Opening his Australian tour, Dylan reimagines and contemporises his canon, finding different wounds – and new sweet spots – to tap into
By Bob Gordon
8 August 2018
Bob Dylan isn’t like most iconic artists of his vintage: he never will – and infamously never has – pandered to expectations of audience or to nostalgia. You don’t get what you want; you get what he needs.
This has always led to the requisite complaints about set lists, Dylan’s interpretations of his oldest classics and his onstage demeanour towards audiences. All up, the Perth Arena crowd, at about three-quarter capacity, mostly seemed up for the challenge.
Although a Bob Dylan concert is a bucket list item for many, he hasn’t made it too difficult for Australian fans: his current tour is his third visit in seven years. Since his last in 2014, Dylan has released several albums that paid heed to the Great American Songbook: Shadows in the Night (2015), Fallen Angels (2016) and last year’s Triplicate, itself a three-CD opus.
Dylan’s reinterpretations of many swing and big-band standards is canny and well-received, and with his voice seemingly stronger than on past tours, it seems to have played a part in the reimaginings of his own material. Moodily easing into Things Have Changed – a chugging, dark number that featured in the 2000 film Wonder Boys – Dylan and his long-time band settle in like fingers in a glove. Followed by It Ain’t Me, Babe – a heart-string tugger as it was – and Highway 61 Revisited, the blurred lines between old and new begin to indicate it will again all be delivered via his own contemporary filter.
Even songs from Dylan’s most recent album of original compositions, 2012’sTempest, are reconstructed, just like the tunes from way back when. The Fats Waller-inspired Duquesne Whistle opens up as a swinging ramble, drummer George Receli playing around the beat with six-stringers Charlie Sexton (a heartthrob rocker back at the time of his 1986 hit, Beats So Lonely, and one-time Jimmy Barnes band guitarist) and Stu Kimball trading licks over an extended workout in a completely different key. Pay in Blood pays little heed to its original, tighter structure in favour of looser climes, and later on Early Roman Kings delves into a rawer blues.
Picking new sweet spots and different wounds in his material has always been Dylan’s way, but these days those reawakenings dig deeper and perhaps more sentimentally. There are instances on those aforementioned “American standards” albums where Dylan’s croak elicits a new break in the heart of already heartbreaking songs – check out Some Enchanted Evening, for starters – and he now finds these moments inside his own well-known songs. It’s quite something to hear the audience cheer when a trademark phrase or song title is sung, these hitherto unrecognisable, winsome gems being revealed as Tangled Up in Blue, Desolation Row and Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright. In 2018, they all benefit from the treatment.
Perhaps the old man who wrote these versions is answering the young man who birthed them. Sometimes it seems that Dylan – who these days is behind a piano at all times, sometimes sitting, sometimes standing – occasionally roams a little instrumentally, with the band going along, perhaps unsure who should take the next solo. Yet someone does, and the last verse or chord rains down after that possibly off-the-rails end-troduction. It’s real musicians really playing in and of the moment, and Dylan’s chops on the keyboard complement and contrast Kimball’s rhythm guitar quite intriguingly. When he ventures forth on harmonica, it’s as familiar as his own voice and applauded as such – like a singular, brief postcard from the 60s.
The band surrounds Dylan as if in a lounge room scenario, accentuated beautifully by the five vintage Hollywood 5K studio lights hung from above, themselves occasionally lit to emphasise their presence. The band are dimly lamp-lit around the stage confines and the resultant effect speaks to the music, as the band plays for, but never quite to, the audience.
2006’s Thunder on the Mountain turns out to be quite the rock’n’roll romp, with a drum breakdown that references the Surfaris’ hit Wipeout. Following up, Dylan teams his 70s song of faith, Gotta Serve Somebody, with, seemingly, the guitar riff from Henry Mancini’s Peter Gunn theme – and yes, it works. Blowin’ in the Wind and Ballad of a Thin Man then brought this wet August night to a close, the latter more faithful than the former.
If you appreciate the reinventor that Bob Dylan has always been, you’ll be entranced by this show. If not, recall that it’s 52 years since an audience member at the Manchester Free Trade Hall screamed “Judas!” at Dylan because he was holding an electric guitar. As his opening number noted, Things Have Changed – but then again, they’ve always been a-changin’.
• Bob Dylan’s tour of Australia and New Zealand continues through August