From having first entered the public’s consciousness as a young peak-capped folkie more than fifty years ago to a 72 year old man stood on stage tonight looking like some high class riverboat gambler, things have certainly changed. This is the same man from Hibbing in Minnesota who surfaced in New York’s Greenwich Village coffee bar scene of the early ‘6os and through his protest songs and strong association with both the folk and civil rights movement of the day provided what was the essential soundtrack to the early part of that decade. But it was a soundtrack that was to dramatically change. He grew his hair, ingested amphetamines, picked up an electric guitar and produced what must still be the three greatest albums in the entire history of modern music that have ever been released consecutively – Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde – and in doing so completely revolutionised the face of contemporary music. His was undoubtedly the voice of a generation.
He went on to crash his Triumph Tiger 100 in mysterious circumstances and re-emerged some 18 months later with first John Wesley Harding and then Nashville Skyline and thus staked a strong claim to be heralded as one of the inventors of what we now know to be country rock. Painting classes and a bitter divorce contributed towards the absolute masterpiece of wretched love-songs that make up Blood On The Tracks before born-again Christianity and a further descent into drugs put paid to the best part of the ‘80s in any meaningful creative sense.
The late ‘80s did see a return to form with the consistently excellent Oh Mercy though the following year’s abysmal Under The Red Sky meant that those “Bob Is Back” banners were only ever going to be unfurled temporarily. They could, though, be held aloft once again come 1997’s Time Out Of Mind – a bunch of survivor’s songs of the very highest order – and the rather unnecessary Christmas In The Heart aside they have continued to be so ever since with as strong a run of albums as he has produced since the mid-seventies.
And it is these more recent recordings that are to lay the foundations for this evening’s performance, the last of three nights he is to play at Blackpool’s Opera House Theatre, an opulent 3000 capacity venue housed in the seaside town’s equally magnificent Winter Gardens. He will be backed by his really quite outstanding touring band, the one that has been with him pretty much since the start of the new millennium and the release of Love And Theft. The internet may well have dampened the element of surprise by forewarning us what the set list will include, the fact that an intermission has now been introduced at the mid-point of the evening, and that even the formalities of introducing the individual members of his band have now been jettisoned, but what it does not prepare you for is just how completely and utterly compelling and nigh on damn perfect this show will turn out to be.
Gone is the man’s more recent compulsion to focus almost entirely on his earlier material and to then feel he has to adopt a scorched earth policy towards it, rendering most of it barely recognisable and, at times, almost unlistenable. In marked contrast to those times, a nineteen song set features only two songs from the ‘60s – an unerringly true ‘She Belongs To Me’ and the initial encore of ‘All Along The Watchtower’, a most lovely, serene version of which owed far much more to his own original than ever it did to Hendrix’s cover; a couple from the following decade – ‘ Tangled Up In Blue’ in the first half, ‘ Simple Twist Of Fate’ in the second – both taken from Blood On The Tracks and both reflecting the emotional intensity and pain of that record; and just one each from the ‘80s and ‘90s. The former is represented by ‘What Good Am I?’ – his then brittle confidence recreated here with startling acuity and feeling – and the latter by ‘Love Sick’ in which the song’s dirty groove crackles with energy and fire, his harmonica blisters the song’s middle bridge and he spits out the emotional ennui of the lyrics with scarcely concealed bile.
But it is perhaps the newer songs – most memorably those from last year’s modern classic Tempest – that leave the greatest imprint on this evening’s experience. ‘Early Roman Kings’, a sprawling travelling blues of a tune is resounding. Vaguely reminiscent of ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ had it been slowed down by a couple of revolutions per second and if such proof were needed a song that firmly reinforces the singer’s assertion that “I ain’t dead yet, my bell still rings”. There is probably no better word to describe ‘Soon After Midnight’ than beautiful, whilst you physically will the closing ‘Long And Wasted Years’ just to go on and on forever. Much has been said about the disrepair of the singer’s voice, how shot it has become, how it has been reduced to some indecipherable croak. Here it sounds exactly as it is, an indefatigable instrument that has been immersed in more than fifty years of experience; half a century of heart, hope, humanity and history. Things may well have changed but this is the voice of Bob Dylan. It is still the voice of a generation. Cherish it while you still can.
Set list (courtesy of Bob Links):
|1.||Things Have Changed (Bob centre stage)|
|2.||She Belongs To Me (Bob centre stage with harp)|
|3.||Beyond Here Lies Nothin’ (Bob on grand piano, Donnie on electric mandolin)|
|4.||What Good Am I? (Bob on grand piano, Tony on stand-up bass)|
|5.||Duquesne Whistle (Bob on grand piano, Tony on stand-up bass)|
|6.||Waiting For You (Bob on grand piano)|
|7.||Pay In Blood (Bob centre stage)|
|8.||Tangled Up In Blue (Bob on grand piano)|
|9.||Love Sick (Bob centre stage with harp, Donnie on electric mandolin)|
|10.||High Water (For Charley Patton)
(Bob centre stage with harp, Donnie on banjo, Tony on stand-up bass)
|11.||Simple Twist Of Fate (Bob on grand piano)|
|12.||Early Roman Kings (Bob on grand piano)|
|13.||Forgetful Heart (Bob centre stage with harp, Donnie on violin, Tony on stand-up bass)|
|14.||Spirit On The Water (Bob on grand piano, Tony on stand-up bass)|
|15.||Scarlet Town (Bob on grand piano, Donnie on banjo, Tony on stand-up bass)|
|16.||Soon After Midnight (Bob on grand piano)|
|17.||Long And Wasted Years (Bob centre stage)(Encore)|
|18.||All Along The Watchtower (Bob on grand piano)|
|19.||Roll On John (Bob on grand piano, Tony on stand-up bass)|