This Bob Dylan article was written by Ryan Foster, a GIGsoup contributor. Edited by Natalie Whitehouse
It was a long and disordered queue that snaked around the front of the O2, past two enormous tour busses before splaying out outside a small alleyway pub on the night of the 27th .
In the pub a vast and colourful assortment of Dylan fans were packed like sardines. The garb on display included cowboy hats, suits, leather jackets; modelled on those who embrace their hero’s aesthetic daily, and those kitted out for the sake of the occasion; that of visiting a relic of historic import.
When the doors opened the line moved quickly, each person in it gaping at the imposing, black busses (Beat the Street stencilled on the side), while a short, dark-haired woman strode up and down the alleyway, holding up a sign reading ‘FREE TICKET NEEDED’, and was met with chuckles and catcalls, but remained, like a character from a mid-60s Dylan song, absurdly determined.
Ten minutes before the show was due to start at 7:30pm, a voice on the PA system warned against taking photographs or videos; any perpetrators would be ejected. After the show started, it was clear there were many rebels present.
Soon, the lights went down and the crowd leapt up as Bob Dylan’s aged and unmistakable figure made its way from behind the curtain. The band took up their positions, then promptly launched into the first song.
The singer had got through the first verse incomprehensibly, the music itself was inscrutable, the audience waited; when Dylan reached the last line of the chorus, “I used to care, but things have changed” the realization was tangible. After the ovation the band wasted no time in beginning the next song; the 1965 classic ‘She Belongs to Me.’
Dylan had a relaxed stage presence; he stood, one hand in a pocket, the other holding a harmonica; wearing a dark sports jacket and panama hat.
These first few tracks required only his sandpaper growl, but ‘What’ll I Do?’ demanded something else entirely. This was the first taste the audience got of just how deep and rich a voice the man has; the pronunciation was measured, the breath exquisitely controlled.
He moved to the piano for a jaunty rendition of ‘Duquesne Whistle’, in which he treated the audience to a charming if somewhat gratuitous solo piano flourish. A few tracks later, the band started slowly into a vaguely familiar rhythm; the sound was thin, betraying nothing, before the drummer anted-up and Dylan began; “Early one mornin’, the sun was shinin’.” This was the highlight of the first half, a big and beautiful delivery of ‘Tangled Up in Blue.’
Dylan had altered some of the words, as is his wont, but its potency remained as strong on the night as it was in 1975. Dylan, who’d gone over to the piano half way through the song, now stood up at his three microphones and made an indecipherable announcement; the audience cheered upon hearing him speak, then the lights went down, and he was gone.
The interval lasted twenty minutes. The yellow-shirted security personnel had been on high alert throughout the first half, darting around the auditorium whenever the light of a phone appeared. Many had been cautioned; and a handful removed.
The band returned and kicked off with the brilliant ‘High Water.’ There was a further smattering of songs from the latest album, and it was these that he seemed to enjoy singing the most. Each of these was deftly handled; the musicians providing a unique ambience for Dylan to exercise his vocal breadth and precision. The highlight from his ‘Tempest’ selection was the gorgeous ‘Long and Wasted Years;’ the band cranked up the bittersweet, looping melody, and Dylan wrought every pound of emotion out of the pensive lyrics.
They ended with a show-stopping version of ‘Autumn Leaves.’ The stage fell dark at the final touch of the drum, and the stage emptied. The audience applauded wildly for three minutes. The players returned. The keyboardist picked up a violin. Dylan sat down at the piano. An alive and transformed version of ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ ensued.
The evening was seen off with a hot and heavy rendition of ‘Love Sick’. This was the band showing off; the guitar work was superb, the drumming thunderous. The man of the hour growled and snarled and bellowed. In these final four-and-a-half minutes, it became bluntly and awesomely clear that this was no relic of a previous time. Dylan is an artist of continuance, of growth; his work full of life and hellfire. At the end, the lights unleashed their full wattage onto the stage, the band took a bow, Dylan stood silently, holding his arms outward, crucifix-like. He didn’t address the crowd, there was no exchange of thank-yous; this was the audience’s time to gawk, and to bask in their own good fortune.