‘Don’t expect any oldies’: Bob Dylan comes to Santa Cruz

Wallace Baine outside the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium ahead of Bob Dylan's sold-out show.
(Giovanni Moujaes / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The figure is eerie: Dylan’s silhouette is almost as recognizable as his donkeylike singing voice, which is good because that’s all we’re getting, his silhouette standing against an orangeish glow on the curtain behind him. He’s avoiding any kind of spotlight like Dracula avoids the rising sun. Wallace Baine take us inside Thursday’s sold-out show at the Santa Cruz Civic.

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Wallace

OK, you wanna be cynical about all this? Fine. I’m here at Santa Cruz’s favorite downtown gymnasium on a lovely June evening to have my wallet vigorously deep-cleaned by the famously vulturine live-concert apparatus on behalf of an old man already with enough money to buy Botswana and half of Mozambique and not even feel it.

Before this moment, I would have told you that the likelihood I would drop $40 on an ugly T-shirt was roughly the same as the likelihood I would score the winning goal in the Stanley Cup Finals. But here I am, standing in a scrum of paunchy baby boomers eager to stick my Visa card into any slot offered in exchange for some evidence to impress a stranger behind me in line at Safeway that, yes, I was there on June 23, 2022, at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium to see Bob Dylan.

In the lobby of the Civic is the kind of throng that, for the past two years, we’ve all been programmed to fear, a great river of amiably expectant music fans composed mostly of what I like to call the “gloriously gray,” a demo that I’m fast sliding into. Sure, the concert industry might be bleeding us dry, but the cosmetics industry is getting bupkus from us.

Of course, I am surrounded by various species of Dylanologists, though no one is wearing a badge or sash to that effect. So I’m not in the least surprised when I encounter one such person, a stranger roughly my age admiring the old-school boxing posters on the walls of the Civic. He drove here from Marin County, which is surprising. While he’s talking, I’m quietly wondering whether there’s a human living or dead I would drive across the entire San Francisco Bay Area on a Thursday afternoon to see — maybe my dad who has been dead for seven years ... maybe.

“Don’t expect any oldies,” the stranger intones, and my first thought is, what the hell is this guy talking about? There’s nobody here but oldies. But, of course, he’s referring to the set list. There is no one in this city right now less nostalgic than the Nobel Laureate himself, sitting somewhere behind this or that curtain at this moment nursing his pre-show Metamucil. He’d sooner come sit in your lap and ask about your record collection than sing “The Times They Are-A Changin’.” That’s a level of transcendence that few artists ever attain, the freedom to deny your own oldies. In fact, Dylan might be alone at the top of that pyramid. Who else could possibly get away with that?

I communicate with my newfound friend that I’m not here for a nostalgia trip, that I would never endure this kind of cattle call for Peter, Paul and Mary. (In fact, I would be a no-show in my own living room for Peter, Paul and Mary, but that’s just me.) He tells me that he hated Dylan — “hated,” that was the word he used — throughout his youth until around 2000. Then came some kind of road-to-Damascus conversion, and he’s seen Dylan probably 25 or 30 times since. I’m getting a bit uneasy with his zealotry, and I’m growing weary of being addressed like I’m some kid who just discovered “Blonde on Blonde” last Tuesday. So I’m thankful when the lights flicker, signaling the beginning of the show.

Inside the gymnasium it smells like used towels, but it always does in this building, doesn’t it? I’m up in the steep seats, and I squeeze some entertainment from watching grandparently folks negotiate the scary steps up to their seats. I watch one gentleman stoop to put his hands on the steps in a semi-crawl. Handrails? We don’t need no stinkin’ handrails? — his good sense for safety superseding his dignity. The Civic was built decades before the first human uttered the words “ADA compliant.”

Crowd outside the Civic Auditorium for Bob Dylan concert
The “gloriously gray” crowd outside the Civic on Thursday.
(Wallace Baine / Lookout Santa Cruz)

So, how is the show? It’s, above all, an efficient use of time. The ticket said 8 p.m. and, sure enough, at 8:05, the Laureate appears, without a syllable of introduction or preamble from him or anyone else. Dylan’s silhouette is almost as recognizable as his donkeylike singing voice, which is good because that’s all we’re getting, his silhouette standing against an orangeish glow on the curtain behind him. He’s avoiding any kind of spotlight like Dracula avoids the rising sun.

But hey, that’s Bob for you, right? You want hammy, crowd-pleasing histrionics, go see Springsteen or McCartney. Bob’s not here for you; you’re here for him. Remember? Despite being the planet’s greatest living songwriter, Dylan’s greatest art is aloofness, and he’s putting on a master class. He plows through his most recent material from his 2020 album, “Rough and Rowdy Ways,” and by the time he gets to the song “I Contain Multitudes,” I begin to wonder — do you, though?

I’m no Dylanologist — I’m still several credits short of a baccalaureate on that front — but I sense that, since he won the Nobel, Dylan’s music has fallen into a groove (or a rut, depending on how you look at it). The snarly, vaguely bluesy sound gives way to cadences and poetic beats that are barely distinguishable from one song to the next. It’s cool, but in the same way that a desert highway is cool. After a while, the sameness turns somnolent.

Bob spends most of his time on stage hidden behind his piano, and I don’t think you could fit a credit card in the seam between songs. It’s like a DJ set. Banter? Jokes? Shoutouts to Santa Cruz? We’re getting as much of that from Dylan as we’re getting from Rudy Giuliani, which is zilch. In the sold-out crowd of maybe a couple thousand people, I count exactly two women standing to dance. The man two seats down from me is bobbing his head in enjoyment and yawning at the same time. I’m doing neither, but I’m feeling both.

I’m thrilled and a bit surprised when I hear the opening line of my own favorite song from Dylan’s catalogue, “Every Grain of Sand.” (Sand? Beach? Maybe a veiled allusion to being in Santa Cruz? Yeah, I know. I’m grasping). On the recording from the 1981 “Shot of Love” album, “Every Grain of Sand” is a beautiful benediction, a beseeching prayer that pulsates with awareness and equal parts sorrow and ecstasy. But here, it’s feels like a hash, reworked into Dylan’s current template.

At the end of “Sand,” Dylan waddles from behind his piano to center stage, puts on a distinctly Dylanesque hat and stands there for a minute like he’s posing for Madame Tussaud. Then he’s gone. No encore, no announcement, no nothing. I bet he’ll be in bed by 10:30.

After the show, I get a three-word e-mail from a friend: “Well, that sucked.” I stand in the cool air on Church Street out front of the Civic and strike up a conversation with another fan, a man wearing a “Last Waltz” T shirt.

“Dylan always disappoints,” he says. There’s a lot to unpack there. Usually, if someone disappoints me, they get to do it only once. But my new friend has seen Dylan more times than he can count. And he has been disappointed plenty of those times. He has a theory that Dylan steps up his game and blows away audiences only when he shares the bill with another brand-name performer. I remember the time I saw him on the same bill as Joni Mitchell and Van Morrison at the Shark Tank in San Jose, and sure enough, he was electrifying that night.

Tonight, there was not even an opener. The only Nobel Laureate in the building had no one else to outshine. Oddly, maybe pathologically, that’s kinda why we love him. I take Bob Dylan at his word that he contains multitudes. But sometimes, the multitudes just stay behind on the tour bus.

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