Graham Reid | | 3 min read
The time has long since passed when a review of a Bob Dylan concert would be a critique. An explanation or a consideration would be more likely.
And, if it isn't a good show – and there have been many in the past few decades which have been woeful – the charitable reviewer might turn into an apologist, explaining away the shortcoming of this legendary figure.
No need for that after Dylan's concert at Auckland's Spark Arena last night.
Those who hadn't checked his set-lists from this leg of his still Never Ending Tour – and why would you spoil the surprise? – were treated to material which touched some fascinating places: When I Paint My Masterpiece, Gotta Serve Somebody in the encore (the most secular song from his so-called gospel period), two cornerstone songs from Blood on the Tracks (Simple Twist of Fate and Tangled Up in Blue, both with lyrical changes from the recorded versions, the latter perilously close to being funky) and more “recent” material like Early Roman Kings (from Tempest) and Thunder on the Mountain Modern Times).
There were also classics such as It Ain't Me Babe, Highway 61 Revisited, Desolation Row, Don't Think Twice It's All Right and It Ain't Me Babe . .
And the encore was of Blowing' in the Wind (somewhat perfunctory) and Ballad of a Thin Man (perhaps the most faithful to the sneering original and a highpoint to end on).
But of course song titles mean very little other than touchstones because, as has been the habit of a lifetime, the familiar melodies and words are reconfigured into new musical and lyrical shapes.
Coming on without fanfare – none of the lengthy pre-recorded introduction of yesteryear and not even the more familiar “Ladies and Gentlemen, Columbia Records recording artist Bob Dylan” – he settled himself behind the piano, the band fanned out to his right and he launched into a set which seemed almost crowd-pleasing for its breadth.
And for the outstanding Love Sick (from Time Out of Mind) two thirds the way through he made his way to a point just back from the center of the stage at a standing mike and – in long drape jacket, leather pants and boots – threw oddly witty poses like some septuagenerian Italian lounge singer who had seen photos of Elvis and Rod Stewart's microphone technique.
It was as funny as it was unexpected.
This was a rare night – many who had clocked up plenty of prior engagements with the man said afterwards it was the best they'd ever seen him, it was for me too – and even when behind the piano (no spotlight) Dylan sometimes stood splay-legged and hammered the ivories like some old time rock'n'roller.
Which, lest we forget, he is. Among other things.
In fact, in the breadth of the music from originals which could pass as standards (Make You Feel My Love from Time Out of MInd in the late Nineties), balladry and country rock to dirty blues (that Howlin' Wolf riff which drives Early Roman Kings on Tempest) this was frequently a danceable rock'n'roll music taken from the time when the bare wires of rhythm'n'blues sparked with country music.
On deliveries of Highway 61 Revisited there was rock'n'roll grandeur, and on Summer Days (with fiddle), Thunder on the Mountain and Serve Somebody you could almost hear the spirit and sound of Chuck Berry – whose Too Much Monkey Business Dylan admitted was a template for Subterranean Homesick Blues all those decades ago – was filling the hall.
This was rock'n'roll brought into the 2st century and, in an environment where people might have got out of their seats, it was music to dance to.
Dylan seemed engaged and vocally invigorated, and while much of his speak-sing delivery still reminds of broken branches in a concrete mixer, there was also interesting nuance throughout: Desolation Row came with gripping syllabic and word emphasis as he spat them out, Don't Think Twice began as akin to a romantic 50s ballad on piano then morphed into an almost jaunty country piece, and amidst al these he also dropped in a croaked but moving treatment of Tryin' to Get to Heaven (also Time Out of Mind).
This was an engaging concert -- no photos allowed -- with Dylan in much stronger vocal form and so the old joke about having to wait for a key line to be able to identify a song was no longer true. And no, he doesn't engage in witty banter or "Good eeeevening Auckland" stuff.
At the side of the stage was a bust of Athena, beside it his Oscar for Things Have Changed (in the Wonder Boys movie), the song he opened with.
Right back at the start of his career when being probed by some earnest interviewer Dylan, ever the one to throw people off the scent, said dismissively he was just “a song and dance man”.
But at Spark Arena in a show that ran for almost two hours, showed 77-year old Bob Dylan as a piano player with roots in many aspects of the Fifties – country, mainstream ballads, rock'n'roll – and included classic examples of his lyricism, he was indeed just that.
A song and dance man . . . but like no other.
There is plenty more on Bob Dylan at Elsewhere, including previous concert reviews, starting here.