There’s a triple disc Bob Dylan set out in a week. It will antagonise as many as it charms. Same as it ever was.
Wind Back Wednesday dips into the always different, always contentious world of Dylan live. Two shows, eight years apart, representative of nothing and everything, Dylan.
Entertainment Centre, February 19
Bob sings! The melody could be recognised! Egads, even the lyrics could be understood. Hold the front page; go tell it on the mountain.
Don't laugh, but these are not things to be taken for granted at a Bob Dylan concert; the long stretches of empty seats at the back of the room is testimony to that.
It's reasonable to assume that a fair number of those who attended Dylan's last Sydney concert, in Centennial Park a couple of years ago, thought better of forking out more cash when there was every chance we could get a repeat.
After a rocking, intense show a few years earlier at the Entertainment Centre, that Centennial Park performance was simultaneously entertaining and one of the worst shows I've seen.
A set list packed with the best-known songs of the immense Dylan catalogue was rendered indecipherable by singing that was not just a rumbling growl where not a word could be discerned but had no connection at all with a recognisable tune.
While it was strangely thrilling to hear some classics, tellingly the regular highlight was seeing how long into the song it would be before we (and I include even the most diehard Dylan fan) figured out what the song was. It made for many laughs.
So, the portents were not good this time but in typical Dylan fashion he confounded us.
His singing was loose and melodic, his enunciation a sound to behold and while you wouldn't say there was anything like a smile or chat, Dylan looked like he was having a fine old time. Not coincidently, so were we.
The tone was set even before the opening song, Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum, one of five from his recent and fabulous album Love And Theft. A hilarious voiceover introduction that mixed the style of a sycophantic press release with cliched tabloid-speak (calling Dylan the poet laureate of rock; talking about his descent into a drug haze and finding God) suggested that Dylan doesn't take himself half as seriously as his dogged fans.
For the first four or five songs Dylan was at the keyboards, pounding away with about as much subtlety as his harmonica playing but with obvious enthusiasm and when he switched to guitar he let fly some gnarly licks that even had his leg twitching a la Elvis.
And though the set list was relatively small (14 songs, about 100 minutes) it didn't have a weak link.
Tweedle Dee raced along, Cold Iron Bound reeked of atmosphere, Highway 61 Revisited chugged along like a bluesy drinking song to be sung on the back of a pick-up truck and both Make You Feel My Love (from 1997's career resurrection record Time Out Of Mind) and Don't Think Twice, It's Alright (from 1963's career establishing The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan) were charming to the point of prettiness.
Long before he closed the night with All Along The Watchtower cast as a roadhouse Texas blues - rifle shots and wrecking balls interspersed with little slaps - he had earned his keep. And more.
Entertainment Centre, April 27
Asking how you measure or rate a Bob Dylan show requires a preliminary question: what do you expect from a Bob Dylan show?
As usual in advance of the Sydney gig, we were getting talkback and online complaints about Dylan sounding like sand and glue and a bag of gravel; about lyrics being indecipherable and melodies unrecognisable; about the lack of talk and video screens; about, well, dammit, the man not sounding like he did on Bringing It All Back Home.
All true. Of course Bob Dylan doesn't "do" that Bob Dylan anymore; hasn't done it for more than three decades.
His long time philosophy could be summed up by the opening song at this show, I’m gonna change my way of thinking - a policy which doesn’t try for consistency and practically warns of occasional misfires. But still people turn up to his shows and look surprised. And then walk out.
So should we see the fact that walk outs this night were relatively few as a sign that the message is getting through? Maybe. Maybe also that his audience is far from a gathering of the late middle-aged and the baby boomers reliving their youth but a fair spread of ages and demands and expectations.
And maybe, let’s be fair, because this was one of Dylan's very good nights.
Making A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall into a choppy soul number, extending the chugging blues-with-swing of The Levee’s Gonna Break into a charging climax to the first hour, upping the country style of A Simple Twist Of Fate and vamping up Highway 61 Revisited all came off.
Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues meandered, Forgetful Heart didn’t quite spark and our positive reaction to Tangled Up In Blue was partially I suspect because we recognised it so early. But you could taste the spit and fire of Ballad Of A Thin Man, his thick-fingered organ playing was often fun, an almost carnival feel to Like A Rolling Stone was entertaining and you had to laugh at the way each time he snarled “senor” in Senor (Tales Of Yankee Power) it sounded like Sir Frank Packer growling “cigar”.
Two hours of a high end blues bar band doing their unfussy business, 17 songs, at least 10 bona fide classics any fan would be happy to hear and Dylan in what may well be a good mood. What’s to complain about?