Music

The musical sorcerer Dylan is back to conjure a new kind of show from his incomparable and ever-burgeoning songbook. By Robert Forster.

Bob Dylan on tour at 73

Bob Dylan onstage in Los Angeles. Dylan has banned photography during his Australian tour.
Credit: Redferns via Getty Images

• Brisbane Convention Centre, August 25

In April 1966, Bob Dylan made his first concert tour of Australia. His repertoire concentrated on songs from his latest few albums, eschewing “hits” such as “Blowin’ in the Wind”, “The Times They are a-Changin’ ” and “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, and the shows were split into halves with an intermission between. He brought with him a five-piece ensemble, which a year later would become The Band.

Move forward 48 tumultuous years for both Dylan and the world and there he is on stage, a five-piece band in tow, about to do two sets that will skirt a scandalous amount of his best-known work. The opening song tonight is “Things Have Changed”: I used to care but things have changed. You could argue that the puppet-thin, dandy Dylan of 1966 would have been at best bemused by notions of “care”, and what tonight’s concert will prove, is just how little Dylan has changed.

The show starts bang on 8pm with sections of the crowd still coming to their seats. It’s a magnificent signal of intent from the artist and sets out his agenda: everything is going to be done on Dylan’s terms. It has been the operational mode of his craft and career and will be observed this evening.

Before a note has been played, the stage-setting establishes the parameters of the performance. Industrial-sized, cone-shaped lights hang over the band, emitting a soft yellow glow. Behind the group a soft satin curtain ripples. The vibe is part ’50s Hollywood sound stage, part David Lynch dream gig. The lighting will have two settings – dark and darker. The former is employed when Dylan is at the microphone; the latter, when he moves to a piano wide of the stage, where he sits facing his ever-attentive band.

The second song of the night is a conciliatory gesture – “She Belongs to Me”, a lovely, loping version, one of only three songs from the ’60s, and one of five that predate 1997’s Time Out of Mind, the pivotal album of Dylan’s late-career resurgence. What also has to be factored in as early songs are played and impressions gathered, is the presence of the man. It’s a distraction, but a beguiling one, and no one is more aware of its power and its uses than Dylan himself. He negotiates it by remaining true to his own enigma, moving between piano and centre stage in the shadows, and his quick announcement of interval will be the few words he will speak to his audience. The net result – you can’t take your eyes off him.

There are nine songs in the first set. The highlights are “Duquesne Whistle” and “Pay in Blood” from his latest album Tempest (2013), and “Love Sick” from TOOM. “Pay in Blood” is riveting. In a twist that can only befall Dylan, his voice is sounding better than it did on the album, its good condition one of the surprises of the night, and the band after a year on the road have the dynamics and tension of the song at their command. Hand on hip and imperious himself, Dylan spits out a combative mix of injury, pride and malice: Low cards are what I’ve got / But I’ll play this hand whether I like it or not. Seeing him attack the song with the band in line, one can imagine seeing him at any other peak in his career. This is what it must have been like witnessing “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” in ’66 or “Isis” in ’75.

It will be the songs from his latest records, Tempest in particular, that will provide the strengths of the show. The band have recorded most of these numbers and there is a confidence and ease in their playing. The case for basing the show on these songs is bolstered when older material is played – the weakest song of the first set being “Tangled Up in Blue” off Dylan’s greatest album, Blood on the Tracks. At first, it sounds as if Dylan has at last worked out a satisfying new way of approaching the melody, but the chorus fails to lift, and Dylan is changing lyrics, so well-loved lines suddenly blur into new ones and given the state of his voice they fail to carry. The band lumbers on, unsure, and one suddenly glimpses the sins of past tours. My past experience comes to mind, from 2003, when in the cavernous Brisbane Entertainment Centre a band battled in the days of ever-changing set lists, and poor leadership from Dylan, to climax in a version of “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”. It drifted aimlessly round, the musicians throwing pleading looks at their leader to either end the song or let them know the arrangement.

Back in ’66, there was greater difference in the sets as the first half of the concert was Dylan alone with an acoustic guitar. Tonight, the second half will roll on with no noticeable variation in theme or intent, and again the Tempest songs shine. And again one marvels, as the lights remain at seance level, Dylan as our medium, communicating with the living and the dead, how different the show is, to not only Dylan performances from the past, but rock gigs and the rock experience in general. Especially when Dylan is on piano, stabbing out his inverted, jazz-like chords, there is a lounge-bar aspect to the band’s sound that is enhanced by the “vintage” microphones clustered around the singer’s face and the comfortable volume at which the band play. A spell is cast, and the audience, even without the assurance and cheering moments that come with famous songs, is seduced by the intimate theatre-like aspects of the presentation and the seriousness and consistency of Dylan’s art.

Part of this comes from the fact that he is working with fewer resources. At 73, Dylan no longer plays guitar on stage and his voice is parked in a lower range, the tyres no longer fully pumped. His harmonica-playing, which was sparse and effective, now comes in floaty, reverb-aided waves and not long, sucking volleys; this, though, could be due to the gentler, more wistful nature of his later songs. These limitations, if they could be called that, have allowed Dylan to tighten his focus, and so instead of a demanding run that would pit him and his band against the burden of his back catalogue, he has settled into the character of his recent albums, let his age work for him, and taken that out on the road.

The second set is a lift. “Simple Twist of Fate”, another song off Blood on the Tracks, has a pleasing arrangement and it is intriguing to hear the regret of the original deepened by the crack in the older man’s voice. “Forgetful Heart” is a fine proponent of a turn in Dylan’s songwriting to ’40s tunes, showing him unafraid to step from the roaring blues of “Early Roman Kings” to a pin-drop ballad. Both are done in style.

And then a bold move – he ends with three Tempest numbers. “Soon After Midnight” is the best melody on the album; “Scarlet Town”, a noir, minor-key travelogue that Nick Cave would covet; and “Long and Wasted Years”, the new anthem. You grin in wonder that Dylan can still turn up material as fresh as this – a simple revolving chord sequence, pinned by a cascading guitar riff, his voice for the first time hitting a higher, younger tone with its elongated, trademark phrasing, to let us know that not everything is lost that did not appear tonight. I wear dark glasses to cover my eyes / There are secrets in them I can’t dis-gui-se.

The encores are “All Along the Watchtower” and “Blowin’ in the Wind”, and then he and his band are gone. The doors to the world of Bob Dylan have been opened for a hundred minutes. It’s not the three-hour-plus extravaganzas of McCartney, Springsteen, or even Dylan’s brother in arms Leonard Cohen; Dylan has downsized to true vision. One other thing separates him from all of his contemporaries: his unique ability to produce quality material in heroic quantity. It’s what stunned New York in 1962, would have impressed those in 1966, and is carried through to today. The genius of his current show is that he has chosen to present it.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 30, 2014 as "Prospero’s return". Subscribe here.

Robert Forster
is a singer-songwriter and former music critic for The Monthly.

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