Bob Dylan live: Still startling after all these years
Dylan has never tried to please anyone but himself, and at 75 he powers through a two-hour set, mischievous, buoyant and brilliant
Bob Dylan performs on the Late Show with David Letterman in 2015. Photograph: Jeffrey R Staab/CBS/Getty
In 25 years and at least as many times seeing Bob Dylan perform live there have been two consistently startling moments of engagement: when Dylan first walks on stage, and just before he walks off it.
Everything that happens in between is, like all sound and beauty, in the ear and the eye of the beholder – but what is freshly startling about Thursday night’s sold-out show is how Dylan engages with the most unlikely of moments.
Because it isn’t while playing the ballads or the protest singer or the Nobel prize-winner but while playing the crooner: Dylan centre stage, leaning over the microphone, one hand on his left hip, his voice demanding utter attention, his message as loud as it’s ever been.
And during these songs – such as Why Try To Change Me Now, All or Nothing At All, and Autumn Leaves – it’s almost as if Dylan is surprising himself with how good he sounds, such is his devotion to the words and the delivery of them.
In his now 60 years of performing live (he first played Hibbing High School in Minnesota in 1957) Dylan has never tried to please anyone but himself, and not everyone appreciates that. The songs and the way he sings them are exactly how Dylan wants to hear them, as if singing them to himself, which at times, during this just under two-hour, 21-song set, it sounds like he is. He’s sometimes blessed for that and sometimes blamed. But that’s the price you pay with a Dylan show.
He walks on stage just after 8pm. No warm-up act, no introduction and certainly no “hello Dublin”, and stands behind his piano, breaking into Things Have Changed (it wasn’t released on any of his 38 studio albums but won him an Oscar in 2001 for best original song, for the film Wonder Boys).
Two weeks short of his 76th birthday, he remains buoyant throughout, shifting between his piano and the centre stage, dressed up in more black costume than suit, his white cowboy boots later complemented by a white cowboy hat. But it’s mostly naked Dylan – no guitar, no harmonica, and no words between the songs, only a gentle ruffling of his mop of still curly hair.
His five-piece band are whip tight. Bassist Tony Garnier has been with Dylan since 1988, lead guitarist Charlie Sexton on and off since 1999. Drummer George Receli is in total control, Dylan frequently standing directly in front of him while sounding out the rhythm, such as on Melancholy Mood.
There are instantly recognisable songs for those who might want them: straight after Things Have Changed comes Don’t Think Twice; It’s All Right, written in 1962, followed by Highway 61 Revisited; and later, Tangled Up in Blue, then his ode to himself Love Sick, which he trails off heartbreakingly, “Just don’t know what to do, I’d give anything to be with you . . . ”
His form rises with every song; his voice too. He never speaks directly to the crowd, but just before his band open Desolation Row, Dylan plays the cheeky piano intro to Fairytale of New York. Listen closely or you’ll miss it; it’s Dylan at his mischievous best.
And in his closing song, Ballad Of A Thin Man, he positively barks out some lines, “Because something is happening here but you don’t know what it is Do you, Mr Jones?”, and after a standing ovation he’s gone, leaving me startled once again.