ICC Theatre, August 18
We could have indulged ourselves, sure. He could have too. But we had fun instead.
A few days after the death of Aretha Franklin, who was one year younger than Bob Dylan, this concert could very easily have become one of those “celebrations of a genius among us” nights where we wrap sentiment and neediness tightly around a favourite like a suffocating baby blanket.
You know the type: where the mere presence of the godhead is enough to warrant standing ovations and tolerance of any age/infirmity/fragility missteps; where hit after hit rolls out and everyone sings along; where “personal” moments on stage contrive to suggest we can see the man beneath the greatness; and where in the audience wistful looks are exchanged of the “this could be the last time we ever see him” variety.
Except of course that Dylan doesn’t do audience or personal indulgence. He still doesn’t talk – at all – and, oddly articulated walk apart, there’s nothing to suggest there is a conclusion in sight in this never-ending tour he’s been on for several decades now.
Yes, he no longer plays guitar but his piano playing – usually done standing with his feet spread wide like a barroom brawler of the keyboards – is not only central to many songs but powerful and playful in equal measure. His modern voice, gruff and grainy, actually sounds better now than it did in the 1990s/early 2000s. And he still blows that harp!
Face it, if we don’t cark it first, we will likely see him when he is as old as the Early Roman Kings he sang about in one of the night’s blues-on-blues highlights of rhythm, tempo and lyrical humour.
(Speaking of humour, apart from the unalloyed pleasure in the wit of songs such Duquesne Whistle, you have to imagine that the man must get a little kick each time Charlie Sexton kicks off the vamping blues version of You Gotta Serve Somebody with the riff from the Peter Gunn Theme. It makes me smile anyway.)
Easy hits? Dylan still takes to his standards with a kind of reckless regard for expectation that sees Blowin’ In The Wind played as the first encore, but with a completely different melody to when it first appeared more than 50 years, Tangled Up In Blue blending gospel and cabaret around a wandering melody, Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right rendered as a combination of Cole Porter and Elton John, and Desolation Row transformed into a ballroom-ready regulation dance that mixed an extra drop of elegance in with the tartness.
And we are no more knowledgeable of his motivations, inspirations, consternations or peregrinations than we were before we filed into this room.
So, yes, those are the things that Dylan concert in 2018 aren’t. Here are a few of the things that they are.
Musically adventurous and flexible - as it traverses genres with ease in the hands of a band (Sexton and Stu Kimball on guitar, Tony Garnier and George Receli in the rhythm section, and Donnie Herron on pedal/lap steel, mandolin and violin) who are part loose bar band, part intimate supper club troupe, part tight soul ensemble and, in Make You Feel My Love, the pick up band George Jones lucked into in a midwest town.
Energising – not just because trying to figure out which song you know you know really well it is that he’s playing keeps you on your toes, but because keeping himself interested, keeping his band interested, by not playing the safe game means keeping us interested.
Joy – there’s the humour, there’s the drive of energy, there’s the matching silver glittery jackets of everyone on stage, there’s the sheer pleasure of hearing The Band-era When I Paint My Masterpiece eased into, there’s the cocky little boxer pose Dylan affects in the final bow.
Brilliant – not just in songs (of course), but in the way you feel like everything about this show and those songs can still be fresh and waiting to be discovered.
I envy those who will see Dylan play in the relatively tiny space of the Enmore Theatre tonight. I pity those who have avoided seeing Dylan in this room or anywhere. I am excited for those who will be tempted out next time he’s in town.
Bob Dylan plays the Enmore Theatre, August 19; WIN Entertainment Centre, Wollongong, August 20; Newcastle Entertainment Centre, August 22; Brisbane Entertainment Centre, August 24; Spark Arena, Auckland, August 26; Horncastle Arena, Christchurch, August 28.