones from his glorious past. Nor were ticket purchasing fans allowed to take any photographs of him on stage. (In contrast to prior Wolf Trap performances this year, performers did permit audiences to take photos.) So if you wanted to leave Wolf Trap with something other than a photo to remind you about last night’s performance, Bob Dylan did make memorabilia available at the souvenir shop for you to buy.

    While his band produced a good sound, Dylan’s performance, attitude, and effort was disappointing.

    Mavis Staples performance was the highlight of the evening. She made an effort to connect with her audience. I wish Bob Dylan had too.

  8. Last night left me flat.

    Mavis was a joy, positive energy, and love was her message.
    I enjoyed her “From the bottom to the top.”
    When she excused herself for playing some new music, “I loudly exclaimed I dont care I love you”
    and she in her magnificence said “I LOVE YOU TOO BABY!” She did her part to take us there.

    Now Zimmy let me down, he started out with “Things Have Changed” one of my alltime favorites, after that he was a gigantic disappointment.

    Bob Dylan has become “Lounge Lizzard” Dylan, I’m going to call him “L.L.” or “L.A” if can read between the lines. If I wanted to hear that nonsence I would have gone to a local piano bar.

    Can you imagine going to see Mick Jagger and Barry Manillow showed up?

    How little did I know how much “Things Have Changed”.

    P.S.
    Mavis I’ll see you at the Kennedy Center!

  9. I feel sorry for these commenters – they missed a great concert! The one I heard last night wasn’t too loud or drowned out the vocals. I didn’t hear him mumble, I could understand the lyrics far more than most concerts. But what they really missed was how well he sang. Who knew?

    Bob, who is notorious for not talking to the audience, had a great time last night as anyone there could see. He danced back and forth to the mike stand between songs or over to the piano, and, like a good band leader he made sure the band followed his direction all night. Hardly a lounge lizard.

    When I saw that he hadn’t changed his set list in four months I was concerned that he might be cheating his audience, but what we got instead was an outstanding show and a glimpse of musical genius in mid-seventies. Some people want to live in the past!

    • Great attitude Dave!

      We should stop living in the past – Bob Dylan is not! He is 75 years old, still “on the road” and creating new music. Yes, he is displaying his age, but he is Bob Dylan an important part of our own history – I hope I have his creative energy at 60! My guests and I had a great time and were thrilled to simply be with him and Mavis Staples – who was phenomenal! Indeed, our dinner at Ovation Restaurant was amazing too!

      Bobby – don’t think twice, because it’s alright!

      P.S. I was concerned to see him wobbling when walking – does he have leg or hip issues?

  10. After 40 years of listening to Dylan, I was so excited to finally get to see him live. Ha! That didn’t last long. Tuesday night, July 6, at the Wolf trap, was an absolute disaster. The sound was horrible. It was almost like a parody of Dylan. Robert Valente is absolutely right about “Dylan just made noise through his mouth”. It took about 3 songs before anyone in my party even recognized a couple of actual words in a song (forget about recognizing the songs). He was halfway through Tangled up in blue before I even recognized it and it is one of my favorite Dylan songs ever. The new songs are not terribly interesting in my opinion (I know, he follows his own muse etc.) but I still think a slight nod to his fans would be nice. We actually left before he was finished and we were not the only ones. There was nothing about the performance that made it worth sitting in a slow moving parking to leave. Not sure what Dave above is talking about. Bob wasn’t dancing anywhere. They turned off the light between each song and then when the light came back on he was found sitting by the piano or standing by the microphone again. I was wondering if they carried him back and forth. Mavis Staples was fantastic though!

  11. Mavis was great to see…so much energy and very entertaining. Last night’s performance from Bob Dylan was my one and only. I was so excited only to be let down big time. I wanted to hear a few songs that he was “known for”…nothing. We left during his second set. I’ve looked at his past set list for previous concerts and he’s playing the same songs…same order. I wasn’t staying until the end to hear the encore which included “Blowin in the Wind”. He made sure that no one was taking pictures…which I’ve never experienced at Wolf Trap before. I even saw the ushers go tell someone who was in the lawn dancing to sit down…seriously!!!! The environment last night was one that I was not expecting nor one in which I want to experience again. Go to an outdoor concert…don’t take pictures…and definitely don’t dance…nope…not for me!

  12. Agree with you, Dave, most commenters above seem a bit clueless. We had lawn seats and acoustics were good. Dylan’s voice last night was best I’ve heard in a few years, and Charlie Sexton and friends were outstanding. Somewhat envy the (negative) commenter that saw a Rolling Thunder show, agree that would have been great. Did see Dylan in late ’80s at Greek Theater Berkeley – fantastic show. That said, Dylan earned my respect once again last night, and if he keeps at it, I’ll keep showing up to listen. Mavis Staples put it all out there too – Slippery People cover was outstanding! Thanks Mavis, thanks Bob.

  13. I agree with Dave & Alan!
    I was fortunate to see Bob with the Band in the early 70’s.
    I can’t believe the “FAN” disappointment. But, there was the time Bob used an electric guitar at Monterey. I think “FANS” are still upset.

    Amazing!

  14. i was there with five other people . We are expert fans ,we have followed him from the beggining .
    We all were ecstatic with his performance . I can’t believe what i am reading here . Bob did do older stuff .You folks just didn’t recognize it. He never does his works in concert the same way he records them.That is what makes Dylan so wonderful . He constantly reinvents his art .

    ..

  15. I was there for the Wednesday night performance with my 19 year old daughter. We are both huge fans.
    I LOVED Mavis Staples. She was awesome. Her voice was AMAZING!! Stronger than Aretha’s at times, in my opinion. She was a powerhouse. Loved every single second of her.
    While I would have liked to have hard a couple more older songs from Bob, I’m far from complaining. I love him. He’s a living legend. No one compares to him. Period.
    I saw him in the late 80’s at RFK. He was awesome then and awesome now.
    It was interesting to see my daughter’s reaction at seeing him live for the first time.
    Her first words were” He is smaller than I expected”, then after a couple songs, “I can’t understand a word he’s saying, but this is so freaking awesome.” lol
    The acoustics were a little off, but it seemed to get better as show went on, or our ears adjusted. lol
    All in all, it was a great night that we’l never forget.

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