Since he went electric at Newport in 1965, Bob Dylan has travelled the world disappointing fans with his live shows as he goes. “Which Dylan are we gonna get?” was the question being whispered in the queue and at the bar in the O2, as even those who had never seen the 20th Century’s seminal songwriter in person were fully aware of his reputation for grumbling into the microphone and standing to the side of the stage behind some cheap-looking keyboard.
What his recent cover of Frank Sinatra’s Shadows in the Night suggested – that his voice seemed to be smoothing out somewhat from the unintelligible grumble that’s only gotten denser as the years pass – becomes fact when he stands in front of the microphone stage-front for opening track Things Have Changed. Once he retrieves his forgotten hat from backstage he returns with She Belongs To Me and it seems we needn’t have worried about the man; even his much decried habit of transforming his own songs beyond recognisability turns up a beautiful rendition here.
It’s refreshing to see an artist who is completely disinterested in turning his set into a dumping ground for his greatest hits. Twelve of the nineteen songs Dylan and his band play over the two hours were written in the 21st Century and while a few die-hards don’t hear the numbers they want (we feel particularly sorry for the lady looking for Bob’s smash hit “Joanna”) the joy in the show is watching a true artist continue to express himself in the live setting.
No sign of the madcap surrealist fantasies or the early protest music or the flirtation with soul or Christian rock or outright country and western here tonight. Despite his upbeat demeanour the music takes a largely melancholic bent, which beautifully suits the midnight Americana of his touring band. On top of performing about half the tracks from his latest album ‘Tempest’, two songs from ‘Blood on the Tracks’ make an appearance, which should give an indication of how the man is reminiscing on a particularly poignant form of heartbreak at the moment.
A devastating Tangled Up In Blue also demonstrates Bob’s lack of preciousness about his own old tunes. He transforms the lyrics of the original recording to “She lit a burner on the stove/and brushed away the dust/she said you look like someone I used to know/like someone I used to trust” and does likewise on Simple Twist of Fate. The latter song also demonstrates how he still uses the harmonica to express that which his sprawling verse cannot. When some wannabe troubadour tries to whistle responses to Dylan’s harmonica, he takes the harmonica from his mouth and cocks his head away from the crowd ensuring silence before carrying on again.
There’s no looking back after the interval, and a lull during Early Roman Kings crescendos into a gripping finale, while the fiddle-laden balladry of Forgetful Heart captures the evening’s beautiful melancholy perfectly. When he takes to the piano for Spirit on the Water he has a bit of fun as he sings a line then follows it with an ascending chord progression before singing another line and following it with a descending one. He does this for about three verses, and of course is severely reprimanded by the audience when he sings “you think I’m over the hill”. Soon After Midnight brings things down again, but it’s with the official set-closer Long and Wasted Years in which he seems to stride characteristically into perfection.
As that final song starts up, the backlighting blasts on revealing the man himself standing at the mic in his cocky pose as the drums slam and the guitar plays out its descending melody. For the encore we get some fan-favourites in All Along the Watchtower, and then an almost Vegas lounge act-style Blowin’ in the Wind. When it’s over Bob stands there unsmiling to the front of the stage with his band scattered behind him and just lets us see him; never bows. It feels shockingly confrontational, but quite simply solidifies the fact that this man is beyond categorisation or explanation.
To call him a genius doesn’t capture the essence of what he’s done, or what he continues to do. He does not suffer the fate of many of his contemporaries, who appear onstage now as mere shadows of their former selves. Dylan is constantly recreating himself, never submitting to an accurate summation. For him, the past is detached, framed and hanging on his basement wall. The words “poet”, “rebel”, “plagiariser” and “genius” attach themselves to him in print and conversation to no end, but as he leads his crew off stage you find only one definite thought forming in your head; “that was one great show.”