CANBERRA’S Bob Dylan fans packed out the Royal Theatre on Friday night to hear the voice that shaped a generation.
An audience aged eight to 80 arrived in denim, hippy clothes, suits and Versace. It is hard to think of another performer whose appeal, at 73 years old, remains so broad.
And, truthfully, we didn’t really know what to expect. Dylan’s recent concerts are infamous – tales of him playing with his back to the audience, utterly uninterested in his loyal following. And on Friday night, there was no “Hello, Canberra”, not even a wave until the interval.
His first song, “Things Have Changed”, set the tone for the rest of the concert with the line: “I used to care, but things have changed.” A strange disconnect existed between Dylan and his audience – it may have been the light, or the unfamiliarity of the newer songs, or perhaps it was just that “things have changed”.
In near-darkness, Dylan cut a small figure on the stage in a linen suit and broad-brimmed hat. Sometimes he seemed awkward and alone, moving between baby grand piano and a circle of microphones on centre stage. Dylan doesn’t play guitar anymore because of arthritis in his hands but the crowd went crazy when he picked up his harmonica. And he sang like he meant it – there were diamonds and there was also the rough. Sometimes a younger Dylan sang through his lips. And sometimes we waited an awfully long time for those flashes of brilliance.
The biggest crowd reactions came for the iconic songs from 1975 “A Simple Twist of Fate” and “Tangled up in Blue”. And while most of the concert was devoted to his recent album “Tempest”, Dylan included enough classics to keep faith with his older audience. Recent Dylan albums evoke more of the deep south, folk and blues, the jaunty old-world Americana styles. This music showcased Dylan’s high-quality band, all accomplished rhythm and blues players – Charlie Sexton (lead guitar), Stu Kimball (rhythm), Tony Garnier (Bass), Donnie Herron (multi) and George Recile (drums).
The gritty “Scarlet Town” from 2012 and his mesmerising “Forgetful Heart” from 2009 were both received enthusiastically, as was “Duquesne Whistle”, the single from “Tempest”, but an enduring lack of intimacy caused the audience to sag between numbers. Toward the middle of the show, I watched an enthusiastic fan smile at a woman in next row and say “Cheer up love, it’s still Bob!”
A parting gift, perhaps – the band returned to the stage for an encore of “Blowing in the Wind” and “All Along the Watchtower”. The new arrangements still allowed the old magic to shine through and the crowd roared to their feet. As the show ended with my favourite Dylan song (and perhaps my favourite song of all time), “All Along the Watchtower”, I reflected that the hour is indeed getting late and Dylan, the great Bob Dylan, is not the immortal he once seemed.
Bob Dylan at 73, at his very best, was the truth-bard I have loved since the age of four. He was the 1963 Dylan who sang “When the Ship Comes In” at the March on Washington – the same day that Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech; the faded denim hero of the anti-war counterculture, whose “The Times they are a-Changing” became an anthem to left-leaning baby-boomers and their slightly less left-leaning Gen X children.
At his worst, he sounded like a country music loving emphysema patient – “Cookie Monster goes to Nashville” remarked my friend, sadly. She, like me, has loved Dylan her whole adult life but sometimes you just have to say it like it is.
Friday’s concert was thrilling and disappointing. You have to ask why Dylan is still doing this when the rest of his generation are playing with their grandkids. And you also have to ask, at around $200 a seat, what we were all doing there – conjuring the past or bearing witness to the end of a legend.
Bob Dylan has written some of the greatest songs in history, more than 450 songs and counting. In the early ’70s my father sang me Dylan songs instead of lullabies and “Blood on the Tracks” was the first vinyl record I ever bought. None of us are immortal, not even our heroes. And I think we continue go to Dylan’s concerts as an act of homage, to show our admiration, to demonstrate that we are still here after all these years – even if he doesn’t acknowledge us, even if he sings like he’s swallowed glass and changes our favourite songs into hillbilly shanty music. We began this journey together and we will finish it together too – Dylan and the generations he has shared bread with.