The night of Saturday, 22 April 2017 witnessed Bob Dylan’s third appearance at the Rockhal concert venue in Esch-sur-Alzette, the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg’s second city after the capital. Dylan had previously illuminated the Rockhal on 21 October 2011 and 16 November 2013, and as a resident of Esch I was present both times. Tonight was therefore, for both Bob Dylan and the author of this review, and appropriately enough in view of the title of his latest album, a … Triplicate occasion!
Since Dylan’s last date in Esch-sur-Alzette in 2013, much water has flowed under the bridge, the most notable events being his 2016 Nobel award and his recent recording wave of jazz‑era/Sinatra covers. Meanwhile, the setlist for the current tour, though once again for the most part fixed or all but fixed, is somewhat more representative than has recently been the case. Tonight’s setlist varied from that of the previous night (in Boulogne-Billancourt near Paris) in only one particular, namely that among the Sinatra covers ‘Why Try to Change Me Now?’ replaced ‘I Could Have Told You’. The night’s 21 songs break down as follows: 60s and 70s ‘classic Dylan’ (up to ‘Blood on The Tracks’), 6; ‘later Dylan’ prior to 2012’s album ‘Tempest’, 4; ‘Tempest’, 5; Sinatra covers, 6. It is an open question how many in the audience were actual Dylan followers and aware of the content of his recent albums, and how many came away believing the evening’s Sinatra renditions to be recent Dylan compositions!
Dylan opens with a gritty ‘Things Have Changed’, indisputably a suitable title for its author and an up-front warning to those expecting a full serving of 60s anthems. Next up, though, and as if to placate those who might walk out if Dylan performed nothing they knew, is no less an early-Dylan chestnut than ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right’, complete with the evening’s most folk-oriented arrangement. Then the 60s flame is fed anew with a blues-drenched rendition of ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ (Dylan sings all five stanzas), after which we fast-forward to a more recent, 21st-century Dylan with ‘Beyond Here Lies Nothin’’, from ‘Together Through Life’..
Beyond there lies … something: indeed, something that may start surprising the audience, in the form of the night’s first Sinatra rendition and another appropriately titled song, ‘Why Try To Change Me Now?’, with Dylan fully inside a committed vocal and, as he will do with most of tonight’s Sinatra numbers, treating the song as if he had written it. There follows the evening’s first song from ‘Tempest’, ‘Pay in Blood’, which, familiar or not, pleases the crowd, its Rolling Stones pastiche sound no doubt aiding. Dylan then reverts to Sinatra mode with ‘Melancholy Mood’, after which comes an upbeat country-blues version of ‘Duquesne Whistle’, again from ‘Tempest’ (well received, though how many recognised in ‘at my chamber door’ a quotation from Edgar Allan Poe’s celebrated poem ‘The Raven’?). Next, it’s Sinatra time again, with Dylan’s fifth-ever performance (probably the best of the night’s shades-of-Frank numbers) of ‘Stormy Weather’, one of the songs from the new ‘Triplicate’ album and premiered a few nights before, in Amsterdam on 17 April.
There follows ‘Tangled Up in Blue’, in its current truncated four-stanza version (alas – this song is too good to deserve such pruning) but with some interesting alternative lyrics (the couple split up ‘somewhere in the wilderness’; the people they knew have – if I heard correctly – ‘their names aflame’). Dylan then returns to the blues with a vengeance, with the Muddy Waters-inspired ‘Early Roman Kings’ from ‘Tempest’. The next offering, ‘Spirit on the Water’ from ‘Modern Times’, while in this reviewer’s opinion a minor song which could happily be given a rest, in a sense fits with the Sinatra material by reason of its jazz arrangement. It is followed by a melodramatic rendition of the ‘Time Out Of Mind’ song ‘Love Sick’ – insistent, obsessive but in the end impressive – and by another Sinatra cover, ‘All or Nothing At All’.
The next offering is none other than ‘Desolation Row’, a song composed more than half a century ago but arguably still the best lyric Bob Dylan has ever written. For any performance of this song the bar is set high, and this version, while not the best ever, comes over as several notches above merely acceptable. It is rare that Dylan performs all 10 stanzas, and tonight we get 70% of the song in the form of stanzas 1, 2, 3, 6 (leather cup), 7 (Casanova), 8 (superhuman crew) and 10. The performance is almost word perfect, albeit stanza 1’s ‘beauty parlour’ has become a simple ‘parlour’: Dylan sings from inside the song, and the strongest moment comes in the ‘superhuman crew’ stanza, with a memorably sinister rendering of the lines ‘come out and round up everyone / that knows more than they do’.
The unfolding evening now brings us ‘Soon After Midnight’ from ‘Tempest’ (another minor song due for a sabbatical), ‘That Old Black Magic’ (probably the thinnest of the Sinatra covers), and a second ‘Tempest’-Sinatra coupling with an eloquent ‘Long and Wasted Years’ and a poignant ‘Autumn Leaves’.
Finally, the encores offer a pleasant surprise, with arguably the two best performances of the entire evening, and that on two old warhorses – ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, 54 years on from its release, and ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’ – both performed with riveting arrangements and full vocal commitment (Dylan blasts the hapless Mr Jones with audible relish as he curls his lips around ‘tax-deductible charity organisations’).
There is no doubt that the vast majority of the audience have enjoyed the show, be they hardcore Dylan followers or not: applause greeted both famous and lesser-known songs. Dylan’s vocals have been for the most part audible, and lyrics slips have been few, and at all moments the professionalism and versatility of his musicians has delighted and astounded, as they effortlessly mutate between genres, from folk to blues to country to jazz. The Sinatra covers might seem numerically disproportionate at 6 songs out of 21, but the sense of incongruity is reduced by the multigeneric nature of the night’s music – in the end, these songs are as much part of Bob Dylan’s musical heritage as those that have influenced him in other and multiple genres. Tonight he threw out the challenge ‘Why Try To Change Me Now?’: the musical phenomenon called Bob Dylan is the product of a complex nexus of influences, and some will come up stronger than others at a given time. Dylan has written no new songs since his Nobel consecration, but this concert should have offered the doubters more than enough evidence, in the songs of his own authorship, that songwriting can be poetry and, yes, Bob Dylan is indeed a meritorious Nobel laureate.
Things Have Changed; Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right; Highway 61 Revisited; Beyond Here Lies Nothin’’; Why Try to Change Me Now?; Pay in Blood; Melancholy Mood; Duquesne Whistle; Stormy Weather; Tangled Up In Blue; Early Roman Kings; Spirit on the Water; Love Sick; All or Nothing At All; Desolation Row; Soon After Midnight; That Old Black Magic; Long and Wasted Years; Autumn Leaves; Blowin’ in the Wind; Ballad of a Thin Man