Wednesday, August 13, 2014
When Bob Dylan last toured Australia in 2011, on a visit anchored by the Blues N’ Roots Festivals of the East and West Coasts, audiences were once again polarised by the man they want him to be and the man that he is.
Simply, he’s his own man and always has been. Resolutely so, but since one John Cordwell screamed ‘Judas!’ at the Manchester Free Trade Hall in 1966, there have been people muttering it under their breath ever since because Dylan won’t play Blowin’ In The Wind the way he used to 1965.
A theatre run provides a different forum, however, and with 2,500 people cosied into Perth’s Riverside Theatre for the opening three-night-gambit of the Neverending Tour’s latest drive-by of Australia the mood was one of excited reverence. At 8pm on the dot Dylan and his black-clad band sauntered unannounced onto the dimly-lit stage, easing into Things Have Changed. Dylan – dressed in a stylish, bespoke mourning coat with wide-brimmed hat – stood firm, his face obscured by a quartet of microphones – faraway, yet so close.
Lulling into She Belongs To Me Dylan brought out his harmonica, to immediate applause, its discordance singing to the rafters but, as ever, heart-tugging and just very him. Beyond Here Lies Nothin’ and Workingman Blues II saw Dylan take to the piano, as bassist/musical director, Tony Garnier, indulged himself in a quite two-step while Charlie Sexton riffed with exquisite minimalism. Dylan’s gruff growl occasionally parted and the echoes of the younger voice appeared before he walked to front of drum kit, held a pose and surveyed the audience as he was met with applause, which he seemed, for a second at least, to breathe inward just a little.
The opening bars of the 2012 single from the Tempest LP, Duquesne Whistle, were met with hoots not normally expected for a ‘new’ Dylan song, but even if the key had already changed up, its cautious yet joyful tone lifted the room.
In this setting, dimly (and quite beautifully) lit, with musicians playing at a volume where every instrument could be heard and the audience at almost-intimate quarters, it seemed akin to being invited into a studio session. Watching them roll anew through Tangled Up In Blue (the ‘You’re looking like somebody I used to trust’ line poignant given Dylan’s history with his live audiences) it was clear that the fresh vistas constantly opened within these songs is what gives Dylan that little skip in his step each time a song is completed.
Part two of the show continued the first half’s momentum, with High Water and Simple Twist Of Fate, both gentle yet insistent offerings, the latter featuring three separate harmonica runs from Dylan, using those four microphones to full effect. From the blues walk of Early Roman Kings and the darker, lamenting Forgetful Heart to Spirit On The Water’s loving and fond change in pace and heart, Dylan’s band were at one with the maestro’s desires – you’d swear they could play a fade-out if he wanted them to.
The main part of the set ended with a trio of songs from Tempest – Scarlet Town, Soon After Midnight and Long And Wasted Years – an album that could be seen residing in the catalogue a little in the same manner as Nick Cave’s 2013 Push The Sky Away album does in his. Nostalgia is death, it would seem; Dylan continues to create in spite of the ‘N’ word and it’s why we are still able to watch him perform in 2014.
That said, the encores were All Along The Watchtower and Blown’ In The Wind, though rendered Dylan’s way, of course. Many may have hung out for those old gems, but there was so much to hang with in the entirety of the two hours. It’s not so much what Dylan does these days, but who he is and how he does it.