Things aren’t what they were, as Bob Dylan’s Rough and Rowdy Ways tour posters note. But inside this plush maroon theatre, Dylan’s first night of four in London manages to conjure up a classy yesteryear that’s near as dammit to timeless: no photographers, phones in Faraday pouches, decorative house lights eking out a few warm watts, everyone rapt – a hush that’s interrupted by a lusty cheer when, on I Contain Multitudes, Dylan name checks “them British bad boys, the Rolling Stones”. (Another mentionee, William Blake, gets a lone “Yeah!”)
For most of the gig, Dylan himself remains obscured by an upright piano, the kind that normally backs on to a wall. Amusingly, the business end of this piano is the best-lit element on this low-lit stage. But perhaps that’s fitting, given that the singer’s piano playing turns out to be one of the crowning glories of this very special night.
Dylan’s solos flow luxuriantly, from the rippling coda of an old-timey Watching the River Flow to some emphatic honky-tonk attacks on the much newer False Prophet. Crossing the Rubicon, a sedate prowl, considerably ups its stakes when he cuts loose on the keys.
Surrounding Dylan, leaning in like heliotropes, are three guitarists playing electric, acoustic, lap steel, mandolin and fiddle (the latter three are by Donnie Herron, and not all at the same time). Longtime electric upright bassist Tony Garnier plucks away next to newbie Charley Drayton, a loose and bouncy drummer who seems to make contact with his kit via anything but wooden sticks. The transitions between the songs are jazzy and fantasia-like, as though each cut played is conjured afresh out of a shimmering ether.
The set list remains largely unvaried from that which has crossed Europe and the States. It focuses on Dylan’s 2020 album, Rough and Rowdy Ways, a late career banger about western civilisation that crystallises why a man who indulged in not just one, but three Frank Sinatra covers albums in the last decade, might not only still be relevant, but deserving of a Nobel prize for literature. He’s got a book out imminently – The Philosophy of Modern Song – in which Dylan deconstructs a number of other people’s tracks.
And while tonight’s cuts aren’t rowdy exactly – “rough and rowdy ways” refers more to humankind’s manners – you often wish this venue was not seated, so feline are the strutting blues cuts. This is a tremendous band that deserves movement. To the many walking blues, add the upbeat train-rhythm shimmies of That Old Black Magic, a standard favoured by Sinatra. Dylan himself occasionally shuffles to centre stage to acknowledge the applause for a moment. It’s only then you remember his 81 years.
Were Dylan not Dylan – a foundational master of modern song with a long history of sphinx-like performances, a vocalist whose authority does not rest on the prettiness of his pipes – the singer’s eloquent keys might appear like a stand-in for his infamously chewy vocal delivery. His lyrics, many of them cryptic crossword clues, come out in mannered rushes tonight. But crucially, there’s an air of playfulness here – testament to Dylan actually being in a very good mood.
Dylan mangling Dylan is, after all, peak Dylan. So the freewheeling way in which he offers up Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine), with big pregnant pauses, just serves to highlight different aspects of this gimlet-eyed romantic cross-examination from 1966.
I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight is instantly recognisable, even though it’s first deconstructed into daubs of sound from the players, then turned into rock’n’roll, then resolved into a vampy blues.
You often can’t make out Dylan’s asides between tunes, but there are quite a few. At one point he wonders whether the Palladium is where John Lennon invited the better-off to “rattle their jewellery” at a Beatles royal variety performance in 1963. (It wasn’t.)
Out of this peerless music, some audible words do crystallise. Rough and Rowdy Ways is a tremendous collage of erudite references to culture high and low, a survey of human greatness and frailty often delivered as a series of knowing winks. It’s about the human condition; it’s probably quite autobiographical too.
Dylan chooses to enunciate bits of it here and there. “Open your mouth, I’ll stuff it with gold,” he spits on False Prophet, with the contempt of the folk singer of old. We get to hear a lot of Key West, with one mischievous bit standing out, thought to be about this famous Christian’s Jewish heritage: “She’s still cute and we’re still friends.”
A rollicking rendition of Gotta Serve Somebody, meanwhile, finds Dylan laying down a stark choice: if you’re not serving God, you’re serving the devil. On the strength of these tunes, you’d be tempted to conclude the latter. It all ends on a triumphant blast of mouth organ on Every Grain of Sand. It’s another fanfare blast from Dylan’s past that nails on his importance here and now.
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