For many, catching Bob Dylan in concert is something of a bucket-list item. As with most iconic artists of his vintage, any tour of Australian could be the last. Consider then, that His Bobness’ current Australian jaunt, which kicked off in Perth last night, is his third visit in seven years. Dylan is somehow, always, around the corner. It ain’t called the Never Ending Tour for nothing.
Of course, Dylan isn’t anything like most iconic artists of his vintage, he never will – and infamously never has – pandered to expectations of audience or to nostalgia. You don’t get what you want, you get what he needs. This has always led to the requisite complaints about setlists, Dylan’s interpretations of his oldest classics and his onstage demeanour towards audiences. All up, the Perth Arena crowd, at about three-quarter capacity, mostly seemed up for the challenge.
Since his last visit to Australia in 2014, Dylan has acquired a Nobel Prize and released several albums that paid heed to the Great American Songbook – Shadows In The Night (2015), Fallen Angels (2016) and last year’s Triplicate, itself a three-CD opus. Dylan’s reinterpretations of many swing and big-band standards was canny and well-received, and with his voice seemingly stronger than on past tours, it seems to have played a part in the re-imaginings of his own material. Moodily easing into the chugging, dark Things Have Changed a number from the soundtrack to the 2000 film, Wonder Boys, Dylan and his long-time band settled in like fingers in a glove. Followed by It Ain’t Me, Babe – a heart-string tugger as it was – and Highway 61 Revisited, the blurred lines between old and new began to indicate that it would again all be delivered via his own contemporary filter.
Even songs from Dylan’s most recent album of original compositions, 2012’s Tempest, were reconstructed, just like the tunes from way back when. The Fats Waller-inspired Duquesne Whistle opened up as a swinging ramble, drummer, George Receli, playing around the beat with six-stringers Charlie Sexton (a heartthrob rocker back at the time of his 1986 hit, Beats So Lonely, and one-time Jimmy Barnes Band guitarist) and Stu Kimball trading licks over an extended workout in a completely different key. Pay In Blood, paid little heed to its original, tighter structure in favour of looser climes and later on Early Roman Kings delved into a rawer blues.
Picking new sweet spots and different wounds in his material has always been Dylan’s way, but these days those reawakenings dig deeper and perhaps more sentimentally. There’s instances on those aforementioned ‘American standards’ albums where Dylan’s croak elicits a new break in the heart of already heartbreaking songs – check out Some Enchanted Evening for starters – and he now finds these moments inside his own well-known songs. It was quite something to hear the audience cheer when a trademark phrase or song title was sung, these hitherto unrecognisable, winsome gems being revealed as Tangled Up In Blue, Desolation Row and Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright. In 2018 they all benefit from the treatment.
The owner, the old man who wrote these songs, is perhaps answering the young man who birthed them. Sometimes it seemed that Dylan – who these days is behind a piano at all times, sometimes sitting, sometimes standing – occasionally roamed a little instrumentally, with the band going along, perhaps unsure who should take the next solo, yet someone would and the last verse or chord would rain down following that possibly off-the-rails end-troduction. It was real musicians really playing in and of the moment. Dylan’s chops on the keyboard, however, were on the money, complementing and contrasting Kimball’s rhythm guitar quite intriguingly. When he ventured forth on harmonica, it was as familiar as his own voice, and was applauded as such – like a singular, brief postcard from the ‘60s.
Meanwhile, the band surrounded Dylan as if in a loungeroom scenario and the lighting accentuated this beautifully. Five vintage Hollywood 5K studio lights hung from above, themselves occasionally lit to emphasise their presence. The band were dimly lamp-lit around the stage confines and the resultant effect spoke to and of the music, as the band played for, but never quite to the audience.
2006’s Thunder On The Mountain turned out to be quite the rock’n’roll romp, with a drum breakdown that referenced The Surfaris’ hit, Wipeout. Following up, a run though Dylan’s 70’s song of faith, Gotta Serve Somebody, seemingly teamed it with the guitar riff from Henry Mancini’s Peter Gunn theme… and yes, it worked. Blowin’ In The Wind and Ballad Of A Thin Man then brought this wet August night to a close, the latter more faithful than the former.
Naturally, there were a few walk-outs, by those possibly craving nostalgia from an artist who has never nostalgic about his own music. If you appreciate the reinventor that Bob Dylan has always been, you’ll be entranced by this show. If not, it’s perhaps prescient to recall that it’s now 52 years since an audience member at the Manchester Free Trade Hall screamed ‘Judas!’ at Dylan because he was holding an electric guitar. As his opening number noted, Things Have Changed, but then again, they’ve always been a-changin’.