His attitude to the media has been a-changing ... and so, finally, has the quality of his live shows. Rock columns, Mail on Sunday, April 15 2007 and November 20 2005
Metro Radio Arena, Newcastle
Hackney Empire, London
At 65, Bob Dylan recently became the oldest person to top the American album chart, with Modern Times. He has managed something rock'’s other living legends can only dream of - raising his stock in his dotage.
He has used some singular tools, from a nostalgic radio programme to a selective memoir. Dylan is a diverting DJ and a fine prose stylist, but he gets away with a lot. Modern Times is likeable but slight and derivative. And his gigs are usually worse - meandering, self-indulgent, contemptuous of both his audience and the great songs that support the whole edifice.
You keep turning up in the faint hope that things will change. On Thursday, they did. This was the best Dylan show I’'ve seen for seven years.
The key was simple: he began centre-stage, playing electric guitar. For years, he has hidden behind a keyboard, where it takes showmanship to run the show. Just standing there with a guitar restores Dylan’'s authority.
It helps that he is looking good. In his slim black trousers, cream jacket and wide-brim hat, he'’s half rock star, half Victorian explorer. There’s a spring in his tiny dance steps: it’'s like watching a grandfather at a wedding.
His voice is similarly spry. Lately, it had shrivelled to a monochrome buzz, the sound of a wasp trapped in the back of the car. This time, it’'s decidedly stronger. Has someone invented botox for larynxes?
His song selection remains only semi-hospitable. He opens with four astutely assorted oldies: Cat's In The Well from 1990, House Of The Rising Sun from 1962, Watching The River Flow from 1971, and It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding) from 1965. But there'’s still a wilful shortage of genius. To hear Positively 4th Street or The Times They Are A-Changing, Newcastle must wait for Bryan Ferry’'s show the following night.
For the last hour, Dylan does retire to his keyboard, but the tone is set and the mix stays strong, with six tracks from Modern Times interspersed with classics from 1963-65. Like many a senior citizen, Dylan lives in the present and the distant past.
The final saving grace is that his band have abandoned their attempt to convert his entire oeuvre into southern fried boogie. In a major concession, they now do that only some of the time. They have found a new mode, a crunchy, string-driven chamber-folk sound that adds grace without lacking bite.
Some of the new songs take wing in concert. The country waltz When The Deal Goes Down has a stately charm, and the Chuck Berryish Thunder On The Mountain has a snap like a wide-brim hat. But the highlights are still the classics.
Masters Of War, a protest song from Vietnam days, packs a rousing punch in the age of Iraq. Desolation Row is revamped with a subtle jauntiness offsetting a venomous vocal, and Like A Rolling Stone has it both ways, as Dylan messes with the melody but the band still deliver the big build-up. When they reach ‘'How does it feel?’', shivers go down thousands of spines.
Pete Doherty’'s show in Hackney was billed as An Evening With Peter Doherty, conjuring up images of rock'’s enfant terrible taking questions from his fellow entertainers. ‘'So, Peter,'’ Cilla Black might ask, '‘just which narcotics were you on when you staggered on stage at Live 8?’'
In reality, it just meant that he really would turn up: his band, Babyshambles, have endured a few evenings without Pete Doherty. This was a solo gig with a few variety guest spots, from two rappers, one rasta, and the senior folkie Bert Jansch, who introduced himself, winningly, as 'an old man from the Sixties'’.
For the fans, the highlight was a cameo from Kate Moss. She skipped on, sang two lines, gave her man the (ironic) finger, and flounced off, leaving an impression of extreme, miniature beauty. The two of them have been shaping like Sid and Nancy, but this was more Mick and Jerry.
For Doherty, it was a rebranding exercise. He played for ages, mostly alone, and re-established himself as a musician rather than a beautiful loser. He performed with spirit and carried himself like a star. When he works out how to structure a show, he'’ll be very good.
AND HERE IS MY PREVIOUS DYLAN LIVE REVIEW, FROM NOVEMBER 2005
Another dud evening with Dylan
For a man who often treats his public with disdain, Bob Dylan has had an improbably successful year. First he published Chronicles, a stab at autobiography that was quirky but effective, pinpointing selected episodes from his life with riveting vividness.
Then came No Direction Home, Martin Scorsese’s television portrait of the artist as a young man, mixing old footage and fresh interviews with key people, including Dylan himself, adroitly recalling his formative moments. After decades of elusiveness, he finally seemed reconciled with his past.
The book has been a bestseller and the film was watched by 1.8m Britons, six times the market for Dylan’s recent albums. So the Nottingham Arena is full for the start of his now-annual British tour and hopes are high. Maybe this time he will at last do justice to some of the greatest songs ever written.
He certainly looks the part. In a sharp black suit with red piping, with a squiggle of grey hair poking out from a black hat, he is elegantly charismatic – half preacher man, half funky gendarme. At 64 his hips are as slim as in the old black-and-white photos, every one of which has now become a poster or a book cover.
Dylan and his five-piece band open with two classics, Maggie’s Farm, in something like its original form, and The Times They Are A-Changing, converted into a waltz. But then he does what he has been doing for years now: he stands at a keyboard and turns his back on his own genius.
Half the main set is devoted to his last studio album, the bluesy Love And Theft, as if it were brand-new or brilliant, rather than four years old and middling. The other half consists of older numbers, good rather than great – Love Minus Zero, Blind Willie McTell, Highway 61 – and fattened up from lean folk to often bloated blues-rock. It’s yet another evening with ZZ Bob.
There are still glimmers of magic. Dylan’s voice, which can be like a groaning drone, has regained its sardonic relish, if not its crisp diction (subtitles would help). The blazing topicality of his heyday flares again as he sings John Brown, about a soldier’s disillusioned mother, and Masters Of War, castigating the politicians who send young men to die. Written in 1963, both songs catch the mood of America this week.
The encore, like the opening, features two signature songs, Like A Rolling Stone, warm and jangling, and All Along The Watchtower, heavier, closer to Hendrix’s version than Dylan’s own, but powerful. Like A Rolling Stone, sung with tenderness as well as fury, is the evening’s high point, even if it has done this job – first encore, prime sop to public taste – a hundred times before.
By 9.30 it’s all over, and you traipse away thinking of the songs Dylan didn’t play. From the internet, you can discover that three nights earlier, in Assago, Italy, he had served up a comparative banquet: Forever Young, Mr Tambourine Man, Just Like A Woman and Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right. But what a setlist can’t disclose is whether they came close to the sinewy perfection of the originals.
Dylan’s latest album, No Direction Home: The Soundtrack (Columbia, FOUR STARS), captures far more of his greatness than this performance. If he had always been the kind of act he is now, he would not be filling arenas.