Sometime in the late 1950s, a young Bob Zimmerman dreamed of becoming a rock and roll star like Little Richard. He formed primitive bands which wailed their way through what were probably a bare handful of garage jams and significantly fewer actual live performances. One of those gigs was a brief appearance of the Golden Chords at Hibbing High School, where the plug was quickly pulled on their racket after Bobby had ruined the pedals and damaged the keys on the school piano. Well, that's how the story goes: it's quite possibly all true. A short while later, the ever ambitious young chap manged to talk his way into a very brief stint as Bobby Vee's piano player where he appeared under the name of Elston Gunnn (yes, three n's in Gunnn) Big time, Bob, big time. Needless to say, it didn't last and Mr. Zimmerman went on to reinvent himself as the saviour of folk protest, a gig which he stuck at for a couple of years. I was thinking about all this as I watched Bob Dylan and his superb band return to Cardiff last night.
At precisely 7.30 pm, Bob and the boys trouped onto the stage at the Motorpoint Arena to enthusiastic applause from the audience who, these days, are provided with seats from which to witness their hero in all his odd pomp. All very civilized but I do miss the old hours of queuing and the rush to get as close to the front as possible. Still, at the age most of us are now, thank heavens for small mercies and the chance to maintain at least some dignity. My own vantage point pleased me more than I'd feared, being in a block on one of the rising sides, not too far back, with a very clear view of the man himself.
First up was 'Things Have Changed', which was played at quite a gallop and, ironically, has been the opener for at least a couple of years now. Immediately, it was clear that Bob is in very good voice indeed. Of late, he has grown more and more into his catarrhal growl, which he employs as an extension of his regular gruffness, contrasting with some recently rediscovered lighter vocal tones. Throughout the whole concert Bob's voice was undoubtedly the best I've ever heard it in live performance and arguably the best its been in all the years of the Never Ending Tour. There was little strain and much expressiveness, which often added layers to already multifaceted songs. To go through the entire set-list would be laborious but I'll mention my own highlights of a night that was mainly focused on material from recent years with a reasonable sprinkling of the Standards from the last three covers albums. Having said that, things really started to swing with a roaring 'Highway 61 Revisited' which Dylan sang whilst standing with legs wide at his mini-grand piano. With his playing high in the mix I could see young Elston Gunn having a fine old time as he hit those keys with, perhaps, slightly more aplomb than he did back at school. There was a brilliant moment in 'Spirit on the Water' where he may have imagined he was channeling Thelonious Monk when it turned out that the spirit of Les Dawson had shown up instead: when you walk a 'razors edge' this is going to happen from time to time.
There were also wonderful renderings of 'Tangled Up In Blue', 'Pay In Blood' and a take of 'Early Roman Kings' that sounded like Muddy Waters and his band had just popped in from Chicago; much harder and blood-filled than the album version. Of his own songs, 'Love Sick' and a surprisingly jaunty 'Desolation Row' really hit the mark. Now, for me, the tunes from the Great American Songbook, though splendidly performed, are starting to out-stay their welcome. My favourites were 'I Could Have Told You' from early in the set and the closing 'Autumn Leaves', which always sounds truly heartbreaking but I could have lived without the rest and 'That Old Black Magic', whilst expertly played by the band, almost sounds like a joke. The regular punctuation of these tunes in the set, whilst possibly adding some contrast, sometimes, for my ears, punctured an increasing emotional build up that only Dylan's own songs can maintain. Still, that said, all were sensitively performed and when Bob is striking poses centre stage, I'll forgive him anything. An encore of 'Blowin' In The Wind', nicely performed but I can think of at least a hundred other tunes I'd rather hear, and a storming 'Ballad of a Thin Man', with Bob once again legs akimbo at the keys, saw the evening close all too soon.
The encore (poor visuals, good sound)
At the grand age of nigh-on 76, it's hard to imagine that this show can last for very much longer and, thus, I found myself with a little lump in my throat as dapper Dylan, in full riverboat gambler threads, left the stage after a brief 'line-up' at the end. No, of course, he never spoke to us or hardly acknowledged our presence but those who complain seem to confuse Dylan the artist with an all-round entertainer. This is what he does, take or leave it. For me, it's more than enough. I think Elston Gunnn would be happy too.
1. Things Have Changed (Bob standing at piano)
2. To Ramona (Bob sitting at piano)
3. Highway 61 Revisited (Bob standing at piano)
4. Beyond Here Lies Nothin' (Bob sitting at piano)
5. I Could Have Told You (Bob center stage)
6. Pay In Blood (Bob standing at piano)
7. Melancholy Mood (Bob center stage)
8. Duquesne Whistle (Bob sitting at piano)
9. Stormy Weather (Bob standing at piano)
10 Tangled Up In Blue (Bob center stage then sitting at piano)
11. Early Roman Kings (Bob standing at piano)
12. Spirit On The Water (Bob Bob sitting at piano)
13. Love Sick (Bob center stage)
14. All Or Nothing At All (Bob center stage)
15. Desolation Row (Bob standing at piano)
16. Soon After Midnight (Bob standing at piano)
17. That Old Black Magic (Bob center stage)
18. Long And Wasted Years (Bob center stage)
19. Autumn Leaves (Bob center stage)
20. Blowin' In The Wind (Bob sitting at piano)
21. Ballad Of A Thin Man (Bob standing at piano)