“I ain’t dead yet, my bell still rings,” Bob Dylan crooned on Early Roman Kings. It does indeed. Beneath the famous dome of the Royal Albert Hall, the greatest singer-songwriter of our times rang out loud and clear.
Something has happened to Dylan. At 74, after a lifetime on the road bamboozling audiences and musicians alike, he seems to have struck upon a way to perform live.
Better late than never, I suppose. By opening with the brooding, cynical ruminations of Things Have Changed, a song written at the turn of this century, Dylan seems to be making a promise. On the other side of his fierce, youthful protest The Times They Are a Changin’, this is an old man’s song, although delivered with a wry humour to belie it's chilly sentiment.
“People are crazy and times are strange” is his slightly grouchy summary of the modern age but Dylan’s twinkling relish should make us glad to still have this weird, wonderful old troubadour as our guide.
Forsaking classics he has been cheerlessly traducing for decades, here was a set list mainly drawn from Dylan songs written and recorded this century, songs that suit his oaken voice and battered latter-day persona as a troubled romantic wandering apocalyptic wastelands of the soul. Songs like Pay in Blood and Scarlet Town convey dismay at the human condition in terms of near Biblical vengeance, a dark vision rendered palatable by Dylan’s playful and still astonishing blend of wondrous words and tumbling melody.
The thirties Hollywood styling with old tungsten movie lights create a very intimate vintage atmosphere. In homburgs and suit, the impression is of a prophet in a bar band. Albeit a quite awesome bar band in a very spectacular bar.
Dylan shows have long been notorious even with his most devoted fans. Following his own internal compass, he has been prone to playing rambling set-lists so chewed up as to be barely recognisable, growling and barking unintelligible lyrics, altering vocal melodies and rhythm until, by some invisible alignment of stars, a song will come into magical focus.
It has been hit and miss, to say the least. Now he no longer plays the hits but he rarely misses. There was no scattershot essaying of such crowd-pleasing Dylan standards as Like a Rolling Stone or All Along The Watchtower. Instead, when he sang an oldie, it tended to be a genuine goldie, American songbook gems like Autumn Leaves and I’m a Fool to Want You.
Last year’s unlikely Sinatra covers album, Shadows in the Night, seems to have belatedly shown Dylan a way to use his ruined voice. His five-piece band are brilliant, as they would need to be to cope with his wayward phrasing and quixotic sense of rhythm. They play with delicacy, restraint and yet conjure pungent flavours. Charlie Sexton and Stuart Kimball weave a tapestry of guitar lines, whilst multi-instrumentalist Don Herron adds splashes of colour and atmosphere from violins and pedal steels.
The arrangements feel open and free flowing, as close as rock n roll gets to jazz, with no bombast to drown out the all-important vocals. Dylan himself plays elegant piano and judicious harmonica, or simply stands at a microphone in the dim old fashioned nightclub lighting and sings softly with thoughtful expressiveness. Every lyric unfolds with clarity, melodies roll out gently, and these extraordinary songs come fully alive.
When Dylan deigns to dip a little deeper into his own back catalogue, the effect is revelatory. Here was Tangled Up in Blue sung as if unravelling the mysteries of a lifetime of failed affairs, with surprising lyric changes to delight the attentive. He encored with a version of Blowin’ in the Wind so ephemeral it might have been carried away on a breeze and a burning, electrifying version of Love Sick.
Dylan’s fourth visit to the Royal Albert Hall was a show to rank with his fierce solo debut in 1965, immortalised by D A Pennebaker in Don’t Look Back. It was a concert to repay the faith of fans who have been sorely tested over six decades, a reminder that Dylan is not just another song and dance man, but an artist of the age, showing his age in some considerable style.