BOB DYLAN – PALAIS THEATRE, MELBOURNE – MONDAY AUGUST 18, 2014
By Brian Wise
Apparently, Bob Dylan’s appearance last night inspired a flood of angry callers to talkback radio this morning. Complaints were either about Dylan’s voice or the fact that he did not play enough of his well-known songs.
Last time he was here in 2011 an advertising campaign did promote the fact that Dylan would be playing his ‘hits and half the shows comprised familiar songs. This time around there were no such claims so it is hard to feel sympathy for people who want to consign Dylan to the ranks of the ‘heritage’ artists who only play the ‘hit’ songs. Would they expect Picasso to paint the same painting over and over again? Would they want to see a comedian roll out exactly the same jokes year after year? These are not the people for whom Dylan is performing anyway.
If you were not a Dylan ‘fanatic’ and had not bothered to do any research or even read any recent reviews then I suppose last night’s opening Melbourne concert might have been somewhat of a surprise. But isn’t it a great thing to watch and listen to a musician who is still creating and recording and does not have to rely on material that is up to half a century old? This was not a musical JD Salinger up there.
Some of Dylan’s best songs have been written and recorded in the past fifteen years; and, some of those songs did not even appear on official albums but had to wait until the Bootleg series of releases!
Of the 19 songs in tonight’s set, only four could be described as ‘hits’ – one from the 60s and three from the 70s – with fourteen songs recorded after 1997 and six songs, or nearly a third of the set, from the latest album, 2012’s Tempest. No one will ever accuse Bob Dylan of being a nostalgia act!
Of course, Dylan aficionados would have welcomed tonight’s set and they might have also told you that Dylan is singing better than he has in years in front of one of the world’s best touring bands. I had my doubts prior to the show. Dylan fans tend to be exceptionally forgiving and reports that he was singing well might have merely meant that his voice was little more than a croak. Not so.
With no ceremony, Dylan and his band entered a dimly lit stage and launched into the Grammy Award-winning ‘Things Have Changed.’ In times gone by, one might have read a lot into the song’s challenge ‘I used to care, but things have changed’ but it is not possible to say that now. This was a carefully prepared and beautifully delivered concert.
Dressed in a three-quarter length black coat and a broad-brimmed hat, Dylan stood centre stage, delivering his songs to an array of four microphones, occasionally adding harmonica – or he sat at a grand piano (no guitar for him this time around).
That voice, with so much world-weariness and so many concerts behind it, sounded more at ease and relaxed than in previous recent visits. At times, as on ‘Forgetful Heart’ from 2009’s Together Through Life or Tempest’s ‘Long And Wasted Years,’ it was strong, clear and surprisingly powerful. There were even occasional echoes of the venom that drove some of his most bitter lyrics. It is at least eight years since I have heard Dylan sound so good and that was in a Memphis theatre with Merle Haggard as support.
Of course, Dylan is backed by a fantastic, road-hardened band that can move from the Muddy Waters’ styled blues of ‘Early Roman Kings’ to the arcane refrain of ‘Duquesne Whistle’ (both from Tempest). The sound mix was near perfect, proving that a band does not have to play loud to sound good. It also prompted me to compliment the sound engineer on my way out. Leonard Cohen’s band proved that you can sometimes be most effective by playing quietly. The bonus here was that Dylan’s voice was immediately brought to the fore and he did not have to struggle to be heard over the band.
Musical director and bass guitarist Tony Garnier has been with Dylan for decades while multi-instrumentalist Donnie Herron (pedal steel, banjo and violin), drummer George Receli and rhythm guitarist Stu Kimball are all long-time band members.
Lead guitarist, Texan Charlie Sexton would be a star in any other band yet here he is content to tastefully and respectfully decorate Dylan’s work. Sexton returned to the band a couple of years ago and replaced fellow-Texan Denny Freeman. Dylan must like something about the Texan guitar style and I fleetingly recalled another Texan – one also named Bob – and his road-tuned band: Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys. Even those in the audience who were not familiar with the latest songs acknowledged the sheer quality of this band.
One of the revelations of the evening (for me, at least) was just how good Dylan was as a pianist. On other visits he has played keyboards that have not been prominent in the mix but here he was exposed and acquitted himself amazingly well.
Of course, the well-known songs were rearranged to the point where audience recognition took a little while. But hearing ‘She Belongs To Me,’ ‘Tangled Up In Blue’ and ‘Simple Twist Of Fate’ reworked managed to avoid the cliché of the audience sing along (and maybe that is why Dylan does this) and made the songs more interesting in the process.
The encore of a rousing ‘All Along The Watchtower’ and the classic ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ were terrific reinterpretations that brought those songs into a contemporary setting.
At 73, Bob Dylan continues a creative journey that it is perfectly exemplified in his latest recordings and concerts. “You think I’m over the hill, you think I’m past my prime?“ sang Dylan in ‘Spirit On The Water,’ turning a statement into a question. On the evidence of last night’s show, the answer is an emphatic ‘No!’
A section of this review first appeared in The New Daily (thenewdaily.com.au)
Bob Dylan appears at The Palais again tonight (August 19) and Wednesday (20) and Thursday (21).
1.Things Have Changed
2.She Belongs To Me
3.Beyond Here Lies Nothin’
4.Workingman’s Blues #2
5.Waiting For You
7.Pay In Blood
8.Tangled Up In Blue
10.High Water (For Charley Patton)
11.Simple Twist Of Fate
12.Early Roman Kings
14.Spirit On The Water
16.Soon After Midnight
17.Long And Wasted Years
18. All Along The Watchtower
19. Blowin’ In The Wind