It is a curious quirk of Bob Dylan’s so-called Never Ending Tour that, after twenty-five years of virtual non-stop performance, it feels as though he’s never settled on a satisfactory approach to playing his own back catalogue.
The early material tends to sound garbled and insincere, and yet when he doesn’t play it, people complain that they’re not interested in anything post-Desire.
But as he embarks on a five-night run at London’s Royal Albert Hall – a venue, of course, with which he’ll always be associated – he finally seems to have arrived at a formula that suits everybody, not least himself.
The beauty of January’s album of Great American Songbook covers, Shadows in the Night, is that, in his own words: “What me and my band are basically doing is uncovering [these songs].” – for once, it’s him doing the digging, not everyone else.
The Tom Waits-esque blues of the second song, ‘Beyond Here Lies Nothing’ (from 2009’s Together Through Life), is sinister and refined, and I am struck by just how much better Dylan’s vocals sound than last time I saw him, in 2009; he seems to be putting far more thought into his delivery than he used to.
‘What’ll I Do’, the first of seven cuts from Shadows in the Night, is delivered masterfully. There’s a novelty to watching a Bob Dylan performance in which the vocals are the centrepiece. ‘Duquesne Whistle’ then takes hold of the tempo and the whole venue taps along, a tangible warmth seeping through the room.
Tempest’s ‘Pay in Blood’ is one of the highlights of the evening, and Dylan’s reinvigorated voice suits ‘I’m a Fool to Want You’ perfectly, rising and falling with a refinement that belies the received wisdom that he can’t sing; his vocals are positively draped over the arrangement. The opening bars of ‘Tangled Up In Blue’ herald an odd moment, as people begin clapping and then hesitate, only resuming in recognition when the chorus sets in.
During the twenty-minute interval, I can’t help but be curious about how the show is living up to myriad expectations around me. Put aside the enigma and the legend, and he is simply an immensely experienced, professional showman delivering a consummate performance. The songs and the musicianship – of both Bob Dylan and his band – transcend expectation and the weight of history.
The magnitude of Robert Zimmerman’s historical and cultural impact is such that, to expect a single performance to somehow reflect or encapsulate its immensity would be foolish. The timeless and universal nature of the covers he plays tonight suddenly seems perfect.
He returns to the stage with a playful, banjo-driven rendition of ‘High Water (for Charley Patton)’ and the band is tight, dirty and well-drilled, contradicting the myth that Dylan leads haphazardly and they follow blindly. Then he croons: ‘Don’t you remember / I was always your clown / Why try to change me now?’; I catch myself analysing the lyrics once more, and realise how difficult it is to separate words from him once they’ve left his mouth.
‘Spirit on the Water’, tonight’s sole representative from Modern Times, is performed impeccably, every syllable enunciated with a clarity that his live performances have often lacked in the past. The apocalyptic banjo-ridden boogie of ‘Scarlet Town’ precedes ‘Long and Wasted Years’, descending on the audience like tender raindrops, almost evoking a Prince ballad. It’s remarkable how much power and urgency the Tempest songs possess live.
After the foreboding ‘Autumn Leaves’ and a brief interlude, the band returns with ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’. There is another moment of hesitancy as the audience recognises the backbone of the song in incremental stages, and it all feels a bit hackneyed and tokenistic.
Afterwards I speak to Marc, a 40 year-old cinematographer, who tells me it was the first time he’s seen Bob Dylan live:
“I enjoyed the show and it was great to see him, and to see him playing harmonica and piano, but it was a shame that there were no classics.”
His feelings echo those I had last time I saw him, and I’m reminded of the importance of context and expectation. Outside, near rows of £10 Dylan t-shirts laid out neatly on the floor, a busker plays note-perfect covers of 60’s Dylan standards, and I feel perfectly satisfied as I head towards South Kensington, surrounded by lively debate.
Bob Dylan tours Europe throughout October and November. http://www.bobdylan.com/us/upcoming-dates
Words by Tom Furnival-Adams
Categories: What We Caught in Brighton