Attending a Bob Dylan concert is a particular experience. You know you are in the presence of a brilliant artist, and you didn’t need him winning a Nobel Prize for literature to know that. You know he brings with him an extremely talented band, well honed to presenting his music. But you don’t know how that music will be delivered, other than it will almost certainly not sound as it does on record. So you have to be ready. It won’t be pure nostalgia. It may be challenging. Rewarding? That will be up to you.
So it was in Auckland on August 26th. Bob Dylan offered a set list heavily laden with big songs: It Ain’t Me Babe, Highway 61, Simple Twist of Fate, Tangled Up In Blue, Desolation Row, Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright, and Blowing In The Wind, among others. Not only were the musical arrangements re-imagined, and sometimes radically, but in some cases the lyrics were re-written. Tangled Up in Blue and Gotta Serve Somebody, each started with a couple of familiar lines but then headed off into new lyrical territory. Many artists re-interpret their songs in live performance, but surely none as thoroughly as Bob Dylan.
This becomes a fascinating tableau to witness. Often the audience don’t know what song they’re listening to until Dylan starts to sing. When the recognition comes, some cry out in approval. You can feel their yearning for a connection with the song they know, a connection that will stir their emotions. But if it’s only a trip down memory lane you’re after, Dylan will leave you unfulfilled. He’ll tease and taunt you with hints of what was. But he is dealing in the here and now. He’s challenging you to accept a new interpretation and a new experience, and you have to be willing to go with him. I saw him for the first time at Auckland’s Civic Theatre a few years ago and I left a little puzzled and disappointed by the show. This time, I knew what to expect and I enjoyed it a great deal.
The show itself is delivered in style. Against a backdrop of tall curtains, spotlights bathe the stage in golden tones. It’s all back lit, especially on Dylan. Unless you were right up at the front, you’re not going to see how that well weathered 77 year old face is faring after all these years on the road. His band are effectively in uniform, all grey jackets and dark trousers, with three of them wearing hats. They way they play also requires some getting used to. It’s as if they feel their way into each song, jamming for a few seconds before settling into a groove. Similarly the songs generally don’t end with aplomb. It’s all a rather organic feel, which is doubtless intentional. But make no mistake, they’re good at what they do.
As for Dylan’s performance, I found it more energetic and vital than the one I saw at the Civic. I thought his voice was strong. Yes, as gravelly as ever, but still with bite, singing songs he has performed umpteen times before. He stayed behind the keyboard for almost the entire performance. He would stand from time to time, legs splayed, almost in a rock n’roll stance. Then well into the second half of the show he left the keyboards and walked to centre stage for a performance of Love Sick. He looked like a sultry lounge singer, jacket a little too big, mike stand held to one side, attitude aplenty. It was a highlight.
Bob Dylan gives you his music and lets you take from it what you will. There is no banter. Not one word, not a hello or a thank you. That aura of mystery remains. By giving his audience a fresh view of his material, Dylan shows us he remains vital, interested, and demanding of our attention. He has another show in Christchurch on this tour. Who knows when his Neverending Tour will come to a close, but this may be your last chance to hear a man who is among the most influential artists of modern popular culture. If you’re curious, and willing to go outside your comfort zone, I’d highly recommend his show.