"You can't fault an artist for not giving what you expect," Kevin Gilmartin says.
by Natalia Holtzman
From the November, 2019 issue
Gilmartin knows what he's talking about: between 1983 and 2003, he ran the U-M Major Events Office (now defunct), helping present numerous concerts by a wide variety of popular and jazz musicians--including two by Bob Dylan, whose fall tour comes to Hill Auditorium on November 6 (see Events).
Both shows Gilmartin managed were also at Hill, the first in November 1989. At that time, he says, "anarchy was Dylan's organizing principle." He had released Oh Mercy (widely regarded as a "comeback" album) less than two months before, so the songs from it that he performed at Hill weren't yet familiar to his audience. But, Gilmartin says, that night Dylan played older, more familiar songs in a way that wasn't recognizable, either.
"He was really into this almost chaotic performance style," Gilmartin says, "in which you couldn't recognize" any of the songs. Dylan "deliberately disconnected his performance from melodies, and the expected reception by the audience."
Earlier that day, Gilmartin had a chance to chat with some of Dylan's musicians as they were setting up. He asked G.E. Smith, Dylan's lead guitarist at the time (as well as the leader of Saturday Night Live's band) how the tour was going. Gilmartin says that Smith responded by rolling his hand through the air, in an up-and-down motion like a roller coaster. So Gilmartin asked, "Well, how's the day going for you?" Smith shrugged, as if to say: we'll see.
"Which of course confused me," Gilmartin says now, "but after the show, I understood exactly what he was saying." Gilmartin says he spent that show "lurking" in the audience, thinking, "Oh my god, this is crazy! This is Bob Dylan, and I love all his songs, and I don't recognize what's going on. This is crazy!"
After the show, Gilmartin went back to find Smith. "How do you do this?" he asked him. Smith's response: 'You know? Bob Dylan just goes--and you follow him. And sooner or later you figure out what
song you're playing.'"
So when Dylan returned to Hill in November 1996, Gilmartin says, "I had some trepidation about how this was gonna play out." But the show, Gilmartin says, was "fabulous." "It was just kind of a joyous and raucous concert," he says, "and the audience was dancing in their seats the whole time." Dylan, Gilmartin says, is "one of a kind, and whether it's perplexing or celebratory, you know, it's Bob Dylan. He's one of a kind, and the audience goes with him."
That night, the audience didn't just go with him; they went up to him. Gilmartin says that towards the end of the show, with people dancing at their seats and in the aisles, "Bob Dylan gestured people up to the stage." Gilmartin estimates that there were thirty or thirty-five people, a whole "wave of people [that] came up and jumped onto the stage," dancing there through three or four more songs, when the show ended.
The rush "created a moment of panic for me and some of the backstage staff," Gilmartin says, for safety reasons. But, he goes on, "you know, he [Dylan] could have stopped at any moment and gestured people to go back to the audience and, you know, people would. And he chose not to."
So does Gilmartin have any expectations for this month's show?
No. "I don't have expectations," he says. "I don't like to build up my own expectations, or my own interpretation before something happens."
At the U-M, Gilmartin says, "my job was to create a platform and let the artist have it." He's carried that mentality into the rest of his life, where he's now an audience member more often than a presenter.
As for Dylan, Gilmartin says he's "always interesting. You know? Even when he does unexpected things, it's always interesting. It's still Bob Dylan."
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