Bob Dylan at Southampton Guildhall on Friday 30 October 2015

Image (above) by Andrea Orlandi

The current incarnation of Bob Dylan’s so-called Never Ending Tour has taken yet another left turn, as Bob traverses Europe with half of his set now comprising of, of all things – Frank Sinatra related standards.

But, as Goldenplec takes in the smallest show on the tour in Southampton’s Guildhall, we could reflect that the show not only works very well, but it is not as much of a left-field move as some might think.
For starters, if you view Bob’s recent work on a timeline from, say ‘Love & Theft’ (2001) through his radio show ‘Theme Time Radio Hour’ to the current album (the standards set ‘Shadows in the Night’), you can see that Dylan (as well as his band) really has a love and mastery of these ‘pre-rock’ styles of music.

Also, the current show is a natural extension of the ‘new’ show which he began in 2013. As fans will remember from Autumn 2013 – gone were the hits, gone were the raucous blues, country and rock numbers. Gone also, was the legendary set-list variation. In its place we got a quiet reflective show, a gently-lit stage set, and a set-list made up mainly of recent material. The 2015 show is still somewhat along those lines, except for the addition of seven or so 1940s/50s standards.

And these songs are truly beautiful. In their original versions the likes of Frank Sinatra or Ella Fitzgerald would have sung them with jazz bands, and sometimes with the addition of strings. On the Dylan tour (and on ‘Shadows in the Night’) they are played with Bob’s band delivering backing that is somewhere between small-band jazz and spooky country-Americana. Each musician adds a lot, particularly Donnie Herron who is getting to do things on his pedal-steel guitar that he surely would never have dreamed of when he joined Dylan’s band 10 years ago.

This is a quiet introspective version of the American songbook, actually not a million miles from the recent Paul McCartney effort and also hearkening back to Willie Nelsons’ great ‘Stardust’ album from the 1970s. Bob’s own piano playing has stepped up a notch too, and he is now playing delightful little fills rather than the percussive pounding of previous years. The entire band really sounds fresh (despite the similar nightly set-list) and almost note-perfect.

But, of course, we are not really here to see the band, we are here to see Dylan. And to hear him. And amazingly he sings these songs with wonderful love and precision, holding notes that are hard to believe at times, experimenting with low and falsetto registers, drawing out certain lines, and just really living inside the songs. You can tell he knows them backwards, and wants to do them justice. For a voice which has arguably had at least two big-ish deteriorations (only two, you ask?!), one in the early 1990s and one in the 2nd half of the 2000s decade, this is a revelation to say the least.

The first few songs of the set are similar to 2013/14, opening with a brisk Things Have Changed and then a bass-drum oriented staccato-sung She Belongs to Me with the addition of almost 1966-style harmonica. This song is one of the few ‘hits’ and the only nod (if a nod, at all) to his current massive mid-60s retrospective release, ‘The Bootleg Series Vol 12 – The Cutting Edge’.

Soon we are in to the Sinatra-related songs. The first one is What’ll I Do, showcasing the widest vocal range that a 2015 Bob Dylan is probably capable of. And it is one of the best songs of the night. As is Melancholy Mood, a song so obscure it’s not even on ‘Shadows in the Night’! Like many of these songs it is quite short, but more up-tempo than the others, with vocals only appearing on two brief verses towards the end. This was often the case in the old days – before Sinatra became the great albums-artist that he became in the 1950s, he was often ‘just the singer’ or ‘just another instrument’ in those famous 1940s big bands, where the musicians were as important as the singer.

And the show does need some up-tempo numbers. One criticism people have made is that a lot of the numbers are slow and melancholy. In reality though the show is quite well-paced, as he distributes some more powerful numbers here and there, such as Pay in Blood, High Water and Early Roman Kings, with the almost late-70s-Rolling Stones-esque Pay in Blood being the best of these. However, there are about four songs in a row in the second half where the pace gets very slow, plus your typical (non Dylan-fanatic) rock audience would struggle to recognize most of the songs. But this is a minor quibble.

The show is in two parts, and honourable mention must go to the closing song of the first half, with the old war-horse Tangled Up in Blue receiving it’s latest re-write, and going down a storm, closing a truly amazing hour of music. Part two perhaps does not reach quite the heights of part one, but has some serious highlights with exquisite phrasing from Bob on Why Try to Change Me Now and the show-closer Autumn Leaves. Autumn Leaves is a nice choice for this Autumn tour and is probably the best known of the Sinatra-related numbers. Interestingly, he has chosen to move Long & Wasted Years to the 2nd last slot of the main set, and it’s fair to say this song has lost a little bit of the massive impact it had as show-closer in 2013.

The encore gives a bit of respite to the hit-seekers, opening as it does with Blowin’ in the Wind, albeit a somewhat throwaway version. But he does manage to finally round out tonight’s proceedings with a bang, an incredible and rocking Love Sick, spitting out the words and ramming home whatever message he has these days, if he has one at all. But, we are all still going along for the ride, on the latest chapter of this ever-winding tour and career. Bob will be 75 next year – long may he continue!