If you were not a Dylan ‘fanatic’ then last night’s opening Melbourne concert might have been somewhat of a surprise. Of the 19 songs, only four could be described as ‘hits’ – one from the 1960s and three from the 1970s – 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 this 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.
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.
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.
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. Even those in the audience who were not familiar with the latest songs acknowledged the sheer quality of this band.
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 avoided 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 his first Melbourne show, the answer is an emphatic ‘No!’
Dylan is in Australia courtesy of Chugg Entertainment.
18 to 21 August, Melbourne, Palais Theatre. Check Ticketmaster for ticket availability.
25 August, Brisbane Convention Centre. Check Ticketmaster for ticket availability.
29 August, Royal Canberra Theatre. Check Ticketmaster for ticket availability.
31 August, Adelaide Entertainment Centre. Check Ticketmaster for ticket availability.
3 – 5 September, Sydney, State Theatre. Check Ticketmaster for ticket availability.
Brian Wise is the Editor of Addicted To Noise and presents Off The Record for Triple R-FM in Melbourne. He claims not to be a Bob Dylan tragic but was the executive producer of the only Australian Dylan tribute album, The Woodstock Sessions.