The last time I saw him here was as a teenager (me, that is) half a century ago. Nothing but him with an acoustic guitar and harmonica but goodness, he was mesmerising. In the intervening decades the only constant thing about him has been the restless procession of changes, his glorious indifference to hostility and the unparalleled quality of his best songs.
Contrary to the usual fears about his ageing – he is now seventy-four – his arthritis and, oh yes, his voice, this residence in Kensington finds him as dynamic and moving as he has ever been. One reason for this is surely the evolution of his five-piece band over some twenty years into a unit that does not merely support him, but gets him; his vagaries, his whims and the sheer intensity of his unorthodox musicianship. He has said of them that they are so good that they can still spring some surprises on him after all this time, and this feeling is surely mutual.
In this set, broken into two hour-long halves, he does very few of the earliest numbers. These include a sort of waltz-time Blowin’ In The Wind, in which only the words betray the original. A similar treatment is applied to one of his mid-period masterpieces, Tangled Up in Blue, a song so finely condensed that it flashes across with the brilliance of a great, condensed novel, with the first-person hero dipping in and out of the American nightmare.
Autobiographical? You tell me, because Dylan’s not about to.
A similar process of demolition and re-building, now so familiar, is applied to She Belongs to me. He even takes liberties, but with a yearning tenderness and affection, with some of the numbers from the great American Songbook. No better example of this than Autumn Leaves, made famous by a great but – to say the least, contrasting – vocalist, Nat King Cole. Not to mention Frank Sinatra, Doris Day, Miles Davis and countless others.
This is one that was composed by Joseph Kosma in 1945, and there was a time when you would not have expected such a flirtation with sentimentality to find its way into the repertoire of a supposedly angry young protest singer so beloved by the Civil Rights movement. But look a little closer and you realise that the song started life as as Les Feuilles d’Automne by the French poet Jacques Prevert and was subsequently translated, or remade, by Johnny Mercer. Listening to Dylan handling it with his majestically trashed but true, ranging voice, you realise that he has always had something of the European chansonnier about him; always up for melodrama, never mind all the snarling and the melody-bending. Who but such a song-fancier would have come up with, for example, Simple Twist of Fate?
And that is what he is for much of the evening, an international descendent of too many styles to mention, and a crucial point of fusion between supposedly high and low arts. Who, if not him, (yes, and possibly his friend Leonard Cohen) would have inspired Oxbridge Eng Lit professors like Christopher Ricks to speak of his talent in the same breath as that John Keats?
On the evidence of this Albert Hall run, full of material from his recent albums, he has done to himself what he has always done to his songs. Reinvention may be a cliche, but this alone does not invalidate it. He even enjoys himself more visibly than I have ever seen on four previous showings – two of these in the unsuitable barn-like settings of the Wembley and Earls Court arenas.
Leaving his guitar alone seems to have helped. Unencumbered by this, he sort of dances during the longer instrumental breaks. It’s not exactly Jagger or Jackson, but these things are relative; if you’re as minimalist as he in your patter, then a raised arm here, a little kick of his slender legs beneath the long black jacket there, and we’re talking virtual gyration. The tiny gestures make the audience go wild, in a suitably self-aware, well-heeled professional sort of way.
Actually, no; let your eye range broadly round the great tiered space and there’s all sorts; sure, the glinting bald foreheads and grey ponytails, all a-Bob, but also kids. Again, these things are relative, and yet I could see loads of rapt lookers and listeners who were probably the grandchildren rather than the children of people whose old LP covers from Freewheelin’ onwards had been an intriguing childhood presence.
Towards the end of the set, he puts in a couple more heavyweights; Sick of Love, all yellow with emotional autumn, and Pay In Blood, one of those frequently tagged apocalyptic. Fair enough: “Our nation must be saved and freed/ You’ve been accused of murder, how do you plead?/ I came to bury, not to praise/ I’ll drink my fill and sleep alone/ I pay in blood but not my own.” OK, Bob, we get the picture. When he shifts into this gear, he goes all Old Testament on us. We were troubled by this back in the Eighties, when he seemed to be doing little else, and we rather wrote him off, but now, with such a number sharing the evening with some divine skewed schmaltz, it’s palatable. And it’s rock ’n’ roll.
And there he is, one moment a sardonic old trouper refusing to be cast as his own tribute band, next a thunderous rabbi, toxic with incantations. It, and he, might be quite funny if both were not also so serious. Wherever, however this marriage was made, long may it last.
Next year will mark the fiftieth anniversary of his infamous Manchester concert, when a man in the audience, outraged by the presence of Dylan’s highly amplified backing band, yelled ”Judas!” Surely it’s only a matter of time before someone stands up and calls out ”Jesus!”
Review by Alan Franks
Bob Dylan is one of the most influential and celebrated artists in the history of popular music, having sold over 100 million records worldwide and winning countless awards over a career spanning six decades.
This return to the Hall comes following the release of Dylan’s chart-topping 2015 album Shadows in the Night, a collection of covers of pop standards made famous by Frank Sinatra.
Wednesday 21st to Sunday 25th October 2015
Ends (approximately): 9:45pm