Bob Dylan can do what he wants.
That’s was my prevailing thought leading up to the gig. If he doesn’t want to play guitar anymore, OK. Only piano? Alright. Change the keys or vocal arrangements to every song? OK. Record five albums worth of American songbook covers? Yeah ok. Ban taking pictures and videos at his gig? Be my guest. Not utter a single non-lyrical word during the entire performance? Fine by me.
But this is not to be a debate about a performer’s role on stage, what he should and shouldn’t do, but rather a retelling of the wonderful performance the lucky Merseyside crowd were privy to by none other than one of the world’s last living legends of modern music: still at the top of his game, albeit on a different peak.
If Bob had wanted to play a whole set of acapella Kate Bush covers with his back to the audience whilst sipping margueritas, I’d have been more than happy to sit back and enjoy the show. Because why the bloody hell not. If anyone’s earnt the right, he has.
On the cusp of his 76th birthday, as the guitarist in his excellent backing band strummed some western cowboy-like introductory chords, Bob took to the Liverpool Echo Arena stage right on cue, bedecked in suave suit and white fedora hat, surprisingly small – but sprightly – even from 200 yards away. As the guitarist switched tunes with nary a second’s break, Bob went straight to the piano and with barely a moment’s adjustment or hesitation launched straight into the appropriately-titled “Things Have Changed”. Whether deliberate warning or blunt statement, there’s no denying the implication of the title line “I used to care, but things have changed”. Although the latter part of the chorus is undoubtedly true, the first part could be debated considering the Newport Festival, Dylan going electric and just his general attitude overs the years and once more my mind harkened back to that ever-pervading thought: “Bob Dylan can do what he wants”. More than this though, it felt like he was giving us some advice to do likewise and not expect the young guitar-toting, politically-driven Dylan of yesteryear and, in a way, just “not care” and come to terms with the facts that things have indeed changed and we should accept this new present-day version: both the old school sultry crooner or the awe-inducing grizzled-voice relic.
If this concert is anything to go by though then this Bob Dylan is far from done and testament to this was the fast-paced rolling rhythm of most of his own songs and his quick-fire invigorated singing, from the opener all the way to the beguiling closer. The soft cover songs from his latest releases acted as tranquil counterpoints to his own upbeat songs by slowing the rhythm down and letting his voice shine out more melancholically. But just as soon again he’d be fidgeting, stooping over the piano during one song, then sitting at it for the next one and before you know it, strutting his way over centre stage to grasp the mic stand and lull us all again with his deep and raspy yet sometimes clear voice.
From a strummed, rich and fuller “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” complete with more instruments and more experience, sounding more like a wise elder than a young troubadour, Dylan slips into a bubbling and shuffling “Highway 61 Revisited” that rocked and rolled like the tough ole rocker still lurking beneath Dylan’s skin. Most of his songs carried on in the same vein of newfound grit and roughness that seeps from his voice with its deep seasoned resonance into the very bowels of the song and its lyrics. This vocal weight and the pulsing rhythm infused and darkened many of his songs, rendering the already sombre ones all the more enticingly sinister, like 2009’s “Beyond Here Lies Nothing” or “Pay in Blood” and “Early Roman Kings” from his last album of original material Tempest.
Another aptly-titled song was the first cover of the night, “Why Try to Change me Now” by Cy Coleman and brought an automatic, unexpected and uncontrollable smile to my face as soon as its first calm notes reverberated around the venue. The perfect contrast to his originals with their soothing melodies, a slick and mellow “Melancholy Mood” (Frank Sinatra) followed shortly after and seemed crafted specifically for his time-worn voice.
The songs off Tempest felt somewhat more bouncy and alive, perhaps due to their recentness, and Dylan breezed through the cheerful “Duquesne Whistle” as easily and contrastingly as he’d sneered through the ominous “Pay in Blood”, switching the lyrics to offer us timely reminders such as “life is short and it don’t last long” or “my conscious is clear, what about you?”, with the song just casually nestled between the two previously mentioned covers, adding to setlist’s careening lilt.
After Harold Arlen’s mournful “Stormy Weather” with its chill and foreboding guitar intro, Bob sped things up with a jangly and playful “Tangled up in Blue” to the delight of the crowd and then stood up at the piano for a bluesy “Early Roman Kings” that deftly showcased the backing band’s competence. “I ain’t dead yet” he sings after howling and drawing out the previous lines like some apocalyptic soothsayer. Definitely still not done.
A creamy “Spirit on the Water” with the fitting last lines of “you think I’m over the hill, you think I’m past my prime, let me see what you got, we can have a whopping good time” was punctuated with the most relaxing of musical breaks and then followed up with a simmering and poignant “Love Sick”.
Another Sinatra cover in “All or Nothing At All” was followed with a rapturously-received “Desolation Row” before a chirpy “Soon After Midnight” capped off this harmonious triplicate, and hardly a heartbeat later I was clicking my fingers along to the sprightly bass and twinkling cymbals of Johnny Mercer’s “That Old Black Magic”: one of the most smoothly upbeat moments of the gig with such a shifting and danceable jazz sound. Still toying with us and taking us places, they launched straight into a yearning “Long and Wasted Years” with its delicate swaying melody bringing another beaming and pleasant smile to my tired face. Once more Bob sounded vigorous and teeming with life on the more recent songs and properly rocked me to blissful dreamland with Yves Montand’s “Autumn Leaves” which was particularly and perfectly suited to his voice with its dark undertones. After a tiring day bathing in the Merseyside sun, I even allowed myself the luxurious pleasure of closing my eyes and slipping into slumber for a few heartbeats. Is there anything as sweet and surreal as being serenaded and crooned to by Bob Dylan?
Dylan’s typically unusual singing style and reinterpretation of his songs makes you wait with bated breath for that moment of recognition as a song kicks off and that proved to be the case as the band came back onstage with the sweet sound of a violin introducing the unrecognisable “Blowin’ in the Wind”. The questioning nature of the original replaced with underlying tones of learned wisdom, as if Dylan knew all the answers and we were but pupils in his vast and insightful classroom, walking down a road he himself has trodden on for so long all the way to its very end wherein lies a secret only he has discovered.
Bob’s nonchalant effortlessness, chopping and changing songs seemingly at whim, cutting out verses, changing the lyrics, singing them differently, seemingly out of key and rhythm are a staple of what makes him so unique. And from my vantage point 200 yards or so away, with the absence of screens to properly lay my eyes on him and visualise this musical legend, this carefree and extraordinary musical aura only added to the timeless sensation I felt. Unable to make out any of his features as he strutted around the stage, I was only privy to a black-suited silhouette in the distance topped with white fedora hat who croaked and crooned his whispery, booming or languid voice around the respectful watchers. Uttering not the merest word of greeting to his audience, he remained a ghostly, mystical and intangible figure throughout, leaving me with this feeling of singular timelessness and luck at being able to enjoy such a personal performance.
I managed to gain some metres and close the distance as I left my seat to try and get a closer look at this legendary persona, diminutive in size but towering in presence. But even a mere 50 yards away as I lolled my head to gloomy and sombre highlight and closer “The Ballad of a Thin Man”, all I was able to glean was a mop of fuzzy grey hair as he took his hat off to bow with his excellent backing band and show his appreciation to the equally appreciative and respectful audience. And then he was off, disappearing as swiftly as he’d appeared, beguiling us and leaving me wondering if it had all been a crazy dream.
(Echo Arena, 8th of May 2017, Liverpool, U.K.)