I recently attended my first Bob Dylan concert. Although I had listened to and loved his music for years, I was always hesitant to make the financial investment to see him live. I had heard and read horror stories of his concerts. “I couldn’t understand a word he said.” “He seemed like he didn’t care.” “He never even looked at the audience.” I finally went to my first Bob Dylan concert in the spring of 2018, and I’m sorry I waited so long.
Seeing Bob Dylan walk out on stage was a thrilling experience in an of itself. Arguably the musical William Shakespeare of our time, there he was in living color, wearing an audacious sequined suit, standing only feet from me. His voice was rough and coarse, but the band was remarkable, and the way he bent and re-envisioned the songs was at once challenging and deeply satisfying. He never spoke to the audience once. He played his songs, he played them beautifully, he took a bow with his amazing band, and he left the stage.
Did Bob Dylan enjoy being on stage? I don’t know, but I enjoyed seeing him. Sometimes it’s clear that an artist relishes any time they can be performing. Bruce Springsteen seems to savor every moment, often smiling from ear to ear, bringing the audience along on a breathtaking journey. I saw Nanci Griffith perform, and she physically reached out to the audience, yearning for us to understand the depth of her care and passion. Michael Franti made actual physical contact with almost everyone in the audience when I saw him perform, and there was a visceral sense of community and joy in the room.
Alternatively there are some artists who clearly don’t enjoy performing on stage. Robbie Robertson famously brought The Band to an end, because he could not stand being on the road. Guns and Roses shows up late for almost every show. Kanye West regularly walks off the stage well before his concerts should be over.
Personally, I can’t imagine that performing on stage in front of a large audience would be anything other than a fun, thrilling, jubilant experience. I think this is the way Jackson Browne feels about performing live, if only judging by his wonderful “Load Out/Stay” song from 1977. Recorded as part of his live concept album Running on Empty, “Load Out” is a celebration of the live concert, and everything that needs to take place in order for the concert to even happen.
“Now the seats are all empty
Let the roadies take the stage
Pack it up and tear it down
They’re the first to come and the last to leave
Working for that minimum wage
They’ll set it up in another town
Tonight the people were so fine
They waited there in line
And when they got up on their feet they made the show
And that was sweet –
But I can hear the sound
Of slamming doors and folding chairs
And that’s a sound they’ll never know”
From the roadies who lug all the gear to the audience who celebrates the music being performed on stage. Everybody is performing a role, everyone is necessary. The music is wonderful, and being on the road is difficult. Long bus rides. Hotel rooms. Boredom.
“But the band’s on the bus
And they’re ready to go
We’ve got to drive all night and do a show in Chicago
Or Detroit, I don’t know
We do so many shows in a row
And these towns all look the same
We just pass the time in the hotel rooms
And wander ’round backstage
Till those lights come up and we hear that crowd
And we remember why we came.”
“And we remember why we came.” Everything is anchored in the music. This is what the musicians look forward to. This is what solves the boredom on the bus, in the hotel rooms and back stage. This is their joy.
To emphasize how much they enjoy being on stage, the song ends by incorporating parts of the great “Stay” by Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs, originally recorded in 1960. The artists and the audience, we all love great songs. This is a celebration. This is to be enjoyed.
“People you got the power over what we do
You can sit there and wait
Or you can pull us through
Come along, sing this song
You know you that can’t go wrong
‘Cause when that morning sun comes beating down
You’re going to wake up in your town
But we’ll be scheduled to appear
A thousand miles away from here.”
For a depressing, dreary alternative to Jackson Browne’s celebration of performing live for an audience, check out Bob Seger’s awful “Turn the Page.” I have never seen Bob Seger live, and after hearing this song that only makes me feel bad that I dare put Bob Seger and his band through the terrible experience of performing live for us, I don’t know why I ever would.
Maybe someday I will see Jackson Browne and Bob Dylan on stage together. Now that would be fun!
“The Load Out”
Written by Jackson Browne
Performed by Jackson Browne
Released December 1977