By Tony Attwood
The traditional way of reviewing a Dylan concert is by listing the songs he and the band performed, and noting the variations in each one. But, no I don’t think so – at least not for me. Bob and tradition don’t really mix so why should the traditions of the reviews stay fixed?
Throughout his career Bob has turned every tradition upside down, inside out, and every other way imaginable. The least a review can do is to be as un-normal as a Bob show, not least with a gig that began with “Watching the River Flow” and ended with “Every Grain of Sand” (before the PS to Jerry Lee).
Indeed Bob did have a surprise for us last night, even if the set list is pretty set these days, as at the very end of the show in Nottingham last night (28 October 2022 just to be clear), he came back on for the first encore of the tour (according to my mate Pat) to announce Jerry Lee Lewis’ passing, and playing an on-the-spot tribute. It was all very simple, no long speech, just there, honest, memorable and perfect. (There’s a recording below – unless I’m ordered to take it down).
But I’ve never really thought that going through a list of the songs Dylan sang on a particular night always is the best way of reviewing a concert, because a Dylan show is far, far, far more than a list of songs. Such reviews are important, but there is also a need to capture the whole feel of the evening, making it about Bob, how he looks and sounds, and about the band, and indeed about the music and indeed the whole event is arranged. It is a show, which is far more than a set of songs.
And more than ever, this was the perfect evening I wanted it to be, because of that lingering feeling, felt in driving to Nottingham and driving home after (having had a very convivial pint in the bar next door), negotiating as ever the closed motorways and traffic diversions, that this might be the last one I get to. The tour began in November last year, and the signs say it goes on to 2024. That makes it sound like it is going to be the finale. Mind you, this is Bob we are talking about, so you never really know.
And Bob, of course, is an old man. He’s 81, and how many 81-year-olds can hold the stage through a complete show like that? Yes he has the lyrics in front of him on the piano, but so what? The audience has got older with him so most of us would need reminding of some of them too. And it says everything that everyone stayed in their seats until the very end – and it was a perfect venue for that. Secure, sedate, the old folks watching their old hero.
The stage was huge, and the band took up the back half of it, leaving a big empty space in front of Bob, who was dead centre at the piano. It sounds really odd, but it worked perfectly (you get a sense of it in the video below if that is still working by the time you read this) with the band in a semi-circle behind him. No announcements, no chitchat, no “how you doing?” we just got the songs, excellently arranged to suit his traveling ensemble.
Of course, at such an event there is an element of the audience saying “thank you” to Bob for his lifetime’s work, which has touched so many of us in so many ways over so many, many years. But it is also a night of perfect entertainment, not through major re-arrangements which means you don’t know what the song is until halfway through, but the gentle touches, the occasional tweaks to the lyrics, certain chord changes amended here and there…
Some of the early reviews of the tour talked about strange things being done with the lighting, the stage being in near darkness and the houselights turned up, but I don’t think we had any mucking about like that; Bob played it straight and perfect. Bob centre stage behind the piano (no guitar playing at all) often standing (and if you’ve never done it, that is uncomfortable, unless maybe he’s had that piano cut down to size to suit him), vamping away.
I’m told also that Bob changes the way he sings the songs night after night. Having only been to the one gig on the tour I don’t know if that’s true, but there certainly were some highly unusual melodic, rhythmic and stylistic inventions going on with the way he sang, and why not? Every night is different, every night’s a show. Maybe we just got lucky last night. Maybe it’s always like that.
The Rough and Rowdy album, like the tour, has been described in many different ways. “Impressionistic” is one, and I’ll go with that. It is the impressionist school of music; something so hard to do and get right, the number of people who would even think of trying it is tiny. The number of those who could pull it off, vanishingly small.
And impressionistic is good too, because if you’ve got “Crossing the Rubicon” at the heart of it all, what else can it be?
You’ve probably read a dozen reviews of the show by now, each noting the handful of oldies Bob has chosen for this tour, “Gotta Serve Somebody”, “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” and “When I Paint My Masterpiece”… just a reminder of what there was before. Because Bob knows, as we know, we’ve got thousands of recordings of his work on stage from across the years – for surely you have been reading the “Never Ending Tour” series now actually at episode 100.
I should add, although I run Untold Dylan, I’m not one of those fans who travels across the continent watching Bob perform, noting the way songs are re-written from one venue to the next, so I’m not about to trot off the Oxford or wherever he’s going next. I’m happy with my memories of last night.
And not seeing Bob again doesn’t worry me, because my musical memory still seems to be roughly intact and I can hold a lot of last night in my head and revisit it, wondering at this moment how Black Rider managed to get even more menace out of it, and pondering what makes him choose those exact songs. And most of all, keeping secure in my mind the memory of what was a staggeringly beautiful and meaningful evening spent with friends and the man I consider to be the greatest songwriter in this history of humanity.
And yes, I’ll admit it, driving home I was thinking that maybe I’ve added a tiny bit to the Dylan universe by running this website. Past tours, all the songs, certain gigs, TV appearances, songs I adore which no one else ever mentions and Bob’s undoubtedly long forgotten (“I once knew a man” anyone?)… somehow last night, knowing that this might be the last time, it all came together.
That truly was a night that will stay with me for the rest of my life. Here’s how it ended.
If you would like to write an article on anything to do with Bob, I’d be happy to hear from you. Please email me at Tony@schools.co.uk – you can also find us on Facebook. Just search for Untold Dylan.