At this point – sixty years into his career, well over 3,000 shows into the perpetual touring routine that began in 1988 (known among Bobcats as the Never Ending Tour), and 108 shows into the most recent ‘Rough & Rowdy Ways’ leg, which began post-Covid in November last year – reviewing Bob Dylan is something akin to reviewing Mount Rushmore. It cares not what you think of it, whether beautiful or an eyesore, monumental or mad. It’s not going to change because you think it should. It just is. You go and look at it and make up your mind.
Bob Dylan just is.
Whether a Bob Dylan gig is good or bad is a point so far beyond moot it makes any assessment hilarious. Dylan is a voice, talent, persona, and icon that has been lauded and lambasted by every critic stupid enough to think their opinion is worth a penny for almost the entire last half of the last century and all of this one. He’s been a saviour, a backwoods hobo-esque letdown, a rock god, a born-again loon, a drug-addled has-been, a comeback king, a gravel-voiced crooner and a hell of a lot more besides. Secretly, every fan and rock writer (yes, me too) believes they know what makes him tick.
That’s how he gets you, though. He’s not there.
Bob’s return to London with his new band and latest show ramps the merciless inscrutability to sky-high levels. Still, it hasn’t deterred fans. Underlit by harsh white lights beaming from the stage, backdropped by Twin Peaks-style Black Lodge drapes, Dylan is mainly hidden behind an upright piano. He delivers a set that oscillates between material from his 2020 masterpiece Rough and Rowdy Ways and 2021’s lockdown streaming event Shadow Kingdom, which saw him re-arrange and re-record a selection of his pre-1990 material.
The 2021/22 band, still led by latter-day Bob, ever-present Tony Garnier on Bass with Donnie Herron retained on pedal steel, mandolin and violin, is a far more bluesy and low-key affair than the well-drilled rock and rollers that saw out his pre-pandemic dates in 2019. The most influential new addition seems to be Charlie Drayton on the drums, a looser, jazzier presence on the kit than we’ve heard with Dylan for quite some time. The veteran session man brings a much more fluid and languid feel to the older material – almost bossa nova at times, a vibe that melds interestingly with the bluesy arrangements scratched and picked out by guitarist Bob Britt and Doug Lancio. At the same time, the singer rattles away at the ivories.
His contributions are not always, shall we say, ‘accurate’. They’re never dull, though. Dylan’s shows have long demanded that his audiences leave their heightened expectations at the door and live in the moment. However, these days that can mean making sure you enjoy the note playing at any given moment – because you never quite know what the next one will be.
This band’s blend comes together well on the opener, 1971’s ‘Watching the River Flow’ – delivered in as tight a fashion as I’ve heard from the new group – and on a rolling version of ‘False Prophet’ from Rough and Rowdy Ways, both highlights of the early part of the set.
Later, it also delivers a standout ‘Crossing The Rubicon’, while things are pared back for the late-period showstopper, ‘I Contain Multitudes’, with Dylan leading on piano.
The key moments of the set come in a swampy but upbeat take on ‘Key West (Philosopher Pirate)’ and the mission statements ‘I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You’ and ‘Mother of Muses’. They are both read as the artist reflecting on his life and career as it enters its twilight.
It’s hard not to be moved hearing a living legend sing he’s “already outlived my life by far” and that he’s “travelling light and slow coming home”. Both assess his decision to live life on the road and in front of a crowd. I am moved, and I am not alone.
Indeed, Dylan has given himself to us for much of his adult life. Not always willingly, but rarely half-heartedly. This show is no exception. He may not look strong when he steps to centre stage, and sometimes you may wonder whether the left hand placed on the top of the piano is for lyrical emphasis or support, but all such questions fade away when the lights are down and the music’s up.
His relevance to the wider music world may have been diminished, rendering him a niche interest for the generations born after Margaret Thatcher came to power. However, the emotions in this set of songs and the voice that delivers them are strong, and Bob’s still here if you’ll have him, ever-changing, ever-evolving, and always on the move.
He survives by reinvention and thus is less damaged by the diminishing returns of age than he could have been. Judging by the rapt audience and the massive ovation they offer at the close, plenty want him to continue his live odyssey.
Bob also appears in good spirits and engages in a few bits of banter with the audience, including encouraging them to “rattle your jewellery”, a la The Beatles’ infamous Royal Variety quip (that was actually at the Prince of Wales, but who cares?)
By the time he breaks out the harmonica in the final bars of Christian-era standard ‘Every Grain of Sand’, which closes the show, surely only the seriously Dylan-averse would struggle to appreciate the spectacle he’s delivered, despite it being a very different proposition to his performances of 10, 20, 30 or more years ago.
The second night of the Palladium run will see the 81-year-old star perform, by my reckoning, his 81st show of 2022. That’s something to celebrate. He will be in the UK playing more shows until bonfire night, and you’ll struggle to find a spare seat at any of them. His performances may not deliver much in the way of outright fireworks these days, but for fans, there’s plenty of warmth and comfort in the glow of Bob Dylan’s music and presence.
Watching the River Flow
Most Likely You’ll Go Your Way (and I’ll Go Mine)
I Contain Multitudes
When I Paint My Masterpiece
My Own Version of You
I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight
Crossing the Rubicon
To Be Alone with You
Key West (Philosopher Pirate)
Gotta Serve Somebody
I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You
That Old Black Magic
Mother of Muses
Goodbye Jimmy Reed
Every Grain of Sand