|Bob Dylan and band performing in Ho Chi Minh City on April 10, 2011: from left guitarist Charlie Sexton, drummer George Receli and Bob Dylan. (Photo: Fred Wissink/Saigon Sound System)
Bob Dylan performed his first-ever show in Vietnam on Sunday night. Vietnam has a special resonance with Dylan fans as he is perceived as being a sixties anti-war figurehead, even if that stance was never explicitly expounded by the artist himself.
Vietnam has just started to open up to major international music acts. This show was produced by a small Vietnamese-owned, foreign-produced company called Saigon Sound System. Rod Quinton, the General Manager of the company and Producer of the Dylan show in Ho Chi Minh City, says the idea received its impetus from legendary Australian promoter Michael Chugg .
"I met 'Chuggy' previously and I was at a music conference in Australia," Quinton, a 14-year resident of Vietnam, says. "When he asked me if I was interested in a Vietnam leg of the Bob Dylan tour. 'Absolutely' was the answer."
Things got even more exciting for locals when Saigon Sound System decided to tie a performance of the songs of Trinh Cong Son to Dylan's performance. Joan Baez once dubbed Trinh the "Bob Dylan of Vietnam" and the country is currently observing the 10th anniversary of this iconic singer-songwriter's death. One local artist told me "all of popular music in Vietnam is somehow premised on Trinh Cong Son."
While the communist government in Vietnam is known for bogging projects down in red tape, nothing was further from the case here. Quinton notes, "We met the Ministry of Culture and Information at the start over a cup of coffee and said 'what do you think of Bob Dylan in Vietnam?' They said 'give us a few days.' They came back and said 'cool.' Then I said let's have another coffee and I said what do you think of Trinh Cong Son and Bob Dylan? The answer came back 'very cool.' "
Quinton adds, "What Trinh Cong Son represents to Vietnamese people is very similar to what Bob Dylan represents to Americans."
The show on Sunday night, held on the football field of the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology on the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City, started with an hour of songs composed by Trinh Cong Son. The crowd, which only filled about half the venue and was comprised of about 70% internationals, appreciated the jazz adaptations of Trinh's melodic and romantic tunes.
More than half of Vietnam's 86 million people were born after the Vietnam War ended and are more likely to have heard of contemporary global pop stars such as Lady Gaga than Bob Dylan. Which may help explain why the audience, which was made up of a majority of foreigners, failed to sell out the 8,000-person venue.
The show did have a few corporate sponsors, including Jim Beam and San Miguel as well as non-profit organizations like Wildlife at Risk  to help defray expenses. And the show's promoter said one of his company's main goals with this concert was to introduce the Vietnamese public to international touring market towards earning future profits.
"Saigon Sound System is a platform for three things," Quinton noted, "raising the quality of sound and lighting production in Vietnam; introducing international artists and international music to Vietnamese and building a platform so that Vietnamese music can go out to the rest of the world."
The "poet-laureate of rock and roll" (as he is introduced at his concerts) did not disappoint and it seems many of songs were comments on the situation and history. Dylan opened with "Gonna Change My Way Of Thinking" and seemed genuinely glad to be performing, smiling often and, as opposed to his usual rough growl, singing melodically during the opening number.
The show, at just under two hours, was longer than his usual performances and Dylan spiced it with many of his celebrated songs. "It Ain't Me Babe" was the second song and later dropped in "Tangled Up In Blue," (smiling broadly during the tune) "Simple Twist Of Fate," "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall," "Highway 61 Revisited," and "Ballad of the Thin Man."
Special moments included Dylan's organ solo on "Highway 61 Revisited" and another bluesy keyboard turn for him on "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall."
For the encore Dylan proffered three tracks instead of his customary two, and all were mammoths of the Dylan cannon: "Like a Rolling Stone," "All Along the Watchtower," and "Forever Young."
Said die-hard Dylan fan Alrik Borsdorf, who traveled from Germany to catch four shows on the Asian tour, "this was a cut above the Taiwan show. He played 18 songs instead of his usual 16 or 17 and there were some special moments."
The tribute aspect of "Forever Young" was palpable. Dylan has reportedly appreciated the work of Trinh Cong Son for decades.
When one considers, however, this show was fifty years exactly after Dylan's first major performance, April 11, 1961 at NYC's Folk City, perhaps Bob really was singing about himself, Forever Young.
Ho Chi Minh hoedown (Photo: Fred Wissink/Saigon Sound System)