For the first time, Robert Zimmerman came to Vietnam. We made the pilgrimage by taxi to RMIT University in District 7, a developed marshland that ten years ago was sludge and is now dust and concrete. According to local custom, our group was full of revelry and we drank beer before, during, and after the show to develop a common creative consciousness.
Deftly switching between the harmonica, electric guitar, and keyboard, Bob plays an eclectic mix of tunes these days that span his entire career. Most of these songs have completely new arrangements and thus at any current show you can find many a furrowed brow in the audience. Confusion abounds... your old favorite topical troubadour is now crunching out rousing blues-rock numbers and croaking along in septuagenarian grunts.
On this typically balmy Sunday evening in Saigon, Bob played to a half-empty grass field sparsely littered with humans and plastic cups. About the time I heard the band settle into the opening "Gonna Change My Way of Thinking" I couldn't help but think that this was Bob's proverbial middle finger in the air directed at all of the self-serving pundits employed by various NGO's and news outlets that had been vocally critical of his decision to allow the Chinese and Vietnamese governments to vet his setlists during this tour. With his subsequent choice of "It Ain't Me, Babe" my earlier sentiments were solidified: Bob has always been (and remains) unwilling to accept the title of World Spokesman For All Righteous Causes. He hasn't done politics since the Sixties, why should he start now?
Shortly after developing this brief indignation, I migrated from the condensed ball of humanity that had clustered near the stage and found some breathing room during the mid-Seventies classic "Tangled Up in Blue". After a slinky exercise in refined Americana ("Honest With Me"), Dylan revisited the famously introspective Blood on the Tracks for "A Simple Twist of Fate". Although I felt a bit wobbly at this point, Dylan, adorned in a pearl-white suit and Stetson, couldn't have been more nimble on his toes. An ageless grace is only worn by some... "Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum" followed, and with its roots-rock shuffle and infinite Mardi Gras references, I could be seen marching barefoot with delicate blades of grass tickling my weathered soles.
The embittered old-hound growl of "Love Sick", with its tortured refrain "I'm sick of love..." is the quintessential late-Dylan grief-riddled lamentation. I've always seen it as jaded sneer directed at the forced Romanticism of modern culture that is best heard in a smoky barroom; consequently, it seemed a trifle out of context roaring through the air in this blissful tropical clime.
Water metaphors ensued and my favorite section of the evening was a four song block that seamlessly juxtaposed some of Dylan's earliest original topical songwriting ("A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall") and first flirtations with amplifiers and modernist poetry ("Highway 61 Revisited") with his recent forays into reworked Southern obscurities ("The Levee's Gonna Break") and shuffling, mature blues-rock ("Spirit on the Water").
Another highlight towards the end of the show was the still potently venomous "Ballad of a Thin Man". Another unflinchingly apposite selection with a stream of menacing words directed at an unknown entity that I for one like to believe is a journalist (or at least someone with "[a] pencil in [their] hand").
Dylan notoriously saves his best-known numbers for the encore, and staying true to form he swayed and rocked through "Like a Rolling Stone" and "All Along the Watchtower" before belting out "Forever Young", his transparent ode to perpetual youth. There was a palpable energy throughout these final bits and it was again painfully evident that people are instantly drawn to the familiar. Even a complete dearth of post-show transportation options (which led to a strange exodus into the murky night-scape of District 7) couldn't erase the lines of joy etched into my face. Although it is now just a fleeting memory, I quite enjoyed my time with Bob in Vietnam.
"You think I'm over the hill,
You think I'm past my prime.
Let me see what you got,
We can have a whoppin' good time."
-Bob Dylan, "Spirit on the Water"
For a complete setlist click here.