There are certain live acts that rattle adrenaline loose in a musical maelstrom and others that seem like solo orchestras. According to Jimmy Page, the experience of watching Bob Dylan perform was so profound that he was looking for the other invisible 999 versions of him hidden behind the one-man symphony on stage.
“In May 1965 I experienced the genius of Bob at the Albert Hall,” Page wrote as part of an Instagram post. “He accompanied himself on acoustic guitar and cascaded images and words from such songs as ‘It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)’ and ‘She Belongs To Me’ to a mesmerised audience. It was life-changing.”
With Page’s own outfit, Led Zeppelin considered one of the all-time great live acts, his praise for Bob Dylan is elevated to the next level. When the greats reserve high praise for another, it is always something to behold. Thus, when Bob Dylan discussed the greatest live shows he’s even seen with Rolling Stone, it made for a fascinating conversation.
“I like Charles Aznavour a lot,” Dylan began, “I saw him in sixty-something, at Carnegie Hall, and he just blew my brains out. I went there with somebody who was French, not knowing what I was getting myself into.” Aznavour was a French-Armenian singer and lyricist known for his billowing tenor voice. He was a troubadour in the traditional sense and the performer, often touted as the counterpart to Edith Piaf, clearly wowed the unsuspecting Dylan.
However, it was not Aznavour that Dylan ascribed his highest praise, but the blues icon Howlin’ Wolf. “Howlin’ Wolf, to me, was the greatest live act,” Dylan explained, “Because he did not have to move a finger when he performed — if that’s what you’d call it, ‘performing.’”
This adulation has seemingly been ratified by just about everyone who ever saw the howling blues monolith, who took to the stage at well over six foot and a hefty 300lbs. As fellow bluesman Cub Koda testified, “No one could match Howlin’ Wolf for the singular ability to rock the house down to the foundation while simultaneously scaring its patrons out of its wits.”
Dylan went on to add, that he was impressed by the natural way that Howlin’ Wolf could rattle the rafters without ever trying to summon any gimmicks or affrontery. “I don’t like people that jump around,” Dylan added. “When people think about Elvis moving around — he didn’t jump around. He moved with grace.”
For anyone thinking that he may have been poking a finger at the eponymous hot-footing frontman Mick Jagger, he also clarified that he didn’t intend for his condemning of any onstage jiving to come across in a meanspirited way. “I love Mick Jagger. I mean, I go back a long ways with him, and I always wish him the best,” he said. “But to see him jumping around like he does — I don’t give a shit in what age, from Altamont to RFK Stadium — you don’t have to do that, man.”
Before concluding that the cool stylings of the blues will always prove the most effective way to perform in his revered opinion. “It’s still hipper and cooler to be Ray Charles, sittin’ at the piano, not movin’ shit. And still getting across, you know? Pushing rhythm and soul across. It’s got nothin’ to do with jumping around. I mean, what could it possibly have to do with jumping around?”
Any follower of Howlin’ Wolf’s simultaneously stirring and stoic performances would have to agree: sometimes less is more. If you have the rare ability that Howlin’ Wolf and a few other notable fellow blues performers had to pronounce timeless struggles and countering joys while sitting and supping on a beverage then energy is better off conserved for the soul.