Beijing breathes sigh of relief as Dylan plays it safe on debut

Clifford Coonan hears the legendary protest singer steer clear of politics in his eagerly awaited first performance in China
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The Independent Culture

Classics "like a Rolling Stone" and "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" wowed the crowd at the Workers' Gymnasium in Beijing yesterday, as Bob Dylan made his mainland Chinese debut yesterday, dropping some of his well-known protest songs so as not to offend the government.

Although he turns 70 in May, Dylan was spry and in good voice, rocking the harmonica and the organ with a verve that had the mostly Chinese crowd up and clapping. He moves to Shanghai for another show tomorrow.

The performance came against a backdrop of heightened political tension over the disappearance of controversial artist Ai Weiwei at the weekend. Security was tight at the show, though monitoring tends to be stringent at every concert in China.

There were reports that the Ministry of Culture snapped up 2,000 of the 18,000 seats for the concert to monitor the set list, which had been strictly vetted, and to make sure there were no songs that could be interpreted as a message to Ai or as supportive of the "Jasmine Revolutions" sweeping authoritarian governments in the Middle East.

"Bob Dylan has a far more influential status than other foreign performers in China, and the social and cultural impact is greater," said Wei Ming, manager of the concerts' promoting company, Gehua LiveNation.

"Beforehand, we thought that his audience would be small, that not so many people would be into Dylan here in China, but we were completely wrong. It's not a niche audience, he has a mass following here in China," Mr Wei said.

Given that he wrote the 1960s protest classics "Blowin' in the Wind" and "The Times They Are A-Changin'", you could be forgiven for thinking Dylan would have a problem in China.

However, given that much of his music attacks US foreign policy, his repertoire would traditionally garner sympathy in Beijing. Dylan stuck to a varied set list mixing his newer work and his older work, but there was nothing that could have ruffled official feathers too much, even at a time of heightened suspicion about dissent.

Controversial artists are not allowed in China, especially since Iceland's Bjork shouted slogans supporting independence for Tibet at a Shanghai concert in 2008.

The folk legend was supposed to come to China last year but then he cancelled the Chinese, Taiwanese and Korean legs of his Asian tour, reportedly after Beijing's culture ministry refused him permission to play in China.

Mr Wei denied there were political reasons for the cancellation of last year's show.

"This is an absolutely commercial deal; there is no political element," Mr Wei said. "We are always organising international musicians to play in China. We did The Eagles, now Dylan and in May we will invite Avril Lavigne to come and play in Beijing and Shanghai."

Beijing has been clamping down on any form of protest because of fears of spillover from the protests shaking North Africa and the Middle East.

However, Dylan has become a lot less political in recent years, and the government has allowed some older, less risky rock standards to play in China, such as The Rolling Stones.

Tickets prices ranged from £26.50 to £186 at the top end. Dylan's Asia and Australasia tour also includes Singapore, Australia and New Zealand. He will also go to Vietnam.

A message for China?

The songs he sang...

"It's All Over Now, Baby Blue"

"The vagabond who's rapping at your door/ Is standing in the clothes that you once wore..."

"Like a Rolling Stone"

"Nobody's ever taught you how to live out on the street/ And now you're gonna have to get used to it..."

"A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall"

"Where the home in the valley meets the damp, dirty prison/ Where the executioner's face is always well hidden..."

...and those he didn't

"Blowin' in the Wind"

"How many deaths will it take till we know/ That too many people have died?/ The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind/ The answer is blowin' in the wind."

"The Times They Are A-Changin'"

"As the present now/ Will later be past/ The order is/ Rapidly fadin'/ And the first one now/ Will later be last/ For the times they are a-changin'."