Bob Dylan at the 3Arena: ‘Not gone yet’ ... At 81, he’s coming alive as a performer again

From behind a piano that looks like it came out of a skip comes Dylan’s irresistible voice, in all its gruffness and softness

At two minutes past eight Bob Dylan shuffles on to the stage to thunderous applause. It’s his 103rd live show on the current leg of this tour in just a year and loose change.

At age 81 he’s not slowing down. That voice of a generation remains a powerful and irresistible force, one not to be messed with.

Dylan never sings out of tune; that’s always been true. At a sold-out 3Arena on a rainy Monday night in Dublin, that singing voice is front and centre stage, the Nobel Prize winner as captivating as he’s ever been, stirring the emotions at times beyond words.

Dylan sits behind his upright piano, which looks as if he found in a skip on the way in, partly obscuring himself for the show but never once out of our full and rapturous attention. It’s no prop: his piano-playing constantly leads the way.


Dressed in a black embroidered suit, the shades and hat long gone, Dylan never lets up for an hour and 50 minutes, aided perhaps by the fact all our mobile phone devices were locked away in fancy zip bags until after the show.

There is no support act, no stage intro, certainly no “hello Dublin”, just the dimming of the lights and a few blasts of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, and Dylan warming up on piano with a few bars of Oh, Susannah, we think.

Of the 17-song set list on the night, more than half – nine to be exact – are fresh off Rough and Rowdy Ways, his 39th studio album, released in June 2020, his first original work since Tempest in 2012.

He’s been moving through European dates since September, the 3Arena the last stop, for now. Dylan does breaks off into the occasional “thank you”, though he’s fully aware of exactly where he is.

After introducing his band after the penultimate song, he says “I want to send shout out to Shane MacGowan, one of our favourite artists, and let’s hope he releases another record sometime soon ... Fairytale of New York is one of our favourite songs, sing it every Christmas.”

Most in attendance are likely hearing the new songs live for the first time. Dylan, just right of centre-stage, repeatedly looks to his five-piece band to ensure they don’t miss his cue, as if he’s singing the new songs for the first time too, trying to figure out the exact placing of every word and meaning.

He seems to be coming alive as a performer again too, with Rough and Rowdy Ways. He opens with Watching The River Flow, from 1971, which didn’t appear on any studio album release, the light not shining from anywhere above but from the stage floor below.

His five-piece band shift between the whip tight and jazz loose. Bassist Tony Garnier has been with Dylan since 1988, Charley Drayton on drums now (Dylan always gets the best drummers), Bob Britt and Doug Lancio on guitar, and Donnie Herron on the violin and pedal steel guitar.

When Greil Marcus was interviewed recently about his new book, A Bob Dylan Biography In Seven Songs, he was asked: “What’s so special about Bob Dylan?” He answered: “I’ve always said, I’ve always believed, that it’s the voice, it’s the inflection, it’s the way of dramatising small things, enormous things ...”

There is ample inflection of that voice here, in all its gruffness and softness. Second up is Most Likely You Go Your Way (and I’ll Go Mine), then two straight from Rough and Rowdy Ways, I Contain Multitudes, then False Prophet, a rocking beat on that one.

After a joyous When I Paint My Masterpiece, he breaks into Black Rider, then My Own Version of You, the singing majestic, before a real crowd pleaser in I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight.

Then it’s Crossing The Rubicon, softly rocked out, To Be Alone With You followed by Key West (Philosopher Pirate), one of his modern masterpieces.

Gotta Serve Somebody is relished up again too, then I’ve Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You, the arena in complete silence. That Old Black Magic is the only cover of the night, before Mother of Muses, then Goodbye Jimmy Reed, which sounds as fresh and as good as anything he’s written.

After the band introductions he finishes with Every Grain of Sand, and for the first time all night he reaches for his harmonica after the last verse fades.

He moves from behind his piano to greet the standing ovation, the band posing still and straight behind him, and then he shuffles off.

Only he’s not gone yet, responding to the now wild chorus of approval to return, the lights shining clean on to his face, the look and sense of respect and appreciation widely mutual to all in attendance.

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan is an Irish Times sports journalist writing on athletics