Sunday, August 26
It was my fourth time seeing Bob Dylan – my first in over a decade, first away-gig too; he gave up on Wellington after the 2007 leg of his Never-Ending Tour, he’s been back to New Zealand two or three times since. But I really felt the need to see this show, to see him again – we can never be sure if he’ll be back. At 77 years of age now the window on international travel might be shut by the time it gets back around to his 3-4 year cycle of including New Zealand. This might be the last time he visits our shores.
You go to pay your respects. You don’t go because you own Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits. You don’t go because you want to hear him play Hurricane. You don’t go on a whim, as a casual fan. You don’t go expecting…well, anything…
You go because you need to. You want to. You have to see it to believe it – the most important songwriter of his generation, the greatest lyricist working in rock, one of the most influential singers of all time. You go to hear Bob Dylan do whatever it is he plans on doing. This tour started 30 years ago. It currently includes nothing from his last three releases. It features songs that go all the way back to his second album. There are plenty of his hits in there – and for all the talk of him “reworking material so that it is unrecognisable” at least a third of any setlist features tunes from the last two decades. They appear almost as they did on the albums. They are completely and utterly recognisable. If you’ve continued listening…
You also go to hear long-serving bassist Tony Garnier drive a crack-band that can turn on a dime, switching fiddles for steel guitars (Donnie Herron) tearing out scorching leads (Charlie Sexton, Stu Kimball) and rolling and crashing across the toms, summoning tribal thunder (George Receli). You go to recognise that among Bob Dylan’s skills – poet of folk music, activist, artist, Nobel prize and Academy award winner – he’s also one of the world’s best bandleaders. And right now he’s leading one of the world’s very best bands.
Things Have Changed – which hasn’t ever changed all that much – is the opener. It’s fine. But we all know this is coming. Is this one of Dylan’s wry jokes? Yes? No? Well, we’re in. No fanfare this time. Gone is the big intro that announces him as most of the things I’ve mentioned above. He just wanders on and is perched behind the piano. At times he sits, barely bopping above the lid. Just as often he’s splay-legged and cadaver-like in his suit.
Next, we’re all the way back to It Ain’t Me Babe, and it’s instantly noticeable that Dylan is in fine form vocally. It’s the best I’ve heard him. You can hear every word. Or at least as many as you need to. Each song is instantly recognisable by the word – that hasn’t been the case the three other times I’ve knelt at the altar. Where at other times you had to wait for a familiar phrase, for the repetition of similar textures to suggest a chorus of sorts, here it was all announced with every opening line.
It’s a rock’n’roll jukebox, this band. The show is a rock’n’roll museum, replete with leading-man wax-figure. And we get a mix of rock’n’rollers and ballads – which has always been the best way to divide Dylan’s work. So it’s to Highway 61 Revisited for the blues-march and first hints of what he took from Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, then to Simple Twist of Fate from Blood On The Tracks. It’s a gorgeous change of pace and when Dylan blows his harmonica it’s as distinctive as hearing him sing. Every time he rasps into the pocket-saxophone there’s a wave of applause from the crowd – as if spotting a walk-on from a guest artist. These bits of musical punctuation are cameo scene-stealers in these versions of Dylan’s songs.
Summer Days from 2001’s Love & Theft is in for Duquesne Whistle. But 2012’s The Tempest will receive three doffs of the cap (Pay in Blood, Early Roman Kings, Soon After Midnight) and it’s the Dylan of “Modern Times” doing his best new-blues.
Some of the audience is already off – heading for the aisles, perhaps gutted they haven’t heard Like A Rolling Stone. Well they’ve already heard When I Paint My Masterpiece, which maybe they didn’t ever know – and they’ll hear Tangled Up In Blue (this one quite radically reworked) if they’d only wait. They’d also hear Tryin’ To Get To Heaven – the first of two monumental classics from 1997’s Time Out of Mind; this and Love Sick (always ferocious, always a highlight, tonight threatening to be the song of the night, if only because Dylan left the piano and dipped and dandied by the microphone – a marionette Elvis recast in an undertaker’s garb; the Gypsy we never knew we went to see) are as good as any of his songs from any of his albums/eras.
Still not a word from the stage, of course – beyond the words of the songs. Maybe that bugged some of the audience too. Perhaps they wanted to hear platitudes, that Dylan just flew in from Australia and boy are his arms tired, that Auckland is really pretty, that New Zealand is clean and green. Fuck that. When and why would that ever happen? And what does any of that mean in the context of a musical display of such prowess? That’s silly noise from the empty-gesture department.
Actually Dylan is pulling apart his songs and rebuilding them. Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right is logically followed by Thunder on The Mountain – I say logically because somehow tonight a 43-year gap in age between these two songs seems implausible. This band turning everything into a classic from the past, simultaneously updating all as they go.
And you know it’s here that I realise that in pulling these songs to bits to rebuild them, turning over familiar phrases but placing them inside new settings is actually how Dylan has gathered no moss, continues to retain his songs. They’re his. Hew owns them. Sure, he lends them out nightly, but rightly he has them as his own – sending them out in the clothes he chooses for them. You hear the famous rock-star from the past or the pop-star of today interviewed and there’s the question of how does it feel to be out there on their own – No Direction say, playing the biggest hit of the day, the song everyone loves and expects. Whoever it is that has to answer this question will always say that the song doesn’t even belong to them, it’s ours, it’s everyone’s – well not with Dylan. These songs are his. He reminds you of that each time he takes a bunch out on the road.
And in fact he’s possibly even pulling apart the ideal of the concert-performance. Where is it written that the star must say they like the place, must tell everyone a silly story, must walk a walk and talk a talk and play the songs like they are on the album? None of this is important to Bob Dylan. But it’s not contempt. Contempt would be not turning up. He’s out there every night sweating bullets and dropping gems.
I genuinely couldn’t give a shit about Blowin’ In The Wind. I get it is important – or was. And it was part of the gateway for me as a teen, discovering Dylan, in awe of these songs, the sheer amount, the depth and detail. The words, the wheeze, the whine…
But I don’t like Blowin’ In The Wind. I never need to hear it. I never feel like hearing it.
Tonight, however, it’s the first encore. And it damn near moves me to fucking tears. It’s a lilting western-swing waltz. And it’s spellbinding. Somehow.
60 years into its life, and at least 30 years since I first heard it this song finally hits its mark for me.
That might be reason enough to go to a show like this; to figure it one of the best things you ever could see.
To Make You Feel My Love – borrowed first by Billy Joel and then Adele – has always belonged to Dylan. When you hear him do it live you cannot believe any other version could have a right to exist. There’s just a power in it when he performs it that’s simply not there when anyone else tries.
But the set-closer, a rollicking roll through Gotta Serve Somebody is also a huge home-run. Is this the mantra, the mission-statement for Bob Dylan The (Forever) Touring Artist? We don’t know who he’s serving – himself, or anyone else – “it may be the devil” but Bob Dylan has to serve someone.
Tonight he served us all – took us forward and back in time. In fact time seemed to hang still. And in a second, one precious moment it was gone. Over. Two hours – it felt like I’d been hanging in the air. Caught in the sway of it all.
Another perverse trick I reckon is how he ends it all with Ballad of A Thin Man. It’s stark and mesmerising and energised and ferocious and it gnashes and clashes and bruises its way out into the world. In short, the guy so often criticised for not doing what he did on those records – many of them so different from one another anyway – finishes the night by delivering one of his classics in near-identical shape and form.
It’s his world of song. And we’re lucky if we get to live in it for the two hours that fly by like 25 minutes; that cover hundreds of years of great music – the conduit, the poet, the master.