My first Bob Dylan concert was in 1988 at Radio City Music Hall in New York City, and my next concert will be my twentieth. This represents just a tiny share of Dylan’s concerts during this era and is insignificant compared to the number of concerts attended by true Dylan fanatics. Nonetheless, reflecting on seeing Dylan perform over twenty years, I realized some lessons that could apply to our own professional careers.
1. Be persistent: Dylan has performed roughly a hundred concerts a year, each year, during this period sometimes called (though not by Dylan) the “Never-Ending Tour.” Between my first and my most recent concerts, Dylan performed more than 2,000 concerts.
2. Adapt to your environment: I have seen Dylan perform in a wide range of venues, with 19 concerts performed in 18 different locations. These have included ornate theaters; no frills arenas better suited for basketball than music; intimate nightclubs; and obscure settings such as a lighthouse parking lot in Solomon, Maryland and several minor league baseball stadiums.
3. Maintain variety: Dylan varies his setlists each performance, singing a different series of songs each night. In 19 concerts, I’ve heard Dylan perform 118 different songs, and rarely attended a concert that does not have a song I’ve never heard performed live before.
4. Reinvent yourself: Not only does Dylan sing different songs each performance, but he reinvents his own songs in different styles and with different arrangements. Acoustic folk songs from the 1960s get rock treatments; other songs get more of a blues, gospel, or country edge.
5. Back yourself with a strong team: While his band has evolved over the years, Dylan consistently has technically strong musicians supporting him. His improvisational style, with different songs performed each night and different arrangements of songs each tour, requires an excellent backing band.
6. Respect your peers: While Dylan often tops lists of all-time greatest songwriters, Dylan pays tribute to his peers on occasion. While Dylan concerts primarily include his own compositions, his occasional covers highlight musicians he respects. I have enjoyed hearing Dylan perform songs written by Warren Zevon, Neil Young, Paul Simon, and the Rolling Stones.
7. Respect tradition: When Dylan is not singing his own songs or covers of other great songwriters, he has sung traditional folk music. In concerts I have seen, Dylan has resurrected from relative obscurity songs such as “Searching for a Soldier’s Grave,” “Trail of the Buffalo,” “Somebody Touched Me,” and “Wait for the Light to Shine.”
8. Have a sense of humor: Dylan rarely speaks at his concerts, but his humor extends beyond stinging one-liners in some lyrics. His opening introduction in recent years, borrowed from a small-town newspaper review, seems tongue-in-cheek in referencing “poet laureate of rock and roll,” “voice of a generation,” “finding Jesus,” and “disappearing in a haze of substance abuse.” Dylan occasionally tells bad puns-at one concert I attended, he joked “My ex-wife left me. She’s a tennis player. ‘Love’ means ‘nothing’ to her.” Finally, at some concerts his Oscar statue he won at the Academy Awards for the song “Things Have Changed” sits on stage atop an amplifier.
9. Take a risk-Dylan has been booed, had audience members walk out, and been teased for being unintelligible. He has also been called spokesman of a generation, inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and nominated for a Nobel Prize for literature. Dylan doesn’t play it safe, but composes challenging music, sung with non-melodic but inventive articulation, and creatively reinvents arrangements of his songs. Sometimes these efforts work brilliantly, sometimes they fall flat, but they are always interesting for Dylan fans.
10. Hone your signature-Dylan’s nasal voice, though with inflections of Woody Guthrie and other traditional American folk musicians, is uniquely his. While his voice has evolved from album-to-album and in performance over the decades, it is instantly recognizable.
11. Take comfort in consistency-While Dylan varies his set lists from night-to-night, he maintains some consistency in songs that regularly anchor his set lists. In his current tour, the song “Highway 61” has been performed eighth or ninth every concert, and he has consistently sung “Like a Rolling Stone” and “All Along the Watchtower” in encores. This consistency may allow Dylan and his band to regroup after a widely varying set of songs and reward fans with favored greatest hits.
12. Don’t be distracted-Dylan largely ignores his audience during concerts. Fans may be talking during songs, some may walk out in dislike of his voice or music, some may be intoxicated with the influence of various substances, and others are rapt in adoration. Regardless, Dylan tends not to face his audience, but sits at an angle focused on his band and music regardless of whether there are hundreds, thousands, or tens of thousands in the audience.
13. Have an element of surprise-On rare occasions, Dylan will pull out gems from his repertoire that have not been performed for many years. For example, in 2004 I had the fortune of hearing the first live performance of the song “Hazel” in several decades.
14. Have strong openings-Dylan often is preceded in concert by strong opening acts. Some opening acts I have seen are music veterans, such as Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, Paul Simon, Elvis Costello, and John Mellencamp. Others are new performers getting a break to perform with a legend. I have particularly enjoyed performances by a young Toni Childs, The Waifs, and Hot Club of Cowtown.
15. Create anew-While Dylan could suffice with singing songs he composed in the 1960s, his concerts in the last decade have also emphasized songs from his new albums. My favorite performances are often the newest songs from recent albums as Dylan seems to take special care in his singing and the backing band’s arrangements. Most recently, “Forgetful Heart” from the new album Together Through Life has been a concert highlight with Dylan singing from midstage without accompanying himself on guitar or keyboard. His voice and the relatively reserved band arrangement gives the song a more melancholy and somewhat disturbing tone than on the album.
16. Recognize limitations-While Dylan is a legend in both his songwriting and his ability to uniquely accentuate his lyrics, he recognizes the limitations of his signing voice and instrumental performances. He bolsters these limitations by having a technically strong backing band and singing with elements of nonmelodic chanting not entirely dissimilar from some rap performers.
17. Maintain other creative outlets-During the two decades I have attended Dylan’s concerts, he has not only performed an average of about 100 concerts per year but pursued other creative outlets. He had three seasons of his own radio show highlighting oftentimes obscure music from the last century, written his memoirs in Chronicles, made the movie Masked and Anonymous, and painted a portfolio of art known as “The Drawn Blank” series.
18. Have depth-Dylan has recorded hundreds of songs, and he pulls songs from deep in his repertoire in various concert tours. For example, several years ago he surprised fans by performing the largely forgotten 1970 song “If Dogs Run Free” in a jazz arrangement.
19. Recognize the moment-While Dylan rarely speaks beyond introducing his band at concerts, when he does he often reflects on moments of significance to him and to his fans. Though not at concerts I have attended, in other concerts Dylan has made brief tributes to George Harrison and Walter Cronkite after they died, and to Barack Obama when he was elected president. Perhaps not coincidently, he also performed anti-war songs such as “Masters of War” and “John Brown” in several Washington, DC area concerts during the Iraq war. Finally, a personal favorite concert moment was hearing Dylan perform the song “Not Dark Yet” as the sun was setting during an outdoor concert.
20. Mix old and new: A typical Dylan concert is likely to include songs from four or five different decades of his repertoire. During the most recent concert I attended, Dylan’s 1965 masterpiece “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” was followed by the 2009 new song “I Feel a Change Comin’ On.” Few other performers could mix and match songs from five decades..