This was the first of three nights at The London Palladium, and this pretty theatre is by far the smallest venue I’ve ever seen Dylan in with just a 2,286 capacity: Wembley Arena or The Dome this is not. Which means that even up in the Upper Circle the seats aren’t really that far from the stage – probably equivalent to being a dozen rows back in the stalls. The view of the stage – and hence the view of the band – is just perfect. Even during dimly lit sections it’s possible to pick out Dylan’s facial asides to the band – well, when they aren’t obscured by his wide brimmed hat. There had been some nervousness about this gig – the resale value of the tickets was, frankly, ridiculous and it’s a testament to the man that quite clearly very few people had succumbed to temptation. This certainly looked to be an audience of long-term listeners. The upshot of this professional scale touting had been that tickets got sent out late – mine arrived one day in advance. Then there was the set list anxiety – sure the tour to date had been quite fixed but here were three nights in a venue with strong variety connections. Would we, could we, be getting the whole of Triplicate one album per night ? These are the obsessive thoughts that plague the minds of followers of Dylan’s musical journey, and wake them fearfully in the small hours of the morning. Well – spoiler alert – we weren’t subjected to an evening of just crooning, instead we got Dylan’s current tour list featuring only five of his “Sinatra covers”, although he judiciously picked from his own songs others which blended in seamlessly alongside them.
The regular opener Things Have Changed was slightly marred by what seemed to be speaker noise at first, some sound problem anyway but this was rectified quickly. It’s interesting how this has become Bob’s continuing opening statement – true he won an Oscar for it, but it’s hardly as if he’s ever felt the need to be a Greatest Hits artist. It is full of what seem like personal statements – “I’m well dressed”, well that’s true from cavalry trousers to the aforementioned hat, and then the endless touring is captured in the couplet “Lot of water under the bridge, lot of other stuff too / Don’t get up gentlemen, I’m only passing through”. But the title is the killer – you want Dylan of the sixties? Maybe Seventies Dylan? God knows I’d like to hear Infidels all the way through. Hard luck, Dylan intones with the cutting “I used to care, but things have changed”. As if to emphasise this point Don’t think Twice, It’s all right is delivered from the piano in a jaunty jazz style – almost a ragtime feel to it. It certainly now fits alongside his most recent recordings of American Standards, it also is wonderfully heart-lifting. Dylan is in great voice, unstrained, and the band are right in the groove. The light heartedness of the original recording shines through beautifully – this is surely Dylan’s most gentle scolding. Highway 61 Revisited see’s Dylan standing at the piano snarling out lyrics in a very straight reading of the song – there were a couple of lines stumbled over but it is one of those songs that seems very appropriate again with its character list of hucksters, chancers and the plain untrustworthy “Now the rovin’ gambler he was very bored / He was tryin’ to create a next world war”. And it’s an amazing thought that this is a song Dylan has performed live over 1,800 times – and yet he still finds feeling in it. And, incidentally, it’s still nowhere near his most performed.
Dylan switched to a growling vocal for Beyond Here Lies Nothing, with the band grooving along nicely, just like the original recording – who says it’s all change for every Dylan song? The first outing of a cover song came as Dylan moved to the centre of the stage and struck a cool pose with the microphone stand held at a jaunty angle for what is surely the most knowingly ironic of his spate of covers – Why Try To Change Me Now. Dylan is clearly having a great time with these songs, and if there aren’t too many of them then they actually weave into the set in a natural way. Dylan closes off these songs with a pointing fingers gesture to the rhythm section, it has that Sammy Davis Jr cool about it – even if Dylan is not so sprightly a mover around the stage. It’s followed by Pay In Blood, with Dylan back at his baby-grand piano, the first of five songs taken from Tempest, a clear statement that Dylan still has a lot of faith in these songs, and rightly so as this was a standout album of more recent years. Live, Pay In Blood is even edgier having the feel of the theme song to a particularly violent TV series. It’s slower and Dylan raps out the words more like a spoken piece than a song, like an angry young poet.
Duquesne Whistle now sits in perfectly with a song like Melancholy Mood, a fast paced jazz age song, and Dylan’s great train song. He’s an artist you’d associate more with cars and motorbikes, but this shines a light through the night, steaming along the tracks at a great pace. It’s a train full of strange characters – well, no surprise there – and nostalgia for the past. It’s responsible for more than a little seatbound jiving. The transition to Stormy Weather is almost comical with rolling distortion conjuring up the intemperate weather, and Dylan’s voice taking on a distinct echo. There’s nothing funny about Tangled Up In Blue – still melodically familiar but with the words so reworked as to be almost a new song. It’s a splendid remake, exhilarating and taking a rightful place midset. It’s the gem of the evening coupling Dylan’s original musical vision to a whole new set of perspectives on star-crossed lovers and the dangers of poetry. Dylan starts this one standing stage centre and then moves back to the piano halfway through, adding some nice little piano lines to enliven the end of the tale. He could have played this again straight over – there was so much to enjoy and to catch from it. He didn’t though, moving onto a slow as molasses Early Roman Kings, which sometimes feels like Dylan’s boastful blues statement “I ain’t dead yet – my bell still rings” he brags before moving onto his prowess at dealing out death. Tonight it was both slow and the words were laid out with heavy punctuation- every comma and full stop hitting the ground with a thud. Listen to the words, Dylan might be saying. Things pick up a-pace with the jazzy Spirit On the Water, the only surprise the relatively muted audience response to the last verse. Love Sick has Bob back singing at the stage centre and is a straight version of the song with the insistent guitar line played by Stu Kimball – it cuts right into the headache centres of the brain as Dylan expounds his own pain “My feet are so tired / My brain is so wired / And the clouds are weepin'”.
The final third of the main set is another example of a seamless tapestry of covers and Dylan originals which blend with them. All or Nothing At All changes Love Sick‘s desperate mood to one of romantic yearning, Soon after midnight took on an almost country-rock feel whilst carrying on that romantic mood – albeit with an edge to it as Dylan mixes with harlots before heading off for his date with “the fairy queen”. That Old Black Magic was at an unbelievably fast tempo, perfect Vegas jazz band backing and sung with sassy style. Admittedly it’s hard to credit that Dylan is singing about that old black magic putting him in a spin, but alongside headshaking there’s a wry smile – mirroring Dylan’s own posturing. It’s just glee – why shouldn’t Dylan have some fun if he wants to, there’s time for it. The hypnotic Long and Wasted Years and the set closer Autumn Leaves both raise uncomfortable questions of mortality. In between all this tranche of throwback music there’s an incredibly good Desolation Row, with Dylan starting dead slow and then picking up speed as the song progresses. It’s a delivery very much of a part with Pay In Blood and Early Roman Kings, although musically very different – it’s strange to hear it with stabbing piano the musical contribution from Dylan. Strange – but good.
The encore was a reworked Blowin’ In the Wind, with Dylan singing from the piano on a version which feels like a slow waltz and with Donnie Herron adding fiddle as the major accompanying instrument. The last song of the evening – Ballad of a Thin Man – was a complete return to the original – with piano instead of organ – bringing out the strangeness of the cliques that Bob Dylan was amongst at those times – the hip people who couldn’t understand that their hip was yesterday’s news and that there was a new game in town. The people who had tried to make Dylan in their image and had found an artist who was ready to reject them. It’s a bitter and an angry song – and that’s exactly how it sounded. What a perfect end to a great gig – the kind of gig you leave wondering just how you can get hold of one of those outrageously expensive touted tickets. Dylan’s current style has clearly been reinvigorating for him, and sure one might pine for Like a Rolling Stone or some other favourite – Shelter from the Storm perhaps – but what good would that do? No, Dylan is fine, his singing is great, the band are honed to perfection, there’s some superb lead guitar from Charlie Sexton, and the song selection is really pretty good. That’s enough to leave anyone happy. Here’s to the next tour.
Things Have Changed
Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right
Highway 61 Revisited
Beyond Here Lies Nothin’
Why Try To Change Me Now
Pay In Blood
Tangled Up In Blue
Early Roman Kings
Spirit On The Water
All Or Nothing At All
Soon After Midnight
That Old Black Magic
Long And Wasted Years
Blowin’ In The Wind
Ballad Of A Thin Man
Charlie Sexton (lead guitar)
Donnie Herron – (pedal steel, violin)
Tony Garnier (bass)
George Recile (drums)
Stu Kimball (rhythm guitar)
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