August 31, 2007

Alias Bob

Filed under: Archive,Music

Bob Dylan
Adelaide Entertainment Centre
August 21

Reviewed by Murray Bramwell

On his seventh time round, and his fourth since the Never-ending Tour began in 1989, Bob Dylan, the time lord, is back. Much has happened since we last saw him. First he published the first volume of his Chronicles, then there was the Scorsese documentary No Direction Home, including some of most extensive and candid interviews with Dylan ever seen. Things have changed, as he himself might say. After more than forty years of silence, Bob Dylan, the mystery carefully wrapped in an enigma, is even doing interviews for 60 Minutes. But this has always been his paradox. Personally elusive though he is, for nearly twenty years he has played as many as two hundred concerts a year. He must be trying to tell us something about the music.

And that hasn’t stopped. Dylan, like Johnny Cash in his later years, stands astride American Heritage music. As if it were not enough that he transformed sixties folk music, reinvented rock and roll, and popularised country music – now in late middle age, he is challenging expectations all over again. His last three albums, Time out of Mind, Love and Theft and Modern Times, are not only astonishing in their assured blend of traditional balladry, swing, rhythm and blues, even Tin Pan Alley, but they demonstrate that Bob Dylan is still writing great music. With the notable exception of Neil Young, none of his peers – not Paul McCartney, Paul Simon,Joni Mitchell, you name them – is able to match the spark and originality of their early work the way Dylan can. He is like Yeats in his autumn years, or Picasso, full of spry invention.

Dylan has had many aliases – the hobo youth, part Woody Guthrie, part Verlaine and Rimbaud, the elfin boy with tumbleweed hair on Blonde on Blonde, the Amish guy from John Wesley Harding, the gypsy on Desire. His alias this century seems to be a version of Sir Ian McKellen – if you can imagine him with pencil moustache, Tex-Mex trimmings and a white Durango hat.

On stage and surrounded by his latest band – all veterans of the most recent recording sessions – Bob is looking fresh and frisky. The set opens with Cat’s in the Well, a jaunty tune with brooding lyrics only emphasized by Dylan’s rasping voice, which is sounding under siege. All those concerts, all those yards of lyrics, will it hold out, we wonder. Dylan is on guitar and the band slips into the rockabilly groove. They are in grey with black trim, Bob gets the white hat and natty red silk cravat. You look again – and everyone, except fiddle player, Danny Herron, is also sporting a hat and pencil moustache. This is spiv rock and roll, a slightly ludicrous form of cool.

Dylan is still getting started. Lay Lady Lay an up-tempo throwaway with Bob snapping at the lyrics like an unappetising meal. The Basement Tapes’ You Ain’t Goin Nowhere is more genial and It’s All Right Ma has him settling in – Herron excellent on violin and Bob marvellously quizzical in his invective. Especially, with that line for all seasons – sometimes even the President of the U-nited States has to stand nak-ed.

The shift to keyboards improves the vocal mix as he and the band move into Modern Times. The Levee’s Gonna Break – with its chugging R ‘n’ B stride, guitarists Denny Freeman and Stu Kimball in perfect sync, drummer George Receli on the beat. Bassist, MD and Never-ending Faithful Retainer,Tony Garnier, is as always, keeping things together, craning vigilantly towards the maestro, explaining the harmonic ways of God to man. Dylan is hunched over the piano, almost in profile, slowly grooving. Beyond the Horizon gets its first live performance. The tempo is up and Bob is now crooning with ease, gliding with the band in the old-timey highlight of the night.

The award-winning Things Have Changed is sounding good, as is the peerless Texas blues grind of Cry A While. But it is the anti-war songs that stand out. A spine-tingling reading of John Brown, and (once again in Adelaide, home of the Collins class submarine) Masters of War, sung with Dylan’s wolfish disdain, lips peeled back across clenched teeth, the words spraying like hot rivets. Lighter offsets include an airy stroll through Ain’t Talking and the flat-out jive of Summer Days, Denny Freeman, once again, nimble on rock and roll guitar.

Thank you friends, mutters Bob at the close of set, ceremonially introducing the band. The encores are Thunder on the Mountain and a deconstructed Blowin in the Wind. A quirky end to a terrific show – full of strong new material, and vibrantly electric, like Alias himself.

The Adelaide Review, No.234, August 31, 2007, p.28.

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