Royal Albert Hall, London
Dylan finds a happy groove, reshaping his best-loved songs and applying his still potent lung power to the back-catalogue of American croon
Saturday 24 October 2015
Lit by cinematic floor lamps glowing a vintage, incandescent yellow, Bob Dylan strikes an attitude at the microphone – wide-legged, his thumbs pointing, Fonz-like, at the tight band behind him, satisfyingly enigmatic under the shadow of his hat brim.
When Dylan’s voice eventually emerges from his slight, black-clad frame, it is not quite the ruin routinely bemoaned by some fans. This latest iteration of pop’s most infamously idiosyncratic instrument still packs power, but Dylan chooses to use it sparingly.
On songs like Scarlet Town, from 2012’s Tempest album, or Pay in Blood, culled from the same, it’s a maleficent sneer that reaches the back of the hall effortlessly, suited to the venomous weight of the words. This is the Dylan most people pay to see: the voice of righteousness, a storyteller of wearied compassion, the one effortlessly selling out five nights at the historically significant Albert Hall – among the many other resonances, the Beatles watched him play here in 1965.
So often predictably unpredictable, this year’s leg of Dylan’s Never Ending Tour seems to have settled into a kind of groove. Dylan no longer just bashes at a keyboard, as he did around 2011; he plays piano with delicacy.
This troubadour doesn’t actually handle a guitar all night, but saunters, as though saddle-sore, between the grand piano and his mic stand, suddenly whipping out a harmonica on Tangled Up in Blue, a version almost faithful to the one playing in fans’ heads.
Tonight’s set list is substantively the same as Paris a couple of nights before, with just the odd song swapped around. It’s mostly of recent vintage – the dark swirl ofTempest, with a side order of Time Out of Mind (1997), a dash of Modern Times (2006) in the easy-going Spirit on the Water, liberally sweetened with the covers of Frank Sinatra songs drawn from his latest album, Shadows in the Night, released in February.
On these, Dylan hangs up his mutter and tacks left into a rueful croon for a series of love songs. This is, though, the croon of some old Gallic roué, claiming his last 40 years of philandering didn’t mean anything, that he really loved you alone; a croon with plenty of suspicious baggage. You suspect he is singing his love for these songs, rather than about any lady in particular. Playing off against plangent lap steel, he invests songs like Why Try to Change Me Now with a particular depth of feeling. (“I’ve got some habits even I can’t explain,” he harrumphs).
On Melancholy Mood, it sounds as though Dylan is actually singing in French – the product of the song’s brushed-tom left-bank feel, and his own wayward, syllable-munching delivery. Ironically and perversely – when you consider they were mostly written not by the pop form’s acknowledged living master, but by niche backroom songsmiths – these love songs might be some of the night’s most enjoyable passages, not least for Dylan himself. (One Bobcat on Twitter does suggest that some wag shouts “Judas!” after one of the Shadows in the Nightcovers; I didn’t hear it). The twinkle of the band and the pedal steel guitar played by Donnie Herron contrast with Dylan’s racked gargle.
Necessarily, the high notes are long-forgotten fripperies; and the melodies of Dylan’s famous tunes, rearranged out of existence in the decades since their recording. Anyone wanting to hear a Catholic take on, say, Like a Rolling Stone needs to wait until the gig is over, and make their way to South Kensington underground station, where the busker gives the former his all.
Alternatively, there is The Cutting Edge 1965 – 1966, the long-awaited 12th instalment of Dylan’s bootleg series, released on 6 November in a variety of formats. The six-CD set has an entire disc of alternative takes of Dylan’s most emblematic song; the 18-CD version has every note of music recorded in the sessions for Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde; surely on every superfan’s letter to Santa.
Dylan himself, you suspect, would regard all that ephemera with one of his piercing, high-horse stares. When he plays Blowin’ in the Wind, it is virtually unrecognisable, unless you are hanging on to his every exhalation. Herron plays the fiddle, and Dylan throws scansion on to the fire, making one of the most famous entries in the Great American Songbook into a cross between a sentimental lament and an Irish drinking song.
Delivering a perfect 'Tangled up in Blue', Dylan is in as fine a voice as ever
Two years ago, Dylan played his best concert in years here at the Royal Albert Hall, the dim stage circled by vintage movie studio lights, and circling Dylan a band seasoned enough to bottle its own oil, delivering a new kind of quiet, late-night music. The broad unpredictability may have had gone, but so had those too-common troughs in quality and penchant for urban barns in Wembley. Could this new quality – forget the width – be sustained?
After the release this year of Shadows in the Night, recorded at the same Capitol studio Sinatra used, with the same band that joins him tonight, a couple of those songs made their way into set lists for a largely open-air 2015 Summer European tour of piazzas and festivals. Dylan must like European venues, because he’s back for the autumn, and evenings beset with songs from Shadows in the Night – a shifting hand of seven from a regular 20-song set; there's also five songs from his powerful 2012 album, Tempest. That there are just two songs from the Sixties – “She Belongs to Me” and “Blowin in the Wind” – shows you the distance present-day Dylan is from the decolletage of the Sixties legend (about to be celebrated in a concertina of CDs for the new Bootleg Series 12, The Cutting Edge).
You notice the odd way he walks, as if solid ground was something he was unused to
This opening night, the first of five at the Royal Albert Hall, has a different kind of edge, but it cuts deep. In many ways, his show is not geared towards the first-timer, though it accommodates them, by the renewed sense of order rather than breakdown in Dylan’s voice, and the seasoned assurance of his band, pretty well all of whom have served life terms (bassist Tony Garnier since the late Eighties), dressed like convicts, huddled like a gang and playing tight as two coats of paint on one piece of soundboard.
As for Dylan, it looks like he's wearing those pimpish brogues he sported on Love and Theft. Maybe they have powers, because he paces, struts, almost dances, looking focused and animated under that wide-brimmed hat, revelling in his own renewed powers of intonation, that subtle phrasing with ragged sides. You notice the odd way he walks, as if solid ground was something he was unused to.
From the great Nineties opener, “Things Have Changed”, through to the closing “Autumn Leaves”, the evening feels like a single cohesive body of work that won’t keep still or be tied down. The scattering of Sinatra-era torch songs and laments, undressed to their folk-blues core, are in a totally different spectrum to Dylan’s – even deliberately antique late-period pieces like “Spirit on the Water” – and they act like punctuating bands of colour and contrast, of hope and regret, scattered through Dylan's own songbook driven more by destiny and fate than sentiment.
Moments that stand out? A perfect “Tangled Up in Blue”, adhering to the familiar album version and with just one or two of those ongoing verse changes Dylan has made over the decades – I think the song’s palette is always wet paint for Dylan to play with. He brings a powerful new sense of light and shade to Tempest songs like "Pay In Blood", "Early Roman Kings" and "Scarlet Town".
Dylan himself performs superbly – compact and intense, no pretence, no drifting, no errata. You feel this is it, we have found the point where the tight connection between audience and artist finds its balance. As each of the Sinatra-era songs began, there was a blush of applause across the Hall, a kind of audience-artist recognition. His own songs entered the room silently, and exited like old champions; two songs from the end, “Long and Wasted Years” (with some new lines) got a standing ovation. What was good in 2013 seems to have just got better. He’s in his better voice than ever, the band is unsurpassed, and I love how those big Film Noir movie-set lights circling the musicians dim to near-darkness between songs.
Someday (maybe not tomorrow, but soon...) people are going to talk about these shows the way they talk about 1966, or Rolling Thunder. It’s like watching Picasso paint in Clouzot's film from the Sixties, under hot lights, on glass plates. Through the songs, many different figures and landscapes appear, and disappear. This is great work and it's more than worth your time to be its witness. Still rolling, Bob.