Endgame Dylan Knopfler

While I’m no theatre critic, Soulpepper’s production of Beckett’s Endgame is fascinating because the presentation is quite mesmerizing in spite of the fact that there is almost no movement on stage. The main character is glued to a wheelchair for the entirety, two minor characters are relegated to popping up out of garbage cans. This leaves one role that has some freedom to move about: stomping between two windows; occasionally moving the wheelchair a foot or two; talking into the garbage can, and once in awhile disappearing off stage. So the audience’s attention is forced to centre stage (where the wheelchair character frequently confirms he is at, incidentally) and the rhythms and cadence of language take over. Found it very bleak but quite compelling, and an amazing challenge for the actors.

Which brings me to Dylan at the ACC last night: Lamp stands all over the stage, providing just enough light to illuminate the players but not enough to allow for any individual character to shine; a band that more-or-less kept a solid rhythmic throb chugging along but played entirely as a whole, with very little differentiation from song to song, infrequent dynamic variations and no standout instrumentation; a singer who sat inside this veneer of sound and light, barking and wheezing and occasionally singing; propulsive rhythms with very simple and repetitive instrumental motifs tattooed on top.
Although Dylan played quite an array of well known classics (among them, You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere, Tangled Up in Blue, Visions of Johanna, Highway 61 Revisited, Ballad of a Thin Man, Like a Rolling Stone, All Along the Watchtower, Blowin’ in the Wind), as he has done for a number of years the rhythms and melodies were twisted, contorted and warped, often rendering the songs unrecognizable. Sometimes the approach was refreshing and revelatory: last night there was something about what he did to the last line of each verse in Like a Rolling Stone that felt very plaintive and sad, completely undermining the song’s old anthemic quality. On the other side of the coin, though, the way he played with the melody of All Along the Watchtower trivialized it to the point of satire, and Blowin’ in the Wind was compromised by a weird, playful rhythm that - for me at least - undercut the song’s tremendous power. Dylan does this with a purpose, I think, but it is beyond the realm of my intellect or imagination to understand why.
He doesn’t owe anybody anything of course, and has absolutely nothing to prove. Couldn’t help but wonder, though, why he’s out there doing this kind of arena show. He seemed small and diminished somehow: moving around quite tentatively; playing some pretty shakey piano and harmonica; croaking and hoarse much of the evening even though his voice did improve after quite a rough start. Although he clearly wants to play - and play with - the songs and engage in a kind of folkie, bluesy, jazzy reinterpretation of his work, I kept thinking how great it might be to see it in some small club where the stuttered starts and botched endings and breakdowns might be charming. Not a presentation that worked in a hockey arena though, or at least it didn’t work for me in that setting. God bless him, the most influential songwriter and creative force of my lifetime, but I had the sense that the people who stayed for his show - and many left very early on - were generally applauding for the legend and not the actual performance.

Mark Knopfler “opened” the show for Dylan. A songwriter’s songwriter and consummate musician flanked by a group of consummate musicians. Nothing particularly flashy but a beautiful, polished performance that didn’t kowtow to the audience’s desire to hear the hits, and instead presented a slew of newer songs from his Privateer album along with a few favourites. Still a magnificent guitarist, and I think under-appreciated arranger who writes beautifully crafted songs and never fails to present them exquisitely. Can only hope that he and the band will come back around to a smaller venue after they finish hop scotching around Europe in support of the new record. A real gem on every level.