Bob Dylan’s recent all-but-unchanging setlists, representing a new practice on his current European tour and its North American predecessor earlier this year, have raised a few eyebrows among his fan base. And so it was that tonight’s concert at the Rockhal in Esch-sur-Alzette (Luxembourg) offered a 19-song setlist 100% identical to the previous four and, barring minor sequencing variations, to a total of 14 out of 26 so far from this tour (with nine dates to go, all in the UK).
This phenomenon of near-static setlists has its plus and minus points. Dylan’s age is one likely factor (which may also account for the intermission introduced on this tour), and if so we must take that into consideration. It could nonetheless be argued that repeating exactly the same songs (he could give or take a variant or two, surely?) at the same venue in the same city, two or even three nights running, is not only short-changing repeat attenders but also not the best of commercial strategies. Here in Esch, at all events, there was only one show – Dylan’s second at the Rockhal, following his debut gig shared with Mark Knopfler just over two years ago – to be precise, on 21 October 2011 (see entry on this blog for 23 October 2011).
One advantage, though, of a set-in-stone setlist is that it facilitates the reviewer’s preparation! I guessed, correctly, that Dylan would eschew the exceptionalism of the two Rome dates (6 and 7 November), and would stick with ‘Early Roman Kings’ and the rest (did he drop that song in Rome precisely because it actually has nothing to do with the Eternal City, and take his cue from there for those two all-but-transformed setlists?). So I was able to prepare for the night, printing out and re-reading the lyrics of those ‘later’ songs from the list which – though of course I own and play the relevant albums – I admit I do not know by heart as I do ‘Desolation Row’ or ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’ (neither of which showed up in Esch). Hence if nothing else, the shows’ new-found stasis did allow me to get more deeply inside songs like ‘Scarlet Town’ or ‘Forgetful Heart’, and that can only be a gain.
The doors opened at 7 p.m, in advance for 8.30. The queue outside was enlivened by a –surprisingly good – Dylan-imitator busker who served up very passable renditions of ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ and ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright’ (did he know the maestro was *not* going to perform those songs tonight, or indeed that he doesn’t do ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ at all these days ?). Once inside, I acquired the programme, which proved to be unexpectedly worth acquiring and already suggested this would be a quality evening, consisting as it did mostly of the full texts of a collection of reviews of Dylan’s later works – eulogies of ‘Time Out of Mind’, ‘Modern Times’, ‘Tempest’ and, indeed, ‘Chronicles, Volume One’. Reading those texts could not have put me in a better frame of mind as I munched through a couple of pizza slices and awaited the Minnesotan’s curtain-call.
From the minute Dylan and band launched into ‘Things Have Changed’, I deduced – correctly – that things had *not* changed and we would be treated to the tour’s default repertoire. That being the case, how would the audience react? This setlist includes only three songs from the 60s, two of them as encores, plus another two from the 70s; of the remaining 14 songs, none is older than 1989 and six are from the recent Tempest. Would many of the audience be familiar with Dylan’s later work, and how many were there expecting to hear ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’’, ‘Just Like a Woman’ and the rest? In the event, Dylan made no fresh concessions to the earlier work which had nonetheless been crucial in his being made a Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur in Paris just three days before, with the no doubt unwanted accolade of being an influence on France’s student revolt of May 1968. As for the audience, the crowd did show a tendency to thin out and not everyone returned after the intermission, but those who did stay – by far the majority – were attentive and appreciative, some couples danced to both upbeat and slower numbers, and those who made the effort surely did – to quote from one of tonight’s numbers – ‘have a whopping good time’.
The fact was that the concert proved to be excellent – not diamond perfect (is Dylan ever?) – but certainly more than a few notches higher up on the quality scale than Bob’s previous (and perfectly acceptable) offering to the citizens of Esch. Dylan sang with more strength and conviction, and more audibly; the song selection was more challenging, and Dylan and band rose to the challenge; and what really made the day (or the night) were the arrangements, which displayed an imaginativeness, a denseness, a variety and, above all, a sense of drama, such as I have, frankly, rarely encountered in Bob Dylan’s work whether live or in the studio. Yes, tonight … something is happening here!
‘Things Have Changed’ proves a strong opener. Dylan, coming on centre stage, seems a shade hesitant at the beginning, but by the second verse is well in command, and the arrangement, more complex than on the original and varying in tempo, does the song proud. The frenetic rhythms of the opener then give way to the slow, stately unfurling of a fine ‘She Belongs To Me’ – has he put this song from 1965 in second slot to stop the 60s devotees walking out early? – with Dylan relishing the half-century-old lyrics and bringing out both the song’s dignity and its humour. Next, ‘Beyond Here Lies Nothin’’ also gets the benefit of a fuller and denser arrangement than the original, with a wonderfully archaic old-time ballroom feel. Beyond here lies … a lot more than nothing, that’s for sure! – and the atmosphere intensifies with a magnificent ‘What Good Am I ?’, with Dylan pounding out the notes on the grand piano and singing his heart out (and audibly and comprehensibly – by now it’s clear that his voice has taken a real turn for the better). The arrangement of the 1989 song is powerful and dramatic, not without a nod to Tom Jones’ impressively doom-laden version from 2010.
And now, the first song up from Tempest, and also the one that is that album’s opening track, ‘Duquesne Whistle’. On this jaunty and defiant number – which as I read it is a deceptively light-hearted reflection on preparing for death – we now see Dylan getting right inside his new material, interpreting the song in a way that is immediately recognisable from the album but also adds further layers of sound and feeling. The country blues of ‘Duquesne’ then gives way to a country waltz, in the form of ‘Waiting For You’, this tour’s obscurity. Only available on a little-known soundtrack album, never anthologised and performed only twice before the present tour, ‘Waiting For You’ has suddenly morphed into a staple, receiving its 22nd tour outing tonight. It remains a minor song, but in tonight’s rendition pleasantly listenable and extending the evening’s musical range. And now, back to Tempest, and we’re on to the blues-rock of ‘Pay In Blood’. This song, which can be read as a dramatic monologue, an enraged diatribe against whites by a former slave, comes across in all its hard-hitting fierceness, with Dylan snarling the anger out. It sounds every bit as forceful as ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll’, and may be a welcome setlist successor to that classic.
Next, and something of an anticlimax, comes one of the night’s less successful renditions. ‘Tangled Up In Blue’ is hailed by the audience, no doubt because people recognise it, but, as two years ago in the Rockhal when I last heard it, the Blood on the Tracks classic is severely truncated, the original seven stanzas pared down to only four (original stanzas 1, 2, 5 and 7). This time round, there are substantial lyric changes – which I cannot comment on as the words went by too fast – in (original) stanzas 5 and 7. One could argue that these changes make it a different song and therefore complaints about the hatchet job become redundant, but I would still rather he didn’t slash this particular song when there are other, inferior long songs in the Dylan canon which might actually benefit from a spot of pruning. The arrangement, too, is a shade pedestrian. Things hot up, however, with a strong, musically and vocally growling ‘Love Sick’, a version close to the original but with a more insistent ground-riff. Here as in most of the night’s slower numbers, Dylan is highly audible and very much in control. And on that note, he leaves us for a brief intermission.
The second half kicks off triumphantly with one of the night’s finest moments, ‘High Water (For Charley Patton)’. On this worthy successor to ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ or ‘Tombstone Blues’, a centre-stage Dylan enunciates the darkly ironic lyrics with relish, with the droning banjo keeping up the obsessive atmosphere. The delivery is slow and sinister, the atmosphere potent with menace: when the song ends, the audience respond with the show’s keenest accolade yet. It is followed by another strong performance, a wistful, mournful ‘Simple Twist of Fate’, with Bob eloquent on both piano and vocals. This particular warhorse is, unlike its Blood on the Tracks stablemate ‘Tangled Up in Blue’, allowed to stay entire (Dylan sings all six stanzas), with the lyric a compromise between the original and Live at Budokan versions and nothing sounding like an actual innovation. Next, back to Tempest with what may be the darkest of that album’s dark songs, Early Roman Kings – an exploration of evil in which the protagonist seems himself to be more and more taken over by that evil as the song progresses. Dylan’ vocals sink deep into the vampiric atmosphere, and the arrangement is as heavily-charged a Chicago blues as on the album, though sounding somewhat less like Muddy Waters’ ‘Mannish Boy’ than does the original. As it ends, someone in the audience calls out: ‘Like A Rolling Stone!’
Dylan ignores that lone request, and launches into ‘Forgetful Heart’ – another highlight of the night, slow, yearning, beautifully audible, with country-tinged, quavering violin. And now … the musical register changes altogether as Dylan offers a surprising rearrangement of ‘Spirit on the Water’. I find this Modern Times number unstructured, over-long and, on the record, difficult to concentrate on, but tonight any vacuity in the lyrics is compensated by an audacious, multi-tempo jazz arrangement, with vocals and music competing for supremacy. After that, it’s back to Tempest, with the dark, foreboding ‘Scarlet Town’. For this one, Dylan drops the violin from the album version, but the guitar and banjo arrangement respects the song’s dense complexity and the lyrics emerge charged with emotion – Dylan’s vocal is specially moving in the ‘Sweet William’ stanza, with its ballad reminiscences of ‘Barbara Allen’. We stay with Tempest for ‘Soon After Midnight’, performed with brio much as on the album, and then for what proves the evening’s final triumph – the song debuted by Dylan on this tour, ‘Long and Wasted Years’. This composition has an intricate narrative line that makes it seem like a short story in song, and, here as on the album, Dylan delivers the abrasive lyrics in all but talking-blues fashion over a repetitive riff. The song is a challenge to both himself and the audience – and he pulls it off beautifully, crowning the concert proper with a virtuoso performance.
In a sense, ‘Long and Wasted Years’ is the concert’s true and climactic end. The two encores are Dylan’s obligatory concession to the weight of the past, but neither ‘All Along the Watchtower’ nor ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ convinces. The arrangements are pleasant, but seem slight compared to what went before. Unless it’s me mishearing, Dylan stumbles over the words at least once in both – bizarre considering he cannot possibly not know these two, of all his songs, by heart: but maybe familiarity breeds inattention.
Nonetheless, all in all this has been a remarkable concert with a plurality of high points. The best performances, and they were many, have throbbed with a constant sense of energy and drama. On a night like this, with Bob Dylan in such unexpectedly fine fettle, ‘What Good Am I?’ certainly feels like a rhetorical question! After this memorable evening, let us hope a clear-sighted Bob Dylan is seeing himself as clear as his admirers who have had him on their mind!