We all know the Bob Dylan live shtick. The voice is gone, the band is competent but dull, he doesn’t acknowledge the audience, he mangles his songs and the challenge is to guess what it is before he’s finished it….
Well, yes, except….
I’ve seen Dylan a number of times and this was one of the most enjoyable in ages, and perversely, I think it’s because there were hardly any of the big hits. I counted just four songs from the last century, and a substantial part of the set came from his last two albums including his Sinatra tribute. And whilst I really can’t be doing with that record, live the performances were surprisingly compelling. Sure, the voice is pretty ropey these days, but this was a performance with real conviction and commitment, and all the better for it. Dylan’s recent songs; Pay in Blood, Scarlet Town, Love Sick especially, were gripping and in this performance stood up alongside the few older classics he performed. ‘Wasted Years’ was magnificent, and Dylan, old ham that he is, made the most of the payoff line ‘So much for these long and wasted years’.
The old saw about Dylan’s performances live making the songs unrecognisable really didn’t apply here. Even the old songs – Blowing in the Wind, She Belongs to Me and a superb Tangled up in Blue were treated with respect both by Dylan, and by his longstanding band.
Dylan remains an artist who probably only committed fans could really love live – anyone who bailed out in the 60s or 70s would probably have found this hard going, as would anyone who finds Dylan’s ‘characterful’ voice hard to deal with. But for this fan, this just might have been the best I’ve seen him since the early 80s.
Lots of old grey males, like me, of course. In the interval the three guys next to me were discussing the set thus far with a depth that suggested they were doing it for a PhD. But there was a fair sprinkling of younger types too, including the 20-something couple in front of me who were clearly loving it and even kissed each other after his performance of Irving Berlin’s ‘What’ll I do?’ Suggesting it was, gulp, Their Song.
It made me think..
I don’t really rate Tempest, and certainly not Shadows in the Night, but the songs here came across really well. It was a reminder both of how Dylan is immersed in Amercian song from before the 60s, and that he is fundamentally a live rather than a studio performer. Oh, and the greatest pop music artist of our time. And seeing him performing on stage, in his 70s, in a small theatre rather than an arena, felt, in a way that hasn’t always been the case, like a privilege.