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LIVE REPORT: Bob Dylan At The Palladium
Angus Batey , May 3rd, 2017 08:41

Angus Batey argues that there have been many different Bob Dylans over the years but the one who is currently playing several nights at London's Palladium may be the most vital one to date. (Illustration © Paul Houston)

We come here, of course, in search of answers. He must have them: we've believed that all along, and have learned how to mine his work for clues. These lyrics, those songs, these reinterpretations and counterintuitive decisions - surely they're all riddles, enigmas, codes; puzzles to solve and games to play. The songs he chooses to sing on a given night are only part of it: the songs he chooses not to sing may be even more important. Then there's how he reinvents and reinterprets the ones he does play, and the choices he forces us to make in how far we must each go to discover how to hear and understand anew. But undergirding it all is the possibility that we might glimpse something like a solution to that most insoluble of mysteries: what would we see if we could look at the world from inside his head?

Among the many reasons why we'll never know is the fact that we can't even be sure who we mean when we talk or think about Bob Dylan. Indeed, you find yourself wondering whether even the guy up there on stage, a little under four weeks from his 76th birthday, is entirely sure either. The original "Bob Dylan" was essentially a fictional character dreamed up as the 1950s ended by a young singer who was teaching himself how to write songs while trying to get a record deal and build a career in New York. That "Bob Dylan" had run away with the circus and learned folk songs while hopping on and off boxcars - his creator was a wiry Minnesota kid with an imagination that knew no bounds and had ambition to match. Those two have since been joined by a host of doppelgangers, from the reluctant "voice of a generation" created by his fans during the birth of the 60s counterculture to the great poet awarded the Nobel Prize last year.

Today, there are at least half a dozen Bob Dylans, all concurrently active. There's the latest, predictably obtuse, reincarnation of Dylan the recording artist, whose last three albums have found a man routinely counted among the greatest songwriters of all time - yet simultaneously one of the most technically limited singers in pop-music history - reinventing himself as a radical re-interpreter of the Great American Songbook. At the same time, this Dylan competes for his fans' discretionary spending with his 1960s self, as the ongoing and increasingly supersized Bootleg Series of box-set reissues have succeeded in unearthing vast troves of previously unheard material from the era when most listeners feel his star burned brightest. The archivist, cultural historian and idiosyncratic comedian who presented the Theme Time Radio Hour podcast/internet radio show between 2006 and 2009 is also out there somewhere, as is the version of Dylan the memoirist and historian who contributed clear-sighted anecdotes to Martin Scorsese's No Direction Home documentary, wrote the spellbinding true-fiction book Chronicles Volume One, and who must to some degree be involved in curating those box-set reissues. And of course there's Dylan the fine artist, the secret sculptor who exhibited a series of gates made of wrought iron in 2013 and whose London dealer's exhibition of his latest canvases coincides with this three-night stint at the nearby Palladium.

But it's this Bob Dylan we're going to meet - the one whose never-ending tour still merits that designation, who takes elements from all of the others' work and combines them into a new whole that exemplifies, includes and comments on all the others' work, all at once. And even though you know it's futile, you can't help but try to unravel their tangled stories and try to parse the One Truth from amid the jumble of misdirection.

Why does he wear that hat, and those dark trousers with their delicate embroidery, which combine to give a visual impression of a railroad dining-car card-sharp, a Mariachi musician or a matador? Is that a bust of Athena, the goddess of wisdom, on an amp behind his piano stool, next to what is surely a replica rather than the actual Oscar he won in 2000? (And if it's a replica, why is it the very first thing the road crew whisk off the stage at the end of the show?) Why does he still have an electric guitar set up on stage, every night, even though he's not played it in front of an audience in years? What about the three microphones on stands centre stage that he never touches? Surely it all has to mean something?

And yet, after two helpings of this Bob Dylan - the first night, on Friday, with the set list containing the same 21 songs as the previous week's worth of shows across Europe, and the concluding Sunday, where 'Don't Think Twice It's Alright' is replaced by 'To Ramona' and the unbetterably apt Cy Coleman and Joseph McCarthy number 'Why Try To Change Me Now' cedes its space on the set list to another standard associated with Frank Sinatra, 'I Could Have Told You' - the answers start to swim into some sort of unexpected focus. To get there, though, you have to strip away most of the obscurantist obsession with arcana and detail, and stop trying so hard to see beneath the surface that you miss what's right in front of your eyes and ears.

Both nights begin, as most of his gigs have done for the past four years, with 'Things Have Changed', that Oscar-winner from 17 years ago, written with care and specificity for a film soundtrack but just as plainly something of a rejoinder to the great anthem of the Civil Rights era one of those other Dylans had written and recorded in 1964. It's been interpreted as ironic, the narrator's cynicism ("I used to care, but things have changed") surely irreconcilable with the songs of protest from 50 years ago - but what if it means just what it says? That would certainly help explain the absorbing, confounding, roundly astonishing version of 'Blowin' In The Wind' which turns up as the first of two encores. Rendered as a laid-back piece of Texan swing, Dylan's piano stabs almost jaunty, the song is transformed: it's no longer a pointed lament, a bitter blast at leaders who don't care enough to stop those obvious injustices from occurring - it's a phlegmatic sigh of resigned acceptance, an acknowledgement that the problems that look to the young idealist as thought they ought to be easy to solve in fact stand revealed after years of contemplation to be the most intractable. Athena, her face as inscrutable as Dylan's, would surely approve.

Other surprises include the voice. This Dylan has learned to sing, those five discs of vocally demanding standards evidently requiring that most distinctive of instruments undergoes a belated and extensive tune-up. During 'All Or Nothing At All' that eminently lampoonable rasp is essaying a firmly controlled vibrato; 'Desolation Row' is transformed not just by his baroque piano curlicues but by the new and more complicatedly melodic line the vocal now follows. The results are revelatory.

Similarly, the sense of Dylan as custodian of the living treasury of American songcraft has been strengthened by those three, apparently bewildering, LPs of standards. His current, settled band is built around Tony Garnier's command of a range of basses (six-string and four-string electric, double bass played both pizzicato and bowed), allowing for a great breadth of styles to be covered, while the almost constant presence of Donnie Herron's pedal steel ensures everything, from the overt Bob Wills homage 'Duquesne Whistle' to drummer George Receli's excursions into samba during 'That Old Black Magic', remains country music at its core. It's telling, too, that Dylan chooses to sing these songs from within the heart of his band: those mic stands placed front and centre remain untouched, and the stand he does use - and even awkwardly dances with, pulling shapes like James Brown on the cover of Please, Please, Please - he chooses to drag back to a point between Garnier and guitarist Charlie Sexton, to the point where the former sometimes has to move his double bass out of the way lest Bob smashes a hole in it while waving the stand around. It's as if this is a band, and a sound, he feels most at home with when right at its centre, rather than pushed out to the front with all the conventional trappings and responsibilities of a front man or lead singer. There my be a Bob Dylan somewhere who was OK with that - but this one definitely isn't.

In his infrequent but often lengthy and plain-speaking interviews, he kicks back against descriptions of his versions of the standards as "covers", arguing that they're songs that, instead, are in need of uncovering: but it's also impossible not to hear the versions of his own songs as, in essence, cover versions of songs written by some of those other Bob Dylans. Certainly, the source material in each case is treated in similar fashion - not as a set text to adhere to but an initial idea to be used as a jumping-off point for a new interpretation. And throughout, each song gets a reading that resituates it in a fresh telling of the story of American music.

The still terrifying 'Love Sick' starts under the big old theatre lights, just as it may have done when Dylan and Daniel Lanois were recording the Time Out Of Mind LP in the abandoned Teatro playhouse in Oxnard, before it heads off on a long, strange trip through the Texas of Ry Cooder, the empty seats of Edward Hopper's diner, and the same after-hours drinking dens Tom Waits knows all too well. 'Early Roman Kings' rips off the accordion shirt it wore on Tempest to let its Muddy Waters muscles flex unrestrained. This version of 'Highway 61 Revisited' has been a journey 50 years in the making, the Minnesotan no longer stuck at the northern end of the blues highway listening to crackly 78s and hoping the weather allows him to pick up the roots sounds via the faint signals of distant radio stations, but instead charges south through the crossroads where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil, and pitches up somewhere shy of New Orleans with a jagged piano-driven reading of the song. It's as much about the juke joints and roadhouses that sustained everyone from Hank Williams to Al Green and The Blasters as it is a reading of a Dylan classic - and, incredible though it sounds to say it, there's something of all of them in there.

That he chooses to end each night with 'Ballad Of A Thin Man', that tart sneer at critics and fakes that featured in every one of the gigs included in last year's mammoth 36-disc The 1966 Live Recordings box, is surely in part an invitation to compare and contrast between the ramshackle proto-punk of the past and today's polished but no less pronounced venom, and dares you to find the current approach lacking. This, perhaps, is the biggest gamble of them all, but it's the one that pays off most handsomely. No, this is not the same Bob Dylan that changed the world in the mid-60s - but the one we have today is the perfect one for our times. Indeed, in an era of digital superfluity, where the past is a click away and the present makes no sense at all, this Bob Dylan may be the one we most need the most.