September 01, 1998

Time Lord

Filed under: Archive,Music


Bob Dylan (with Patti Smith)

Entertainment Centre

Reviewed by Murray Bramwell

Last time Bob Dylan visited our part of the planet he had Bonnie Raitt on the bill. Patti Smith is more of a statement. Or, at least she makes it so. In skinny jeans, a crumpled orange top and a shapeless black jacket Smith coils around the microphone stand and opens with People Have the Power– Elephants Memory-style agitprop from her Dream of Life album.

The Widow of Punk is in good voice. There are none of the jitters reported from the Melbourne concerts. Especially as the four guitar piece band swings straight into The Wicked Messenger. Composed by Bob Dylan ladies and gentleman. And a creepy, hard guitar version it is too. Gnarly and black -Dylan out of the House of Usher.

Then Footnote to Howl. Slow, chiming guitars and Smith’s tensile recitative, reminding us that, after all that dreadful poetry and jazz stuff from the fifties, she was the one who really knew how to put words with the lyre. Allen Ginsberg’s Beat classic, always archly self-conscious in his readings, takes on new force, augmented by electrics and Smith’s wailing soprano sax.

Patti Smith keeps climbing. Dancing Barefoot, her top ten hit: Because the Night, a new song – Beneath the Southern Cross and Dead City. For the punk classic Rock’n’Roll Nigger , she tears all the strings off her guitar and plays more barrages of Roland Kirk sax-honk. “This is the  only weapon we need for the 21st century ” she bellows, holding up a Fender sprouting broken strings-  and, forever young, the band closes the set with Rocking in the Free World.

Will you please welcome- a velvety baritone announces- Columbia recording artist, Bob Dylan. A thirty seven year career, forty- something albums and a Grammy earlier this year. Bob Dylan has, it seems, had several lifetimes-  and a near death experience last year makes one more. The big difference between this tour and his previous debacle in1992 is the confidence that comes with last year’s album, Time Out of Mind. As ever with Dylan, just when you start to count him out, he comes back better than ever. It happened with Highway 61, with John Wesley Harding, Blood on the Tracks and Oh Mercy.

But Time out of Mind is something else. It is like Lear. In its plainness and atavistic clarity it could be late Yeats or the unsparing self-portraits of Rembrandt. The comparisons may seem preposterous but there is no parallel for Dylan in popular music. No one has grown old in music before. Chuck Berry hasn’t, John Lennon only started to, Elvis Presley wouldn’t have. Not even the songs of experience we associate with country music take their own pulse the way  Dylan does in songs which are both strongly personal and written-  as Yeats once put it-  in ice and ancient salt .

Bob Dylan’s Adelaide concert is auspicious. It is his 999th on what he himself calls his Neverending Tour. It began in 1988 and it ploughs on, scrutinised by fans and annotated on websites such as Expecting Rain. Dylan’s summer festival appearances in Europe back in July were, by all reports, getting rather eccentric. His Australian tour, beginning in Melbourne with an already legendary two and half hour blast at the Mercury Lounge, shows Bob is back on track.

Onstage at the Entertainment Centre with his four piece band and great clouds of incense, Dylan is looking good. Decked out in black morning coat with white shirt and bowtie he looks like an old rocker. There is a touch of Buddy Holly here, and as the night progresses and he tries a few…moves, that flappy right leg seems to be channelling late fifties Elvis Aron Presley. For openers the band is ripping through Leopard-Skin Pill-box Hat. Lead guitarist Larry Campbell, unperturbed by Bob’s individual sense of tempo, is doing the Mike Bloomfield bits. Like so much else on Blonde on Blonde this is vintage R’n’B.

Long Black Coat, another concert regular, is next. Drummer David Kemper lays a solid beat while Bucky Baxter adds a singing pedal steel. The sound is huge, the mix a bit murky but the band is like a great engine. Dylan snarls out the lyrics, over-enunciating – “someone is out there/ beating on a dead horse.” Well it isn’t Bob, whose version of Cold Irons Bound from the latest CD is even stronger than the recorded one. Tony Garnier’s bass ripples through  as Bob and Campbell chug their guitars. A rust brown light sprays across the stage. Dylan’s voice sounds like barbed wire – “I’m twenty miles outside town/ I’m cold irons bound.”

The band goes into a huddle and come out with a wonky reading of I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight. They finish in four and half different places but it’s very likeable. I Don’t Believe You an oldie from Another Side is a surprise while Silvio is not. It is his most performed song on the NE Tour. Regulars say it’s time he ditched it from the set but it sounds like great rock and roll to me.

For a collection of acoustic numbers the band re-arms. Baxter is on mandolin, Garnier on upright bass while Bob and Campbell pick their way through Don’t Think Twice, a Spanish sounding Desolation Row–  rather more attentuated than the three minute forty second version Dylan gabbled through back in ’92, a splendid Tangled Up in Blue and a wistful Forever Young. Still an anthem after all these years,Times get a change of tempo but the lyrics only seem to gather in meaning.

A shift back to the electrics, a sturdy version of Till I Fell in Love With You and the band is taking a bow. They have played loud and hard. Led by Dylan, whose vigorous if approximate fingering has dominated the sound, the band has taken up his challenge to come in on familiar songs at quirky angles – finding a victory here, losing a chance there. Songs written thirty years ago have again become sketches and works-in-progress. Dylan has made it abundantly clear. When you are playing  a hundred concerts a year for more than a decade you don’t want to be gathering no moss.

Which is maybe why the encores begin with a ring-in. Matchbox. Never before heard from Bob. Carl Perkins out of Blind Lemon Jefferson. Then, Love Sick, Dylan’s weary meditation on courtly love is the last of the new songs we get to hear. For closing the lights come up and Bob capers for the underlings gathered at the edge of the stage. Rainy Day Women in its all ramshackle glory and two final acoustics: It Ain’t Me Babe and somewhat predictably, Blowin’ in the Wind.

It has been a harmonica-free night and Bob has almost done a duck walk. Apart from introducing his band at a speed an auctioneer would have been proud of, Dylan has not uttered a word. He has delivered seventeen songs from a possible four hundred and we are well pleased. After all, there isn’t just one Bob Dylan. There have been, and will be,  many of them. They are like time lords, like Dr Who. Some with scarves, some with hats, some hidden from view in anoraks. This time, he wore a bow-tie and boots of Spanish leather. Next time it might be a long black coat. Or a leopard-skin pill-box hat.

The Adelaide Review, No.180, September, 1998, pp.40-1.

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